The GOP's xenophobia primary: Why the Republican candidates are rejecting immigration -- and their best shot at the White House

You'd think a party interested in winning back the executive branch would want to, you know, get new voters

By Heather Digby Parton


Published May 22, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/Reuters/David Manning/Jacquelyn Martin/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/David Manning/Jacquelyn Martin/J. Scott Applewhite/Photo montage by Salon)

One of the most enduring political establishment tropes of the last two decades is the one which says that the Democratic presidential candidate must, at some point, do what Bill Clinton did back in 1992 and "Sistah Soljah" the base. This requirement stems from the assumption, still widely held in Washington, that left of the Democratic party is wildly out of step with the country and in order to win the candidate must repudiate that part of the party lest he or she be tagged as an extremist. You'll recall that this refers to a speech Clinton made to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition convention in which he took the rapper  known as Sistah Soljah to task saying:

If you took the words “white” and “black” and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech…. We have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice whenever we see it.

He was applauded for being brave enough to risk the opprobrium of African Americans who were seen as having a chokehold on the Party, what with all their welfare using and crime causing. Clinton's bold repudiation of the Soljah Strawman was widely seen as a necessary corrective for the Party and was in keeping with Clinton's New Democrat agenda. It thrilled the punditocracy and it became a matter of necessity for any serious Democratic candidate to find a way to tell off liberal voters in order to "move to the center."

However, as the Republicans really have become trapped by their most extremist voters, there have been very few calls for them to "Sistah Soljah" any part of their own base even if it would mean expanding their ability to win national elections. Ex-Bush official Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner wrote a piece called "How to Save the Republican party" a while back in which they referenced Clinton's tactic but they don't explicitly point out any area in which the GOP could confront and insult a particular voting bloc to signal their "bravery" and willingness to take on the "special interests" in their own party. They write that the GOP should moderate its views on science and gay marriage but they don't suggest that candidates give speeches denouncing creationists and religious leaders. They just say everyone should be more "inclusive," which is awfully nice.

And certainly we have not heard anyone in the mainstream chattering classes suggesting that in order to get elected, the Republican candidates must show up at NRA conventions and religious gatherings and insult their true believers to their face. The right-wing extremist factions are still afforded tremendous respect as full-fledged members of the body politic and no Republican candidate is being asked to put them in their place so that the rest of the country will be reassured that the inmates aren't running the asylum.

That's probably a good thing. We only have two parties in this country and they are, by definition, coalitions of various interests. Asking politicians to insult certain members of their coalition in order to please people who will otherwise vote for the opposing party doesn't make a lot of sense.  But nonetheless, perhaps someone should whisper the Republican candidates' ears that they might want to think about getting the word out to the anti-immigrant faction of the Party that they should ixnay on the ativism-nay if they ever want to see a conservative president in the White House again. The numbers don't lie and they have a major problem on their hands if they don't do something about it.

After all, it's not just that Hispanic voters will vote for the Democrats. It also means that people who are not xenophobes will find this aggressive hostility distasteful --- and vote for the Democrats. It's one of the most ugly and divisive issues in our politics and the ugliness and division is coming only from one side. Take, for instance, the great giant slayer David Brat who unseated the House majority leader Eric Cantor in a primary last year. It was taken as an article of faith among the mainstream media that this was the result of populist anger at Washington and Cantor's distance from the voters. But in reality it was about immigration, and it caught the attention of the national right wing hate radio circuit, which is as anti-immigrant as it comes. I wrote on this site about Brat and his talk show host fans last year making that case, and just this week my Salon colleague Elias Isquith caught up with Brat, who has not missed a step:

During an appearance on a Virginia right-wing radio show last week, Brat shared the story of how he helped defeat an amendment to allow Dreamers to enlist. “I wanted to stand up and shout,” Brat said, referring to how he felt when the amendment’s supporters talked about the Dreamers’ patriotism. “I mean, ISIS is willing to serve in our military as well,” he added. According to Professor Brat, the proposal was reminiscent of nothing so much as the downfall of the Roman Empire: “[P]art of the reason Rome fell,” he explained, “is because they started hiring the barbarians … to be troops in their own army.”

He actually ran on the platform of keeping DREAMers out of the military. This interview with Laura Ingraham before the election couldn't have been more explicit:

Laura Ingraham (sarcastically): Are you a man who would separate a child from her mother or father and isn’t that a hard-hearted approach and a way that you’ll never grow the Republican Party or the conservative base. I mean it’s so mean.

Brat: You hit it on the head, that is the crux of the issue and Eric Cantor is acting exactly like Obama and the Democrats basing public policy on emotion rather than reason. Just for starters, “making life work?” I mean the day you think the federal government and Caesar should make your life work, you’ve got a fundamental problem on your hands and you need to go re-read history books. Whenever you trust the federal government, federal governments do not love, they are incapable of love, so this emotional pitch that Caesar is going to take care of children is just completely irrational. Our founders knew much better. They wanted a contest of 50 states. And on the point you make about the passage of this great founding principle that children should not be punished, does that apply to all children across the globe that they somehow receive a right to be US citizens? And if that were true, that would mean all future DREAMers have a right to amnesty as every immigration law is bypassed and permanently void if you follow Eric’s logic...He wanted to put illegal immigrants into our military, which makes no sense. You’ll have non-citizens in one of the most key positions in our society, serving in the most honored spot.

In this presidential cycle, despite the inclusion of the Cuban-Americans Rubio and Cruz, or Jeb Bush, who is married to a Mexican-American immigrant and speaks fluent Spanish, all the presidential candidates are having a terrible time trying to finesse that xenophobic base (and there's no other way to characterize the David Brat faction of the GOP) with their electoral needs.

The New York Times reported today what we've already seen, which is that rather than moving to the center, the presidential candidates have been becoming more and more extreme on this issue. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has done the most dizzying turnaround from his earlier position -- that comprehensive immigration reform "makes sense" -- to declaring that we should not only close up the borders but also stop the flow of legal immigration. But none of them have moderated their stands on the issue. Perhaps the two Hispanics and the man married to one are depending on that loathed "identity politics" to get them over, but so far, the party seems to be forcing them further to the far right's position in which the only answer is "border security."

Rubio was rather honest this week when he explained what's going on:

“You also have to deal with the reality that in the political process, people are going to vote based on what they’re hearing from their constituents and others. And that’s what I’m basically saying, is the votes are not there for comprehensive immigration reform.”

This would certainly seem to be one very obvious area in which a Republican could Sistah Soljah their own party for the greater good. I wonder why nobody in the mainstream press is demanding it? Why he could even call out country singer Ray Stevens for his revolting anti-immigrant song called "Come to the USA". He could even end his speech with Clinton's admonition: "we have an obligation, all of us, to call attention to prejudice whenever we see it."

Yeah, come to the USA.

There’s no penalty to pay
Should you get caught illegally immigratin’

Come to the USA.
It will be your lucky day
‘Cause when you get in there’s lots of goodies waitin’

Like health care, welfare, free education,
Help with your voter registration
And drivers license and credit cards
And license plates for your old car.

Lots of jobs for you to do
And employers who’ll turn a blind eye, too.
Come to the USA!

No need to worry about the Constitution.
We’ll help you start a house of prostitution
If that’s the kind of work that you wanna do
You see, those gringo infidels are crazy.
They’ll give citizenship to your new baby.
So, you see, there’s really only one choice for you.

I won't hold my breath for any of the GOP candidates to take that on. It should be easy. Those lyrics are a lie.

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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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Elections 2016 Immigration Jeb Bush Marco Rubio Scott Walker Ted Cruz The Republican Party Xenophobia