With his penchant for tweeted insults and GIFs, Donald Trump will never be mistaken for a master of the sweet art of persuasion. Yet he is clearly winning the public argument on the issue of immigration.
He isn’t doing it through sustained, careful attention. He tweeted the other day that the media will eventually have to cover his success at the border, even though he himself has devoted more energy to his war with CNN than promoting the reduction in illegal border crossings.
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No, it is the sheer fact of his November victory, and the data showing the importance of the issue of immigration to it, that has begun to shift the intellectual climate.
It had been assumed, even by many Republicans like Sen. John McCain, that opposition to amnesty and higher levels of legal immigration would doom the GOP to minority status forevermore. Trump blew up this conventional wisdom.
Now, intellectuals on the center-left are calling for Democrats to rethink the party’s orthodoxy on immigration, which has become more and more hostile to enforcement and to any skepticism about current high levels of immigration.
The swing here was enormous. A Trump defeat in November after running on an exaggerated version of immigration restriction would have sent Republicans scurrying back to the comfortable, corporate-friendly cliches about so-called comprehensive immigration reform. And if Hillary Clinton had won on a platform that doubled down on Obama’s executive amnesties, serious immigration enforcement would have lost its political legitimacy.
Trump probably wouldn’t have won without running so directly into the teeth of the elite consensus. According to a study published by Public Religion Research Institute and the Atlantic of white working-class voters, it was anxiety about culture change and support for deporting undocumented immigrants that correlated with voting for Trump, not loss of economic or social standing. Likewise, a Democracy Fund Voter Study Group report found Hillary Clinton cratered among populist voters who had supported Barack Obama, with the issue of immigration looming large.
In light of the election, Josh Barro of Business Insider, William Galston of the Brookings Institution, Peter Beinart of the Atlantic, Fareed Zakaria of CNN, and Stan Greenberg of Democracy Corps, among others, have urged Democrats to re-calibrate.
Many of these writers don’t merely note the perilous politics of the maximalist Democratic position on immigration or argue that policy should take account of the economic costs as well as the benefits of immigration. They also give credence to cultural concerns over mass immigration—concerns that much of the left considers poorly disguised hate.
In an act of heresy for the Davos set, Fareed Zakaria recommends that “the party should take a position on immigration that is less absolutist and recognizes both the cultural and economic costs of large-scale immigration.”
Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jeff D. Colgan of Brown University and Robert O. Keohane of Princeton, both supporters of globalization, make the elementary point that “it is not bigotry to calibrate immigration levels to the ability of immigrants to assimilate and to society’s ability to adjust.”
This sentiment wouldn’t be so noteworthy if the Democratic Party hadn’t become so radical on immigration. Beinart’s Atlantic piece was a trenchant reminder that as recently as 10 years ago the Left allowed much more room for dissent on immigration. Go back a little further, to the 1990s, and Bill Clinton was forthrightly denouncing illegal immigration and liberal giant Barbara Jordan was heading a bipartisan commission that called for enhanced enforcement and reduced levels of legal immigration.
In the interim, Democrats convinced themselves that liberality on immigration has only political upside, and that immigration is in effect a civil-rights issue, and therefore non-negotiable.
Reversing field won’t be easy. The House just voted on Kate’s Law, named after Kate Steinle, the young woman killed in the sanctuary city of San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant who had re-entered the country after being deported five times. The bill strengthens the penalties on repeated illegal re-entry, although it is largely symbolic.
Still, the guidance for Democrats from House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer’s office warned that the bill “appeals to the most right-wing, anti-immigrant base of the Republican Party.” Only 24 Democrats could bring themselves to vote for it—a measure targeting undocumented immigrants who sneak back into the country after being denied admission or deported on three or more prior occasions. This obviously isn’t a party in the mood to learn from 2016.
The pull of the left’s cosmopolitanism is strong. In an attack on Beinart, Dylan Matthews of Vox argues that the left’s egalitarianism can’t stop at the nation’s borders—“it means a strong presumption in favor of open immigration.”
So, it’d be a mistake to make too much of the recent spate of articles calling for Democrats to rethink this issue. If Democrats are ever going to shift on immigration, though, elite opinion has to change first, and at least there is now an opening.
Our politics is mostly trench warfare, fought over the same unchanging territory. Nevertheless, occasionally the lines shift. Few would have guessed that in the 1990s conservative Republicans, so unreservedly in favor of tough sentencing, would be open to joining liberals on criminal-justice reform. Perhaps Democrats will eventually recalibrate on immigration. If so, the unlikely instrument of the sea change will have been none other than Donald J. Trump.