Immigrants in the open.

Photographer: Daniel McNew/Getty Images

Republicans at Waterloo

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.
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The attacks in Paris may not determine how Americans vote in 2016. But their effect is already apparent in the Republican primary, threatening to push the party over the edge on immigration.

It isn't just the spreading desire to bar Syrian refugees from the U.S. Once the anti-immigrant mindset takes hold -- and its grip on the conservative imagination seems ever tightening -- it can become indiscriminate. It takes work, or a reflexive world view, to connect a jihadist terror attack in Paris with the fate of the largely Hispanic undocumented population in the U.S. As potential sleeper cells go, the estimated 11 million are not only abnormally large but spectacularly sleepy: Most have been in the U.S. for a decade or more.

But for those looking for new rationales for old policies, logical zigzags and curlicues appear as a straight line. Ann Coulter, the professional antagonist who issues bite-sized sour balls with the dull efficiency of a Pez dispenser, saw the writing on the wall as soon as the blood splattered. She took to Twitter in the wake of the attacks to declare that the terrorists had just delivered the presidency to Donald Trump.

To belabor the obvious, Trump has exhibited no notable ideas or comprehension of national security, global jihad or foreign policy. His solution to the strategic dilemma of Islamic State is to "bomb the **** out of them," which apparently has not occurred to anyone in the Pentagon. Marco Rubio offers a taste of Trump's aggression in more sophisticated wrapping, yet Coulter beheld a massacre and saw Trump, not Rubio, as the lucky winner. Why?

Trump's signature issue, of course, is immigration -- defined by a mythical wall and mass deportation. Coulter, who knows the politics of fear cold, surely understands how one set of fears can be profitably turned in service of another.

At National Review last weekend, Andrew McCarthy explained a source of conservative anxiety over comprehensive immigration reform, which had been backed by Rubio and two-thirds of the Senate before it died in the Republican House.

Conservatives in the Republican base zealously opposed Rubio’s proposal. Most salient for present purposes was their contention that the high-minded rhetoric about humanitarian concerns was so much hot air. It was camouflage, conservatives argued, for what the Left really wanted, which was millions of new Democratic voters — enough to give the party a permanent majority (or at least as permanent as anything ever is in politics).

Rubio, who had naively believed that Republicans might offer millions of new voters some compelling reason to support them, turned against his own bill. But he hasn't joined Trump in leaping into the abyss.

Neither, interestingly, has Ted Cruz -- yet. With Trump's negative vision shaping the race, the two Cuban-American senators are competing to be the hinge on the Republican gate, testing how far to the right it can swing before it gets disastrously stuck.

Cruz has promised to introduce a bill in the Senate to ban Syrian refugees. And he just won the endorsement of Representative Steve King of Iowa, the leading edge of nativism in Congress. Cruz has begun differentiating himself from Rubio with a familiar cry of "amnesty."

"Marco chose to stand with Chuck Schumer and to lead the fight tooth and nail for a massive amnesty plan," Cruz said. "I chose to stand with Jeff Sessions and to lead the fight to defeat amnesty. And we were successful in defeating it in the Congress."

Cruz is promising an "increase" in deportations but has noticeably failed to clarify how his unspecified increase would differ from Trump's. That's a positive sign. Like Rubio, Cruz is still eager to muddy the issue, maintaining a possibility of retreat to a less hostile stance on immigration in a general election. The alternative is Trump's leap into the void, pitting immigrant communities squarely against the Republican Party in a battle that neither can afford to lose. 

The attacks in Paris were terrifying. The world is dangerous. The U.S., like others, is vulnerable. Making scapegoats of millions of settled immigrants in the U.S. won't change any of that. If Republicans use the attacks as an excuse to ratchet up plans to punish the American undocumented, the end result is not hard to predict: Paris will be their 2016 Waterloo. 

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:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net