As Donald Trump prepares to take center stage and launch his 2024 campaign and reassert his control of the Republican Party in his persona. This mindset also infused Republican electoral campaigns up and down the ballot in 2017, 2018, 2019, and 2020. It was a strategy that largely backfired.
Along with that ugly rhetoric, Trump’s presidency was marked by abject failures on immigration policy from the horrors of child separation to the border wall funding debacle to the complete failure of DHS to address white supremacist violence because of its sole focus on enacting Trump’s vicious, misguided immigration agenda.
Trump’s relentless strategy of cruelty and chaos toward immigrants the last four years turned historic numbers of voters away from him and contributed to his rejection from office by over 80 million voters who denied him a second term.
Yet Trump and the GOP led by Kevin McCarthy and others have already declared xenophobia and immigrant-bashing as an essential pillar to their 2022 election strategy. Once again, distraction politics will dominate the GOP agenda, not solving the pandemic, getting our economy moving, addressing racial injustices, protecting America from domestic terrorism, or reestablishing America’s alliances around the world.
TRUMP AND GOP ADS DON’T LIE: THE DOG WHISTLES ARE LOUD
America’s Voice examined over one thousand unique Republican ads in the 2020 cycle that used this strategic racism to appeal to voters. Coded xenophobic messages were a central pillar to many of them – starting with Trump. At the presidential level, we tracked 157 unique ads Trump ran that employed coded xenophobic messaging. This dog-whistle strategy was meant to avoid explicit calls to racism and xenophobia, but many of the ads gave up the game and pushed the rhetoric well past the line with one Trump ad that was so egregious that even Facebook refused to run it. For example:
- An often used attack from the campaign warned voters “Joe Biden says “citizenship for 11 million undocumented folks” that means 11 million illegal immigrants competing for American jobs eligible for free healthcare, Social Security, and Medicare.”
- In just four days in May, the Trump campaign ran over 6,000 Facebook ads, spending nearly $2 million dollars across their three main pages with the message “[Biden] wants to provide illegal immigrants with TAXPAYER funded health care.
- A voiceover in another ad says “Trump took bold action cutting off travel from China, the source of the virus…and what does Biden now propose while the pandemic still smolders around the globe? Increasing refugees by 700 percent from the most unstable, vulnerable, dangerous parts of the world,” as the names of countries Syria, Somalia, and Yemen appear on screen.
Similarly, xenophobic appeals were a part of nearly every rally Trump held during the 2020 cycle.
- At his first rally back in Tulsa Oklahoma, after a short pause for the global pandemic, Trump looked to defend his dehumanizing comments from a year earlier saying, “when I called them animals, I said, ‘They’re animals.’ And Nancy Pelosi, they cut up a young woman. They cut up a young woman and her friend, cut them up with a knife because it was more painful. Dead. Cut them up with a knife because it’s more painful. It takes longer than shooting a gun. They cut them up. I said, ‘These are animals.’ And Nancy Pelosi said, ‘These are human beings. They’re not animals.’ If I lose an election over that, you know what? This country is in big trouble. They want to disarm law, abiding citizens, and dismantle our police forces while freeing vicious MS-13 gang members. In Joe Biden’s America, rioters, looters, and criminal aliens have more rights than law-abiding citizens. And that’s true.”
- On October 30, at a rally in Michigan Trump told a crowd of his supporters that Biden would have “a 700% increase in refugees from the most dangerous terrorist spots anywhere in the world, including Syria, Somalia…the Biden plan will turn Michigan into a refugee camp.”
- Falsely warring supporters in Arizona on October 28, Trump said that Biden wants to “give free healthcare and mass amnesty for all illegal border crosses, bankrupting your Medicare and your social security systems.”
OOPS: TRUMP’S NATIVISM, RACISM AND XENOPHOBIA HIT, UM, A WALL
Despite the power of the Presidency and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on anti-immigrant advertising, Trump’s xenophobia never got much traction outside the cul-de-sac of his base and it backfired with the majority of Americans.
- Recent Gallup research shows support for immigrants and immigration — questions they have been asking since 1965 — is at its highest level ever.
- Recent Pew research finds 60% believe newcomers strengthen American society while 37% say they threaten traditional customs and values. This is a shift in the pro-immigrant direction of 14 percentage points over the past four years
The American Election Eve Poll (AEEP), a massive poll of over 15,000 voters from all backgrounds, finds that Americans are strongly pro-immigrant and support fair and generous immigration policies, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. For example, when asked about establishing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who come forward, are up to date on their taxes, and pass a background check, the breakdown of yes to no, was: Latinos: 90-9%; African Americans: 90-9%; Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders: 81-14%; American Indians: 85-15%; and Whites: 81-19%
TRUMP AND HIS GOP LAPDOG WHISTLERS: DOUBLING DOWN ON WHAT FAILED
The most important statistic: Donald Trump lost in 2020 and is preparing his party to lose again in 2022 and beyond.
As important, in June of 2020, Trump was attacking Joe Biden for supporting a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants, Biden did not dispute the claim – and, in fact, leaned in, tweeting in June, 2020:
Here’s my promise to you: On day one, I’ll send a bill to Congress that creates a clear roadmap to citizenship for Dreamers and 11 million undocumented people who are already strengthening our nation. It’s long overdue.
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) June 18, 2020
Biden has followed through on that promise with the introduction of the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, sponsored by Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Representative Linda Sanchez (D-CA).
In August of 2020, Reuters reported, “White House and Trump campaign officials say they’re confident the president’s tough immigration stance is a winner.” The architect of Trump’s anti-immigrant agenda, Stephen Miller, boldly predicted Biden’s immigration proposals “will prove a ‘massive political vulnerability’ in the coming election.”
In reality, immigration was a vulnerability – for Trump.
Now, Trump returns to the political stage and reports indicate he will return with the same kind of anti-immigrant message. In large part, that’s because Trump has no other message to offer – besides his lies about the 2020 election. But, Trump is hoping that the chaos he created over the past four years will cause problems for the Biden administration. With Miller, again predicting that if the GOP goes bigger with their anti-immigration message, this time, it will prove to be the winner he keeps promising. And, the Republican Party is lining up behind the Trump/Miller strategy. Republicans, particularly those who tried to avoid racist rhetoric in 2020, should be wary that an electoral strategy of xenophobic dog-whistles without Trump at that top of the ticket will bring them electoral success. “I’m not on the ticket, but I am on the ticket because this is also a referendum about me,” Trump said at an October 2018 rally in Mississippi. Leading his party to a historic midterm defeat with a xenophobic campaign message about caravans and sanctuary cities that backfired.
Trump won’t be on the ticket in 2022, but he controls the GOP and wants his xenophobic message to be front and center again, apparently looking to further extend that losing record.
The Republicans are spelling out their strategy in plain detail, creating a dramatic fiction around migration issues to divide and distract a nation from their unwillingness to participate meaningfully in the work of governing. Republicans are mostly opposed or absent from negotiating in good faith the top priorities of COVID relief, economic stimulus, racial justice, voting rights, or immigration reform. Instead, they are content to stand behind a fictional narrative on immigration devoid of context that they are betting will help them in the midterms – or at least help them avoid primary challenges backed by Trump. Observers and reporters covering Trump and Miller’s reprise as the alleged political architects of Republican victories should keep their track record and the new state of American public opinion in mind.