Opinion

Donald Trump is a complete lunatic on immigration. But he's no crazier than much of the GOP.

He is just the loudest bigot whisperer in the 2016 field

Through the power of his bizarre brand of charisma, Donald Trump has moved from the sideshow to take up residence in the main tent of the GOP circus. And in the process, he's bringing all kinds of interesting issues to light. Even as he is getting dropped by one corporate partner after another (how America will survive without its Trump-branded mattresses is a mystery), he has moved toward the front of the Republican pack, at least for the moment. And while I'm guessing he's surprised that the backlash to his remarks on immigration has been so intense, Trump's repellent views can help us understand the issue and why it divides Americans the way it does.

In case you missed it, during the free-style spoken-word performance that was his announcement speech, Trump said, "When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best...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."

In the days since, he has not backed down. While most Republicans haven't rushed to his defense, he got help from National Review editor Rich Lowry, who wrote in what I guess we could consider a refreshingly candid piece in Politico that "there was a kernel" in Trump's remarks "that hit on an important truth," which is that Mexican immigrants "come from a poorly educated country at a time when education is essential to success in an advanced economy."

As it happens, the truth is that immigrants are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, regardless of what Trump or people like Bill O'Reilly might have you believe. But Trump exposes a particular line of thinking that we don't usually hear from politicians, even as they know it exists and often seek to pander to it in subtle (or not so subtle) ways.

Most of the discussion about immigration is about policy. Are we spending enough on border security? Do we want to build more fences? Can we get the E-Verify system working better? Should undocumented immigrants get a path to citizenship, and how would it work? While all these question are laden with the values we bring to them, they're essentially practical.

Then there's the more fundamental question of how we think about immigration, which is where Trump comes in. At its heart, the question is this: Is immigration good or bad?

Pretty much every Democratic politician, and even most Republican ones, would answer that immigration is good. This is a country that was built by successive waves of immigration from all over the world. America is a land blessed in natural resources and with oceans that have kept foreign invasion to a minimum, but the real reason we have led the world in so many areas is that we're a magnet for immigrants who continually remake the country. Our dynamism — economic, cultural, scientific, and in so many other areas — has always been a product of the fact that we are a society built on constant immigration.

That's both because of who immigrants are and how they change the nation once they arrive. People who are willing to leave the place, people, and language they know in order to seek out a better life for themselves and their children are always going to be the kinds of people we want. They're risk-takers, they're entrepreneurial, they're hard-working, and they're willing to defer immediate gains for long-term success. And when you throw people from diverse backgrounds together, you get a country that is always changing, expanding, and progressing, with new foods, new music, new ideas, and new ways of looking at the world.

That's the pro-immigration perspective. The other perspective fears that they might be criminals, that they'll drain our resources, and that they'll make it harder for native-born Americans to find work. And most of all, it doesn't want our society to change, no matter where its own grandparents may have come from.

You can value immigration and still want to keep it limited, of course. If you asked the Republican candidates to explain their views, this is where almost all of them would say they come down. They want immigration, it just needs to be more tightly controlled.

I have no reason to doubt that this is what they sincerely believe. But they also know that their constituents don't all feel the same way. Lots of them just want to shut the door.

A Pew poll from last month asked people whether they thought that "Immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing, and health care," or that "Immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents." Republicans preferred the first statement by 63-27, while Democrats chose the second statement by 62-32.

If that's an accurate reflection of a fundamental distaste for immigrants — not just undocumented immigrants, but all immigrants — among the Republican electorate, it means the politicians who lead their party aren't reflecting their views. That's true even if the policy solutions Republican candidates propose are extremely hard-line.

Then along comes Donald Trump, who is willing to say forthrightly what a lot of people believe, that Mexicans (currently the largest immigrant group) are a bunch of no-good dangerous criminals, and we need to just keep them out, full stop. The fact that so many corporations are treating him like he has the plague shows that it's one thing to advocate conservative policies on immigration, but rejecting the fundamental premise that immigration is good is something few want to associate themselves with.

But more than a few Republican voters like what they hear. Knowing Trump, he probably won't stop saying it.

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