Donald Trump embraced his role as a radical nativist from the very beginning of his presidential campaign. Whether it was a conscious strategic decision or a product of his substantial populist instincts is almost beside the point. It was certainly counterintuitive, though, at least from the perspective of the Republican Party’s more centrist wing, which had determined, after Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, that the future of the GOP depended on courting the Latino vote through, among other things, a more moderate stance on immigration. Trump took those calls for moderation and threw them out the window. Instead, he gleefully approached the most radical anti-immigrant voices in the conservative movement and carried out a narrative coup. Nativism—the irrational scapegoating of immigrants, of foreigners, of the other—has engulfed the Republican Party’s mainstream agenda and seems to have taken hold of the conversation among its voters.
A recent Pew Research Center poll offers a chilling example of just how skillful Trump has become at exploding his base’s worst impulses and most groundless fears. The poll asked both potential Republican and Democratic voters to identify which issues in the national conversation were “a very big problem” for the United States today. The list of options was long and thorough. Those polled could choose between real challenges for the country like inequality, drug addiction, racism, gun-related violence, ethics in government, or health care access. Those who said they would support a Democratic candidate in next month’s midterm elections chose health care (83 percent) and gun violence (81 percent), and ethics in government (80 percent). Seventy-five percent of Republicans went with … illegal immigration.
The poll is evidence of Trump’s resounding success in pushing the nativist narrative among Republicans. The administration’s emphasis on the supposed multiple risks of illegal immigration has brought the issue to the fore in an increasing number of congressional races in which the debate over sanctuary cities and border enforcement has overshadowed discussion of the country’s economy, or other issues that might have driven the conversation among Republican voters before Trump burst onto the scene.
Most of all, though, the Pew’s poll results are disturbing because immigration is not one of the country’s most pressing problems. Not by a mile.
Consider two of the options that Republican voters chose to dismiss—inequality, for example. With wage growth stagnant, income disparity in America is rising at an alarming rate. The gap between the 1 percent at the top of the county’s income ladder and the 50 percent at the bottom couldn’t be more dramatic. As David Leonhardt has explained, social mobility for low-income Americans has become a fantasy (for the rich, though, living in the United States is quite fantastic). The economic, social, educational, and psychological effects of income inequality are well-known and dramatic. Still, only 22 percent of potential Republican voters identified it as a big problem for the United States.
The list goes on. Drug addiction claims tens of thousands of lives in the United States every year. The number of fatal overdoses has grown exponentially over the last decade and a half: synthetic opioids alone killed 30,000 Americans in 2017. And yet, fewer Republican voters thought of drug addiction as a big problem for the country than illegal immigration. Then there’s gun violence. Even though thousands of Americans are killed every year in gun-related attacks, including the country’s horrendous and recurring mass shootings, a mere 25 percent of Republican voters identify that issue as a “big problem.” Other perhaps less tangible but equally urgent matters, like climate change and how minorities are treated by the country’s criminal justice system, seemed to concern just around 1 in 10 Republican voters.
And what about immigration? The country’s immigration system does present a formidable set of challenges. The backlog of immigration cases in the courts has reached scandalous numbers in the last few years. Legislative paralysis has condemned millions of undocumented immigrants to a fretful limbo, including 800,000 DACA recipients. The administration’s zero-tolerance policy has become a humanitarian crisis and an international embarrassment. And yes, gangs like the MS-13 are dangerous. Still, there is no evidence to support the idea that illegal immigration has become an urgent problem for the United States, much less a national security emergency. As pro-immigration advocates have repeated ad nauseam, various studies suggest that immigrants are considerably less prone to engage in criminal activity than native-born Americans. Take the MS-13. The gang, which originated in the street of Los Angeles, is indeed brutal and merciless, but its numbers throughout the country are far lower than other, similar criminal organizations. Furthermore, despite the administration’s claim to the contrary, the number of recent immigrants from Central America who have been identified as members of the MS-13 is actually quite low (228 in 2017, for example).
Immigration is also not the economic scourge nativists claim it is. On the contrary: Various industries would collapse in the United States without the reliable low-skilled workforce long provided by undocumented immigrants. More than one-quarter of the nation’s farming, fishing, and forestry is done by undocumented workers. Construction? Thirteen percent; 25 percent if you include legal immigrants. Almost 4 in 10 plasterers and stucco masons, for example, are undocumented. Even the impact of low-skilled immigrants on wage depression, long a talking point of anti-immigrant activists, seems to be overblown or outweighed by the practical economic benefits of their work. The problem with low-skilled immigrants to the United States, then, is not some imaginary threat to national security, but rather that the country hasn’t found a way to have a more reliable legal influx of it.
Only the success of the president’s nativist rhetoric explains the disparity between these facts and Republican voters very active and wholly irrational fears of illegal immigration. With the help of conservative news media (Fox News has played its usual dutiful role in amplifying the president’s prejudices), Trump has convinced a large swath of the country’s electorate of the existence of a foreign-born bogeyman. In doing so, he has doubled down on xenophobic fears that, while not new to the American experience, have never really threatened the stability of the nation’s social fabric. They do now. Among Republican voters at least, Donald Trump’s nativist narrative is indeed winning, and that’s a tragedy for us all.