When the GOP convinced Donald Trump to sign a “loyalty pledge” last week, it was hoping to set the stage for a minimally destructive denouement to his unexpectedly durable campaign. As Jonathan Chait recently noted, the party faces a dilemma: It must distance itself from Trump without offending him so much that he decides to run as an independent. The pledge may help with that problem, but a document with no legal force has only so much power against an independently wealthy egomaniac. And if two events this week are any evidence, much of the damage is already done. Trump’s ascendance has exposed a major fault line within the conservative movement that can no longer be ignored, and that won’t vanish when his campaign ends.
The first event was a tide of anger directed at National Review’s Jonah Goldberg. After denouncing Trump and his supporters over the weekend, Goldberg was subjected to charges of ideological treason by scores of white nationalists, who collected their fury under the hashtag “#NRORevolt.”
The second event occurred yesterday, when the Libre Initiative, a Koch-funded conservative Latino organization, issued an open letter “to All Americans” which was, in reality, a plea for sanity directed to fellow conservatives. Mass deportation and the elimination of birthright citizenship, the letter argues, are “not in line with our principles and are not in the best interest of the country.” The somewhat unusual plea came from an organization whose employees are a regular presence in National Review. Here’s a spokesperson praising Hispanics for staying loyal to “economic liberty, self-reliance, and entrepreneurship” despite Democrats’ tempting offer of government handouts. And here’s the executive director claiming that Latinos are a “community that stresses conservative principles,” if only Republicans will make a play for them.
It’s no coincidence that the revolt of Trump’s white nationalist supporters should be directed against the same conservative magazine promoting the Libre Initiative. And if #NRORevolt can be seen as the white nationalists’ shot at establishment conservatives, the Libre Initiative’s letter can be seen as part of a carefully worded response. Groups like the Libre Initiative have pressed for a more moderate approach to immigration and other issues important to Hispanic and Latino voters by appealing to the GOP’s self-interest. The GOP’s white base may be initially wary of these groups, the argument goes, but they’ll soon discover that they have a lot in common. As Reagan himself once quipped, Latinos are Republicans who just don’t know it yet. This ideological/cultural affinity argument is at the foundation of a more moderate, conciliatory approach to immigration.
Last month, I wrote a piece throwing cold water on this argument. Contrary to what the GOP would like to believe, there is very little evidence that Latinos are conservatives—and sooner or later, the rank and file are going to figure that out. Since there is practically no penalty for casual racism in the conservative movement (quite the opposite, actually, if you’re a talk radio host, FOX News personality, or even aspiring presidential candidate), the self-interest argument is the only real defense that the GOP establishment—which, by and large, does not really object to immigration—has against the party’s white nativist element, which strongly does. The nativists don’t see Hispanics as the establishment does—as “fellow-conservatives, as traditionalists, as the future of the conservative movement,” as I wrote last month. And on this point, they may be onto something: The conservative electoral rationale for immigration reform may well have been exaggerated. Ethical, humanitarian, and economic arguments have so far failed to convince skeptics. The electoral argument was the best rationale that reformers had left, and its intellectual defeat could damage even further the chance that wary Republicans will sign on to immigration reform. If the political risk and ideological betrayal isn’t going to create a new generation of Republican voters, they might wonder, then why bother?