EDITOR’S NOTE: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
For Latino Republicans, their presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, places them in a difficult position. Liberal and Leftist Latinos since the 1960s have asserted that Republican politicians and policies are racist. The Latino Left has argued, persuasively in many cases, that where some Republican policies are not intently racist, their outcomes usually are. Latino Republicans, on the other hand, have countered those arguments.
They have continued to maintain that conservatism is not racist at all. They believe that their policies have the emancipatory potential to provide Latinos socioeconomic mobility and success without government dependency. They have maintained that their policies do not create structural racism, but instead create a level playing field where individuals may compete to achieve individual successes. Republicanism for them does not build exclusionary structures, but breaks down burdensome regulatory frameworks. Ultimately, lowering the cost of entry into the market, lowering the cost of taxes, lowering the cost of goods will help working-class Latino families.
Rarely do Latino Republican operatives and consultants mention the historical political strategy of playing upon racial anxiety and antagonism. They try to minimize it by saying it’s an outlier or the product of working-class disaffection. But Trump not only disrupts this narrative, his explicit racism destroys it. His campaign sets back nearly four decades of Republican outreach to the Latino community. While the Never Trump forces have dwindled, Latino Republicans continue the battle. Their words and actions are more telling of the future of the Republican Party. And for the most part, their message is clear: ¡Nunca Trump!
Since the Nixon Administration, there has been an influential group of Republicans who have reached out to the Latino community. As demographics shifted in the second half of the 20th century, Latinos became the focus of Republican outreach. Ronald Reagan hired Lionel Sosa, a marketing strategist from Texas, to craft his message to Latinos. Sosa helped Reagan win 35 and 37% of the Latino vote in 1980 and 1984 respectively. Sosa continued to work closely in George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign, and in both George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. George W. Bush’s campaign set the standard for Latino outreach. In an interview with Victor Landa of NewsTaco, Sosa told the story of how Bush doubled Sosa’s budget request and gave unprecedented access to Spanish language news sources and reporters. His strategy paid off and Bush received 40 – 44% of the Latino vote, depending on the poll.
Sosa in many ways was the grandfather of Latino Republicanism. He believed that most Latinos were Republicans but they just didn’t know it. It was his job to show them how their interests aligned. And, he was relatively successful for three and a half decades. But, just last week in a San Antonio Express-News editorial titled “Farewell, my Grand Old Party,” Sosa left the Republican Party because of Trump. Quoting Regan, Sosa declared that his party had left him, turning its back on fundamental beliefs in inclusion, hard work, low taxes, and opportunity. Instead, “the party promotes a new and bigger wall. A thousand points of light has been replaced by a thousand points of anger. In place of compassionate conservatism, our nominee promotes callousness, extremism and racism. And instead of a unifier, the party now cheers the ultimate ‘us against them’ proponent. Divisiveness incarnate.” Sosa wrote. While presidents Eisenhower and Regan “sounded like [his] dad,” espousing similar conservative values, Trump sounded like a “lunatic.” After having a hand in nearly every major Republican election since 1978 to 2008, because of Trump, Sosa could not support the Republican Party.
Linda Chávez served as Regan’s White House Director of Public Liaison and as the Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Under George H.W. Bush, she was the Chair of the National Commission on Migrant Education. She worked with George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, helping to craft his immigration policy. Bush would also nominate her as Secretary of Labor. Chávez’s commitment to the Republican Party comes with the fervor of a convert. Her 2003 autobiography, An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal (Or How I Became the Most Hated Hispanic in America) tells the story of her conversion from labor leader to Reagan appointee and Bush nominee. In her other books, like Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, she rails against policies like affirmative action and bilingual education that keep Latinos in a state of government dependency. After her ideological transformation, the policies and philosophies of the left were not aimed at creating eventual equality but creating perpetual poverty.
Chávez is not a moderate. She thought George H.W. Bush too moderate and considered his policies a “disappointment. In 2000, she worried that George W. Bush would be too moderate, like his father. Yet when it comes to the issue of immigration, Chávez shows she can work with moderate and liberal groups. When she was asked to head Bush’s task force on immigration in 2000, she opposed excessive restrictions and discriminatory rhetoric. In fact, Chávez was one of the earliest critics of Donald Trump’s anti-Mexican remarks in the summer of 2015.
In July of 2015, Chávez penned an article for the National Review titled “Conservatives, Quit Defending Trump.” She wrote “Donald Trump’s outrageous comments about Mexican immigrants in his announcement speech two weeks ago should have been an occasion for conservatives to say that we have no room for bigots in our midst.” She ardently defended Mexican immigrants and immigrants in general as hardworking, non-entitled, and non-entitlement seeking leeches. While they were poor, they were productive. Instead of hateful rhetoric and walls “conservatives’ goals should be dismantling the most destructive elements of the welfare state itself. Stopping immigration won’t accomplish that.” She added, “As for the Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants already here, the notion that we don’t need them flies in the face of everything we conservatives believe about the role of the free market. They come here to work—not get welfare—and they fill important niches in our economy.”
She has continued to criticize Trump since that first article. In October of 2015, she wrote another article titled “Donald Trump’s America,” where she outlined the racist paranoia and factual errors with Trump’s worldview and policy solutions. In a detailed and informed essay, she laid out the history of Mexican immigration, immigration to the U.S., and the paranoid and problematic organizations that shaped Trump’s immigration policies.
In March of 2016, Chávez revealed that she would never vote for trump. Her article, “Why I will Never Vote for Trump,” lambasted Trump not only as a racist demagogue with dictatorial affinities, but an actual threat to the nation. He represented such a fundamental threat that it was not only her partisan duty but patriotic obligation to resist a Trump presidency. She explained:
“I vote for the candidate who best represents my principles—and since 1980, that has been the GOP nominee. I haven’t always been enthusiastic about my choices, but I have at least been confident that on the big issues, the Republican nominee would keep American safer and more prosperous than the alternative. I cannot say that about Donald Trump, who, I believe, is a danger not only to the principles I hold dear but to the nation I love. I have heard nothing from him that suggests he has either a basic understanding of our constitutional system or minimal knowledge about domestic or foreign policy…. I and others who will never vote for him are no traitors; we are patriots who love our country more than we do any political party.”
Chávez’s rejection of Trump and her refusal to vote for him has not forced her from the party yet. Chávez is no middle-of-the-road, mild-mannered, moderate; she is a staunch Republican who finds Trump at fundamental odds with the values of her party. This is telling.
The Compassionate Conservative
Leslie Sánchez served as a spokesperson at the Republican National Committee, where in 1999 she helped develop a new Latino outreach plan. After the failures of the 1996 election, where Bob Dole received a miserable 21% of the Latino vote, the RNC wanted to win a more significant share of Latino votes. Sánchez, in conjunction with Sosa, Frank Guerra, and Mike Madrid set out to transform the Republicans’ Nixon-era “southern strategy” into a 21st century “Hispanic strategy.” Using a survey of 2,200 Latino voters, the team aimed at making the Republican Party more receptive to the needs of the Latino community. This included the first-ever Republican program to distribute Spanish-language press materials to over 700 Spanish-language news outlets. They trained 35 Latino surrogates to speak to Spanish-language news, ultimately conducting more than 2,000 interviews by the end of the 2000 election. The RNC had learned that their main problem was that many minority voters considered the GOP as the party that was only interested in the rich. Republicans were seen as callous.
In 2000, Sánchez was tapped by the Bush campaign to serve as the head of Hispanic outreach. Her work at the RNC prepared her for shaping Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” and translating that for the Latino community. This meant that she had to make it seem like the Republicans valued Latino families, faith, and hard work—and that Republicans would work their hardest to ensure that these shared beliefs would provide socioeconomic mobility. In other words, Sánchez was tasked with making the Republican Party seem like it cared about the Latino community. Bush’s political career in Texas made him an ideal candidate. His laughable Spanish and agreeable demeanor endeared him to many. He also said things like “family values don’t stop at the Rio Grande and a hungry mother is going to try to feed her child,” which struck a chord with many Latino voters. In 2000 and 2004, Bush received the highest percentage of Latino votes of any Republican presidential candidate in history.
But, by 2008, the messaging and outreach effort had collapsed. It was nearly unraveled in 2012, with Mitt Romney’s self-deportation quip and it is all but destroyed in 2016 because of Trump. While “compassionate conservatism” has been replaced by Trump’s outright racism, Sánchez is still trying to craft an alternative conservatism. In January of 2016, Sánchez criticized Ted Cruz outright and Trump implicitly for engaging in nothing more than “rhetorical contests” that offered only fear and myth. Instead she promoted “opportunity conservatism,” which was “conservative policy as a means for helping Latino voters and new immigrant families ascend the economic ladder.” It is no surprise that “opportunity conservatism” and “compassionate conservatism” share many overlapping themes. Sánchez hasn’t threatened to leave the party, but that doesn’t mean that she hasn’t nearly in the past. Because of Bob Dole’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, she almost left the Republican Party in 1996. After that, she vowed to never be chased from her own party again. She has retweeted many negative Trump news stories. While she hasn’t used the #NeverTrump, it is clear that she is opposed to Trump.
The Transnational Conservative
Juan Hernandez served as John McCain’s Hispanic Outreach Director in the 2008 presidential campaign. Before that he served in the cabinet of Mexican president Vicente Fox, as the head of the Presidential Office of Mexicans Abroad. Fox was part of the conservative PAN (National Action Party) and Hernandez was a lifelong conservative. Bilingual, bicultural, an evangelical Christian, and a citizen of both the U.S. and Mexico, Hernandez is a border-crossing conservative at home in both countries. His transnational conservatism led him to work in both the 2000 Fox campaign and 20008 McCain campaign.
What Hernandez found in 2008, was something radically different than what Sánchez and Sosa had encountered in 2000 and 2004 under Bush. McCain introduced Trump’s political predecessor, Sarah Palin, to the national stage in that election. He also ran a very different campaign than his previous 2000 campaign. Gone was the “straight-talk express.” McCain was running from his moderate past. As Hernandez recalled, in a 2011 feature in the Texas Observer, the McCain campaign failed to engage Spanish-language media, moderate its position on immigration, and reach out to the Latino community in general. Exasperated and frustrated by the campaign, Hernandez tried to resign but McCain himself asked him to stay. That election changed the way that Hernandez pursued Republican politics. After that election, Hernandez’s goal was to win elections not just for Republicans but for Latino Republicans.
Hernandez founded the Hispanic Republicans of Texas, an organization that raises funds and prepares potential Latino candidates. He has also become a CNN en Español commentator. He is a committed conservative and a loyal Republican. He believes in small government and low taxes. Yet the rightward shift in immigration policy, the racist rhetoric surrounding immigration, and Trump have all challenged Hernandez. Hernandez has said that he thinks “Republicans have gotten too far away from the basic values that Hispanics hold very previous: family, hard work and faith in God.” He has been an adamant supporter of the #NeverTrump movement. On a near day-to-day basis he tweets and retweets #NeverTrump. He believes that the GOP is especially out of touch in regards to immigration. If they do not moderate their stance, or become more compassionate toward the Latino community, the GOP faces a most certain doom. In one tweet, he wrote “El GOP tiene que cambiar! Si no…Podría desaparecer! #NeverTrump.”
— Juan Hernandez (@HernandezJuan) June 28, 2016
These are not the only Latino Republicans who have had problems with Trump and the new Republican Party. The head of Hispanic Media Relations at the RNC, Ruth Guerra, recently resigned because of Trump’s ascendance as the presumptive nominee. Guerra’s replacement, Helen Aguirre Ferré scrubbed her twitter feed after posting many anti-Trump comments. Republican governor of New Mexico, Susanna Martinez, also had a highly publicized fallout with Trump after he criticized her management of the state. Martinez was seen as a rising star in the party and a possible vice-presidential running-mate, but their testy exchanges has all but ended that discussion.
Daniel Garza, executive director of the Libre Initiative has not yet denounced Trump. He seems to believe that Trump can still walk-back many of his more outrageous and inflammatory remarks. Garza told the In the Thick podcast that he, as a Latino conservative, could not support Hillary Clinton. When pushed, he offered, “It’s going to be up to Donald Trump. The burden is on him to persuade Latinos [to vote for him].”
There has not been a presidential candidate that has produced the same kind of political fallout and polarization as Donald Trump. Latino Republicans are not the only ones leaving the party or refusing to vote for him, influential conservatives like Bill Kristol have pledged to resist Trump and George Will has left the party altogether. Yet, the larger Never Trump forces have dwindled as the convention has neared. Establishment politicians like Christ Christie and Paul Ryan have endorsed him and it seems that many will fall in line by November.
Trump’s anti-Mexican and anti-Latino campaign seemed destined to fail a year ago. After reading the 2012 “Growth and Opportunity Report,” compiled by the RNC after the Romney loss, it seemed that Republicans were ready to offer yet another form of compassionate conservatism and, possibly, comprehensive immigration reform. The 2012 report was supposed to be a road map for the future, but it was utterly ignored by the unforeseen rise of Trump. He has ignored nearly every recommendation of the report and has doubled-down on xenophobia and racial resentment—and it has been a winning formula among the base of Republican voters.
The only problem is that base is shrinking. According to the RNC’s own report, in 1980 the electorate was 88% white. In 2012, it was 72% white. As the Republican Party has fought to stay the Party of Reagan, the nation has changed dramatically since then. Reagan was elected 36 years ago, no one under the age of 55 today was able to vote for Reagan in 1980. Those Reagan Republicans are dead. Romney Republicans are dying. And the party is on the verge of losing its third presidential election in a row. The party needs new voters, but those new voters are Latino. The party needs to add Spanish-surnames to their voter rosters; they need Ramirez Republicans.
Trump has destroyed in one year what has taken the Republican Party forty years to build. The outreach began by Sosa and continued through Sánchez was on life support by 2008 and it is dead now. Some of the key operatives have left the party, but others still remain. Their criticisms of Trump are important but less influential. Their explanations and definitions of conservatism in contradistinction to Trumpism are telling because they provide an alternative path. However, the meteoric rise of Trump undermines Latino conservatives’ previous arguments that Republican voters and values weren’t racist—if they weren’t, how did Trump win? The dog whistle politics of the past have grown into an audible rage and its implicit white privilege has exploded into a narrative of white victimization. While conservatives like Ann Coulter are mourning the decline of the nation with the cry of “adios America,” some Latino Republicans are trying to make America great again by shouting “never Trump.”
Aaron E. Sanchez is a Texas-based writer who focuses on issues of race, politics and popular culture from a Latino perspective. He holds a Ph.D., with a concentration in U.S.-Latina/o intellectual history. He is a happy husband, proud father and an avid runner. He blogs at CommentaryandCuentos.com.
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