Making America white again.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Trump Is Aggravating Republicans' Race Problem

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
Read More.
a | A

A recent CNN/ORC poll doesn't answer the question of when Republicans will run out of demographic road as the nation's electorate grows less white. But it contains a hint that the distance between Republicans and Hispanic and Asian voters is unlikely to shrink so long as Donald Trump's heyday continues.

Trump hit a new peak in the poll; he tops the field with support from 32 percent of Republican voters. Republican leaders looking for a bright spot should look elsewhere: Trump was the second choice of 18 percent of Republicans.

As the Washington Post's Greg Sargent noted, the issue of illegal immigration -- Trump's signature -- has risen in significance among Republicans. In a June CNN/ORC poll, 39 percent of Republicans said that the issue would be "extremely important" to their vote for president. After the Summer of Trump, the new poll shows 51 percent saying so.

This raises two questions: First, how much is concern about illegal immigration a proxy for anxiety about a future in which whites are a minority in the U.S.? Second, is Trump heightening that anxiety among conservatives, and thereby threatening to deepen Republicans' demographic dilemma in the process?

The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. is not surging. Since 2007, it has been falling, flat or modestly rising, depending on the hour. It's possible that attention to the flow of migrants in Europe has triggered rising conservative agitation over illegal immigration in the U.S. But Trump's rhetoric, and his rallying effect, is almost certainly playing a role.

If Jeb Bush best embodies his party's impulse to court Hispanic voters, Trump now symbolizes the desire to thwart that effort. So far, Hispanics don't appear to be blaming Republicans generally for the rise and rhetoric of Trump. They view Trump extremely negatively, but have a positive view of Bush. Indeed, Bush's net favorable rating among Hispanics rose over the summer. As an Aug. 24 Gallup report stated, "This could reflect Hispanics' support for Bush's more moderate tone on immigration -- at least before he referred to the children of illegal immigrants as 'anchor babies'."

Bush's unforced error -- Democrats giddily highlighted his "anchor babies" remark -- is just one moment in a long campaign. But it was a product of Trump's influence. Even Bush, who previously spoke of illegal immigration as an "act of love" by parents seeking better lives for their children, seems to have been warped by Trump's appeal to deport undocumented immigrants, and the powerful response it has generated. (In Politico, Michael Grunwald asks whether a Trump-related rise in toxins is also undermining the impetus in Congress for criminal justice reform.) 

Trump appears to be reinforcing, and validating, the anxieties of a sizable tranche of conservatives who fear that the world they've known, once neatly organized to favor white males, is slipping away. As Ronald Brownstein wrote in National Journal, pacifying such voters "won’t be easy now that Trump is promising even greater exertions (mass deportation, ending birthright citizenship) against the ethnic diversity recasting America. In practice, no policy agenda can stop that demographic transformation. But Republican leaders may prove equally ineffectual at containing the white racial anxieties swelling Trump’s support."

Will the eventual Republican nominee manage to soothe such anxieties and still reach out effectively to nonwhite voters? Bush's gaffe suggests that's a difficult trick for even the most immigrant-friendly candidate.

At some point, it may become a nearly impossible one. There is no way for Republicans to give resentful conservatives what they want while simultaneously expanding the party to include more Hispanics and Asians (blacks will probably remain out of reach). If your goal is a whiter country, a less white political party must seem a very curious means for achieving it.

Yet resentment is a two-way street. The longer the gap between Republicans and nonwhites endures, the more Democrats and allied groups will exploit it, and the longer it will take to close. When the Confederate battle flag came down this summer in Alabama and South Carolina, it showed Republican leaders taking a powerful symbolic step toward racial reconciliation. In July, former Texas Governor Rick Perry gave a speech on race that acknowledged -- in a manner rare for a candidate in a Republican primary -- the true history and enduring realities of racism in the U.S. But becoming a multi-racial party was never going to be easy for Republicans. Sure enough, just as the Confederate flag came down, Trump's flag began its rise up the Republican pole. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net