Government & Politics

The Serious Side of the Donald Trump Phenomenon

Immigrant resentment has built among Americans who feel left behind.

November 02, 2015

| by Neil Malhotra Yotam Margalit



A supporter holds a sign for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump | Reuters/Scott Morgan

While watching the Republican presidential rivals compete to stoke fears about immigration, from talk of “rapists” and “anchor babies” to calls for walls and mass deportation, it is startling to remember how much Republicans and Democrats have switched places in the past 30 years.

During a GOP presidential debate in 1980, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush competed over who could be more sympathetic to immigrant workers.

“Rather than putting up a fence,” Reagan declared, “make it possible for them to come here legally with a work permit.” And from Bush: “We have made illegal some kinds of labor that I would like to see legal. … We are creating a society of really honorable, decent, family-loving people that are in violation of the law.”

Up through the 1980s, Republicans were the pro-immigration party. Republicans were primarily the party of business, and business groups favored immigrants as a source of low-wage, non-union workers. Support for immigration also meshed nicely with conservative bromides about America as the land of opportunity.

Democrats, by contrast, reflected the clout of organized labor and tended to view immigration as a big-business plot to depress American wages and undermine unions.

Today, it is Democrats who rise to the defense of Hispanic immigrants and support a “path to citizenship” for undocumented workers. Part of that stems from the decline of manufacturing unions, which had much to fear from both non-union immigrants and offshore outsourcing. Today, labor unions draw their fastest growth from hotel workers, janitors, and other service workers — many of them immigrants. And outside organized labor, Democrats see the burgeoning number of Hispanic voters as a major competitive advantage.


The media coverage of Trump’s campaign has largely been a source of entertainment. But this masks profound, underlying rifts.
Neil Malhotra and Yotam Margalit

What’s clear right now, however, is that visceral feelings about immigration are part of a deeper rebellion against the elites of the Republican Party.

For all of the crass cynicism and demagoguery of Donald Trump’s rants against Hispanic immigrants, it’s important to recognize that he is tapping into a deep vein of bitterness from people who feel left behind.

This is only partly about immigration. It is also about a broader but vaguer frustration that stems from economic stagnation for all but a narrow slice of the nation’s most well-educated and well-connected workers.

Average Americans haven’t felt good about their economic situation for decades. Adjusted for inflation, median family incomes have been flat-lining, and real incomes in the lower brackets have actually declined. Between globalization and new technology, almost all the gains in prosperity have gone to people at the very top of the income ladder. Inequality has risen, job security has declined. Scores of traditional occupations have either disappeared or been outsourced to low-wage nations.

Immigration is certainly not the only reason, or even the main reason, for these troubles. In fact, the balance of economic research indicates that immigration is a net plus for the economy.

But immigration, like globalization in general, creates losers as well as winners. Those losses are cultural as well as economic. People see jobs disappearing and wages falling, as well as changes in their neighborhoods and cities. They find themselves increasingly surrounded by people who don’t speak English and don’t follow the same traditions. For some, it feels like a threat to their way of life and to the character of the America in which they grew up.

These Americans do not represent a majority of voters, or even a majority of Republicans. But they are a significant share of voters who do not see anybody in leadership looking out for their concerns. And they are right. Republican and Democratic presidents alike have successfully championed a series of free-trade deals, for example, without passing meaningful measures to soften the disruption for globalization’s losers. It’s fascinating to note that Tea Party groups have clashed with GOP party leaders for their support of the Pacific Rim trade pact — another issue on which populist Republicans are flouting Republican orthodoxy.

Is it any wonder that millions of Americans think that both parties have ignored their needs and catered to the elites? If resentment toward the establishment was simmering before the financial crisis, it undoubtedly escalated for many people as they watched Wall Street rebound with huge help from the government.

This anger explains why Donald Trump gets so much traction by demonizing illegal immigrants, even though he outrages the GOP establishment.

The anti-establishment rebellion reached a new high with the crack-up of the House Republican leadership. Even though Rep. Paul Ryan has been picked to succeed John Boehner as House Speaker, he came under attack from parts of the right. Among the complaints against Ryan: his support for immigration reform and for the Pacific Rim trade deal.

The media coverage of Trump’s campaign has largely been a source of entertainment. But this masks profound, underlying rifts. You may or may not think of Donald Trump as a serious candidate, but it would be a big mistake to belittle the seriousness of the concerns driving his support.

Neil Malhotra is a professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business and Yotam Margalit is a professor at Columbia University and Tel Aviv University. This column was written with Edmund L. Andrews.

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