One of the explanations for Donald Trump’s surging poll numbers goes like this: The base doesn’t trust Republican leaders on immigration. The manifestation of this has been support for a man who tells it like it is.
The problem with this is that the immigration schism on the right is largely about rhetoric. Almost everybody agrees we must secure the border, and even the most hawkish anti-immigration reform advocates won’t admit they want to deport the 11 million, or so, illegals. There are differences of opinion on whether to allow for a pathway to citizenship or to legalize them, but almost nobody is advocating for mass deportation.
As such, the real disagreement, it seems, is about rhetoric: Should we talk about immigrants in a way that suggests we believe they are children of God who (in most cases) are seeking a better life for their family — or should we assume most of them are rapists?
Based on Trump’s popularity, there is a market for doing the latter.
Now, suppose you’re a Republican “leader” tasked with winning elections today — and in the future. Demographic shifts suggest that doubling down on white, working class, non-college educated males from rural areas won’t cut it forever.
Putting aside the fact that you might support immigration reform on its merits, wouldn’t it make sense to try to tone down rhetoric guaranteed to turn off segments of the national electorate that are actually growing? (And here, I’m not just talking about Hispanics.) That way you might be able to win elections, finally secure the border, defend the right to life, cut job-killing regulations, etc.
This brings us to some fundamental questions about leadership: Should leaders merely reflect the opinions of their followers, or try to lead them? My take is that, ideally, leaders persuade followers to follow them. But sometimes that doesn’t work. And then we’re left with this: If you’re the captain of a ship, and your most vocal passengers insist you to steer towards something that looks to you like an iceberg, do you do it?