Blogger Kathy Shaidle likes to talk about “reading the newspaper upside down.” What she means is, when reading a news story online, if you scroll down to the “reader comments” section, you’ll often get a very different picture from the one presented in the “official” story — which is one reason many news outlets hate reader comments; they can hurt the outlet’s institutional credibility by disrupting or even destroying the official “narrative.”
It was by following Kathy’s advice that I became aware of the popular media’s curious treatment of the issue of illegal immigration. Go to any news story about illegal immigration — here’s one I picked at random — scroll down to the comments, and you’ll find a nearly-unanimous tidal wave of opinion raging against America’s out-of-control immigration problem. Most of these commenters are in favor of a harsh clampdown, at least until the problem can be brought under control.
What’s extraordinary is how overwhelmingly one-sided the comments are on this issue, and (as best I can tell) this issue alone. This is something you never see on other hot-button issues such as, say, gay marriage, where the comments generally split closer to 50-50 for/against.
Yet if you read nothing but the mainstream media, you’d never be aware that there’s a gigantic amount of anger here among the general public. Indeed, from the picture presented by the media, it seems like the whole country is wildly in favor massive, disruptive immigration policies. The way “respectable” media outlets discuss the issue, you’d think there is virtually no significant constituency anywhere in the United States that opposes immigration. Heck, they’ll even wave polls at you that supposedly show the public loves mass immigration. (I have come to be deeply suspicious of those polls, but that’s an issue for another post.)
But if the public really loves more, more, more immigration, then why do politicians of both parties feel the need to campaign on “getting tough” on immigration? Aside from very liberal politicians with very safe seats, I’ve never heard a major politician from either party argue forthrightly for the sort of greatly-expanded, loose immigration policy they seem to favor in practice. Why is it that every time “immigration reform” comes up in Congress, it gets shot down in flames when citizens melt the phone lines of their local representatives to express opposition?
What the heck is going on here? A lot of things, but I believe this explains why the GOP has been caught off guard by the sudden rise of Donald Trump as a major presidential contender. Basically, the press and politicians have both been engaged in a “conspiracy” to try and squelch popular opinion on immigration. (I use the term “conspiracy” loosely; I work in the press, so I can say for a fact that this is not some centralized, tightly-coordinated effort. Indeed, journalists are famously ornery; if there were some order coming down from on high to lay off immigration, that would be the very first issue hungry reporters would pounce on.)
This is not the only issue in which the press and the political class do this “let’s just pretend it’s not happening” dance. They do it with all kinds of uncomfortable and problematic stories. (I should note that this is not always, or even mostly, for political reasons. For example, news outlets are extremely careful about how they cover suicides, because this is a phenomenon where it has been proven that news coverage can produce a “copycat effect” of more suicides.) The hope is that if these stories are ignored, they will go away. And — again, I’m speaking as someone who works in the press — they’re usually right.
Immigration is different. It’s not a flash-in-the-pan issue that quickly dies down when everyday Americans stop hearing some chowderhead rant about it on Fox News. Out in “average” America, it’s something people run into every day — and the lower down on the scale they are, and the further removed from the levers of power, the more they are aware of it. People living in some tony, upscale suburb are unlikely to wander into a convenience store where half the products have Spanish-language labels. If I point out that one of the largest shareholders of the New York Times is the guy who makes zillions of dollars each year off those “tarjetas telefonicas prepagadas para llamadas internacionales,” the working class people (who, admittedly, are unlikely to be reading this blog) will know instantly what I’m talking about. I’m betting that while an assembly-line worker in Wisconsin will know exactly what I’m referring to there, a hedge fund manager in Connecticut will have to plug that phrase into Google translate. Heck, I’ll bet you $100 right now that a randomly-selected non-Hispanic blue collar worker with a shit job is more likely than a randomly-selected non-Hispanic white-collar worker with a private office to know right off the top of their head what the word “tarjetas” means.
So what we’ve got here is an issue which millions of voters are passionate about, but which is almost invisible in the mainstream media. Whenever mainstream reporters DO condescend to address the issue, it’s almost always to dismiss the other side as an unrepresentative fringe; or to refute the so-called “myths” promoted by immigration opponents; or to promote those questionable polls which seem to show enormous support for relatively unconstrained immigration.
I can’t think of another major issue in American life which receives such weird, biased coverage in spite of popular public attitudes. I’ve compared it before to a presidential race in which the press only covers one candidate, while treating the other candidate’s existence as a mere urban legend unworthy of comment. Or to put it another way — have you ever seen a major news story about abortion that treats it as axiomatic that ALL decent, right-thinking Americans outside of a tiny, inconsequential fringe are enthusiastic pro-choicers? Of course not. Heck, even flagrantly biased stories about abortion still bother to acknowledge that there is another side to the issue, and that the other side has respectable arguments of its own. If journalists tried to cover other issues the way they cover immigration, they’d be rightfully flayed by critics for their outrageously one-sided treatment. If it weren’t for the counterweight provided by comments sections, I’d describe this airbrushed coverage as downright Stalinesque.
And before you bring it up: No, journalists are not required to treat “all sides” of every issue with perfect objectivity. They are not under any obligation to give equal time to every wacky fringe notion; every story about NASA does not need to include a rebuttal from the Flat Earth Society. But popular resistance to immigration is very far from the “fringe.” If an idea has wide popular support, journalists are obliged to engage with it seriously, no matter how silly or distasteful they may find it.
It’s not simply a matter of media ethics. If the public is upset about something, they will seek an outlet to express their frustrations. If “respectable” politicians and media figures refuse to hear them, they will not simply stop caring about the issue. Instead, they’ll turn to less-respectable outlets. In Europe, where political and media elites have established a similar de facto gag order on “incorrect” opinions about immigration, this has led to a strong revival of dangerous, fascist-style political parties. In nearly every case, these neo-fascist parties are fueled by the refusal of “mainstream” parties to deal, even in a half-hearted, spineless mainstream political fashion, with the issue of mass immigration.
Since America is a very different place from Europe, it’s unlikely that Americans will turn to quasi- or neo-fascist parties and politicians, which have always found more fertile soil in statist-oriented Europe than in rambunctious, independent America. “The dark night of fascism is always descending in the United States,” wrote French socialist Jean-François Revel, “and yet lands only in Europe.”
Instead, America being a land where fame and money carry more clout than book smarts or political instincts, it seems almost inevitable that frustrated citizens would turn to some maverick with a streak of showmanship — a celebrity such as a famous actor, athlete, or business leader. Trump — who until recently had his own reality show and has done enough cameo acting jobs over the years that he reportedly has a Screen Actors Guild membership — fills two of those roles. (It’s worth noting that two of America’s most consequential political mavericks of recent times — Ross Perot, who more or less ensured the election of Bill Clinton in 1992, and Ronald Reagan — were, respectively, a famous businessman and a famous actor. And two other political outsiders who at least managed to get elected to office — former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger — were famous athletes and actors.)
Trump somehow stumbled into this issue — it’s not clear if he planned to do this all along, or if he was just shooting off his mouth the way he typically does and accidentally tapped into this seething cauldron of popular resentment. Regardless of how he got there, Trump — a consummate salesman who clearly knows a marketing opportunity when he sees it — immediately grasped that this was a huge (or as he would say, yuuuuuuuuge) angle he could exploit.
And then, in one of those serendipitous coincidences upon which the fate of nations often turn, Trump was immediately handed a gold-plated example of exactly the sort of thing he was talking about: A woman named Kathryn Steinle was shot dead in San Francisco, apparently at random, by an illegal immigrant with a criminal record who had been deported five times and had come to San Francisco specifically because it was a “sanctuary city” which refused to cooperate with the federal government in the enforcement of immigration laws. This was so perfect for Trump’s candidacy that if a person hadn’t died, you’d almost suspect that the whole thing was a scripted publicity stunt cooked up by the Trump campaign.
Consequently, Trump’s candidacy has surged, with some polls putting him at the top of the GOP field. Which is a problem for the GOP, since no serious person believes that Trump is electable.
I think the lesson for the GOP is pretty clear: Be the party of immigration enforcement, or be destroyed. By latching onto the patently-unelectable Trump because of his hardline immigration stance, the grassroots, intentionally or unintentionally, are signaling to the party elites who continually ignore them that they are quite willing to destroy the GOP over this. Smug party leaders who think they can massage the issue need to realize they are effectively negotiating with a guy who has a gun pointed at their head and who is patiently explaining to them that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger.
And maybe the guy with the gun is right. We already have one political party in America that is pushing for mass immigration. We do not need two. Demographic realities about the “rising power of Hispanics” aside, it seems to me that at least ONE of our two major parties ought to feel a responsibility to faithfully represent the views of a very large number of American citizens on a major domestic issue. Those GOP candidates, voters and donors who feel strongly that they cannot go along with this should be honest enough to join the Democratic party. Not only would this be more honest, it would be better for America as a whole; these former Republicans could serve as a moderating influence in Democratic politics, which could use a healthy infusion of smart, business-minded Chamber of Commerce types to curb some of its crazier leftist tendencies.
Those who can’t stomach joining the Democrats should realize they do not hold the power here, so they’d best shut up and get out of the way. They can continue to practice gentle persuasion with their fellow Republicans in private, one-on-one discussions, but in public they should toe the party line. This is the whole point of a “political party,” after all. If at some point down the road, as the “realists” are always telling us, this course does indeed appear to be “suicidal” because of rising number of Hispanic voters, that bald electoral reality will serve to chasten the immigration-restrictionists a lot more quickly and effectively than being insulted and ignored by party leaders.
It’s not like there’s no precedent for such an arrangement. Many elite Republicans either privately favor abortion rights or don’t have strong feelings either way. Many elite Democrats don’t particularly care about blacks. But the GOP is a staunchly pro-life party, and the Democrats are a staunchly pro-civil rights party, so even leaders whose hearts aren’t in it dutifully line up to push these agendas because it’s essential to keep the coalition together and, more importantly, they feel an actual civic duty to faithfully represent the views of the people who voted for them.
That’s the way our political system is supposed to work. When it doesn’t, then like a human body, it breaks down, and becomes afflicted with diseases and maladies. Trump is a manifestation of such a disease. And as with diseases, sound medical practice is to treat not just the symptoms, but the underlying cause. With immigration, the GOP has spent years treating the symptoms while allowing the disease to fester; the Trump campaign is the result. And if they don’t treat the underlying disease, it will eventually kill them.