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.

NEXT: The GOP Is Overmatched

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  1. To get there, they are proposing something truly odious … a police state

    What I don’t understand is why people can not see this simple fact.

    Or perhaps, a police state is not so odious to them after all? (“A feature, not a bug”?)

    1. How about the today’s police state that forces people to accommodate immigrants? Don’t want to hire or rent too, or sell too an “immigrant” and the police state will put you in jail.

      There is no right in a free market world to movement on other peoples property.

      Open borders and freedom of movement are not libertarian, they are one world socialism.

      1. A libertarian outlook and open borders are not mutually exclusive. As usual, the problem is “public accommodation” laws, the welfare state, and governmental contempt for private property.

        1. There is still no right to movement unless its on your own property.

          If you want to go from Boston to LA you need the permission of every property owner along the way. They may give you permission or they may not, but you have no right to it

          1. Absolutely!

            However, there are public roads, and official border crossing.

          2. Actually that is false. There are libertarian arguments that forbid enclosement by private property owners of people and their property. And even if what you said it is true, people could still travel via airplane etc…

            1. Which libertarians argue that PRIVATE PROPERTY owners cannot decide who does or doesn’t travel on their own land? I can’t believe my fucking ears. When did libertarianism morph into this left-wing anarchism

      2. “There is no right in a free market world to movement on other peoples property.”

        Of course this completely miss the mark, unless you think the government owns the territory of the United States. Private property is by property owned by private citizens, not owned by governments.

        1. The government does “own” the nation insofar as it has the duty as the representative / caretaker of a sovereign nation.

          No one “owns” a public park. It’s ran by the government and funded by taxpayers. But it can impose curfews, ban fireworks, force people to pick up after dog doo, etc.

          A nation state is more or less a private property to foreign nationals. I don’t know why libertarians actively resist this notion. Each country (minus outright dictatorships) elected its own government, leaders, and set their own immigration laws. Mighty America can’t tell the smallest nation “let our citizens move to your nation freely or else”.

          1. You can forbid gun or some religious practice on your property. So if the government owns the nation (the very definition of socialism by the way)…

            1. The government obviously doesn’t “own” a nation in a conventional sense. I mean, a nation is not something that can purchased between private parties.

              The government (in a democracy) is created by the people to run the country. They’re given permission, so to speak, to pass and keep laws, keep us safe from criminals, and maintain the borders. They can almost certainly restrict “freedom of movement” as if the nation was a private entity.

              I would like to waltz into Canada with no background in check in sight, and take advantage of their wonderful socialized medicine (while paying not a cent of tax there), but it just won’t happen.

              1. You are right that the government has the right to do a lot of things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it should do all those things. The original US constitution gives Congress the right to impose protectionist tariffs, but that doesn’t mean Congress should do so, and free market principles indicate that it should not. Similarly, Congress has the right to control immigration, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t let the free market be the arbiter of who comes and goes, rather than trying to micromanage immigration with complicated visa programs. However, letting the market control immigration is not a good idea as long as the market is distorted by the welfare state. This I agree is where mainstream libertarians are seriously deluded. Dismantle the welfare state first, and then we can think about liberalizing immigration.

        2. But elsewhere you argue that libertarianism doesn’t even allow private property owners to discriminate against outsiders or control the borders of their own property. I think you’re confusing libertarianism with anarchism.

      3. It’s rather telling that you didn’t even bother specifying that you are talking about ILLEGAL immigrants, not people who have gone through the legal process of gaining entry.

        If you don’t want to do business with people who have a darker complexion, go set up an apartheid state. If you’re running a retail store, screening your customers isn’t feasible, but landlords & employers can easily deter illegals by running background checks & demanding references. There are plenty who are happy to just take the money, of course.

      4. It’s rather telling that you didn’t even bother specifying that you are talking about ILLEGAL immigrants, not people who have gone through the legal process of gaining entry.

        If you don’t want to do business with people who have a darker complexion, go set up an apartheid state. If you’re running a retail store, screening your customers isn’t feasible, but landlords & employers can easily deter illegals by running background checks & demanding references. There are plenty who are happy to just take the money, of course.

  2. Trump’s on top because he ran against the Republican Party. Immigration is just the handiest hot-button issue where the party diverges from the base.

  3. The fear here seems to be a combination of: an influx of dedicated Democrat voters, the importation of all that made Mexico an economy to be escaped, and the furthering of a crushing entitlement/welfare bill. Judge for yourself whether any of these are founded.

  4. “””””Additionally, Mexico isn’t “sending” its citizens northward in any organized sense””””

    Mexico (Gov) Provides Guide to Illegal Immigration…..ation.html

  5. Getting really tired of Welch’s bullshit articles on this subject. We get it, he loves open borders no matter what. And he hates Trump. At this point it appears more like he rewrites as many of these articles as he can so invites for spots on Chris Hayes and Bill Maher keep coming.

    In fact, there appears to be a lot of that sort of telegraphing going on at Reason. It almost makes me long for Richman’s next kook articles blaming the US and Israel for cow farts or something. Just to get a break from this bullshit.

    1. Well, this is a libertarian publication, If you are tired of the libertarian position on borders and immigration, go to conservative or fascist publications…I am sure there are plenty that can parrot the same nativist, xenophobic racist mantras against immigrants

      1. Yes, i am free to visit other sites that promote borders,language, and culture instead of juvenile and slanderous name calling of individuals who think borders should be secured and their culture worth preserving.

      2. Open borders have nothing to do with libertarianism, and everything to do with complete stupidity.

        1. So the residents of Los Angeles should say “good jobs for good LA types”, and refuse to trade with residents of San Fran, etc. … I should say, “good jobs for those who live at my house”, and refuse to trade with folks from 2 streets over. Next thing you know, I will be doing my own home dentistry, and mining my own iron ore for my own tools… A straight ticket to utter poverty! We NEED each other, we need free trade, including free trade in labor. YOU, my friend, are the adherent of “complete stupidity” here… Tell me, what is the magic difference between international borders, and the border between me & my neighbor’s house?

          1. So you let just anybody come into your home and let them stay as long as they like, no questions asked? Or do you only allow strangers in for limited periods, either to do a pre-arranged job or for a pre-arranged and temporary event like a party, and under no circumstances allowing any stranger in your home against which you harbor the slightest suspicion? I hope for your children’s sake it’s the latter.

            1. No, I don’t let strangers inhabit my house for free… I pay taxes on my house! But I do NOT exercise my vote in order to prevent “illegal humans” from residing next door to me if they want to. If I want to hire an “illegal human” to wash my dishes for me, mow my lawn, etc., that is called “freedom”. If they were born 10 yards or 100 miles on the wrong side of the railroad tracks, that is a distinction that others (who want to take my freedom away from me) have made, that I did not consent to. Freedom is good, slavery is bad… Deal with it!

              1. I take your point about exercising your own choice over who to hire, but it’s more than about you. If the presence of foreigners causes the living standards of your neighbors to go down, don’t you think they should have a say? That’s really what’s at issue here. Low-skilled immigrants cost more to support than they pay in, even if they’re legalized; since they generally work minimum-wage or close to minimum-wage jobs, they don’t pay enough into the system to break even. Their healthcare costs alone exceed any taxes they might pay, even if they gave over all their paycheck to the government.

                The reason there’s a market demand for their labor is because their full cost, including education, healthcare and the rest, is mostly covered by the taxpayer. Employers only need to pay the wages, which can be kept rock-bottom for that reason. Privatizing profits, socializing costs. Immigration is just another aspect of the corporate welfare racket that’s bleeding the middle class dry. Yes, if we got rid of welfare, it would not be an issue (or the issues would be different), but that’s really beside the point. The welfare state isn’t going away any time soon, so pushing against the open door of amnesty and mass immigration is just going to make the problem way worse. Libertarians should focus their efforts on measures that will not cause foreseeable disasters, which is what open borders would cause.

  6. Trump manages to find supporters. The Libertarians find, at best, 1% support. The free trading, open borders crowd are just over-endowed with nuances no one else can comprehend.

    Open borders are aspirational to the Libertarians but not to coyotes, hornets, cats, dogs nor human beings.

    Free trade is swell. Is there any sustained example in human history? If it exists for a moment the vacuum is quickly filled.

    People grow up and learn these things but not the Libertarians, the perpetual teenagers.

  7. our governments job is to serve we the people of the united states, not the people of anywhere else.
    immigration has to be directly tied to unemployment, underemployment, forced to work outside their field and our economy or it will destroy our country.
    right now our country is in destruction mode. immigration should be completely stopped and those foreign workers already here should be sent home until all american are gainfully employed and our economy is restored.
    we also have to protect our country from overpopulation, our food, water, healthcare, natural habitat, have to be kept at safe levels or else starvation, disease, etc,? will become a national disaster.

    1. this is the one issue libertarians are seriously wrong on.

  8. Silly partisan article which fails to address the fact that immigration is so high that immigrants are taking jobs that by right should belong to American citizens and all because the government wants to pander to business by increasing immigration so the business can hire people for a much lower rate. Illegal is better because business doesn’t even have to pay minimum wage.

    My question is why we should allow our representatives to represent immigrants FIRST and leave their real constituents, the American citizen, by the wayside.

  9. Silly partisan article which fails to address the fact that immigration is so high that immigrants are taking jobs that by right should belong to American citizens and all because the government wants to pander to business by increasing immigration so the business can hire people for a much lower rate. Illegal is better because business doesn’t even have to pay minimum wage.

    My question is why we should allow our representatives to represent immigrants FIRST and leave their real constituents, the American citizen, by the wayside.

    1. “My question is why we should allow our representatives to represent immigrants FIRST and leave their real constituents, the American citizen, by the wayside.”

      We aren’t allowing it, the crooked bastards are doing it anyway.

  10. Open borders is an aspect of a libertarian society, but unrestricted immigration is not compatible with a welfare state. The US is a welfare state, not a libertarian society. Therefore, the US cannot sustain unrestricted immigration. Can we all agree so far?

    The open-borders libertarians think we should go ahead and open the borders anyway, knowing full well the socioeconomic disaster that will ensue. No matter, they say; immigration will bankrupt the welfare state. It may cause immense suffering and upheaval in the meantime, but the long-term benefits of destroying the welfare state will be worth it.

    But isn’t this highly irresponsible towards our fellow citizens who in the meantime will be forced out of the labor market and unable even to go on welfare, because all the money’s being spent on poor immigrants? Isn’t the responsible thing to do to dismantle the welfare state first, and only liberalize immigration policy once the distorting effects of welfarism have been eliminated?

    1. “Open borders is an aspect of a libertarian society…”

      No, it isn’t. It has nothing to do with being libertarian. It is just a BS platform of some of the boneheads at Reason. A country without borders is not a country.

      1. You are right. Instead of “open borders”, maybe instead we should say that a libertarian society allows the market and civil society to control immigration, rather than trying to manage the socioeconomic effects of immigration through centrally mandated quotas and complicated visa programs. Government does a terrible job managing society’s problems in other respects, so why do we trust it to get immigration right? The government’s job should be limited to registering who enters the country and when, and to excluding anyone who is an obvious threat to society. Since an unarmed man who is just looking for a job is not an obvious threat, he should be allowed to enter.

        Leaving immigration to the feds is an implicit concession of property rights to the governments: the government, not the individual or communal property owner, now has the say over who enters and who leaves. If the property owner wants an immigrant to work for him, that’s just too bad. This I think constitutes a valid objection to federal border control. But I agree that the idea of absolute open borders, with no controls at all, is not a libertarian concept.

  11. “How the Republican Party lost its marbles over immigration – Matt Welch”

    And yet Trump is still up over all the competition by at least 9 points depending on which poll you read. Even so, according to Welch and other hacks, the voters have lost their minds. Maybe Welch and his fellow ostriches (heads in the sand) should look in the mirror when they write this nonsense.

  12. I think America should allow more legal immigration by issuing one million diversity lottery visas each year and opening that program up to people from all countries. That being said, supporting immigration to the USA is a relatively cheap way for someone to feel morally superior.

    Imigrants have to live somewhere once they arrive in the country. That means building more homes for them here. Try supporting home construction in your town, like I did, and you will discover how much Dems in the Northeast hate the prospect of newcomers moving in.

  13. He must go to Summer camp, There are many reasons to send trump to summer camp. *_^

  14. There is another possibility which is that Syria is so fractured that the people fleeing don’t see a side that they are interested in defending.

    If a civil war breaks out in this country between socons and progressives, and they both start running around gassing, bombing, raping, beheading and torturing, I’m going elsewhere, because I’m not spilling my blood on either one of their behalfs.

    moschino belt

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