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Why Trump’s Xenophobia Isn’t Working in 2020

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A multiracial majority is poised to erect a firewall of tolerance

 Today’s Wall Street Journal carries this must-read story, “Trump Campaign Tones Down Immigration Messages That Dominated 2016 Election.” It raises and addresses important questions: why is it that on Trump’s signature issue Trump is on defense and Biden is on offense? Why is it that family separation is the central immigration issue in the homestretch, and not Trump’s border wall? Why is it that Trump’s xenophobia just isn’t working? Here is our take:

  • Trump’s reliance on racism and xenophobia is backfiring outside of the Trumpian base. As a wedge issue, immigration has lost its edge. While immigration mobilizes white grievance voters who are the core of Trump’s supporters, it also mobilizes the majority in opposition to his cruelty and divisiveness. While Trump deploys xenophobia in his rallies and in targeted campaign ads, it repels centrist swing voters and fires up Democrats. Aside from mountains of polling evidence (see next bullet), the most compelling proof point is the 2018 midterms. Trump nationalized the race with his relentless and ugly focus on “criminals and caravans” and it resulted in the biggest midterm defeat in American history. As Republican strategist Alex Conant told the Wall Street Journal, “He tried to make the midterms all about immigration and it failed horribly.”
  • Trump has forced Americans to choose, and the public has never been this pro-immigrant. Trump’s relentless nativism has forced a referendum on immigration, and the American public has moved sharply away from Trump rather than towards him. According to Gallup, more Americans than ever – 77% – believe immigration is a good thing rather than a bad thing for America. And for the first time since 1965, more Americans support an increase in immigration than a decrease. According to Pew, 60% of Americans say that “growing numbers of newcomers to the U.S. strengthen American society” in 2020, an increase of 14 percentage points from the 46% who said so in 2016. Similarly, 2020 Biden voters are more likely than 2016 Clinton voters to say the growing number of newcomers strengthens society (84% vs. 71%). According to PRRI’s annual American Values Survey poll, Americans support legal status for undocumented immigrants by 80-19%, and majorities oppose Trump policies on family separation, Dreamers, refugee admissions and the border wall. According to recent NYT/Siena College polls in states such as Georgia, Iowa, and Texas, more than two-thirds of voters support “a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants living in the United States,” with support from Democrats overwhelming. And while Trump is attacking Joe Biden in ads and rallies as someone who “supports amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants,” a battleground poll by GSG finds that the attack is not landing. Few voters, and even fewer swing voters, feel this attack raises doubts about voting for Biden, even though many believe the line to be true. According to GSG,  “that’s because voters largely support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.”
  • Trump’s real immigration record, defined by family separation, is toxic to key 2020 voters. The exchange at the final presidential debate over family separation was revealing. Unlike in 2016, when Trump was on offense on immigration, Trump was on defense. He did what he typically does, which is to lie, blame-shift and both-sides the issue. He ended his defense with the chilling statement that the children are in beautiful facilities and are “well taken care of.” According to GSG’s battleground poll, 56% of independent voters say that Trump’s family separation policy raised “major doubts” about voting for him. As AV Executive Director Frank Sharry told the Wall Street Journal, “A lot of the suburban voters who’ve turned from Trump cite the separation of kids from their parents at the border.”

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice,

Immigration is the original sin of Trumpism. From the moment he descended the golden escalator in 2015, Trump and Stephen Miller have taken a wrecking ball to the Statue of Liberty. 

But Trump’s radicalism has pushed Americans to choose, and as a result, a majority is forming a firewall of tolerance. 

It turns out that we do not want to be known as a cruel nation defined by blood and soil, but rather as a welcoming nation built on our embrace of E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One. 

The 2020 election is, in part, a referendum on Trump’s approach to immigration and refugee policy, and it is part of the reason he’s likely to be crushed.