Will Republicans learn the right lessons from the debacle that is the Trump candidacy? I am doubtful, because for many, it requires a good, hard look in the mirror. Donald Trump didn’t create the masses supporting him, he simply played into their fears and prejudices, which have been nursed for the last decade by conservative talk show hosts, cable news programs, websites, grassroots groups and not a few GOP elected officials.
Like Trump’s presidential campaign announcement, it began with immigration. It seems like an eon ago that Trump declared, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us [sic]. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
This sweeping denunciation — not of illegal immigration, mind you, but of SET ITAL) Mexicans and the government of Mexico — would have been enough in normal times to sink most candidates. But the media, including the so-called mainstream media, gave him a pass, and many on the right embraced his supposed candor.
National Review’s editor Rich Lowry wrote a column “Sorry, Donald Trump Has a Point,” arguing, “For all its crassness, Trump’s rant on immigration is closer to reality than the gauzy cliches of the immigration romantics unwilling to acknowledge that there might be an issue welcoming large numbers of high-school dropouts into a 21st-century economy.” I responded immediately with my own NRO piece, “Stop Defending Donald Trump.” But it took the magazine months to decide that Trump was unhinged and a danger to the conservative movement.
The right has made opposition to immigration — increasingly legal immigration as well as illegal — the sine qua non of conservatism for some time now. Conservatives who argue, as I do, that our immigration system needs a dramatic overhaul are routinely denounced as open-borders traitors because we favor making it easier for workers with needed skills to immigrate legally and giving legal status to those illegal immigrants whose labor we depend on — and who have paid taxes and broken no other laws.
There is certainly room for legitimate debate about immigration policy among conservatives. One can argue for lower immigration levels, more diversity among the immigrant pool, and certainly for better border security in good conscience. But suggesting that immigrants are “taking jobs from Americans” and that they have “high rates of criminality” — neither of which is true — feeds into a narrative that was ripe for the extremism that Trump has spouted.
Organizations like the Center for Immigration Studies, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and NumbersUSA pump out mendacious studies purporting to show that all the jobs that have been created in the last decade have gone to immigrants, and that immigrants disproportionally fill our prisons. These, in turn, make headlines on Drudge, fill hours of rant on talk radio, get serious treatment from conservative news outlets and then turn into direct mail fundraisers from grassroots conservative organizations. Is it any wonder then, that when Trump comes along and spews his venom, it comes back to bite conservatives who would never think of talking about the issue in Trump’s vulgar, hate-filled rhetoric?
But the problem isn’t only immigration. Government itself has become the enemy for many conservatives. Instead of arguments for limited government and smaller bureaucracies, many on the right have begun to sound more like anarchists than Burkean conservatives. Republican elected officials — even staunchly conservative ones — get labeled as Republican In Name Only, so that all who serve in public life become immediately suspect. If you can’t trust anyone who holds office now, an outsider like Donald Trump has a natural opening.
It is difficult to see an easy way out of the morass that has become the conservative movement. Conservatism has managed to hold together despite the inherent strains among its various elements, in large part because winning elections was considered important enough to minimize differences. Libertarians and economic conservatives might not have embraced social conservatives’ agenda, (and vice versa) but they were willing to make peace in order to elect representatives who were at least marginally better than the alternative Democrat. Deficit hawks might have worried that defense conservatives would pile up more debt, but they knew prospects were worse if Democrats were elected. Paleo-cons could sit side-by-side with neo-cons with some uneasiness, but not outright enmity.
No more. These arrangements now look like quaint relics of a genteel past, not the realpolitik of election victory. We conservatives are likely to lose the 2016 election as a result, and, frankly, we have no one to blame but ourselves.