By Jacob Santillan
Illustration by Shelby Hohl
I readily admit that I thoroughly enjoy the Donald Trump presidential campaign because he’s clearly trolling everyone — the GOP establishment in particular. I don’t agree with anything he says and I laugh at how ludicrous and blatantly offensive he is, because that makes his campaign the train-wreck I can’t wait to see implode, which hopefully sunders the Republican party come Election 2016. I also don’t want him to win because I’m not a conservative of any kind. I bear Old Left, Old Labor, deeply proletarian sympathies and because of that, I’m a Bernie Sanders man.
My allegiances aside, it’s fascinating to watch people — both left and right — dance to Trump’s tune. The conservative establishment shrieks that Donald Trump is an ignorant blowhard who makes the Republican party and conservatives look like lunatics. Left-wing publications like Salon hysterically clutch their pearls over everything Donald Trump says, cynically exploiting his campaign by writing about him not once or twice but ceaselessly, thereby granting him all the exposure he needs across the political spectrum. Any press is good press, as they say.
Right-on-right infighting, such as the anti-Trump establishment National Review vs. the pro-Trump insurgent Breitbart, is in full swing. Editor of conservative publication Commentary John Podhorerz calls Breitbart a “clown publication” and its readers “rape lovers.” GOP consultant Jack Wilson, who blasts 25% of his own party’s base as “low information voters,” flippantly asked Ann Coulter if Trump pays her extra for anal sex, presumably because she backs his immigration plan. Such infighting on the left end of the aisle is promising as well. In this cynical and sclerotic political climate, it’s quite fun to watch party bosses and their intelligentsia, left or right, lose control over their respective electorates. It’s impossible to understate how nasty this could get.
Despite the circus clown car of the GOP primary, there are also appreciable moments of sobriety and caution about the Trump campaign, because there are reasons why Donald Trump should be taken more seriously — however absurd or offensive he comes across. Trump is the exact opposite of what GOP presidential campaigns have been in recent years (Mitt Romney anyone?). Trump doesn’t come across as wooden and focus-group tested to death. He doesn’t seem handled by overpaid consultants. He’s blunt, and he’s not hyper-sanitized as his rhetoric clearly indicates, whatever you think of it. I’m not sure even he believes everything he says — he may be a glib opportunist for all we know — but he sure sounds like he means what he says, and that must be deeply refreshing to conservatives dissatisfied by what they feel is an unresponsive party establishment.
Trump’s critics point out that the only policy area where he has even the slightest substance is immigration, which is the only thing he seems to discuss. Of course, what he does say about immigration is flagrantly offensive, but that’s part of his appeal. He comes across as willing to say what the electorate wants to hear and what I suspect they, themselves, wish to say. In Donald Trump, the conservative base finds its champion. And while it’s understandably denounced as racist, it would be a mistake to assume his rhetoric appeals only to whites.
US demographic changes heavily favor the Hispanic community. Census figures project the Hispanic population will roughly double in size from 15% of the U.S. population now to 30% by the year 2050, which makes “courting the Hispanic vote” more electorally important than ever. Trump’s rhetoric about illegal Mexican immigrants being rapists, drug dealers and murderers has analysts both left and right eager to bury his campaign, for different reasons, as fast as possible. There is, however, another force at work which should discourage the casual assumption that he’s alienated the entire Hispanic electorate — native or foreign-born — or all immigrants from anywhere else for that matter.
Today, only the most vicious racists openly deploy racial slurs, the kind that were considered normal in the 1950’s and 60’s. In the 70’s and 80’s, we started to hear about “lazy” and “entitled” “Cadillac-driving welfare queens” as a “dog whistle,” as coded racial language for African-Americans. Today we hear the term “illegal aliens” used similarly, which, technically, is the correct legal terminology for people in the country illegally. However, it is used politically to “other” Central and South Americans in particular, immigrants from everywhere in general, and by people hostile even to native-born Hispanic Americans. Such coded racial language makes it possible to drive a wedge between immigrant communities.
“[W]ithin immigrant communities, there’s always a heterogeneity of views,” noted Ian Haney Lopez, author of The Dog Whistle Politics of Race, in a March 2014 interview on Moyers and Company. “As each generation gets established, there’s always a segment of the population that looks with resentment on the new arrivals, that says ‘These people are holding our community down. We really need to restrict immigration,’ they say, ‘because only by restricting immigration can we show that we’re actually now part of the American mainstream.’ So, ironically, I would expect an effort to reach out to Latinos and to Asian communities, not by liberal reforms of immigration, but actually by toning down some of the hostile rhetoric while at the same time promising to restrict immigration.”
While Trump certainly hasn’t toned down his immigration rhetoric, there may be opportunities for him to deliver it in a more targeted fashion. Indeed, Breitbart reports on Fransisco Rivera, a legal immigrant originally from Jalisco, Mexico, who protested before Huntington Park City Council in California against the appointment of two immigrants who are not in the country legally to city commissions:
“You want to become part of this great nation -– that’s fine — but you have to come through the right channels and background check. That’s what I see these people are not doing. I went through all the process. I really appreciate this country and this great nation. A lot of these people, these teenagers, don’t appreciate it.” says Rivera in an interview with Breitbart News.
“I literally remember this one guy, he must have been about 19 years old, bald, holding a Mexican flag. He looked at the sheriff and he literally told the guy, ‘F- the USA.’ I thought, ‘And you want to be a part of this country? Look at what you’re doing, the way you act.’ People don’t have passion and love for this country, but when they are about to be deported they say, ‘Please don’t deport me!’ They only want to be a part of this nation when they’re threatened with being deported.”
Attitudes like those of legal immigrants such as Rivera are ripe for exploitation, and you don’t need a shortage of melanin to fall for it. So, when Donald Trump makes outrageous and offensive statements about illegal immigrant rapists thieves and murders, a portion of the immigrant population, itself, will likely think or say — “Oh you mean those immigrants; I’m one of the good ones” — and vote accordingly. Donald Trump has so far demonstrated that he’s shrewd enough to strategically discriminate between legal and illegal immigrants for electoral gain. Whether he’s clever enough to capitalize on those differences effectively remains to be seen, but the possibility still remains.
Free Press Houston Columnist Nick Cooper asks in part whether we should laugh or cry about Trump. I say laugh freely…for now. I know I will. By all means enjoy the spectacle, the theatre of it all, but enjoy it guardedly. Don’t dismiss Donald Trump as the clown you might understandably think he is. After all, as an actor and establishment outsider, Ronald Reagan was once thought to be an absurd candidate too.