California’s history as a reliably red state that rapidly transformed to deep blue in presidential elections will forevermore serve as a cautionary tale for Republicans – demonize immigrants, and risk ceding political power to Democrats for generations.
But conventional political wisdom has done little so far to stop Donald Trump from disparaging immigrants and Latinos, one of the fastest growing voting blocs in the country. Trump is flouting the history books so much that while in California this week, he turned his campaign events into a full spectacle, vilifying immigrants as violent and dangerous while bringing onstage the heartbroken families of victims killed by undocumented convicts.
“We demand Americans first. We don’t care, we don’t care about illegal aliens,” Jamiel Shaw, whose teenage son was shot by an undocumented gang member in 2008, said at a Trump rally Thursday in Costa Mesa, California.
The scene is obviously visually compelling; the pain of families is visceral and genuine. But Trump’s heavy-handed weave of an us vs. them narrative against foreigners is presented in a state home to the largest Latino population in the country. Always a showman with a flare for drama, Trump’s full tilt on immigration in California taps into the party elite’s latent anxieties over his candidacy and the backlash that is likely to ensue.
Republicans have already given up on California’s crucial haul of 55 electoral votes in nearly all foreseeable presidential elections, thanks almost entirely to anti-immigrant policies. Could Trump’s candidacy inspire the same backlash that led to the GOP’s demise in California in the 1990s?
California’s decisive flip between parties is rooted in Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 re-election campaign, coming at a time when immigrants were largely blamed for a statewide economic downturn and pockets of high crime. Wilson that year promised to solve the state’s ills and jump start the economy by shedding the perceived burden of undocumented immigrants through a controversial ballot initiative, known as Proposition 187.
The initiative was widely viewed as one of the harshest and most restrictive anti-immigrant laws in the country, making it all but impossible for undocumented immigrants to use government services. Kids were barred from schools, families were denied health care and basic public services.
And while the initiative that year easily passed, and Wilson reclaimed the governor’s mansion, the ensuing backlash fundamentally reshaped California’s electoral politics. The aftereffects are still apparent today, more than 20 years later. A record number of Latinos registered to vote and rushed to the polls. In a state where Ronald Reagan staked his claim as the godfather of the modern conservative movement, Democrats have swept every presidential and Senate race in the state since 1994.
The parallels between Trump’s political ascent and the firestorm sparked in the mid-’90s climate of California is almost obvious. Promising to “make America great again,” Trump hopes to throw out all undocumented immigrants, ridding the streets of senseless violence and bringing economic prosperity. In return, Latinos are energized in a committed anti-Trump movement, while many more are inspired to become new citizens expressly for the chance to vote against him.
Still, there is plenty of evidence to show that Trump is not out on an anti-immigrant island on his own.
The majority of the Republican Party is behind Trump in his passionate cries against tragedies like what happened to Kate Steinle, a young woman who was shot in San Francisco last summer by an undocumented immigrant who had a long criminal rap sheet. Steinle died in her father’s arms.
During campaign stops, Trump has frequently invited Steinle’s family, and the handfuls of others who’ve experienced similar tragedies, to join him onstage to highlight the hazards of illegal immigration. For many conservatives, the image of grieving families onstage alongside Trump perfectly captures the injustices of immigration – undocumented criminals shouldn’t be in the U.S. in the first place. Had those convicts not been here, maybe those victims would still be alive.
It’s a drumbeat that many on the right have hit consistently for months. Fox News host Bill O’Reilly turned Steinle’s story into almost a daily installment, pushing scores of his dedicated viewers to phone their local lawmakers and press for new laws to punish cities that welcomed immigrants. Public outrage inspired countless bills targeting so-called “sanctuary cities,” which on the local level have decided not to play an active role in helping federal immigration agents deport undocumented people living in their community.
Critics say sanctuary cities have little to do with federal immigration policies and have been made the scapegoats in the midst of a heavily politicized election season. More to the point, they argue that casting the entire immigrant community as violent criminals because of the actions of a few bad apples is grossly misguided.
But the blurred line between Trump and the rest of the GOP on this issue shows that it’s not only the party front-runner who risks losing out on elections because of backlash to anti-immigrant rhetoric. If Trump goes down in November, assuming he’s the nominee, Republicans are already familiar with what happens next.