The revelation of Donald Trump’s 2005 comments about groping women has some Republicans once again pondering ways to try to get him off their ticket. Though they face long odds, I very much hope they succeed. I urged the party to dump Trump at the GOP Convention, when it would have been much easier to do it; perhaps some way can be found even now. But whether Trump stays in the race or not, the problem here goes beyond him and his personality. It also encompasses the dangerous policies he has been advocating.
What makes Trump dangerous is not just his personal character, but his horrendous agenda of European-style big-government nationalism, mass deportations, discrimination on the basis of religion, undermining constitutional rights, trade wars, speech restrictions, and murdering civilians. Barring some dramatic reversal, Trump will not be elected president in November. But even if he leaves the political scene, that agenda may not leave with him.
Some of Trump’s political success has been due to his celebrity status, to his effective channeling of public anger against an unpopular political establishment, and to a desire for “change.” But some also reflects the fact that many of his worst proposals are popular with a large part of the Republican base. The fear and ignorance that Trump effectively exploited could potentially be used by other politicians and demagogues seeking to follow in his footsteps.
To take only the most obvious examples, many Republicans agree with Trump’s calls for mass deportations, for discrimination against Muslims, and for a protectionist trade policy. It is no accident that Trump’s campaign first took off after he made the notorious speech denouncing Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists.” The speech was effective in part because over 70% of Republicans agree with the claim immigration increases crime, and do not know that social science research consistently shows that immigrants (including Mexican immigrants) actually have much lower crime-rates than native-born citizens.
Such misperceptions helped make the GOP susceptible to Trump’s demagoguery in the first place. And he may not be the last demagogue to exploit them. Preventing such a recurrence is just one of several reasons why many conservatives would do well to rethink their highly restrictionist position on immigration, which is deeply at odds with many of their other professed principles, such as commitments to free markets, color blindness, and constitutional originalism. In the vast majority of cases, conservative fears about immigration are either overblown or can be addressed by means less draconian than walls, deportations, and other similar policies.
Overcoming the Trumpist agenda is likely to prove a more difficult challenge than repudiating one badly flawed presidential candidate. Sadly, Trump is just the most prominent manifestation of the xenophobic nationalism that has gained ground in the United States and many European countries in recent years. That movement and the policies associated with it pose a serious threat to the freedom and well-being of native-born Westerners as well as immigrants. The struggle to counter this growing menace will not be an easy one. And it is may well continue long after Trump’s increasingly likely defeat.