Republicans need to talk about restricting immigration. Can they do it without coming off as racists?
A web video tweeted out by President Trump just days before the midterm elections is evoking unfavorable comparisons with the infamous Willie Horton ad from the 1988 presidential campaign. CNN called it the "most racially charged national political ad in 30 years." The headline accompanying CNN's story described it simply as "racist."
The spot inflammatorily accuses Democrats of wanting to overrun the country with illegal immigrant cop killers like Luis Bracamontes, who was convicted earlier this year of murdering two California police officers. Like the ad featuring Horton, it is clearly designed to instill fear. And unlike that ad, the production of which gave George H.W. Bush plausible deniability about Lee Atwater's handiwork, it was promoted by the president himself on a major social media platform.
There was once a concerted effort on the part of leading Republicans to carefully address issues that were legitimate objects of public concern — crime, welfare dependency, the fairness of the most aggressive forms of race-conscious affirmative action — yet could easily bleed into racism and were in fact frequently exploited by racists. Those efforts weren't always perfect in motivation or effect. Some, like the federal war on drugs, yielded results that were unjust. But there is a legitimate need for lawmakers to address these issues, sensitive as they may be. After all, weekend furloughs for convicted murderers (the policy that allowed Horton out of prison to commit terrible crimes) were indeed daft, as is an immigration regime that cannot keep past deportees like Bracamontes out of the country.
Unfortunately, Republicans seem unable to reasonably engage with legitimate concerns about immigration and other challenges posed by globalization without resorting to demagoguery or outright racism. The Republican autopsy performed in the aftermath of the 2012 presidential election wished away the GOP electorate as it actually existed, while Trump has whipped these voters into a frenzy.
There was an element of "white backlash" and "dog whistles" behind talk of "law and order" dating all the way back to the 1960s. But people also genuinely did not like violent crime and other threats to public safety, welfare undermining work and family cohesion, and the excesses of the Great Society.
When liberals began to govern as if the latter could not be separated from the former, they stopped winning elections. Notably, they resumed winning elections when Bill Clinton referred to ending welfare as we knew it, making it "a second chance, not a way of life," and standing by families who "work hard and play by the rules."
In the interim, Republicans won, with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each securing 49-state landslides. Welfare reform eventually gained bipartisan support, as did rolling back excessively lenient sentences for violent offenders and steadily lowering crime rates. Some of these policies were over-corrections, such as the mandatory minimum sentences today being addressed by the criminal-justice reform movement. But they played a role in making thriving urban areas like New York City, once thought ungovernable, livable again.
There doesn't seem to be any similar movement toward responsibly addressing the thorny issues of borders and sovereignty that helped make Trump president. Some of the heroes of the last war, like Rudy Giuliani, have descended into self-caricature.
Worse, while Nixon and Reagan domesticated the supporters of George Wallace, now we see the memes of the racist alt-right creeping into the conservative mainstream. Sometimes this occurs unwittingly, when generic online Republicans who dislike George Soros for his financial support of liberal causes end up retweeting people who hate Soros for being Jewish. As we witnessed in Pittsburgh, even this can lead to disastrous outcomes. Perhaps in the case of Steve King, it is more deliberate.
Elsewhere in the Western world, when the left has sought to suppress debate over immigration and related issues and the center-right has tried to ignore them, demagogues have filled the vacuum and flourished. We shouldn't expect a different result in the United States — and by the looks of things, we won't get one.