What Liberals Don’t Understand About Pro-Trump Latinos

October 31, 2020

Abraham Enriquez speaks with the clarity of a levelheaded TV anchor. The 25-year-old Latino from Lubbock, Texas, was the first in his family to be born in the United States, after his grandparents immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s and brought his then-2-year-old mother with them. He visits his family across the border at least once a year for service trips with his grandparents’ church. When we talked recently about the state of American politics, I recognized the air of authority I had heard in clips of his eponymous web show and his public speeches rallying Latinos in Texas to vote—for Donald Trump.

Enriquez is one of millions of Latinos who will (or already have) cast a ballot for Trump this year. Nearly a third of Latinos routinely vote for Republicans in American elections, and the Trump campaign’s appeals to them show an understanding of their unique worldview, one rooted in deeply held beliefs about individualism, economic opportunity, and traditional social values. Across nationality, class, immigrant experience, and age, Trump-voting Latinos have one thing in common: a different vision from other Latinos of what it means to be American—and they believe their liberal counterparts and the broader public just don’t understand that.

“It all boils down to understanding that you are in charge of your own kind of predicament,” Enriquez told me. “America, we’re really at the crossroads of either self-governance or being dependent on the government—and Hispanics know very well which decision they need to be making.”

Liberals may accuse these Latinos of voting against their own interests, given Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and restrictions on immigration—all issues that affect millions of Latino lives. But many pro-Trump Latinos told me they simply define their interests differently than their more progressive cousins do. They don’t necessarily feel solidarity with Latinos as a whole, and many identify themselves as American first. (Some reject “Latino” or “Latinx” labels as well.) Many are lifelong Republicans not eager to abandon their party, and Trump’s economy-first message and opposition to abortion rights resonate with them. Democrats shouldn’t be surprised if Trump matches or improves on his 2016 showing among Latinos on November 3, or if their votes help him hold battleground states such as Arizona and Florida. Republican Latinos have always existed, and the Trump campaign has dedicated significant resources to winning over more of the Hispanic community this election cycle.

Election-year conversations tend to flatten voters into stereotypes, but there is no one kind of Latino voter: They aren’t all of Mexican or Cuban descent, nor are they all Catholic or connected by a shared immigrant experience—even though these subgroups dominate national attention. Though 60 to 70 percent vote for Democrats, according to the Pew Research Center, Latinos aren’t a reliably partisan voting bloc and need to be persuaded, in culturally competent ways, to vote. Their differences in national identity, immigrant background, experiences with discrimination, and religious beliefs make Latinos just as complicated as any other demographic group, though they aren’t always portrayed that way.

[Derek Thompson: Where Joe Biden is underperforming Hillary Clinton]

Take immigration, an issue commonly identified as the central Latino priority because many Americans assume that all Latinos hold the same pro-immigration view. The first time Enriquez heard Trump speak about politics was during the future president’s campaign-launch speech in 2015, when he said Mexico was “sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.” Enriquez told me he could forgive the president’s comments. “I know exactly the status of Mexico, and how crime has completely just taken over the beautiful country that is Mexico. So when President Trump was talking about what Mexico is sending, I immediately knew—I understood [what he meant],” Enriquez said. “Did he word it correctly? No, but he did emphasize that, you know, it wasn’t all Mexicans.” (Enriquez told me that he first learned about Trump when he wrote a paper on The Art of the Deal in ninth grade.)

Some pro-Trump Latinos told me they understand why immigrants seek new lives in America, but they want them to come to this country “the right way.” They don’t necessarily identify with the plight of Latin American immigrants today. “You can’t really compare immigration in 2020 or 2016 to immigration like when my grandparents immigrated to America,” Enriquez said. Some support Trump’s border wall, some support limits on immigration generally, but almost all pivoted to the economy when the subject came up, arguing that unregulated immigration could have a negative effect on their own well-being.

“We recognize that open borders would not be good for the economy, for our families,” Ray Baca, the founder of the El Paso–based activist group Border Hispanics for Trump, told me. “Illegal immigration hurts employment as far as wages are concerned. And who are the people that get hurt? People at the bottom …  and many times that is still the Hispanics.”

For these voters, Trump has done a good job of encouraging Latinos to start new businesses, seek employment, and advance their education—they’re not as focused on his immigration agenda. “We take pride in being self-sufficient. We don’t want a permanent handout,” Barbara Carrasco, a Latina businesswoman from El Paso who ran for Congress in 2012, told me. “President Trump really wants everybody to have an opportunity to succeed.”

Enriquez noted that young U.S.-born Latinos find messages centered on economic mobility and entrepreneurship especially appealing. Indeed, Trump’s pitch seems to be working for a subset of U.S.-born Mexican American men, which recent polling suggests would especially help the president in the Sun Belt. Overall, Trump is attracting higher levels of support among Latino men in swing states than he did in 2016.

Even after the coronavirus hit and Republicans could no longer tout record-low unemployment figures among Hispanic men, the Trump campaign kept its attention on messaging to Latino voters. One week in July captured the clumsy but potentially effective drive to win them over: A meeting on Wednesday, July 8, at the White House with the Mexican president signaled Trump’s commitment to border security and what he considers fair trade. Thursday’s signing ceremony for the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative reaffirmed his stated commitment to school choice and increasing educational opportunities for Latinos. (At the event, the CEO of Goya, Robert Unanue, said he was “truly blessed” to have Trump as president.) Also on Thursday, the president gave an interview to the Spanish-language news show Noticias Telemundo in which he said he backed an executive action to protect Dreamers, muddying the waters of his immigration agenda. And on Friday, he visited Florida for a briefing on drug trafficking and border control, which was designed to make a tough-on-crime appeal to the state’s famously conservative Hispanic voters.

[Kristian Ramos: Latino support for Trump is real]

This strategy is a dramatic shift from Trump’s approach in 2016, but it’s not new: It’s similar to the Republican Party’s traditional playbook to activate its Latino base, and it takes advantage of the starkly different values that liberal and conservative Latinos hold. Public reaction to the week’s events clarified Latinos’ differing priorities, Geraldo Cadava, a professor of history and Latino and Latina studies at Northwestern University, told me. Liberals zeroed in on Unanue’s statements, advocating for a boycott of Goya and arguing that Latinos supporting Trump are hypocrites because of his anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. But Latino Republicans saw Trump embracing the economic, educational, and cultural priorities that many of them share.

“That week was about so much: free trade with Mexico, charter schools, easier access to loans for Hispanic business owners—but the whole week was focused on Goya and identity politics,” said Cadava, who has written a book on Hispanic Republican identity.

Enriquez attended the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative ceremony, representing his conservative-Latino voter-education nonprofit Bienvenido. He told me the event was further evidence of Trump’s dedication to Latino prosperity. “I have heard this president stand behind the mic and boast of how proud he is of Hispanic working Americans, how we’re the backbone of the economy of this country,” he said. Trump “has really put Hispanic voices on the table and let us talk to America about the issues that we face, and the things that we need.”

This emphasis on opportunity builds on a larger theme that Trump has relied on in his speeches at Latinos for Trump roundtables and visits to Arizona and Florida: the specter of socialism and an encroaching federal government.

Enriquez told me he thinks older Latinos, many of whom immigrated decades ago, are wary of an active federal government “because they know what it’s like to come from a country where government is so big that it actually oppresses the individual.” Although Trump has stretched the bounds of executive-branch authority more than once, he champions a small-government agenda on several issues conservative Latinos care about: He’s said he wants to cut business regulations, make it easier for Latinos to attend charter schools, and provide ample room for religious practice in the public and private spheres.

What many non-Hispanic Americans don’t understand, Cadava told me, is that “the socialism argument is a proxy for so many things: charter schools, health care, religious freedom, and the business environment—it’s shorthand for the role of government in American life.” Conservative Latinos, like other Americans, have been wrestling with what kind of relationship they want to have with the government for decades, and they don’t see a compelling response from the Democrats advocating for government to be more active in resolving social and economic inequality.

On the socialism issue and others, my conversations with pro-Trump Latinos revealed the disconnect between how they see the president and how liberals see them: They don’t care if the president speaks harshly about immigration, because they support stronger efforts to regulate it and secure America’s borders. They don’t blame Trump for his own personal shortcomings, because he advances social-conservative priorities by appointing conservative jurists and condemning abortion. They don’t worry too much about systemic racism, because they think individuals should be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and take personal responsibility for their circumstances. And they don’t think the president is racist; indeed, they repeat his rhetoric about Black Lives Matter protesters and “open borders.” When liberals accuse them of hypocrisy or try to point out contradictions, that doesn’t turn them off Trump—it just reaffirms his presidency’s connection to their personal values, however different they are from those of the bulk of the Latino electorate.

For liberal pundits, activists, and pollsters to focus on new Democratic turnout among Latinos misses the persuasiveness of the Republican pitch to Latino voters—and the staying power of their support. Unlike in the 1970s, when Richard Nixon campaigned to win Latino communities concentrated in California and Texas, Latinos are now spread across the country—emerging as influential voters in the Sun Belt as well as the Midwest. Cadava told me it would be a mistake to assume that as the ranks of liberal-leaning Latinos grow, the cohort voting for the GOP will not. These voters will continue to play an influential role in determining Latino identity and political influence. America is moving into a majority-minority future—one that includes Latinos who will always vote Republican