The GOP's Nativist Summer

How the Republican Party lost its marbles over immigration


Donald Trump
Gage Skidmore

When Donald Trump first theatrically escalatored down the Trump Tower foyer and into our political lives on June 16, few commentators were predicting that the billionaire reality TV star would spend his summer dominating the Republican 2016 field, let alone driving a sustained debate over one of America's most intractable policy challenges.

No, they were too busy laughing. The Washington Post's Philip Bump headlined his reaction, "Donald Trump's spectacular, unending, utterly baffling, often-wrong campaign launch." National Review's Kevin D. Williamson was even more withering: "Witless Ape Rides Escalator."

Attracting special scorn was the real estate developer's incoherent 123-word rant about Mexicans: "When do we beat Mexico at the border? They're laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they're killing us economically. The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else's problems…When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we're getting. And it only makes common sense. It only makes common sense. They're sending us not the right people."

It was almost too gross to fact check. No, Mexico is not "beating," let alone "killing," the U.S. economically—the comparative per-capita GDP ratio is still 5-to-1 in favor of the yankees. (Also, international economics is not a zero-sum competition.) Immigrants from Mexico are not disproportionately more criminal than the native population—in fact, native-born American men between 18 and 39 are twice as likely as immigrants from that cohort to be incarcerated, a ratio that has been stable for decades. Additionally, Mexico isn't "sending" its citizens northward in any organized sense, though that didn't stop Trump from claiming in the ensuing weeks that the Mexican government is engaged in a Mariel-boatlift-style prisoner-exporting operation to the U.S., only "more sophisticated" than Fidel Castro's. Even his relevant policy proposals—taxing auto parts made in Mexico, forcing the government there to pay for a 2,000-mile border wall—would involve, respectively, violating a longstanding free-trade agreement and suspending reality as we know it.

But a funny thing happened in the ensuing brouhaha: The nativist, protectionist fabulist took off like a rocket. In eight national polls prior to his announcement speech, Trump never registered more than 5 percent support from likely Republican voters. In the first poll after it (June 21–23, Fox News), he was at 11 percent and shooting northward. By July 9–12 (Monmouth) he led the field, a position he has maintained, usually with double-digit margins, until press time. Regardless of when his bubble comes back down to earth, Republican and American politics might not ever be the same.

It didn't matter to Trump's new and rabid fan base that he was a total political novice aiming to replace a president long criticized on the right for being dangerously inexperienced, or that the casino owner was a member of and donor to the Democratic Party for most of the 21st century to date. It was not a dealbreaker that as recently as November 2012 Trump was slamming GOP presidential loser Mitt Romney for his "mean-spirited," "crazy," and "maniacal" policy of encouraging illegal immigrants to self-deport. No, what mattered was that finally someone was willing to stand up and condemn illegal immigration now.

On August 16, Trump unveiled his campaign's first detailed policy document, an immigration "white paper" advocating mass deportation and a "pause" in the issuance of new legal green cards. Both have long been on the restrictionist wish list, but they are only now getting onto the radar screen of popular presidential candidates: Spend whatever it takes (estimates run north of $100 billion) to expel the offending population, while making the already interminable waiting lines for legal immigration even longer. When you treat illegal immigration as a criminality problem, like Trump and now the mainstream GOP do, instead of as a government-bungled mismatch between legal supply and private-sector demand (as the Republican Party of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did), you start believing in the fantasy that human behavior can be molded if only you wield enough authority.

The Republican frontrunner is also promising a trade war. Here are some of the penalties Mexico faces should that country refuse to pay for President Trump's shiny new border wall: "impound all remittance payments derived from illegal wages; increase fees on all temporary visas issued to Mexican CEOs and diplomats (and if necessary cancel them); increase fees on all border crossing cards"; "increase fees on all NAFTA worker visas from Mexico"; and "increase fees at ports of entry to the United States from Mexico (Tariffs and foreign aid cuts are also options)." It's been a long time since a leading GOP candidate sought to tariff our way back to prosperity, yet that's where we are in 2015.

And still Trump wasn't done—not just with his illiberal proposals, but in influencing his competitors to follow suit. His white paper called for forcing every employer in the country to run every prospective employee through a single federal database to verify their legal status. Amazingly, this massive bureaucratization of and intrusion into the private transactions of U.S. citizens has become a mainstream Republican goal, among restrictionists and comprehensive-reformers alike, with the latter ranks including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.

Still more amazingly, Trump's proposal to "end birthright citizenship"—which at this point would require changing the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, whose plain governing language reads, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside"—has also become mainstream. Its adherents in the current Republican race include retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for starters.

Trump then trumped his own restrictionist plans by saying on Meet the Press on August 16 that he also wants to deport the U.S. citizen children of illegal immigrants, too. Not since FDR shoved U.S. citizens of Japanese descent into rail cars and shipped them off to desolate desert camps has such an appalling proposal had this much juice.

Faced with this popular uprising of anti-immigrant sentiment within their own party, Trump's competitors have been going all in. Ben Carson, a political novice who was No. 2 in national polls at press time, said in Arizona on August 19 that "we need to seal our borders—but not just the southern border, the northern border, the Pacific border, the Atlantic border, every border." On August 30, Scott Walker seemed to suggest that a border wall with Canada "is a legitimate issue for us to look at." (Like a lot of Walker's comments during his desultory campaign, he later walked it back.) Bobby Jindal has been warning whoever would listen (admittedly, not a large cohort) that "immigration without assimilation is an invasion," as if the United States hasn't had the world's most enviable assimilation machine for decades. And New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on August 29 suggested that we treat immigrants like FedEx treats packages: with electronic tracking systems. "Then we go get you and tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, thanks for coming—time to go,'" Christie helpfully explained.

The presence of 11 million illegal immigrants in this country represents a policy failure, and an offense to the rule of law. Rather than examining whether the underlying rules governing legal visas have some culpability, Republicans have mostly opted for pretending lawbreakers can be punished out of existence. To get there, they are proposing something truly odious for us all: a police state.