GOP created a nativist monster: How radical wingnuts seized the party

From churches to the Chamber of Commerce, pro-immigration Republicans are now under the thumb of loons. Here's why

Published July 1, 2014 4:57PM (EDT)

Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Steve King                              (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Michele Bachmann, Ted Cruz, Steve King (Reuters/Jeff Haynes/Kevin Lamarque/AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Politico ran an interesting article last Friday about the apparent stall of momentum on immigration reform that was assumed to be on the way to a reasonable compromise just a few months ago. It begins, naturally, with an assault on the liberal immigration reform groups for speaking out of turn and making the president angry with their incessant demands. He's quoted as saying “If you take the pressure off of them and put it on me, you’ll guarantee that there is no legislation." Evidently he actually believed that the Republicans would respond to pressure from Hispanic rights groups. (One might have thought that the fact that they wouldn't even respond to pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, Evangelical preachers and even the Koch brothers on this issue would have made it obvious that such activism was quixotic to say the least.)

These activists felt their best chance at pushing the debate would be to push the Democratic Party and the Obama administration because it was where they had leverage. They knew very well that they were an important political faction to the party but nonetheless, having watched other valuable members of the Democratic coalition tread softly upon request, they knew how likely it was that they'd be sacrificed on the pyre of political expediency. So they got in the administration's face.

And it must be noted as well that immigration reform advocates had some legitimate gripes against the administration, which had been deporting more undocumented workers than his predecessor. (These tended to be the most recent and the closest to the border, however, and  those with longer residencies were not being targeted as they had been in the past -- a particular gripe of the nativist right, who believe that ICE raids on longtime residents are perfectly appropriate.) But this blow-up happened at the end of a very long journey to nowhere.

Everyone had cheered when the Senate passed a bill in 2013, even the activists who saw very clearly that the Senate bill's onerous provisions for "border security" would likely result in a major escalation of what is already a highly militarized border. They had waited patiently for further action, so to be lectured by the president didn't sit well. After all, if there's one ethnic group (alongside African-Americans) that understands the visceral opposition of the American right wing, it's Latinos. Some had placed their hopes in George W. Bush and look how that turned out:

“The conservative hosts really did make a crusade,” Mark Jurkowitz, a media researcher with Pew, said. “It’s hard to quantify how many [senators’] votes were changed in 2007, I don’t know. But I do know the talk hosts—and probably no one more so than Rush Limbaugh—are very capable of motivating their listeners to make calls about a certain issue.”


Trent Lott, the Republican Senate whip in 2007, received a lot of those calls from talk-radio listeners. "I've had my phones jammed for three weeks,” he told The Washington Post at the time. “Talk radio is running America,” he lamented after the bill’s defeat. “We have to deal with that problem.”

He didn't mention Fox News, but it had a hand in it too. (How's that "dealing with talk radio" going these days? Maybe Eric Cantor has some thoughts ...)

Anyway, after having made sure to lay plenty of blame on the activists who behaved badly by demanding their rights, the Politico article pivots to the actual miscreants in this story, Republicans of the far right. Whatever political clout Latinos may have with the Democratic Party is nothing to the clout these right-wing Tea Partyers and their close allies, the neo-Confederates, have within the GOP. And they are clear as day on this issue: They do not want comprehensive immigration reform, which almost all of them characterize as "amnesty."

The minute they saw John Boehner making the tiniest of moves toward a compromise bill, they went to work.  Led by right-wing crank Steve King of Iowa, a group opposed to CIR was quickly mobilized. It seems some newer members hadn't been properly schooled in GOP partisan politics:

“The new Republicans in the House and Senate — you know how their mind worked?” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a key senator involved in the effort. “It was, ‘We need to end the lawlessness at the border and build a fence but I love immigrants and I really think we should welcome immigrants and we need more immigrants.’”

“Well, that sounds good on the campaign trail, but few of them had actually read data about we admit a million on a path to citizenship every year, we have 600,000 guest workers in addition every year,” Sessions continued. “Few of them had asked themselves, in a time of high unemployment and slow growth, you want to increase the number?”

Yes, that Jeff Sessions, the man whose racist past was so notorious he couldn't get confirmed for a seat on the federal bench. King's group in the House and a Senate group including Tea Party leaders Ted Cruz and Mike Lee met frequently and bombarded Boehner's annual House GOP retreat with hysterical propaganda when the speaker deigned to release a tepid set of "principles" that might lead to some sort of compromise.

The president nonetheless jumped on Boehner's proposal as the basis for a deal and signaled he would be willing to sign something less than what the Senate had passed -- at which point the Republicans quickly retreated, pretending they couldn't go forward because they "couldn't trust" the president.  That's when the immigration reform activists got testy and demanded that the president take unilateral action. Evidently their tone was more aggressive than the White House cares for. Not that any of it would have made any difference.

The article goes on to explain in great detail all the moves, right and wrong, in this round of debate over immigration reform. Reformers seemed to be persuaded that they had a chance, and maybe there was some brief hope at the very beginning. But it's very hard to see how that could have happened when you look at one simple fact: a majority of Republican senators voted against the Senate bill. The idea that it could have ever gotten through the Looney Wingnut House of Representatives was a very, very long shot.

That group of consistently and mostly conservative Republicans who do not believe there should be any path to citizenship are the most active and energized participants in the GOP.  They are backed up by a media machine that will launch into high gear the minute it looks remotely possible that an immigration deal might actually happen. These are the most active members of the conservative coalition and 73 percent of them believe that "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care."

No one should be too surprised by this. The American right has a long history of racism, xenophobia and nativism going all the way back to the 1830s. These are animating beliefs, the kinds of things that make people get off their couch and get involved in politics in the first place. They are the foot soldiers of the modern conservative movement.

The final quote of the article is a depressing example of Democratic déjà vu:

“Our biggest mistake was that we believed Republicans wanted to change course after the 2012 election,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, who has been working on the issue in Washington for more than two decades. “I don’t believe we will make that mistake again.”

Some Republicans undoubtedly did. It seemed that the GOP leadership did. The Chamber of Commerce did. Some churches did. But they are all under the thumbs of the radical, revanchist right wing to one degree or another. And it must also be noted that those other members of the GOP coalition who spent the last 30 years stoking that faction and feeding its hatred have only themselves to blame. This is their monster.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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