No issue defines the Republican Party more than immigration and no issue has a more energizing and polarizing effect on the Republican base.
It’s hard to find a better example of this then President Donald Trump's own comments. As first reported Thursday night by the Washington Post, Trump asked in a meeting “why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?” referring to immigrants from Africa, Haiti and El Salvador. Trump then noted he would prefer to see more people coming to the United States from places like Norway.
Although Trump’s vulgarity sparked instant and justified condemnation from virtually all corners, at least one former Trump administration official noted that “there’s a large segment of voters who it resonates with as anti-PC 'straight talk.'"
Over time, I have watched as immigration has become a vehicle used by many in the Republican Party to promote their xenophobic and at times racist world views, all under the guise of security and rule of law. So while Trump may represent the latest iteration of the problem, he certainly didn’t create it.
Take for example, a very special California special election ten years ago. In 2006, San Diego Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham was ensnarled in a massive corruption and lobbying scandal that resulted in his resignation and imprisonment. He was ultimately replaced by a carpet-bagging former Congressman-turned-lobbyist who won a special election featuring 17 candidates by running exclusively on the issue of illegal immigration.
That candidate’s name was Brian Bilbray and his was the first congressional campaign I ever worked on.
Immigration has become a vehicle used by many in the Republican Party to promote xenophobic views.
During the election, California’s 50th Congressional District became one of the most watched political events in Washington. The theory was that if Democrats could capture a Republican stronghold in the wake of the Abramoff-Cunningham scandal, then they would almost certainly retake the House in November.
Millions of dollars were spent. Democrats brought high-profile surrogates like Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Dianne Feinstein to campaign for their candidate, Francine Busby. Republicans countered with Vice President Dick Cheney.
In the final days leading up to election day, Busby was “caught” on tape carelessly saying to a gathering of Hispanic voters that “everybody can help. You can all help. You don’t need papers for voting, you don’t have to be registered to vote.” Busby’s comments became the Bilbray campaign’s closing argument and final TV spots portrayed her comments as a solicitation to illegal immigrants to tilt the vote. On election night, Billbray won by four points.
Then, when Senators Edward “Ted” Kennedy (D-MA) and John McCain (R-AZ) introduced a bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, Republicans like Bilbray teamed up with outside groups like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and NumbersUSA to incite a grassroots opposition campaign. At one point, angry callers literally shutdown the switchboard of the United States Senate. The bill died.
From that point on, comprehensive became a code-word for amnesty, and it seemed like pretty much any Republican who flirted with a “path to citizenship” became the object of an irrational level of venom from the conservative base.
As much as abortion or gun control, immigration has become a litmus test at every level of government.
As much as abortion or gun control, immigration has become a litmus test for Republican candidates in campaigns at every level of government. And more than a decade later, the issue is just as potent and toxic as it was in 2006.
Trump’s campaign, recognizing this opportunity, effectively weaponized the issue of immigration to galvanize the conservative base. Indeed, his path to the presidency was paved in large part on a single policy prescription: a border wall (that Mexico would pay for).
Republicans are fond of saying that the border wall is a national security issue. It’s about keeping the good guys safe and the “bad hombres” out of the United States. But Trump’s dedicated promotion of the border wall gave his conservative base license to cast Hispanics and other immigrants as standing in the way of making America great again.
Hiding behind the charade of law and order, Trump further fueled this anti-immigrant sentiment by pardoning former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Arpaio's pursuit of racial profiling policies put him on the wrong side of a federal judge. Sheriff Joe is now running for Senate in Arizona, and the president's past support will doubtless be a factor in the race. Symbolically, Sheriff Joe is to Hispanics what Roy Moore is to teenage girls at the mall.
It’s not rocket science to imagine why someone like Sheriff Joe feels emboldened to run for the Senate.
So for all the schadenfreude surrounding the recent fall of Steve Bannon and Breitbart, the immigration debate that continues to rage illustrates just how prevalent the demons within the Republican Party really are.
It’s not just the Bannon's of the world who fuel the Republican Party’s association with racism and white nationalism. It’s the entire party’s legacy on public policy issues like immigration. It’s the hateful rhetoric advanced by GOP mouthpieces like Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs and Sean Hannity who shamelessly broadcast and normalize anti-immigrant attitudes while Republicans like Steve King (R-IA), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Jeff Sessions pander to them.
Or, as the world just witnessed, it’s the president of the United States using shockingly crude language to denigrate a vast swathe of black and brown people while implying that immigrants from a majority-white nation would be welcomed. Is it a racial dog whistle if everyone can hear it?
With comments like these coming from the White House, it’s not rocket science to imagine why someone like Sheriff Joe feels emboldened to run for United States Senate. The ugly truth is that the Republican Party of Donald Trump doesn’t need a Steve Bannon or Breitbart to act as its emissaries to the alt-right.
Now Republicans need to ask themselves: How low are you willing to go? Because if there really is a war going on right now between those who want to “make America great again” and everyone else, do you really think you’ll be able to win with a racist on your left and a white nationalist on your right?
Kurt Bardella is a political commentator who recently left the Republican Party to join the Democratic Party. He is a former spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), Brian Bilbray (R-CA), Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and Breitbart News.