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Why Immigration is No Longer Trump’s Signature Campaign Issue

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David Dayen on how Trump’s immigration radicalism has backfired


A must-read analysis by David Dayen in The American Prospect explores why “Trump Isn’t Talking as Much About Immigrants This Year.” Dayen captures that Trump’s immigration record is unpopular, how his attempt to run on immigration in 2018 “led to an historic defeat,” and concludes that while Trump “still plays to Americans’ basest instincts … he’s found certain levels of xenophobia too hot to tackle in public.”

The following is a statement from Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice:

From the first moment he descended that escalator, Trump’s defining issue has been immigration. He has sought to close off America to newcomers and to reshape public opinion towards immigrants. On policy, and by executive fiat, he and his White supremacist counselor Stephen Miller have taken extreme measures to slam the doors on those seeking new lives in America that have proved to be very unpopular. On public opinion, Trump’s drive to demonize and dehumanize immigrants and refugees has backfired.

His policy of ripping young children from the arms of their parents has appalled the nation and driven droves of voters away from him. His assault on DACA and TPS, his obsession with a costly and ineffective border wall, and his attempts to paint immigrants as threats have similarly been rejected by the majority of Americans. Outside of Trump’s shrinking core of diehard supporters, immigration has backfired on Trump. 

That is why repeated efforts by Trump and his GOP enablers to run hard on xenophobia for electoral victories have failed so miserably. That is why there is no Governor Ed Gillespie of Virginia, no Senator Lou Barletta of Pennsylvania nor a Governor Kris Kobach of Kansas. That is why in the 2018 midterms Trump’s caravans-and-criminals demagoguery led to the biggest midterm defeat in American history (read our report on how xenophobia backfired in multiple close elections in 2017, 2018 and 2019 here). 

Trump does continue to use xenophobia in his rally speeches, his advertising, tweets and his administration’s relentless policy war on immigrants. Many GOP candidates use immigration in their attack ads. But it is falling flat. Trump and the GOP are learning the hard way that, beyond the cul-de-sac that is their base, immigration as a wedge has lost its edge. He and his enablers have forced Americans to choose, and we have. It’s one of the reasons they are losing.

Below, read key excerpts from the David Dayen piece in The American Prospect: “Trump Isn’t Talking as Much About Immigrants This Year”:

From the moment Trump descended the golden escalator, he had one message to impart to his supporters: push back the hordes coming over the southern border. I’m oversimplifying a bit, but the first Trump campaign was largely this uncomplicated. Trump may have been speaking to the economic suffering of some left-behind areas, or an imagined lack of respect on the global stage. But this was all united under a vision of locking people with dark skin out of the country, building a wall, and protecting the threatened status of white Americans … Where has that campaign been? 

…The administration has belatedly tried to use announcements at the Department of Homeland Security to revive Trump’s immigration message, but it’s taken a back seat to antifa, leftist protesters condemning police brutality, and other boogeymen … Part of this erasure of Trump’s signature policy in the last campaign is a result of his presidential campaign leaking oceans of water and trying to bail out by defending his indefensible actions on coronavirus. There isn’t much room for anything else. But you’re also seeing the inevitable shift from the outsider to the insider, from running on a promise to running on a record.

…Trump the showman knows that his political viability has been predicated on raising fear rather than easing concern. He’s ranted about American carnage for so long that projecting success seems almost irrelevant.

Moreover, the ‘success’ that would be touted here is too unpopular to highlight. Gallup’s historical trends show that the desire for an increase in immigration levels at a high-water mark going back to 1966. A May poll showed respondents agreeing that immigration is a good thing for the country by a whopping 77-19, up 6 points from when Trump was elected. Even sentiment on Central American refugees, who have been as demeaned by Trump as any group in the world, is quite positive on allowing them into the country, by a 57-39 margin.

…Trump’s transformation of immigration policy has been disastrous for the country and will take a concerted effort to reverse. Trump’s relative silence on immigration in the campaign reflects that this is another agenda where Republicans must now hide their intent. Trump’s full-barreled rhetorical assault on immigrants during the 2018 midterms led to an historic defeat. This year, he’s put that talk aside, leaving his campaign formless and without a rallying point.

The work of grassroots groups to resist the immigration devolution paid dividends with public opinion. This is a quiet but critical aspect of the 2020 dynamic. Trump still plays to Americans’ basest instincts. But he’s found certain levels of xenophobia too hot to tackle in public. And he hasn’t figured out how to deploy right-wing populism from the pedestal of power.