Published April 20, 2018
Rightly or wrongly, millions of Americans believe President Trump is a racist. Many others who do not go this far think he is prejudiced against Latinos and Hispanics. These perceptions help prevent him from building public support for his program and his presidency. Letting them go uncontested, as he largely has since his inauguration, is a grave strategic error and contributes to Republican problems in the coming midterms. He should use the coming Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo* to begin to undo the damage.
Mexicans comprise the largest segment of both legal and illegal immigration in the United States. More than one in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Mexico—36 million Mexican-Americans live here. While almost 20 percent, or about 7 million, are here illegally, the remainder consists of either native-born or legal immigrants. Deporting every illegal immigrant and building the biggest wall known to man does nothing to change the minds of the 29 million who would remain. Needlessly allowing the perception that he is complacent with insults to their ethnic pride or human dignity is stupid.
This is doubly stupid because Mexicans are a large segment of the aspirational working class that Trumpism seeks to woo. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, more than half of Mexican immigrants have not completed high school. Their median household income in 2011 was $34,000 a year, and they are heavily concentrated in jobs where they work with their hands (construction) or work on their feet (service jobs).
Even native-born Mexican-Americans are still primarily working-class citizens, their households earning on average $44,000 annually. They need protection against unfair competition from abroad every bit as much as their native-born brothers and sisters in the Midwest. They ought to be part of a renewed Republican Party dedicated to the protection and advancement of all workers.
Trump should start his effort to repair relations with these Americans with a Cinco de Mayo speech. Ideally, he would set it in a Mexican-American community, but at this stage that would probably risk serious protests that would undo any good the talk might otherwise encourage.
Instead, he can use a location with strong ties to Mexican-American heritage or one that symbolizes the future he envisions. One of the bridges that link the American city of Laredo with the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo could do. The Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, which commemorates a treaty solving a border dispute between Mexico and the United States, might be even better.
The speech’s theme should be why we need to build an American economy that works for all citizens. He should note how global trade, while contributing to the decline of poverty throughout the world and contributing to growth at home, places millions of Americans of all creeds and colors under stress. As Harvard economist Richard Freeman noted, the collapse of the Iron Curtain combined with the resultant opening of India, China, and other countries to direct Western investment effectively doubled the global labor supply. This must have a negative effect on wages for workers whose jobs could be shifted, in whole or in part, to some of these new countries. In fact, that is what we have seen in America for all too many people.
Trump needs to emphasize that this effect works on all people in America regardless of their skin color or ethnic heritage. Allowed to go unchecked, it means that second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans will face the same insecurity, the same slow wage growth, that those who have lived here longer already face. Replacing “free” trade with “fair” trade that puts Americans first helps all Americans.
The same is true for unrestricted immigration. Immigration from Mexico has slowed greatly over the last decade, but it has been replaced by migrants from even poorer and more unstable countries like Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Securing the southern border with Mexico, even with a wall if necessary, will prevent these illegal migrants from competing with Mexican-Americans for jobs that are created in the United States.
At this point, the president would need to address some of his more controversial comments. This will be the trickiest part of his speech. Rather than apologize, he needs to transcend his prior statements by focusing on what he does believe. He needs clearly to state that most Mexican-Americans, like most Americans, work hard and play by the rules. All the more reason, therefore, to concentrate on securing the border so that those criminals who do come here illegally are caught and deported quickly. This is especially true for criminals convicted of U.S. crimes who then return—their presence harms everyone, especially the legal immigrant in whose neighborhoods these hardened men are likelier to hide.
Trump should then resist two temptations: to either hold up Mexican-American success stories or launch a panoply of programs that will purportedly address the Mexican-American community’s need. Instead, he should focus on how Mexican-American needs are American needs.
All children need great schools and safe neighborhoods. All Americans need a supply of good jobs that people with all levels of education and ability can do. All Americans need to be free of racial, ethnic, or religious prejudice. All Americans are created equal—and he must pledge to continue our nation’s more than 200-year history of bringing the reality ever closer to the ideal. That, and nothing more or less, is what Making America Great Again means.
Here he should move to an open appeal to American patriotism. He should note that 12 percent of America’s active duty servicemen and women are of Hispanic heritage, the vast majority of them of Mexican heritage. The blood they spill in defense of America is equal to that of anyone’s; the courage they show for the defense of a country of which they might not even be a citizen should be admired by all.
During the war against the French, America helped Mexico regain its freedom. Today, we owe our debt to the great-grandsons of those soldiers who help America keep its freedom. Gracias mis valientes hermanos!
One speech surely would not end Trump’s problems, but it would be the end of the beginning for them. Many on the Left would dismiss the speech as puffery, which means the president must follow up with additional words and, more important, deeds.
Some on the fringe Right might view this as some kind of betrayal, but if that outs those who truly do want a white America only, it gives Trump an opening to do what he should have done after Charlottesville: unconditionally condemn race and ethnic prejudice in all forms. If that occurs, he should use Twitter to shame the offender as he did Steve Bannon and others whom he has cast out from his circle. A Twitter tirade would send a clear message to friend and foe alike that the real Trump is speaking, and that economic nationalism is incompatible with ethnic or racial nationalism.
Were Trump to do this, he would be following in the footsteps of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was, for his day, an economic nationalist. He was a Whig, and that meant he was for a protective tariff, for federal subsidies for railroad construction and higher education, and for encouraging migration to the new lands in the Midwest.
Lincoln was not, however, an ethnic nationalist despite his undeniable British heritage. He argued in an 1858 speech that American nationality was determined by recourse to the Declaration’s idea that all men are created equal, for it was through that idea that immigrants not of British stock could write themselves into the nation’s history. The Left departs from the American ideal when it argues that inequality between people—gender, racial, ethnic, or anything—irretrievably defines American public life. And the Right departs from this ideal if it insists that some human beings are, based on their background, or place of origin, equally forever incapable of being American.
Trump’s task is to transcend both heresies, and I believe that in his heart this is what he wants to do. He may not have the depth of understanding or the gift of rhetoric that enables him to do so, but that merely means that those of us who genuinely wish him well in this task must endeavor to supply through our own words and deeds whatever deficiencies that may exist.
Much as Lincoln succeeded by appropriating the founder of the Democratic Party, Thomas Jefferson, to his cause, so too must Donald Trump interpret the symbols of those who currently feel hostility to him if he is to win. Cinco de Mayo is a good place to start.
*May 5 is not, as is commonly presumed, Mexico’s Independence Day. Instead, it commemorates the Battle of Puebla in 1862, where the Mexican army defeated the larger and better-equipped invading French forces. While France went on to take Mexico City the following year and install their puppet, Maximilian I, as Emperor of Mexico, Mexicans battled back to retake their homeland. When the victorious Union was able to begin to send arms and aid after the end of the Civil War, the writing was on the wall. France withdrew, Maximilian was caught and executed, and Mexicans recovered their country.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C. He is also an editor at UnHerd.com where he writes about populism and politics around the world. He is the co-author, with Dante Scala, of The Four Faces of the Republican Party (Palgrave, 2015) and is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism (HarperCollins, 2017).