Politics & Policy

In Dallas, Scenes from a GOP Funeral

Trump speaks at a rally in Dallas last September. (Mike Stone/Reuters)
Trump leaves Texas Republicans morose and anxious

Dallas — The scene on the sidewalks in the fantastically scuzzy corner of downtown Dallas surrounding the Kay Bailey Hutchison (really!) Convention Center is kind of weird, because there are a few different things going on here, two of which — the Texas state Republican convention and a gathering of lady bodybuilders — produce what would be on its own a pretty strange mix of people, the sometimes pachydermal hindquarters of the old politicos lumbering around from the Texas Right To Life booth to that guy with the clipboard quizzing people about Texas secession contrasting strangely with the linebacker-ish shoulders and canned-ham thighs of the buffed-up young women, but that already-goofy human stew is peppered with a considerable army of Walking Dead–type homeless psychotics muttering to themselves — one of them is shouting at the McDonalds for selling dollar-menu poison, says that she is sure the NSA is listening, turns to me and shouts, “If you see something, say something!” and then breaking (seriously, this happened, right there on Griffin Street) into a medley of “Hard Knock Life” and “Rockin’ in the Free World” — an entire free-range mental ward zombie-marching around in the brilliant Texas sunshine on a glorious May afternoon.

They keep the vagrants at bay, outside the convention center, with the police scrutinizing everything from on high in one of those creepy Panopticon-on-Wheels rigs while a bored-looking middle-aged woman in a khaki security-guard uniform goes methodically from planter to planter, down the sidewalk, parting the foliage and peering the middle for potential miscreants literally hiding in the bushes. She doesn’t find any.

But the deeper inside you go, the weirder it gets. And it’s not just the secessionists trying to start a platform fight.

For one thing, I cannot find — and I’m really looking — one person named Guzmán or Perez or Cisneros or Lopez (not even a Kathryn Jean) or Morales or anything like that. There are lots of black folks to be seen — lots for a Republican convention, by which I mean black people in something almost approaching their proportion of the general population — but this seems to be the only place in Texas where there isn’t anybody of Hispanic background to be found. (Hell, there are even white-supremacist gangs in Texas with Hispanic members.) El Republicano, “The Voice of the Texas Federation of Hispanic Republicans,” is advertising a cigar-smoker caucus after-party, but in the meeting rooms and corridors, this is pretty much an Anglo affair.

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It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Texas governor Greg Abbott, a conservative’s conservative preceded by a conservative’s conservative pulled out of the same cracker box, did pretty well among Hispanic voters. Rick Perry had pulled around 40 percent, and Abbott raised that to nearly half. But that’s still a step back from where George W. Bush was. Texas Republicans have been building their presence in Hispanic communities the old-fashioned way: Campaigning there, putting staff and offices there (Abbott stationed more staffers in heavily Mexican-American south Texas than any previous Republican candidate), and keeping their faces and their voices in the media serving those voters. Most of the Republican delegates milling around in Dallas with presidential-campaign buttons and T-shirts on are sporting schwag with a Spanish surname on them: Cruz.

But Ted Cruz is not the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

This is Ted Cruz country, but mostly Republicans have come to grudgingly accept that in a matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton, then it’s Trump . . . probably.

“I don’t think Donald Trump will be held against Texas Republicans,” says David Hagan. He’s at the convention working for Gary Gates, a candidate for the Texas Railroad Commission, and if you are looking for the influence of Trumpism on Texas Republican politics, Gates is a good example. Though its name implies something else, the Railroad Commission is the main regulator of Texas’s oil-and-gas industry, which gives it a very large footprint in state politics. For that reason, the Railroad Commission is a starting point for many Texas political careers. (One of my high-school classmates, former San Antonio city councilman Art Hall, ran in the Democratic primary for the commission a few years back; he made a run at a state house seat this time around.) Gates’s tagline on his radio ads is: “I’m Gary Gates, and I don’t care about political correctness.” Which is all good and fine; what it has to do with regulating drilling rigs is anybody’s guess. I don’t think the transsexual-bathroom thing has come up too often in that context.  

Irrelevant? Maybe. But people want to know about those things, Hagan says. He himself is a former city councilman and mayor pro-tem for Victoria, Texas, as well as a preacher at a rural church. “People want to know where you stand on political correctness. They want to know where you stand on the border, on abortion.” He says he has been “pleasantly surprised” by the convention’s lack of fractiousness. And Mr. Mexican Rapists? “Trump is his own brand. He’s a Republican, but he’s also his own phenomenon.”

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The general attitude toward Trump here is predictable: This is Ted Cruz country, but mostly Republicans have come to grudgingly accept that in a matchup between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton, then it’s Trump . . . probably. Hagan says he’ll work for Trump and vote for him, but admits he sees a Trump win as a coin toss. “You know what you’re getting with Hillary. With Trump, there’s at least a chance. For me, it comes down to the Supreme Court. You know what kind of justices Hillary will nominate. Trump might” — might — “nominate good ones.” When I put it to him that Trump’s record isn’t that of a conservative, by a long stretch, he doesn’t disagree. “I hope and pray that he lives up to the rhetoric of the past several months in the primary.”

That’s a pretty iffy payoff in exchange for backing a candidate whose identification with the Republican party almost certainly ensures that it will be a generation before another GOP contender for high office does as well with Hispanic voters as Abbott, Perry, or George W. Bush did.

#share#Hispanic voters are not one-dimensional, single-issue voters in thrall to ethnic identity politics. In Nevada, where Trump is well known, he did better among Hispanic voters than did the Spanish-surnamed Cruz and Rubio. (What allure these Cuban-American Republicans would have for Nevada’s predominantly Mexican-American Hispanic voters is not obvious: “Hispanic” in many ways is a category that exists more in rhetoric than in reality.) Cruz wasn’t particularly popular with Hispanic voters in Texas as a Senate candidate or a presidential contender, and Rubio’s great success with the Cuban-American community in South Florida, from which he hails, probably isn’t replicable. Polling suggests that Hispanic voters do not in general have attitudes toward (or an interest in) immigration that is radically different from that of the rest of the electorate, and, indeed, the big issues in the most recent issue of El Republicano are forced annexation (an acute concern for unincorporated communities surrounding the Dallas and Houston metroplexes), municipal services (forget your wide-open-spaces mythology, Texas’s population is 80 percent urban), and port security in light of recent terrorist attacks. Bringing these kinds of issues to Hispanic voters, and to candidate recruitment, is the reason why there are six Hispanic Republicans in the Texas legislature today instead of none, as was the case in 2009, and why there are an additional eight Hispanic Republican candidates running for legislative seats this time around.

The threat isn’t Hispanic voters’ fixation on immigration. The threat is Anglo voters’ fixation on immigration.

The threat isn’t Hispanic voters’ fixation on immigration. The threat is Anglo voters’ fixation on immigration. The rhetoric surrounding immigration often is ugly and stupid — our friends at the Center for Immigration Studies just last week published some unfortunately sneering remarks about Hispanics being “natural conservatives” — but, what’s worse, it is, thanks in no small part to Trump-ism, bound up in a nasty species of white identity politics that crowds out other issues. It’s one thing to affirm the plain fact that our federal authorities need to get control of our borders, or to argue that recent failures of assimilation suggest that immigration rates are too high. It is another thing to be so cheesed off by the presence of a Budweiser billboard in Spanish along the interstate that you embrace a daft populist-nationalist agenda that insists we are “losing our country” every time someone celebrates a quinceañera, and that the fundamental problem with the U.S. economy is brown people from down south. If you’re talking about Kulturkampf instead of jobs and opportunity, and you regard Hispanics (and not just illegal immigrants) as the enemy, you are going to lose those inroads Republicans and conservatives have made.

But that is what the Trump movement is about: Murdering the Republican party as a vessel of classical liberalism of the Adam Smith variety and reanimating it, Frankenstein-style, as a vehicle of Anglo identity politics.

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“We are in trouble,” says Artemio “Temo” Muniz, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Federation of Hispanic Republicans. Muniz is the evidence for both sides of the immigration debate: He is the son of an illegal alien, a goat-herder from near San Luis Potosi and a beneficiary of the 1986 Reagan amnesty. He probably took a job or two that a native-born American might otherwise have taken, but he also created a lot of them, having started a mattress-manufacturing company that is now one of the largest home-furnishings businesses in the region, employing about 90 people. Muniz works for the family business and has just finished law school. When I ask about the lack of Hispanic participants in the convention, he says my observations are accurate. “The chairman says he wants a convention that looks like Texas, but we have a long way to go to get there.” (The Texas GOP leadership is not exactly covered up with Hispanic officers.) There are a number of problems facing Republicans looking to court Hispanic voters, starting with the fact that the target demographic is about 70 percent Mexican American while the Hispanic-outreach consultants are about 100 percent Cuban American. South Texas isn’t South Florida, but then South Florida isn’t South Florida anymore, either: Republicans lost the Cuban-American vote in the 2012 presidential race for the first time.

There’s plenty of headwind, but there’s no getting around Trump, either.

“You should hear the ads the Democrats are running,” he says. “They just play what Trump is saying, and that’s it. You don’t need to do that menacing voice that they do in political ads. He is the menacing voice. He’s like a villain from a telenovela.” Texas’s Hispanic population is by no means homogenous, and while the long-established Mexican-American communities in places such as West Texas and the Panhandle tend to rank immigration pretty low on their policy agendas, voters in the big cities, where the Hispanic population is dominated by immigrants and first- and second-generation Americans, tend to be much more keenly interested in the subject, and to diverge from the currently hawkish Republican mood on immigration. And the debate within conservative circles often overlooks some basic realities.

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“Citizenship isn’t a priority for illegals,” Muniz says. “They’re here for economic reasons. They want to work. If we let them work in peace, that’s all they’re interested in.” Granting illegals permanent residency status, or the much-discussed “pathway to citizenship” is mostly beside the point. In and around Houston, where Muniz lives, Mexican immigrants tend to undergo a fairly quick economic integration. “They’re driving new trucks and buying houses,” he says. But the persistence of Spanish-speaking enclaves and the enduring contacts between Mexican immigrants and their home communities — which may in some cases only be a few hundred miles away — makes the full cultural assimilation of these immigrants difficult in a way that was not the case for European Jews, Poles, Irish, and Italians a generation ago. “We just want to be treated like Americans, and like earlier immigrants.”

But Mexican immigrants aren’t like earlier immigrants, at least in some important ways, and that isn’t going to happen.

#related#It isn’t only the Hispanic Republicans who are dreading Trump. Pro-life activists are wary of him, and one volunteer for a traditional-marriage organization just rolled her eyes when I asked whether she thought Trump solid on her issues. (I’d have asked “Texans for Civic Engagement” what they thought, but, in what I assume was a hilarious Dadaist prank, their table was empty the entire time I was in the exhibit hall.) Others I spoke to shared the view of David Hagan from Victoria: That Mrs. Clinton is a certain disaster, and that Trump presents uncertainty.

Which is to say: Texas Republicans are like a driver late at night violently swerving across the highway to avoid the oncoming headlights of a speeding semi, hoping that whatever vehicle whose path they’re swerving into is moving with less momentum than an 18-wheeler. There’s a related philosophical question about whether it’s really suicide when people jump out of burning buildings, but the ground is hard and cold either way.


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