Is Xenophobia Politically Rational?

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Members of the audience cheer as President Donald Trump leaves the stage at the end of a campaign rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

Just as he had in 2016, Donald Trump defied the conventional wisdom about how to win in 2018 by making inflammatory statements about immigrants and refugees. This year, when he might have emphasized the state of the economy, he chose instead in the final weeks of the campaign to whip up hysteria about the immigrant caravan in Mexico, claim that refugees bring in gangs and terrorists, and call for an end to birthright citizenship.

Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has renewed a debate about whether he and other Republicans who have made similar appeals to their base are acting impulsively from the gut or according to a rational political logic. The results of the 2018 election now provide more evidence on that question, though not a definitive answer.

Before the election, Matt A. Barreto—a UCLA political scientist who is a co-founder of Latino Decisions, which advises Democratic candidates—wrote that although Trump’s anti-immigrant campaign might resonate with his core supporters in 2018, “the reality of his anti-immigrant policies” such as the child separations “turned off” more voters. Citing public opinion data favorable to immigration, Barreto argued, “Mr. Trump’s vile strategy is more likely to backfire this time.”

I wish we could say with certainty that Barreto was right. Exit polls indicate that Trump and other Republicans (together with Fox News and other right-wing media) succeeded in raising the salience of immigration in voters’ minds. And while the immigration issue may have hurt Republicans in the suburban House districts that flipped to the Democrats, it may also have helped mobilize Republican voters in the red states where the party won or retained seats in the Senate. 

How do anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies work for Trump and the Republicans? It seems to me there are several distinct ways.

First, inflammatory rhetoric about immigrants—and the inflammatory aspect here is crucial—draws attention from other issues. The most important legislation Republicans have passed under Trump is the 2017 Tax Act, and ordinarily a party campaigns on its big legislative accomplishments. But the tax bill has been hugely unpopular and has even fallen flat with much of the Republican base, so Trump and his party just decided not to talk much about it. Revving up hysteria about immigration was a perfect distraction.

Second, at a time when crime rates are low and the United States faces no military threat, the hysteria about immigration enables Trump and the Republicans to cast themselves as protectors of the people’s safety and security. Much of Trump’s appeal to his conservative base, including conservative women, comes from this idea of the strongman as national protector. Without a real threat to serve as a focal point for fear, a phantom threat has been the next best thing.

Third, there is an economic message in anti-immigrant policies, especially to working-class voters who for decades have faced insecurity and stagnant incomes. The message is that Republicans are going to raise wages by restricting labor supply, that is, by deporting the “illegals” and blocking new immigrants. That goes along with trade policies limiting imports from China and elsewhere. The restrictive immigration and trade policies seem to make sense to many workers, who remember a time, in the decades after World War II, when there were few immigrants and little foreign competition, and wages grew steadily. 

Fourth, the anti-immigrant policies also communicate a determination to avoid spending tax money on people who have not earned public benefits, as workers do when they pay their “contributions” to Social Security and Medicare. To many of the native born, needy immigrants seem like potential competitors not only for jobs but also for government largesse. 

Trump and the Republicans have stoked hatred and fear of immigrants with so many lies and distortions that liberals and progressives may believe they need only convey the facts and a more accurate and sympathetic picture of who immigrants are and what they contribute to American society. To many of us, Trump’s actions and words seem so obvious a violation of the nation’s traditions and our best interests that it is hard to grasp why all Americans have not decisively repudiated the president. 

But in this election the voters didn’t repudiate nativism—at least not enough of them did to give Democrats decisive control of Congress. If anti-immigrant appeals had clearly backfired, there might be some hope Trump and the Republicans would drop those appeals in the run-up to the 2020 election. But I don’t see that happening. For this president and his party, xenophobia isn’t an irrational impulse. As a political strategy, it works for them, the larger and long-run consequences for America be damned. And that’s more frightening than an irrational hatred of foreigners would be. 

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