Large minority of Hispanic voters support Trump’s populism

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WDONALD TRUMP HEN got off his elevator six years ago and was outraged at Mexican immigrant rapists, it was speculated that Hispanic voters were offended. But a short jump across the Hudson River in the heavily Hispanic town of Passaic, Angel Castillo loved what he heard. “Trump stayed real,” the 43-year-old immigrant recalled over a cup of strong Dominican coffee at his small family restaurant, El Primito. “He didn’t say all Latinos are rapists. He said many of those crossing the border are rapists and drug traffickers and he is right.

Although a registered Democrat, Mr. Castillo has decided to vote now Republican. Many of his relatives (some of whom are illegal immigrants) were horrified: “People said you are crazy, you vote for a racist. Yet his wife, mother, brother, sister and teenage daughter followed his example. This places them in the most intriguing, studied and potentially decisive cohort in American politics: Trump’s Hispanic voters.

Their emergence as a major electoral force was the big surprise of last year’s elections. He enjoyed huge turnout from Hispanic voters, helping Joe Biden to victory in Arizona and Nevada. Yet it also featured a pronounced Hispanic inclination towards Mr. Trump. Originally viewed as a localized phenomenon – which cost Mr. Biden Florida and Texas any hope of victory – it turned out to be national. With about 38% of the Hispanic vote, Mr. Trump won a higher share than any recent Republican presidential candidate except George W. Bush, a pro-immigrant Texan, in 2004. last week in New Jersey – including Gov. Phil Murphy’s brush with political death – suggests the change may last.

Passaic City, a decaying factory city where seven out of ten voters are Latinos, helps illustrate this. In 2016, Mr. Trump won 22% of the vote, almost as much as Mitt Romney. Four years of relentless immigrant bashing and racial baiting later, he has pocketed 36%. Mr. Murphy’s Republican challenger, Jack Ciattarelli, appears to have retained that gain; at the end of the count, a third of the Passaic County commissioners could be Republicans.

The overall explanation for this development is suggested by the many alternative cuisines, Mexican, Colombian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican, available a few steps from El Primito. Hispanics are incomparably more diverse than the first waves of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Polish, Hungarian – who transformed Passaic from a 19th-century fur trading post into an industrial center. They also miss the unions that have tied these hordes into the Democratic fold. The assumption that Mr. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric would set Hispanics back in unison took too little account of their differences. While some did, especially young Hispanic college graduates, the extreme polarization of the Trump era pushed others to the right.

Ronald Reagan joked that hardworking, religious, and communist-hating Hispanics were Republicans even though they didn’t know it. In his different way, Mr. Trump hammered home these same issues. He won the love of Cuban exiles in Miami by calling the Democrats socialist. His claim to defend Christianity courted Hispanic evangelicals everywhere. Hector Fernandez, a 69-year-old evangelical minister in Passaic, was another Republican voter for the first time in 2016. More than half of his congregation voted for Mr. Trump last year.

The former president’s good marks on the economy, based on his wealth and claiming to be a genius in creating jobs, also attracted the community. “Imagine coming to America from a poor country and seeing Trump’s name on a building! Said the caring mayor of Passaic, Hector C. Lora, a son of Dominican immigrants. Mr. Trump’s pivot to rage against economic lockdowns after the covid-19 coup has likely increased that advantage. Hispanics typically own small businesses, which have been hit hard by the closures, the mayor noted. They also have reasons for not liking the diktat of the government.

The excesses of Latin politics may also have allowed some Hispanics to ignore Mr. Trump’s fanaticism. “We’re used to vitriolic rhetoric,” says Lora. Still others liked it, as Mr. Castillo illustrates. “Immigrants came here to work,” says the restaurant owner. “Now they come here and go right into government aid just like the other races in this country. You don’t have to be English-speaking or born in the United States to find Mr. Trump’s white nationalism and nativism appealing. And Trump’s Hispanic fans radicalize just as easily as whites. Mr. Castillo is an anti-vaxxer covid who suggests that Mr. Biden’s election was not level.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this development. Republican strategists had viewed Mr. Trump’s chauvinism as incompatible with the growing embrace of diversity that many had recommended after Mr. Romney’s defeat. But it seems not, and for Democrats it looks disastrous.

The decades-long decline of the party in the electorally-critical, conservative white Midwest seems irreversible. Even if he could excise his left-wing fringe – a kiss of death in such places – mainstream liberal causes such as minority, immigrant and reproductive rights there are too toxic for Democrats to move forward. To remain competitive, they must therefore build new strongholds in various states such as Florida and Texas. But, as Mr. Biden’s failures have shown, it forces them to maintain Obama-worthy levels of Hispanic support.

Democratic majority in decline

Harping on immigration reform, the Democrats’ default response, will not succeed. Millions of Hispanics are hardly affected by the issue. Still, it’s hard to identify a liberal approach to the diverse and fractured Hispanic community that would be more popular. Democrats had hoped Hispanics would compensate for the illiberal drift of working class whites. Yet a sizeable minority of them seem to be following the same inexorable path.

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This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the title “Latin hex”

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