Donald Trump is the Prop 187 president
Californians got behind this GOP-backed ballot initiative in 1994. And then the backlash began. The same thing will happen to Trump.
During the 2016 election, many commentators (including yours truly) predicted that Latino voters were going to guarantee Donald Trump's defeat. The Republican Party already had a problem with the country's largest minority group, but nominating a white nationalist who wanted to build a wall on the Mexican border would make that problem even worse. Latinos would surely vote against Trump in huge numbers, propelling Hillary Clinton to the White House.
Obviously, that didn't happen. But that doesn't mean the anti-Trump backlash will never come.
A few months before the election, I had a conversation with a pollster from a firm specializing in analyzing public opinion among Latinos. I asked if we could be seeing a national version of what happened in California after Proposition 187, 1994's aggressively anti-immigrant measure pushed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson. Prop 187 — which was overwhelmingly approved by California's voters — sought to deny illegal immigrants from using state-funded services like emergency health care and public schools. But no sooner had it passed than it began producing a backlash that all but destroyed the GOP as a going concern in America's largest state. Would Trump do the same for today's GOP?
The pollster warned me that it might take time. "People forget that Pete Wilson won (ugly ads and all), and his favored Prop 187 passed too," she said. The backlash did eventually cripple the California Republican Party, but it took some time (and work by Democrats) to develop.
At the time, I didn't take that pollster's warning seriously enough; I was as surprised as everyone else by Trump's victory. But watching what's happening now, Trump is looking more and more like the Prop 187 president. Just as Prop 187 succeeded at the ballot box but then produced years of subsequent Democratic gains in California, Trump is producing an extraordinary backlash that could affect our politics long after he's out of the White House. It wasn't fully formed by the time November 2016 rolled around, but now it is — and if anything, it's getting stronger.
It isn't just about Latinos, though that's certainly a part of the picture. Look at what's happening in Texas, which held its primaries on Tuesday. For years, Democrats have been saying that before long the state would start to turn purple, though "before long" never seemed to come. There is a huge untapped Democratic vote there, if only it could be registered and turned out (among other things, Latinos are about 40 percent of the state's population). Most people didn't notice it, but Hillary Clinton lost the state by only 9 points, a margin that isn't all that close but isn't nearly what Republicans would like in their largest stronghold (as a point of comparison, Clinton won California, the Democrats' most important state, by 30 points).
But something is clearly happening in Texas. In the primaries this year, the number of Republicans casting ballots rose by 15 percent from what it was in the 2014 midterm election, but the number of Democrats voting rose by a remarkable 87 percent. There were still more total Republicans voting, but that looks a lot like a building backlash.
That backlash has another key element: the mobilization of women. We saw it, of course, in the remarkable Women's Marches that happened the day after Trump's inauguration. But reports from everywhere there have been special elections or mobilizations on policy issues in the time since have told the same story: The resistance to the president is being led, planned, and executed by women, many of whom have become activists for the first time. As Joan Walsh wrote in January, "I am here to deliver the sad news that one year in, this presidency is even worse than I had imagined. On the bright side: The woman-powered resistance is more vital and brilliant and powerful than I ever dreamed."
Just as Prop 187 didn't immediately transform California politics as soon as it was introduced, Donald Trump's presidency is taking some time to transform the country's politics. That's because while the proposal (a set of policies or a candidacy) may look awful to many people, it's only once it becomes a reality that they get angry enough to begin putting in the work to roll it back. It's the reaction that reshapes the landscape.
If Trump saves the Democratic Party, it will be because the reaction against him proves durable: The activists who got involved to resist him will keep being activists, many of the record number of women candidates inspired by their anger at him to run for office will get elected and keep making policy, and Trump's party will find it much harder to appeal to the people he alienated.
On the other hand, it's possible that that reaction won't have long-lasting effects. Perhaps all that activist energy will fizzle out. Perhaps in 2024 the Republicans will nominate someone like Marco Rubio who will be able to convince voters that the GOP is an inclusive party.
But while Americans' memories may be short, it's hard to imagine we're going to forget President Trump and what he did for a long, long time. Don't be surprised if he winds up being a drag on Republicans even long after he's gone.