As Donald Trump, real estate mogul, TV star and Republican presidential candidate, made a whirlwind mid-July trip around the West in his private, blue-painted Boeing 767 jet, it almost seemed like he was trying to sabotage his own party. This was before he went off on the military record of the GOP icon, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
It’s been 21 years since Trump’s party mate, ex-Gov. Pete Wilson, campaigned for reelection against illegal immigrants, his TV commercials incessantly showing illegal immigrants streaming across the Mexican border at San Ysidro and all but endorsing the anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187.
Wilson was reelected, Proposition 187 passed with a 65 percent vote and California has been solidly Democratic ever since, the difference-maker being 2.5 million legal immigrants who gained citizenship as a self-defense tactic over the next three years. Every poll since then has found immigration is the key issue keeping Latinos in the Democratic column and this state solidly blue.
But the last decade or so has seen some slippage in Latino loyalty to Democrats. Republican ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger twice took more than 40 percent of their vote and surveys have shown Wilson – once complete anathema to Latinos of all ages – is all but forgotten.
But now comes Trump to blare the same sort of prejudices Wilson only voiced by implication. He’s essentially renewed the anti-Latino label Wilson hung on the GOP.
When Trump formally announced his candidacy in mid-June, he said he was running to stop illegal immigrant “criminals, drug dealers and rapists” from entering America. He was aided by the untimely, seemingly random murder of new California resident Kathryn Steinle by a five-times-deported illegal on San Francisco’s Pier 14.
But her murder was an aberration. It turns out the illegal immigrant crime so decried by Trump and others who like to lambaste the almost defenseless undocumented is largely a myth.
The newest U.S. Census and FBI statistics (dating from 2013) show crime rates among Hispanics, citizens or not, are lower than for any other major ethnic group. One reason may be that Latinos fear deportation more than other ethnics, many of whom have legal status because of when forebears arrived here.
Ron Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who in the 1990s came closer than anyone else to knocking off Wilson in a Republican primary, classically compared two cities with very different ethnic makeups in a lengthy article in The American Conservative magazine.
Matching Seattle, one of America’s whitest cities at 70 percent Anglo, with San Jose, 50 percent larger but one-third Latino, he came to this conclusion: “Seattle’s crime rate is indeed low, but the crime rate in San Jose is actually much lower: One third lower for homicide or violent crime in general, with less than half the robbery rate. In fact, none of the most heavily white major cities in America have crime rates anywhere near as low as one-third Hispanic San Jose.”
The evidence, thus, is that Latinos, including the undocumented, are more law-abiding than many of their neighbors, whatever the reason.
Trump’s blathering, then, is completely untrue.
But where the damage Wilson did to the Republican brand among Latinos was largely confined to California, Trump could harm the party far more widely. That’s because as he swung through the West during July, he visited states like Arizona and Nevada, with large numbers of legal Latino residents who have not yet been galvanized into applying for citizenship en masse.
Trump’s rhetoric – which drew huge, enthusiastic crowds, much as Wilson did in 1994 – has the potential to get them started, which could convert not merely those in Arizona and Nevada into registered (Democratic) voters, but also about 3 million latent potential Latino voters in the dead-red Republican stronghold of Texas, last won by a presidential Democrat when Jimmy Carter ran in 1976.
That’s why GOP figures like South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham call Trump a “wrecking ball” for the GOP, one that he plainly hopes will go away. If his party doesn’t resoundingly reject Trump’s views, “we will have lost our way,” said Graham.
But Trump won’t quietly disappear, and if he makes a respectable run in the GOP’s primary elections next spring, he could produce an epic, lasting disaster for his party. Just like Wilson.