Malcom X would often say, “Racism is like a Cadillac, they bring out a new model every year.” However, for many Mexican-Americans and to many other Latinos, the Cadillac Donald Trump has ridden all the way down to the border in Laredo, Texas is the same old jalopy Republicans have been driving for decades now.
Over the years, the GOP has been able to stay ahead of what is allowed in civil conversation by appealing to what author and legal scholar Ian Haney López calls “dog whistle politics,” coded language that packages old racial sensibilities into an acceptable set of ideals and policies.
"They bring in drugs. they bring in crime. They're rapists, and some, I assume, are good people," said Trump about primarily Mexican immigrants who have crossed the U.S. border illegally when he declared his presidential bid.
Note that Trump cannot state for a fact there may be any "good people" crossing our Southern border.
“[Trump] avoids racial epithets and direct references to race, preferring to talk of immigration, nationality, and criminal behavior; these are, though, coded terms," says López. "In fact, his basic message is a racial one: this is a white country, under threat from invading minorities.”
In other words, Donald Trump is simply the newest in a long line of pied pipers playing dog whistle politics.
On Wednesday GOP presidential hopeful and former Texas governor Rick Perry called Trump's candidacy "a cancer on conservatism."
But this cancer has been metastasizing and in some ways, Donald Trump is a convenience. Trump's brashness certainly straddles the limits of acceptability and is a convenient foil that the GOP can use to distract voters from its history.
The Donald's race-based appeal has been known as the “Southern Strategy,” a set of tactics that Ronald Reagan’s deputy director, Lee Atwater, once came clean on in his infamous interview on how Republicans can win the vote of racists without sounding explicitly racist:
"You start out in 1954 by saying, “N***r, n***r, n***r.” By 1968 you can’t say “n***r”— that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract," said Atwater. "Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites … ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “N***r, n***r.”
After Romney’s stark 2012 loss, current RNC chair Reince Preibus has been pleading to anyone in the GOP who will listen that the party’s continued reliance on language that offends minorities is not a sustainable strategy in the face of a country whose demographics are changing so rapidly.
But those appeals go unheard among candidates like Trump, who know they can appeal to a subset of voters who will choose not to support facts over a worldview of "us against them."
Immigration and the border are legitimate political issues, and there is ample debate - even within the Hispanic community - on these topics. But Trump's focus on the scourge of border crossers is flat-out wrong on the facts.
A new report released by Pew Research finds that the unauthorized immigrant population has effectively been zero for the last five years. “The number of new unauthorized immigrants is roughly equal to the number who are deported, leave the U.S. on their own, convert to legal status, or (in a small number of cases) die,” according to the Pew Research analysis.
Despite this, Trump and his own band of brothers don’t let the facts get in the way.
For now Trump is dominating the headlines. But while this language clearly has its appeal, can it continue to sustain a Republican candidate throughout a primary election? Efrén Pérez, assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University who studies how racial bias drives political behavior, believes the “Trump bump” in the polls is a temporary phenomenon that will eventually flame out.
Though Trump is currently riding high on the dog-whistle jalopy, "he’s going to run out of material," says Pérez. "People want to know what kind of vision he is going to offer for the future.”
But as the GOP struggles to manage the latest Trump temper tantrum catering to a withering base, one wonders how the party recuperates from The Donald in time for 2016.
Al Cardenas, former head of the American Conservative Union, said “Our party needs to realize that it’s too old and too white and too male and it needs to figure out how to catch up with the demographics of the country before it’s too late”.
It may not be too late, but if late looks like anything, it probably looks like Donald Trump.
Folks like Cardenas have been hoping to trade in yesterday’s Cadillac for something entirely new. Despite claims that Marco Rubio symbolizes the future of the party or that Jeb Bush represents the sensible middle of the GOP, these leaders seem content to be waiting in the wings for the Trump jalopy to run out of gas. That’s not exactly the bold leadership either promised when they announced their candidacy for president.
Rubio and Bush might want to keep two things in mind. It's not just Latinos - including Republican Latinos - who are turned off by dog whistle racial politics. There are Republican primary voters disgusted by Trump's tactics.
But there's another reason to out Trump. For the party and for the country, it's the right thing to do.
Stephen A. Nuño is an Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. Stephen is a proud native of Los Angeles, and has a B.A. from UCLA and a Ph.D. from UC Irvine in Political Science. Twitter: @stephenanuno