Politics & Policy

Tom Tancredo Makes His Comeback as the GOP Comes Back to Him

Tom Tancredo in Des Moines, Ia., during his 2007 campaign. (Reuters photo: Shannon Stapleton)
The former Colorado congressman made his name as an immigration hawk before restrictionism was fashionable on the right. He’s chosen what might be the perfect moment to return.

Tom Tancredo is back. As Colorado’s gubernatorial primary fills with an ever-larger set of ambitious Republican chancers, the logic of a Tancredo comeback based on name recognition becomes obvious. Especially when the GOP seems to have moved in his direction since he left.

From one angle, Tancredo looks like a John Wycliffe to Donald Trump’s Martin Luther, the morning star of the Republican Reformation. Tancredo put forward some of the same complaints about the Republican party and tried to weaponize his plainspokenness about them. He emphasized the same issues in the same combative way. He just did it first.

Two presidential elections ago, Tancredo made immigration the center of his campaign. He had seen the power of the issue as Americans jammed congressional phone lines to oppose George W. Bush’s push for comprehensive reform. His book In Mortal Danger claimed to be written so that the volunteer border-patrolling Minutemen movement and all other partisans understood “the relationship between our immigration policies and our future as a functioning cultural entity.”

And long before Trump pushed the fake story about General John J Pershing dipping bullets in pig’s blood in order to frighten and demoralize an Islamic foe, Tancredo argued for sacrilege as military strategy. While contemplating the possibility of another 9/11-type terror attack in America, he proposed a response: “If it is up to me, we are going to explain that an attack on this homeland of that nature would be followed by an attack on the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, because that is the only thing I can think of that might deter somebody from doing what they would otherwise do.”

That this battle plan would scandalize hundreds of millions of non-terrorists for its vindictiveness and disproportion did not occur to Tancredo. That it would almost certainly lead to the fall of a longtime American ally, the House of Saud, and clear the way toward Iran becoming the unchallenged regional power in the heart of the Islamic world was also beside the point to him. He was tapping into two popular convictions you often find on the right: that our way of life is more fragile than it seems, and that the survival of civilizations sometimes means dispensing with the terms of civilized life, at least when your battle is with barbarians.

But there are differences between Tancredo and Trump. Unlike Trump, Tancredo is the kind of guy who can rack up a near-perfect lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. And unlike Trump, with his vague promises to take care of everyone, Tancredo glories in the idea of self-reliance. “When my grandparents came to this country,” he once said, “they had two choices: They either worked or they starved. That was it.”

A decade ago, when he was preparing for his presidential run, I remember young anti-immigration activists gathering around Tancredo as he delivered a short speech at a side event at CPAC. A number of those activists followed him out of the event to talk about his presidential aspirations. They basically asked him: “What’s next? What should we do?” They seemed to want to give Tancredo, or “Tanc,” the impression that if he asked them to burn down CPAC and everyone in it on his behalf, they would. At the time, I dismissed it as mere enthusiasm, but I imagine a few of them wear #MAGA hats now. For his part, Tancredo just smiled politely, pulled a cigar our of his jacket pocket, clipped it, and said, “We’ll see what happens,” before lighting up.

It was a cool answer. And we did see. He got precisely nowhere in the 2008 primary, but almost ten years later, his vision of the GOP is ascendant. Republicans trying to imagine some kind of future middle path between what conservatism was in the 1990s and what the party is becoming under Trump could do worse than to give Tancredo a second look.


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