Down South

Republican presidential hopefuls descended on South Carolina last weekend to show how low they can go.

Scott Walker in South Carolina May 2015

Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin waves during the Freedom Summit in Greenville, South Carolina, May 9, 2015.

Photo by Chris Keane/Reuters

This weekend, a dozen Republican presidential hopefuls showed up at the South Carolina Freedom Summit. They were there to court primary voters who will winnow the presidential field next February. Judging from the speeches, it’s going to be an ugly race. What the candidates are selling, and primary voters are buying, is vituperation against people who don’t look, talk, or pray like the Republican base.

The tone was set by an onstage focus group. The moderator, pollster Frank Luntz, handed the microphone to a woman from the audience. He asked her what she wanted from the candidates. She said she had once been a Democrat but had seen the light and switched parties. “People are coming in this country across the borders like rats and roaches in the woodpile,” she fumed. The audience applauded. She complained that states were registering people to vote and failing to “check them out.” “We’ve got to get control,” she demanded. When she was done, Luntz asked the crowd: “How many of you would vote for her for president?” The room erupted in cheers.

Most of the candidates talked about immigration. Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, called for an end to “hyphenated Americans.” “We are not African Americans, we are not Asian Americans, we are not Indian Americans,” he said. Jindal acknowledged his family’s heritage but played it down. He quoted his mother: “If I wanted to raise my children as Indians or even Indian Americans, I would have stayed in India.”

Steve King, a Republican congressman from Iowa, opened the conference by insisting that there’s nothing bigoted about criticizing foreigners who come to America, as long as you target illegal rather than legal immigration. But he was soon followed to the podium by former Sen. Rick Santorum, who targeted legal immigration. After alluding to the usual arguments about border security, Santorum warned the crowd:

But there’s also another threat to our border. There’s another threat on the issue of immigration. And that’s the threat to hardworking men and women in this country who have seen over the last 20 years—both legal and illegal—35 million people come into this country … You want to know why median income has come down? Because … we’ve brought in roughly 35 million unskilled workers to say, “We’re going to compete against you.” And guess what’s happened? Since the year 2000, there’ve been about 6 million net new jobs created in America. Do you know what percentage of those net new jobs are being held by people who were not born in America? Answer: All of them.

Santorum proposed a crackdown on legal immigration of unskilled workers. His proposal, like his diagnosis, earned hearty applause. The next speaker, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, spent much of his speech calling for a border fence. Then came Donald Trump with a cruder pitch: “Mexico? The worst. What they’re doing to us on the border is incredible. It’s incredible. People coming over like a sieve, and they’re taking our jobs.” The audience cheered as Trump promised to slap a 35 percent tax on cars made in Mexico: “We’re not gonna let you come across with the illegals, the cars. We got everything coming across: We got illegals, we got free cars …” He concluded: “I would build the greatest wall you have ever seen. The greatest. You know who’s gonna pay for the wall? Mexico.” The crowd roared.

Every candidate denounced radical Islamists. Some confined their rhetoric to terrorists and extremists who pose a genuine threat. But others challenged Islam more broadly. “Radical Islam is confronting our country,” said Santorum, emphasizing the I-word. He bragged:

I’ve been clear for about the last 10-to-12 years about the threat of radical Islam. I have … even lectured a previous president on saying that this isn’t a war on terror, but it’s a war on radical Islam. Terror is a tactic. Islam is an ideology. And we need to be honest about the American public about what the nature of our enemy really is.

As for ISIS, Santorum counseled simple annihilation: “If these folks want to bring back a seventh-century version of Islam, then my recommendation is, let’s load our bombers up and bomb them back to the seventh century.” That line earned a standing ovation.

In their jeremiads against radical Islam, the candidates emphasized the rights of Christians. “When I see Christians from Egypt and elsewhere around the world shot or beheaded just because of their faith, that’s something I feel right here,” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the attendees, gesturing toward his heart. George Pataki, the former governor of New York, defended the satirical Mohammed cartoon contest that was attacked by jihadists in Texas. “Year after year,” Pataki complained, “We have seen assaults on Christianity in the name of art. Obnoxious shows. But it was always, ‘This is America, freedom of press, they’re entitled to do it.’ Well, let me say this to the leftists in the press: If it’s OK to use art to criticize Christianity … It’s OK to have a conference that criticizes Islam in Texas as well.”

Jindal ridiculed President Obama for suggesting that Christians should be humble in their condemnations of Islam because of Christianity’s own bloody history. If Obama will “hunt down and kill those radical Islamic terrorists,” Jindal quipped, “I’ll be the one that’ll be on the lookout for those medieval Christians.” Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO, spoke of her relationship with Jesus and posed a rhetorical question to Hillary Clinton:

In your first public statements after the terrorist attack that killed four brave Americans in Benghazi, why did you talk to us about the need for religious tolerance? Why do you lecture us on the need to empathize with our enemies while Christians are being beheaded and crucified in the Middle East?

The candidates praised the military, but they often did so in partisan terms. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas portrayed Obama as an illegitimate commander in chief. Cruz bragged about defeating “the Obama Pentagon” on a bill to mandate the Purple Heart for soldiers shot at Fort Hood. He ended with a joke in which an old man repeatedly tells a Marine at the White House that he wants to see Obama. The Marine explains that Obama is no longer president. “I know that,” says the old man. “I just love hearing you say it.” The audience laughed, but Cruz wasn’t finished. In Cruz’s version, the Marine then salutes the old man and tells him with fresh enthusiasm: “See you tomorrow, sir!”

On social issues, the candidates didn’t just repeat their usual lines about abortion and gay marriage. They went after the GOP’s traditional ally, big business, for siding with the sodomites. Cruz blasted “big business” for joining Democrats “to say their commitment to mandatory gay marriage in all 50 states trumps any commitment to the First Amendment.” Jindal decried “the assault … in Indiana and Arkansas,” in which “corporate America joined up with the radical left to bully those lawmakers” who had defended religious exemptions from laws against anti-gay discrimination. The audience cheered as Jindal declared, “I’ll also say this to these corporations that have already told me in Louisiana they don’t want us to pass our own bill protecting the rights of individuals and businesses who support the traditional view of marriage. Don’t even waste your breath trying to bully the governor of Louisiana.”

Mexicans, Muslims, gays, rats, roaches. Christian superiority, military contempt for the president, and gauntlets thrown down to queer-loving CEOs. It’s going to be a long campaign. And it’s just getting started.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 campaign.