By MICHAEL GERSON
WASHINGTON — Attempting to analyze political statements by Donald Trump is often a high dive into a shallow pool. But a number of conservative commentators are making the jump, discerning hidden virtues in his depiction of marauding immigrants intent on crime and rape.
While finding Trump’s words “crude and reprehensible,” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol thinks they summarize a “genuine concern about illegal immigrants.” “For all its crassness,” says National Review’s Rich Lowry, “Trump’s rant on immigration is closer to reality than the gauzy cliches of immigration romantics.”
Some of this is surely an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, the equivalent of: “My, that gangrene is such a pleasing shade of green.” But the varied reactions to Trump — Sen. Marco Rubio found his words “offensive and inaccurate” — also indicate a serious debate between reform camps within the Republican Party.
One brand of Republican reformers — the Rust Belt revivalists — believe the GOP has been too dominated by corporate interests and needs to identify more directly with the economic frustrations of working-class voters. Trump is the cartoon version of this view — preaching protectionism and accusing immigrants of “destroying the fabric of the country.” But Rick Santorum makes a similar economic case, proposing to cut immigration by 25 percent as part of a plan (according to his website) “to protect American workers from foreign labor that is taking jobs that Americans could otherwise hold.”
In this strategy, there is an inherent tension between appealing to the white working class and appealing to immigrants. As a matter of policy, high levels of immigration consume public services and depress native-born wages. As a matter of politics, the white working class remains the larger group of voters. A concentrated focus on their concerns, the argument goes, might open a path to victory through Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Another group of reformers — the advocates of a demographic pivot — also believes the Republican Party is too closely identified with the boardroom and the country club. But they look at the declining percentage of white voters — falling an average of 2.75 points in each presidential election since 1996 — and argue that the Republican coalition will need to be browner in order to win in places like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
It will come as no surprise that I view the arguments of the Rust Belt revivalists as less compelling and more dangerous.
First, the effect of immigration on native-born wages, while not imaginary, is easily overstated. For those who don’t graduate from high school, the results are slightly negative. But this influence is overwhelmed by other economic trends that have put downward pressure on wages, such as automation and the globalization of labor markets. The problems of the working class will not be solved by immigration restrictionism.
Second, the advocates of a demographic pivot, even if they are not currently right, are eventually right. It may well be possible in the 2016 presidential election for Republicans to pump up the white vote enough to secure a victory. But we are reaching the natural limits of that strategy. Mitt Romney got a larger percentage of the white vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980, and still lost decisively, because President Obama secured more than 80 percent of the minority vote in an electorate with a larger proportion of minorities. If the eventual Democratic nominee maintains this level of support among minorities, Republicans will need about 63 percent of the white vote to win in 2016 — nearly a record high. And they will need to continue racking up new records each election, until the task is truly impossible.
Third, the strategy of appealing to the white working class by criticizing immigration raises the risk of racial polarization. Enthusiasm for this approach sometimes has reasons other than economics. There can be ugliness beneath, as Trump demonstrates.
Finally, a political appeal that encourages division would worsen the GOP’s main political problem: a durable impression that it does not care for the country as a whole. As the old Southern strategy fades, it would be a terrible mistake to replace it with a different form of fear and exclusion. Republicans have an opportunity to craft an agenda of economic mobility — to reward work (through wage subsidies), strengthen families (with a larger child credit) and encourage skills (with education reform) — that could appeal to both the white working class and rising minority groups, instead of pitting them against each other.
It is the way that Republicans can win, and deserve to win.