The GOP Is Melting Down About Immigration

This electoral cycle, the Right has been talking nonstop about “the border,” painting an apocalyptic picture of an immigrant invasion threatening to plunge America into chaos. In the process, they’re revealing themselves as scapegoating pseudo-populists.

Former president Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on January 17, 2024. (Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

As front-runner Donald Trump has fought off his challengers for the Republican nomination, and other races play out down the ballot, the airwaves have been filled with political ads. And those ads have been filled with the word “border.” According to a report from the ad-tracking firm Ad Impact, the word has appeared 1,319 times in political ads since the beginning of the year. That’s more than any other word, even “standard disclaimer words” like “approve” and “message.”

As Trump mows through his Republican challengers, he’s already looking ahead to the general election. President Joe Biden makes a good target for Trump’s bizarre, cruel, and frankly often funny brand of insult comedy. During one recent riff on Biden’s cognitive decline, Trump did an impression of Biden trying to fend off a question about immigration at a press conference. Trump’s version of Biden said, while the crowd tittered, that “the border” was “very normal.” To the audience at a Trump rally, it went without saying that the situation at the border is not only not normal, but in a severe crisis.

The Right’s assessment isn’t based on nothing. It’s true, for example, that the system for processing asylum seekers has been severely strained. But as Trump’s GOP works itself into a frenzy on the topic, they’re blowing up this germ of truth into an apocalyptic doomsday narrative. Ads for Ron DeSantis, who was once hailed even by some liberals as a relatively sane alternative to Trump, use the word “invasion” to describe peaceful people crossing the border to escape terrible conditions or look for work. Outside the presidential race, Texas governor Greg Abbott complained that the Biden administration wouldn’t let his state shoot immigrants on sight.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) branding involved a lot of gestures at “America First” anti-interventionism. But Trump himself, the pretenders to the throne he’s brushed off as he walks to the GOP nomination, and many of the most MAGA-branded politicians in Washington have all shown themselves willing to sacrifice any appearance of anti-interventionism in service of their nonstop fearmongering about “the border.” In fact, Trump and his Republican rivals all now seem pretty eager to start a new war now — with Mexico.

Trump has pledged to designate Mexican drug cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and “deploy Special Operations troops and naval forces” to root them out. Vivek Ramaswamy, who gave up being a pretender to the throne to become a top-tier Trump surrogate after the Iowa Caucus, said he would use the military to “annihilate” the cartels. It’s never quite spelled out in these scenarios what the Mexican military would do while the United States was deploying troops on its territory, without its permission, to shoot and bomb Mexican citizens. It’s easy to imagine the situation escalating into a full-blown US-Mexico war. So much for the Trump GOP’s anti-interventionist turn (though, in all honesty, that claim was overblown anyway).

It’s true that many on the Right have criticized US involvement in the war in Ukraine. But their hatred of immigrants sun so deep (and their anti-interventionism so shallow) that they’re now proposing to free up more military aid to Ukraine — in exchange for a package to “to raise the bar for asylum-seekers to come to the U.S., grant additional powers to remove migrants to control the border and restrict the use of parole to admit certain migrants as they await processing for their cases.” Most of the Republican infighting about that deal seems to be about whether the promised crackdown on immigrants would be harsh enough to satiate them.

If all this makes a mockery of the alleged dovishness of Trump’s GOP, it at first glance might seem to support another aspect of the MAGA branding — its alleged economic populism. Competition from unprotected, poorly compensated, and deeply disempowered immigrant workers can indeed drive down wages for native-born workers. It’s also true that drugs smuggled in by those Mexican cartels wreak their most devastating effects on working-class people with few prospects. But a modicum of sustained thought reveals that the GOP’s concern for working-class issues is insincere — and exposes its anti-immigrant saber-rattling as the worst kind of pseudo-populism.

On the drugs question, let’s say the United States under Trump or (by some electoral miracle) a President DeSantis in fact sent the US military to fulfill the most bloodthirsty promises that have been thrown around over the course of the primary. In this scenario, drones or soldiers kill people trying to cross the border illegally, knowing that the vast majority are nonviolent and desperately poor ordinary people moving to the United States in the hopes of improving their lives, because some of them might be cartel members smuggling drugs. The military is sent into Mexican territory to wage war on the cartels there, and somehow this doesn’t lead to a wider war with Mexico. Let’s even stretch our imaginations to assume that this completely leads to the supply of fentanyl from Mexico drying up. Why assume this would solve the larger problem?

A few years ago, only a minority of the US fentanyl supply was coming from Mexico. If the cartels were taken out of the trade, why wouldn’t their market share be snapped up by manufacturers elsewhere? Or why wouldn’t some alternative substance that could be mass-manufactured in the United States pick up the slack? The main issue is not the specific foreign source of the fentanyl supply — it’s the widespread deindustrialization, poverty, desperation, social atomization, and hopelessness that fuels the domestic demand. And on that, the Right has no answers. Trump’s GOP is every bit as hostile to the labor movement, proposals for new social programs, or any other meaningful agenda of redistribution of resources as the party was in the era of Ronald Reagan.

It’s clear that Republicans are itching to deploy a vast federal police agency to hunt down millions of low-income people, cage them, and deport them. If you ask them why, they might say it’s to save native-born workers from having their wages dragged down. But if that were their real concern, they would support more direct ways of propping up wages — like raising the minimum wage, building public works programs to create more good jobs, or changing labor laws to make it easier for workers to organize unions. Trump’s GOP is not in favor of any of those policy changes. On the contrary, the first Trump administration was a four-year orgy of union busting, deregulation, and tax cuts for rich people.

The GOP is right, at least, to highlight domestic problems like drug abuse, public safety, and low wages. But using those problems to fuel the party’s campaign of hate against Mexico and Mexican immigrants is deeply cynical. When it comes to public safety, for example, the United States has long had a higher rate of violent crime than comparably developed nations. That’s an indictment of our neoliberal hellscape of economic precarity, and there’s lots of evidence that even modest social democratic reforms decrease the crime rate. But the problem isn’t “the border.” Our best available evidence shows that undocumented immigrants commit violent crimes at a lower rate than native-born citizens.

The “populists” of Trump’s GOP, in other words, are doing what right-wing pseudo-populists have always done. They’re scapegoating one group of working-class people for the harms suffered by another, and hoping that no one notices that the actual elite are being let off the hook.