Forget Kansas. What’s the matter with Arizona? Specifically que pasa with the Latino voters in the Grand Canyon State backing Donald Trump?
Latino voters are independent and unpredictable. We vote the person, not the party. We register Democrat over Republican by a 2-1 margin, yet we’ll support compassionate GOP’ers who ask for our votes. We’re also single-issue voters, and that issue is respect. The words “independent” and “unpredictable” also describe a lot of ‘Zonies. People who live in Arizona get caught up in a Western frontier spirit and dance to the beat of their own drum, without caring what anyone else thinks. Especially if they were born and raised there.
When I lived there in the late 1990s, covering politics as a reporter and metro columnist for The Arizona Republic, the state was deep red. I still remember my first lesson in the unique brand of politics that produced both the late Sen. Barry Goldwater and former Gov. Bruce Babbitt—one conservative, one liberal, both environmentalists. “There are only two kinds of Republicans in Arizona,” a fellow reporter at the Republic explained during my first few weeks on the job: “Conservatives and Nazis.”
Back then, there were also Arizona Democrats like Janet Napolitano who — on the issue of immigration — threw in with the right wing rather than get steamrolled by it. As U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Napolitano opportunistically cozied up to Maricopa Co. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a controversial figure but one who enjoyed strong support from white conservatives in the state. When she was governor, Napolitano declared a “state of emergency” on the U.S.-Mexico border, a move that helped establish her credentials as a border hawk and set her up to be tapped in 2009 as Secretary of Homeland Security by President-elect Barack Obama.
In Arizona, politics is three-dimensional chess. Often complicated, never boring. There are shifting alliances. You keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Even so, this year, for Latinos in Arizona, politics is more confusing than usual. For instance, one would assume that these folks would be the last souls on Earth to think President Donald Trump is their amigo.
Yet recent polls show Trump doing much better than expected with Latino voters — especially men (aka those “bad hombres” that Trump once vowed to get rid of). The incumbent is currently on track to get as much as 30 percent of the Latino vote, with former Vice President Joe Biden locking down 66 percent. That level of support is a participation trophy for Democrats, who can usually count on getting at least two-thirds of Latino support just for showing up.
Meanwhile, if Trump were to—through live rallies, outreach efforts, and ads on Spanish TV—pocket anywhere between 30-35 percent of the Latino vote, he could make a serious dent in Biden’s Latino support.
Serious enough to interfere with Biden’s chances of putting Arizona into the Democratic column on election night for only the second time since 1948. Bill Clinton surprised many by carrying Arizona in his 1996 re-election bid.
Arizona is ground zero in the immigration debate. It has been since 1994 when Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper to militarize the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego. That funneled the flow of Mexican migrants east toward the Arizona desert. For the next 16 years, employers in the state put those migrants to work doing everything from cooking in restaurants, making hotel beds, and landscaping golf courses to building homes, cleaning offices, and taking care of babies.
In 2010, once many of the chores were done, Arizonans decided they wanted to stop the Mexicanizing of their state. So they threw their support behind SB 1070, a racist immigration law that required local and state police to enforce federal immigration law, even if it meant profiling Latinos. Most of that law was struck down by the courts.
The stench remains. So do the hurt feelings. In Arizona, in 2020, “illegal immigration” are still fighting words.
Of course, Trump has long used immigration issue to “otherize” and marginalize Latinos. His schtick is to scare white voters into thinking that Mexicans, for instance, are a dangerous foreign menace and that only he could protect America from this threat.
When it comes to disrespecting Latinos—and, in particular, Mexicans—Trump’s rap sheet is a mile long.
As a candidate, Trump declared that Mexico is “not sending their best” and labeled Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists; praised the 1954 mass deportation program called “Operation Wetback;” and crudely challenged U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel—a U.S.-born citizen of Mexican descent—by questioning whether Curiel could fairly preside over a lawsuit against Trump University because, “He’s a Mexican.”
As president, Trump pardoned Arpaio after the former lawman was found guilty of racially profiling Latinos and defying court orders; ended Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), leaving hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people subject to deportation; and embraced policies that would cut legal immigration, separate families and put refugee children in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Many Americans have likely forgotten these things ever happened. But, I assure you, most Latinos have not. We have long memories. We don’t forget anything. That’s bad news for Trump.
Yet, strangely enough, the polls suggest that Trump is not in bad shape with Latino voters. With Latino men in particular, he has significant appeal. It’s limited appeal, I’d argue. But it’s appeal nonetheless.
Here’s the weird part. White Trumpers often say they’ll overlook some of his personality traits because they like his policies. With Latino Trumpers, it’s the opposite. They’ll overlook some of his policies because they like his personality.
They like his brashness, his strength, his bravado. They like the way he says whatever is on his mind with no filter and often no tact. They like that he is rich and famous and successful, and that he doesn’t hesitate to throw his weight around whether people like it or not.
I spoke to a conservative Mexican-American woman who was born in Chihuahua but who has lived in Phoenix for nearly a quarter-century. She preferred not to be identified because she runs her own business and, she said, she is afraid of “cancel culture” and those elements of the left who resort to violence to express their political views.
When I ask her to explain why any Latino would support the president, this Mexicana For Trump gives a cursory nod to the fact that most Latinos are Catholic, and so we’re always going to have a problem with abortion on demand and Democratic politicians who support it.
But for her, Latino support for Trump in Arizona comes down to three things: jobs, security, and fear of socialism (or anything that even smells like it).
Trump revived the U.S. economy and drove the nation’s unemployment to below 4 percent before the pandemic struck in March, and he forcefully condemned the riots, looting, and arson that marred protests over the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.
As for socialism, people hear that word in reference to Latinos, and they think it’s limited to Cubans, Venezuelans, or anyone who either lived under a genuine socialist country, or whose parents or grandparents did, and so they can’t stomach the concept.
But, there is more to it. Mexico isn’t a socialist country, but its political system is driven by patronage, pandering, and political giveaways. That, said the Trump supporter, looks and sounds a lot like the giveaways that Biden promises Latinos in exchange for their votes.
Yes, I said. But what about immigration? How could any self-respecting Latino support Trump given the shameless way he has demagogued the issue to scare up votes from white people?
“Immigration is not the only issue that we care about,” she said. “We want law and order. The caravans scare us. People come here, and they want something for free. Previous generations came here to work.”
Listening to her, I realize what’s really driving much of the Latino support for Trump. It’s assimilation.
Ironically, the one thing that Republicans like three-time loser presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan said Latinos weren’t doing and would never do is now helping drive Latino support to Trump. The further Latinos get away from whatever generation it was that immigrated into the United States—either legally or illegally—the less they tend to empathize with the plight of the immigrants of today.
Arizona—like New Mexico and Texas—specializes in assimilation. There, you can find Mexican-Americans whose families go back six or seven generations to a time when Arizona wasn’t even a state, just a western territory. Those people have no connection to Mexico, other than as a vacation spot where they go now and then to sip margaritas on the beach.
Introducing the Trump Latinos. They’re proud of their culture and heritage, but they see themselves as Americans first. And Arizona has more than its share of these folks.
So, if current trends continue, we can expect two surprises from Arizona on election night. One, the state—and its 11 electoral votes—will go for Biden. And two, even in defeat, Trump will do quite well with a coveted group of voters whose support he doesn’t deserve.