It’s hard to ignore the connection. On Friday night, President Trump has dinner with Fox News’s Sean Hannity at Mar-a-Lago. The next morning, he tweets a condemnation of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown’s handling of immigrants in California, using language taken directly from Fox News. On Saturday, he meets with Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, with CNN reporting that she, like Hannity, insisted to Trump that “his party’s successes in upcoming midterm elections will depend on him being able to tout successes on the border wall.”
Trump, watching Fox’s coverage, then tweeted no fewer than seven times on Sunday and Monday about immigration. No more deal on those who were brought to the country illegally as children, he insisted, since the program that allowed those immigrants to stay in the United States was drawing more people to the country. Mexico’s laughing at us and allowing a “caravan” of immigrants to pass through, so he will punish them in NAFTA negotiations. Border legislation is needed immediately; Democrats want no borders at all. That summary is more cohesive than the tweets but no more accurate in the broad strokes.
It’s very true that Trump’s base agrees with his visceral anti-immigration rhetoric. It’s why he is president: He embraced a public fight over disparaging immigrants from Mexico and rode cable news coverage of that fight and his speeches on the subject to build a core base of support that powered him to the nomination in a fragmented Republican primary. Just in time for November, partisanship kicked in and Republicans voted for their party’s candidate, even while many might have had reservations about him. Voilà.
Let’s consider, though, the apparent argument from Hannity and Pirro that Trump needs to keep pressing the issue of the wall to benefit his party in November. Most polling shows that building a wall on the border with Mexico is unpopular: A CBS poll last month found 60 percent opposed to the idea. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allowed those who immigrated to the country illegally as children to stay, was supported by 83 percent of Americans in a CNN poll in February. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believed that Trump and his party were responsible for attempting to end that Obama-era program, probably given Trump’s announcement that he planned to end it.
One part of political theory at play appears to be that Trump needs to be an immigration hard-liner this year to keep his base engaged and angry at Democrats so they vote in the midterms. There is a broader question, though: While Trump’s specific policy proposals on the wall and DACA run contrary to majority opinion in the country, does that anger about immigrants resonate outside of his base, too? In other words, can it be argued that Trump will lure more people to his party by complaining about immigrants in general terms? Is there more of an appetite for that rhetoric than it might seem?
This is harder to measure, but we can look at reported views of immigrants as a guide.
Gallup has been polling on views of the contributions of immigrants for years. In 2017, the most recent year for which data are available, positive views of the contributions of immigrants were up from a decade before.
Most Americans thought that immigrants had no significant effect on crime or thought that immigrants improved crime rates in the U.S. (Research — including new analysis — has shown that immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans.) Most Americans also weren’t worried about the risks of losing jobs to immigrants, a negative effect on the economy or a decline in social values.
What we’re trying to evaluate, really, is who makes up the population of people who disagree with those majorities. For that, we can look at a Kaiser Family Foundation-CNN poll released in September 2016.
It was focused on a group that had emerged by then as a central part of that base of support that Hannity and Pirro want to ensure comes to the polls: working-class white voters. That descriptor can be interpreted in a number of ways, but a key one is that we’re talking about whites without college degrees. This group overlaps with other demographics, including older white Americans (since college degrees were less common several decades ago than they are now).
In the Kaiser-CNN poll, working-class whites expressed more hostility to immigrants in the abstract than respondents overall or whites with a college degree.
Working-class whites were much more likely to blame both immigrants and the federal government for economic conditions in that poll. They were no more likely to blame Wall Street.
Working-class whites were twice as likely as whites with a college degree to say that immigrants were a burden on American society.
Isolating those from Latin America specifically, working-class whites were less likely to say that immigrants were “basically good, honest people” and more likely to blame those immigrants for crime, reduced job opportunities and even terrorism.
Twenty-seven percent of working-class whites said immigrants had cost people in their community jobs, compared with 1 in 5 respondents overall.
It is worth noting that working-class black Americans often landed between working-class whites and whites with college degrees on answers to the Kaiser-CNN questions. While 26 percent of working-class whites said that immigrants working illegally were a major contributor to economic problems, 22 percent of working-class blacks said the same. Working-class blacks were about as likely to say that immigrants contributed to society as respondents on the whole but were even less likely than working-class whites to say that immigrants from Latin America were basically good and honest. They were also less likely, however, to say that immigrants contributed to crime rates.
Trump’s approval rating among black Americans, though, is only 9 percent, according to Gallup. Among college-educated Americans, it’s 34 percent. There may be more fertile ground, then, in hoping to sway whites with college degrees than black Americans without one.
Recent data from the Pew Research Center indicates that about a quarter of both parties are made up of whites with college degrees. Notice, though, that half of Republicans are whites without college degrees — but so are a third of Democrats.
Maybe this is the intended goal: further drive a wedge between working-class white Democrats and the party’s advocacy of immigrant issues. Seek to build his base by reinforcing the issue central to his appeal at the beginning of his campaign.
But, then, we may be reading too much into this. Maybe Trump is reacting to what he’s seeing on Fox News.