Donald Trump is not a lone actor in demonizing immigrants. The GOP has been laying the groundwork to his rhetoric for years — and Republican leaders bear at least some responsibility for the ugly, nativist turns of their presidential race.
Few things united the GOP nationwide more in recent years than fierce opposition to President Obama’s executive actions on immigration. Governors from 26 states — more than half of the country — banded together to take the feds to court over the programs. And their efforts largely paid off. The programs are currently tied up in a legal battle awaiting a final decision from the Supreme Court in June.
Thursday marks the anniversary to a day that never happened — the kick-off to the central immigration program in Obama’s executive package, known as DAPA. It would have granted work authorization to nearly 3.5 million undocumented immigrants who have children that are U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
The GOP’s victory in stalling the programs, nearly indefinitely, resulted from a hard-fought and sustained campaign. But it's also what began to severely fracture the party. Members of Congress were deeply divided over how to address Obama's executive actions. Some even threatened to shut down a vital agency as leverage to dismantle the programs, triggering party infighting that dragged on for weeks.
Their rhetoric rarely lingered on the substance of the programs. The word “amnesty” was thrown around frequently, but the bulk of their attacks were aimed directly at Obama. Republican leaders blanketed the airwaves, calling the president “lawless” and his actions “executive overreach.”
It was a carbon copy of critiques they had been making about Obama all along, even before he introduced DAPA in November 2014. While the party was divided on immigration, there was one thing that could unite them all — criticizing the president.
When the political will to pass comprehensive immigration reform crumbled around early 2014, Republican leaders blamed their own inaction on Obama. In a remarkable spin on the issue, then-Speaker John Boehner said the House refused to advance legislation because they couldn’t trust the president to carry out whatever laws that they passed.
“There’s widespread doubt about whether this administration can be trusted to enforce our laws,” Boehner said during a news conference that February. “And it’s going to be difficult to move any immigration legislation until that changes.”
If Republicans wanted to pass immigration reform on their own terms, party elites knew they needed to be more competitive in future presidential races by taking a more inclusive tack toward minority voters. The Republican National Committee's autopsy of the 2012 election made clear that rapidly-changing demographics in key swing states meant the party could no longer vilify immigrants in order to achieve it's legislative preferences.
The strategy made a boogeyman out of Obama and helped Republicans make significant gains in the midterm election that year. It was tailor-made for a GOP presidential candidate to come forward with promises to restore the rule of law and unwind threads of Obama’s legacy.
Instead Republicans got Trump. He stripped down the issue to become much more straightforward. Trump didn’t need to tell Republican voters that they didn’t want eight more years of a President Obama — they already knew that. He didn’t even need to bother with wrangling over the right policy versus the wrong policy. He went after the source — immigrants themselves.
Trump fully committed to the shock-factor with his inflammatory remarks that Mexicans were “drug dealers and rapists.” But in reality, his comments were not far off from what Republicans had been saying all along.
“I’ll do anything short of shooting them,” Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks said on camera in 2011, referring to the lengths he would take to stop undocumented immigrants. Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert has been warning for years that al Qaeda cells have infiltrated the U.S.-Mexico border. His red-alarms build on the long-established rallying cries of retired Rep. Tom Tancredo, who was so convinced that illegal immigration would cause to a terror attack that he released a terrifying campaign ad to simulate the imminent violence brought by immigrants.
The most notorious of them all is Iowa Rep. Steve King, who serves as his own candid insult generator against immigrants. His most famous line suggested that at least half of young immigrants were drug mules who crossed the border of Mexico with “calves the size of cantaloupes.”
These inflammatory comments and fear-mongering tactics used to be confined to the fringe. While Republican elites would aim their immigration attacks on Obama, as not to alienate any Latino voters that they’re trying to convert into conservatives, there were always those far-right voices that appealed to the nativist sentimentality. But now it’s mainstream.
It shouldn’t be a surprise that after three years of Republican leaders using immigration as a cudgel to demonize Obama, their base now associates the issue with him and everything that’s wrong with the country.
Trump didn’t just step in and galvanize latent nativists within the party. Immigration was first weaponized by Republicans years ago.