If presidential candidate Donald Trump intended to walk back the racist terms he’s used to describe Mexican immigrants, last week’s Republican presidential debate was his opportunity.
He quickly made clear that wasn’t his plan.
To review, when announcing his presidential campaign in June, Trump said Mexican immigrants were disproportionately criminals.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said back in June. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
He stuck with the claim during last week’s debate, arguing that American politicians are too stupid to know what’s really going on.
“And the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning,” he said during the Fox News debate. “And they send the bad ones over because they don’t want to pay for them. They don’t want to take care of them.”
Offensive as Trump’s comments may be, they follow a lineage of “racially divisive appeals” used in Republican presidential campaigns that draws its roots from the “Southern Strategy,” in which the GOP successfully wooed southern white Democrats by exploiting their anti-black animosities.
According to a Kinder Institute study by Jessica Brown, an assistant sociology professor at University of Houston, the last two election cycles have seen the emergence of a “Southwestern Strategy”: a contemporary tactic in which racially divisive appeals instead exploit nativist resentments against immigrants.
Have GOP presidential hopefuls of the last two election cycles continued to rely on “racially divisive appeals,” and have those appeals shifted from a focus on black-white tensions to a focus on new minority populations caused by immigration?
What Previous Research Has Shown
Researchers Dan Carter and Joseph Lowndes documented the way in which the Republican Party came to dominance in the American South, in part by exploiting black-white tensions. The strategy began with openly white supremacist language by a party that recognized it couldn’t survive alone on the votes of elites, then grew more coded and subtle – using terms like “forced busing” or “welfare queen” – as civil rights gains made direct racial appeals untenable.
But contemporary anti-immigrant discourse has focused on Latinos, as found by David Dietrich in a 2011 study. This is partly because Latinos have become the country’s largest minority group, as of the 2012 Census, but also because Hispanics and other non-black minority groups have resisted the “hyper segregation” in which black people now live in many American cities. Hispanic children account for 20 percent of suburban public schools. In other words, they’re more visible – and thus make more a more effective target.
So-called “backlash voters,” in response to these trends, are susceptible to the idea the American sovereignty and security are at risk, as are the political and cultural status of Caucasian, English-speaking residents.
The Study and Findings
Brown, the University of Houston researcher, broke “racially divisive appeals” into three types.
- Those that frame minorities as threats to dominant group resources.
- Those that frame minorities as threats to dominant group safety.
- Those that frame minorities as a threat to dominant group political or social hegemony.
She notes that such appeals are in no way exclusive to the GOP, historically or contemporarily, but she limits her study to the use in recent GOP presidential campaigns because the modern Democratic Party is more racially diverse, and therefore racially divisive appeals are a worse strategy for them.
The study also focused on the GOP because in 2005, the Republican Party chairman apologized for the Southern Strategy in a speech to an NAACP branch. Brown wanted to see if the apology signaled a change in behavior.
She pulled primary and general election debate transcripts from the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 election cycles. Each racially divisive appeal was considered a unique utterance, even if the candidate repeated it throughout the election, and contradictory statements would not “cancel out” previous ones.
She defined a “racially divisive appeal” as “any statement that appeals to, or stokes, racial resentment among backlash voters, justifies discriminatory or punitive treatment toward a minority group, or presents members of that group in a stereotyped or demeaning fashion.”
Among the 42 primary and eight general election debates, there were 1,231 uses of racially divisive appeals.
Far from moving away from the use of (racially divisive appeals) in the last two election cycles, this analysis suggest that some GOP presidential candidates are still mobilizing voter support by appealing to racial anxieties, animosities and tensions.
However, it also appears that, within this rhetoric, immigrants have largely replaced blacks as the focus of these rhetorics. Undocumented immigrants, usually understood to be Latino, have become the primary face of the demonized welfare abuser.
The GOP’s history of motivating backlash voters with appeals to fears of blacks has been replaced instead by appealing to their concerns with the country’s growing Latino population.
This can be attributed to multiple things. For one, in both elections, Republicans faced a black candidate, potentially complicating the use of black racial appears. Blacks may be seen as a less salient threat, largely because Latinos are now the largest non-Caucasian group in the country, and their population continues to grow quickly.
Lastly, unlike large segments of the black population, Latinos are not relegated to living in blighted cities and are instead integrated into the daily lives of would-be backlash voters.
Brown’s study was written before Trump’s campaign. But it suggests that, far from having stumbled into an offensive gaffe for which he’ll soon apologize, Trump may have instead arrived at a successful political strategy:
Insofar as they are not tucked “out of sight and out of mind” in rotting city centers, the foreignborn may present backlash voters with a more visible reminder of the continually changing demographics of the American electorate and thus may have become a more convenient target for politicians willing to use racial division as a tool to win political power.
The “Southwestern Strategy:” Immigration and Race in GOP Discourse | Jessica Brown, University of Houston.