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Right on cue, and as predicted, the Republican Party is doubling down on its midterm “divide and distract” strategy. GOP candidates and ad buys want to stoke fear of immigrants in a desperate attempt to whip up their base, peel off swing voters, and distract from the Republican record of threatening economic mobility supports that most of us rely on in favor of tax cuts for GOP donors.
The Hill captures this trend in a story entitled, “GOP warns crime, immigration will spike if Dems win”:
…Republican candidates across the country, from this city 60 miles north of the border to states like North Dakota and Georgia, are warning voters that both crime and immigration are likely to spike if their Democratic opponents win office in November.
…Republican candidates are relying on warnings about rampant crime and unchecked immigration, party strategists say, as a way to energize voters who are otherwise unenthusiastic about turning out in a midterm election. The message is similar in states close to and far from the border, places that rely on immigrants for jobs such as harvesting crops and those where legislatures have cracked down on illegal immigration.
Will this work? A new Quinnipiac poll is the latest in a string of reminders that Republicans face an uphill climb in the midterm elections. There are many reasons for this, but one that belongs on the list is GOP’s association with cruel immigration policies that are proving toxic to swing voters and Democrats. For example, recent internal Republican polling of battleground congressional districts found that the family separation policy hurt the GOP among moderates and independents. And if Republican campaigns hope that smearing immigrants as criminals a la Trump will work, new CNN polling suggests otherwise. The poll found that Americans broadly disapprove of President Trump’s handling of immigration, with 59 percent disapproving and 35 percent approving (Democrats disapprove by a 90-6 percent margin and Independents by a 64-29 percent margin).
Nevertheless, Republicans persist. So, what should Democrats, progressives, and pro-immigrant allies do in the face of the GOP ugliness?
First, let’s stop being surprised by the GOP’s strategy. Trump’s attacks on immigrants are just the latest in a half-century of dog whistles, Willie Horton ads and us-vs-them demagoguery. From states’ rights to crime to welfare to affirmative action to gay marriage to birtherism to Obamacare to immigration, Republicans have long exploited culturally-charged wedge issues to attract and motivate voters left behind by GOP economic policies. Distilled to its essence, the GOP’s “Southern strategy” is a witches’ brew of tax cuts for the rich and racism for the rest. Trump didn’t invent it. He just came along and turbocharged it.
Second, before addressing the substance of the GOP attacks — for their intention is to drag us into a neverending policy debate on their turf — let’s call out the cynicism and desperation behind it. The GOP is purposefully using a “divide and distract” strategy. Their goal is to divide Americans by “othering” immigrants and people of color in order to 1) distract voters from the horrible Republican record on kitchen table issues; and 2) draw attention away from the GOP obsession with shifting resources into the hands of the super-rich. With healthcare premiums rising, access to care jeopardized, Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block, take-home pay flat, education imperiled, deficits exploding, our environment exposed, our schoolkids vulnerable, our democracy threatened and corruption rampant, turning on the fog machine of racial polarization probably seems like a no-brainer to the shameless Trump and his cowardly Republican enablers.
Third, on the immigration issue itself, Democrats should be proud to stand up for immigrants and stand for workable solutions. Thanks in part to a backlash to Trump’s racism, support for immigrants and pro-immigrant policies is at record highs. Strong majorities — including significant swaths of independents and Republicans — believe immigrants strengthen America, want Dreamers to remain here, oppose a border wall, and back immigration reform that combines targeted enforcement with a roadmap to citizenship. More recently, there’s been a torrid public backlash to the policy that led government agents to rip kids from the arms of their parents without any plan or interest in reuniting them. Six weeks after a court-ordered reunification deadline, hundreds remain separated…Trump and Republicans are on the wrong side of this issue, not Democrats.
Finally, Democrats and progressives need to transcend the reductive discussion of so-called “identity politics” versus “colorblind economic populism.” We live in a multiracial, multiethnic society. Issues related to race, identity and inclusion — especially in the divisive Trump era — must be addressed (as progressive message maestro Anat Shenker-Osorio likes to say, “when you don’t talk about race, you’re talking about race”). AND, we live in a society where the rich are getting richer while the building blocks of social and economic mobility are under attack and eroding before our eyes.
Our priority as Democrats and progressives, then, is to tell an integrated story of race and class; unity and opportunity; shared prosperity and equal justice; us and them. Simply put, Republicans pit white people against people of color so they can hang onto power, dismantle government and direct resources to the top, while Democrats bridge the racial divide, strengthen the building blocks that enable us to get ahead, and extend opportunity to one and all, regardless of background and birthplace. This distinction between the two parties is powerful and persuasive precisely because it’s true.