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Biden’s Latin lesson

How Hispanic voters across the country returned historic swings to Trump

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


‘‘The road to the White House runs through Texas,” enthused Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez on a get-out-the-vote zip through the south-east corner of the state two days before last month’s election. Like many predictions of a thumping Democratic triumph, Perez’s stump-speech claim that Texas would turn blue and hand Joe Biden the White House was quickly disproved on election night.

In a closer election than most expected, Biden may have won, but Texas voted for Donald Trump. As the results filtered through, a notable demographic exception to the swing towards the Democrats soon emerged. The candidate we had been told was the embodiment of white identity politics lost support among white voters while gaining ground among members of America’s largest minority. The president of immigration restriction and parent-child border separation won more votes from Hispanic Americans in 2020 than he did in 2016.

And it wasn’t just Miami’s Cuban-Americans and Venezuelan-Americans, perhaps the most vocal cheerleaders for Hispanic Republicanism. Heavily Hispanic counties across the country moved away from the Democratic Party. According to a Financial Times average of exit poll data, Trump gained by eight percentage points among Hispanic voters. Other estimates put the shift in the double digits.

Nowhere was the Republicans’ Latino surge more pronounced than in the poor, heavily Hispanic, traditionally Democratic corner of South Texas

In America’s polarised politics, that is a seismic change. It doesn’t just alter the electoral calculus; it strikes at the heart of both major parties’ sense of themselves, undercutting assumptions about the coalition of voters both parties should be looking to assemble. It also points to something important about the divides that really count in the US, the competing stories the country tells itself, and even what it means to be an American.

Nowhere was the Republicans’ Latino surge more pronounced than in the poor, heavily Hispanic, traditionally Democratic corner of South Texas where Perez had predicted that Biden would carry the state. In a string of economically, socially and politically neglected towns along the Mexican border, Republican support surged. These counties saw bigger swings towards the GOP than swings in either direction anywhere else in the United States.

The most dramatic shift of all was in Starr County, in the Rio Grande Valley, the most Hispanic county in the country, and one of the poorest. More than 95 per cent of the county is Latino. In 2012, Barack Obama won 86 per cent of the vote there. Four years later, Hillary Clinton won with a comfortable 79.1 per cent share of the vote. This year, Joe Biden managed just 52 per cent. Shifts of that scale are almost unheard of, and so, a few weeks after a closer-than-expected election, an unlikely question has national significance: what the hell just happened in Starr County?

***

As you drive into Rio Grande City, the biggest town in Starr County, unpromising-looking farmland gives way to run-down single-storey homes, banners for the high-school football team, cheap fast-food joints and advertisements for ambulance-chasing lawyers.

In other words, driving into Rio Grande City feels a lot like driving into a town in pro-Trump parts of Appalachia. Ignore the background of Rio Grande City’s residents and the proximity to the border, and the town’s economic and social circumstances are similar to those of overwhelmingly white working-class parts of West Virginia, Pennsylvania or Kentucky. The town’s major employers are the school district and the local hospital. Some of the town’s residents work in oil and gas, making the ten-hour drive for well-paid stints in West Texas’s Permian Basin.

Proximity to the border means a lot of residents work for border patrol, customs and the police. Energy and law enforcement: it’s not hard to see why a party that spent the summer debating defunding the police and phasing out fossil fuels might haemorrhage support in Rio Grande City.

As chairman of the Starr County Republican Party, Ross Barrera admits to being something of an unwitting revolutionary. “It was a surprise to me too,” the military retiree tells me when we meet at his home to discuss the result. His family has been here since the 1800s and he describes the area as “very conservative, very Catholic, very family orientated” — and, until 2020, unwaveringly Democratic.

Issues that dominated were Democratic calls to defund the police, threats to the energy industry and, more surprisingly, the unlikely rapport between Trump and the Mexican president

“For the last 120 years the whole Rio Grande Valley has been Democratic,” says Barrera. “People who are Republicans in the Valley don’t talk about it because they are looked down upon. You know when a black Republican gets called an Uncle Tom? It’s the same with us.” But when Barrera opened a Facebook page in the spring, he was pleasantly surprised by the response. “People started defending Donald Trump,” he says.

Modest mobilisation efforts stepped up a gear in June, when a neighbouring town starting holding “Trump trains” — raucous parades of cars decked out in Trump banners and flags that took off across the country this year. Barrera’s fellow Starr County Republicans asked why they weren’t doing the same thing. “I was worried,” he says. “Would we get ten cars? We might be embarrassed. But we decided to do one anyway. We put a post on Facebook and, low and behold, 50 or 60 cars showed up. There were people from the ranches, young kids, older people, people who couldn’t speak any English, first-generation Mexican immigrants.”

Barrera recalls his conversations with voters during the campaign: “I expected somebody to tell me about kids in the cages, the border wall, or ‘Mexicans are rapists’ [a reference to the divisive speech with which Trump announced his 2016 presidential bid]. Nobody mentioned that.”

Instead, Barrera says the issues that dominated were Democratic calls to defund the police, threats to the energy industry and, more surprisingly, the unlikely rapport between Trump and Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Until 2016, Pat Saenz, a 57-year-old handyman and former high-school athletics coach, had always voted Democrat. When he voted for Trump four years ago, he split his ticket, opting for the Democratic candidates down the ballot. This time he voted Republican across the board and helped Barrera with the campaign, distributing Trump yard signs to other freshly emboldened Rio Grande Republicans. “I gave five boxes to state troopers, highway patrol, border patrol, customs,” he says. “They don’t want to be defunded and we don’t want them to be defunded. They take care of us.”

Saenz tells me he was brought up to “respect this great country and respect its great history”. When Saenz goes on holiday to American cities, he says, he always takes pictures of the statues there. “When Black Lives Matter were knocking down those statues, that infuriated people like me who love our country. I’m Mexican-American, but I’m American, you know what I mean?”

***

Support from people like Saenz has senior Republicans excited, not just because of the electoral upside, but also because of the story it allows them to tell voters about their party. On election night, the Missouri senator Josh Hawley — a prominent spokesman for the GOP’s populist wing and widely seen as a 2024 presidential contender — declared: “We are a working-class party now. That is where the future is.” Marco Rubio, the Cuban-American Florida senator who lost to Trump in the 2016 primary, has said the election results point to a future for the party that is “based on a multiethnic, multi-racial working-class coalition”.

This Republican enthusiasm isn’t hard to understand. Those who feared that Trump’s racially inflammatory rhetoric meant a shrinking pool of voters who would consider voting Republican feel a lot better after the election than they did before. As well as the Hispanic surge, Trump seems to have improved his support among black Americans, albeit only slightly and from a low base.

Of course, there’s a risk that Republicans get carried away with their performance among Hispanic voters. Ronald Reagan once said, “Latinos are Republican, they just don’t know it yet.” And yet a majority of Hispanics still vote Democrat, and before Trump the Republican Hispanic vote has fluctuated. In 2004, George W. Bush won around 40 per cent; eight years later, Mitt Romney netted just 27 per cent.

Will Hurd understands the challenges that face Republicans eager to further diversify their voting coalition. A 43-year-old  congressman who is stepping down at the end of the year, he is the only black Republican in the House, where he represents a 70 per cent Hispanic Texan district not far from the Rio Grande Valley. Hurd calls the results an opportunity. “It shows that we can make inroads,” he tells me. “But we have a long way to go.”

He argues that the question Republicans need to answer to make further progress is, “What are you going to do to help me move up the economic ladder?”

He goes on: “Democrats have historically taken voters from communities of colour for granted because of some of the harsher rhetoric in the last couple of decades. Now you see people more focused on economic issues. They want to make sure there is more freedom, which leads to more opportunities. And when Republicans talk about that we can put our policies up against anyone else’s. When you can talk about conservative policies, how they help communities and how they give families opportunities to achieve the American dream, that’s how you’re going to win them.” Hurd says that there are two national takeaways from the election: “Number one, don’t be an asshole. Number two: don’t be a socialist.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic conviction that a rising demographic tide would usher in a generation of dominance has once again been undercut by a more complicated reality. The Emerging Democratic Majority, the title of a 2002 book by the political scientists John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, has become something of a shorthand for this belief that demography is destiny. But Teixeira, now a fellow at the left-wing think tank the Center for American Progress, tells me this is a “completely bowdlerised” version of the argument he and Judis made nearly 20 years ago.

He is not the first author to complain that a nuanced book-length argument has been oversimplified in the political conversation, but in this case the grumbling is justified. In the book, they lay out a demographic recipe for electoral success. The party needed to win “professionals by about 10 per cent, working women by about 20 per cent, keep 75 per cent of the minority vote, and get close to an even split of white working-class voters”.To build that coalition, they argued that Democrats needed to advocate what they called a “progressive centrism” that would keep white working-class voters on board.

However, the kind of left-liberal progressivism epitomised by policies like defunding the police and the wholehearted embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, hasn’t just jeopardised support among white working-class assumptions. Teixeira thinks the election results have exposed an assumption among Democrats that BLM would “have the support not only of black voters but also Hispanic voters, and that all non-white people were united in thinking that systemic racism is what holds us back and America is a white supremacist society. And I just don’t think that is true at all.”

The decisions made by the Biden campaign suggest that they understood Teixeira’s point. The president-elect went to great lengths to distance himself from calls to defund the police, for example. Nevertheless, the broader trend is towards a party increasingly dominated by white college-educated liberals, who Teixeira describes as “probably the most woke constituency in
the United States”.

The mismatch between elite liberal attitudes and the concerns of most Hispanic Americans is perfectly exemplified by “Latinx”, the woke left’s preferred, trans-friendly word to describe Hispanic Americans. Designed to skirt around the gendered Latino and Latina, it makes absolutely no sense in Spanish. Pew polling this year found that just 3 per cent of Hispanic Americans use the term, only one in four had even heard of it and a clear majority opposed its wider adoption.

As for GOP support among non-white voters, Teixeira says that Republicans “still have a long way to go with the Hispanic working class and a really long way to go with the black working class. So it’s a little early to even start pencilling that one in.”

Racial depolarisation is only half of the explanation of the electoral shifts in places such as Starr Country. The other is a broader realignment that was under way before this election, as rural and urban America, as well as college and non-college educated America, drift further apart. One way to think about Trump’s surprisingly strong showing with non-white voters is that what happened among white working-class voters in 2016 happened this year among a significant slice of working-class Latinos and blacks.

Michael Lind, a professor at the University of Texas and the author of The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite, thinks the emphasis on racial polarisation over-generalises a story that is particular to black voters. “The real story is that African Americans are the only group that is polarised along racial lines,” he tells me. “Whites are divided and Latinos are divided as well. So it’s a class thing.” Asian Americans (which may be an even less helpful catch-all term than Hispanic American) are divided too.

Lind argues that for the Republicans to realise their desire to become a diverse working-class party, they must avoid pressure from the party elites to shrink the state. “They were on the verge of becoming this multiracial workers’ party under Reagan, and then probably again under George W. Bush, but their donors insisted that they try to cut social security and Medicare and all these working-class and middle-class entitlement programmes,” he says. “If you had carried out the preferred policies of Republican voters for the last 50 years, then we would have very limited immigration and we’d have a bigger welfare state.”

***

The last voters I talk to before leaving Rio Grande City are four middle-aged women, all Hispanic and all Republican, having lunch together. Norma Lopez dominates proceedings, explaining her journey from Democrat to enthusiastic Trump supporter. “It’s not over until the fat lady sings, and she ain’t sung yet,” she says of the election result in an echo of the president’s refusal to accept defeat.

“I voted for Obama,” she says, “but he didn’t support the military and he never did anything for America. I got this sour taste in my mouth.” After citing gun rights, abortion and policing, she brings up illegal immigration. “We’ve got to think about America,” she says. “We’ve got to stop thinking about all these illegals. Are we ever going to do anything for America?”

Lopez’s hard line proves nothing definitive about the future of the Republican Party. But the remarkable thing about our conversation is how typical it is of the Trump supporters I have spoken to across the country. There is no effort to explain her views in light of the fact that she is Latina. There is no self-consciousness about a Mexican-American sitting a mile from the border taking such a position.

In electoral terms, the Republicans of the Rio Grande Valley represent an opportunity for the GOP. But zoom out from party politics and they represent a welcome rebuttal to the idea that contemporary America is best understood as a clash between threatened whites and discriminated-against non-whites. Thankfully, the country’s politics cannot be understood as a battle between racial blocs.

The results of the election, both in Starr County and nationally, reveal a society that is far healthier and more complicated than many liberal Americans want to admit. It is a place where Hispanics in a working-class border town feel more unambiguously patriotic than white liberals at the top of the pile. And where nothing, including your politics, is predetermined.

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