Donald Trump’s absurd candidacy for the presidency has obscured the broad-based resentment at continuing levels of immigration and the problems faced by lower income Americans. The decision by successive US administrations to continue either purposely or implicitly high levels of legal and illegal immigration could have been politically sustainable if not for the fact that the present US economy does not deliver for lower and middle-income Americans.
Opposition to immigration from south of the US border is often characterised as being something advocated by very conservative white American voters. However examinations of Trump’s supporters in the primary contests reveals that in ideological terms his supporters are not that enamoured with traditional Republican policies. At the same time that Trump tells audiences that he will deport 11 million people and that Muslim immigrants will be blocked from entering the United States (policies he has backtracked from subsequently) he is promising a suspiciously large box of social democratic measures. These include keeping welfare spending (social security and Medicare) at its present levels and even raising it in the future and hinting that he would favour some type of government-guaranteed healthcare.
Further he has stated repeatedly his opposition to free trade, even going so far as to speculate on re-erecting tariffs. In an interview with Fox News’ host Sean Hannity Trump said that he was not a believer in supply side economics and that he opposed the concept of a flat tax arguing that high worth individuals should pay more in tax.
Trump’s primary opponents attacked him for insincere conservatism but clearly primary voters were not concerned that Trump was not a true blue believer in Reagan and Friedman. Why else would the massive vote for Donald Trump whose economic agenda mirrors Bernie Sanders in many ways (pro-welfare anti-free trade) have eventuated. His supporters have a clearly defined set of economic anxieties for themselves and their children and Trump alone resonated as the candidate that would protect the entitlements they depend on. His vituperative stance on immigration confirmed his emotional connection to this segment of the US electorate.
Trump’s implicit message is that he will protect social security and other programs but he will concentrate their delivery towards US citizens and predominately white Americans. A lot of observers thought that when the Tea Party opposed the Affordable Care Act they were opposed to the principle of state provided healthcare but in reality the US does have such a government healthcare system for people over the age of 65. The Tea Party rank and file and the Trump wing of the GOP benefit enormously from government provided health care and social security and they are seeking to ensure it remains targeted towards themselves. Obamacare was so contentious because it sought to broaden the base of beneficiaries to newer and younger Americans, many of which were foreign born.
New arrivals, especially those from Mexico and Central America are poorer, less educated and tend to work in the less rewarding parts of the US labour force. They benefit from government programs championed by the Democrats and therefore vote accordingly and those currently unable to vote are likely Democratic voters in the future.
The Republican Party has morphed from being a party of predominately middle-class university educated voters who favoured free markets and a smaller state to a party of the white working class vote. What Donald Trump has demonstrated in practice is that the old economic message of the Republican Party is being increasingly viewed with hostility by its base. Their manner of expression should not disguise the fact that they actually want government support and aren’t happy with their current economic opportunities. In his own brash fashion Trump has managed to pose as a conservative Republican while propounding some very un-Republican positions on welfare and immigration. But so much of the conversation focuses on Trumps nationalistic appeals to white Americans obscuring what these voters are actually after.
And this is not a wholly white affair. If you were to ask African American voters are you in favour of high levels of immigration from Mexico or Central America then many progressives might be surprised by the answers. Black Democrats on a number of questions tend to be more conservative than white Democrats, they are more religious, tend to disfavour homosexuality and of course immigration. And why wouldn’t they have concerns about immigration? After all they are more economically insecure and often face long periods in low paid insecure employment with little opportunity for social mobility.
Hispanic immigrants would be their natural competition in an economic setting never mind the cultural tensions that arise in mixed neighbourhoods. Their concerns mirror many of Trump’s white supporters however they are not likely to shift in their allegiance from the Democrats who ensure welfare spending tailored to their benefit. Trumps stance on the recent spate of police shootings of black suspects is also off-putting to black voters and is of more concern to black Americans than immigration. At least for the moment.
Trump’s campaign is pushing back against traditional Republican policy which is pro-mass immigration. Mitt Romney was accused of running on an anti-immigrant platform in 2012 but he still favours increased immigration to supplement the labour market that is already strained at the lower end. You don’t have to accept Trumps candidacy to realise that the concerns of his voters are legitimate and point to real disparities in the American economy and its social fabric.