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Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters should prompt some progressive rethinking

Racial politics doesn’t always work how white liberals think it should.

Supporters of President Donald Trump rally in front of a Cuban restaurant in Miami, Florida, on November 3.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

Election night started with a major underperformance for Democrats in Miami-Dade County that cost Rep. Donna Shalala her House seat and sank Joe Biden’s hope of an early win.

Miami has always been a bit of a city apart in terms of Latino politics in the United States, with a heavily Cuban American population that has a tradition of Republican voting and deep emotional and intellectual investments in the Latin American Cold War.

But while Cuba-specific issues are tactically central to electoral battles in Florida, the fact is that even before all the results are in, it’s clear Biden’s weakness with Latino voters was broader than that. In South Florida, Biden lost ground with a diverse Hispanic population that includes many families from Puerto Rico, Venezuela, or Colombia, as well as Cuba broadly.

More to the point, Democrats turned in extremely disappointing performances in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, even in the context of a large overall improvement in the state. Trump actually won Zapata County, for example, a small border jurisdiction that’s 84 percent Hispanic and which Hillary Clinton won by 30 points in 2016.

President Donald Trump during a rally at Miami-Opa Locka Airport in Opa Locka, Florida, on November 2.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The more urban (and, in the case of Las Vegas casino workers, unionized) Latino populations of Arizona and Nevada do seem to have delivered for Biden, so one should not overstate the scope of the trend any more than one understates it.

But there should be some broader rethinking prompted by the breadth of Trump’s improvements with segments of the Latino population that one might anticipate would be more open to a conservative message on either foreign policy or cultural issues.

It’s not just about electoral tactics or outreach: The professional class of progressives who often shape cultural narratives should consider the racial dynamics of the Trump years and their own approach to intersectional politics.

Biden’s weakness with Hispanics is bigger than Cubans

Since the issue arose first and most clearly in Miami, it’s understandable that a lot of intellectual reactions focused on specific issues related to the Cuban community.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, the New York Times Magazine writer whose work on the 1619 Project has been very influential in progressive thinking about race, noted on Twitter that the “Latino” construct is a US invention, one that doesn’t reflect the actual racial dynamics in Latin America. Cuba, for example, is a multiracial nation with a history of slavery, racism, and colorism, much of which migrated to the US with the conservative-leaning bloc of Cubans who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution.

Andrea Pino-Silva, a Cuban American left-wing activist, went further. She posited that by aligning with Trump, Cuban Americans are specifically reaching for a kind of aspirational white status. In this view, Cuban Americans don’t vote for Trump despite his racism. Rather, “Trump’s appeal is the appeal of white supremacy.”

There is truth in both of these points. Many Cuban Americans are fair-skinned, and there is a broader history of shared bonding over anti-Blackness as a vehicle whereby ethnic communities integrate into the implicitly white American mainstream.

But this is not the whole story. Democrats suffered huge collapses — on the order of 20 points — in multiple heavily Latino counties in the Rio Grande Valley. These are Mexican American voters who do not have a history of right-wing politics, and they broke hard against Democrats at the very time the party is having a breakout in the suburbs of Texas’s big cities.

Looking at Democrats’ problems with Cubans and South Americans in Florida in the context of their struggles with Mexican Americans in Texas suggests a different diagnosis. What if many US Hispanics simply don’t see the racial politics of the Trump era the way intellectuals — whose thinking and writing on structural racism and white supremacy have gained broad influence in recent years — think they should?

Trump, racism, and immigration

Over the past five years, many liberals have had occasion to refer to Trump’s rhetoric and approach to immigration policy as “racist.” I’ve done it myself.

Reasonable people can disagree about the details of immigration policy, but Trump’s demagoguery on the subject, to me, reeks of irrational hostility to people of Latin American ancestry. And his broader musings about “shithole countries,” frequent requests to get more immigrants from Norway, and demands that the congresswomen of color known as “the Squad” “go back where you came from” to me, again, reek of racism.

But at a certain point, one has to admit that not all the people this racial animus is directed at see it that way.

In the famous “autopsy report” prepared by the Republican National Committee after the 2012 election, the RNC concluded that “if Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”

At the time, that struck me as insightful and correct. It’s not that Hispanic voters are obsessed with immigration policy (polls normally show health care, education, and jobs as higher priorities), but Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s immigration rhetoric conveyed hostility to Hispanic Americans in a way that was just an insuperable obstacle. Trump, more than anything else, has proven that wrong. It simply is not heard that way by all Hispanics in the United States, and liberals need to take that into consideration. They also need to consider how their own rhetoric sounds.

The Latinx problem

For the past several years, the term “Latinx” has been gaining momentum in progressive circles, even though only 3 percent of US Hispanics actually use it themselves.

The word originates in academic and activist circles, having been coined in 2004 and only gaining popularity about 10 years later. The term is meant to solve two problems. One is that the Spanish language uses the masculine term “Latino” to refer not just to men but also to mixed-gender groups, implying a kind of problematic privileging of the male gender. The other is that the binary nature of grammatical gender — Latino men and Latina women — is a poor fit for the needs and lives of nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people. In academic and activist circles, “Latinx” suggests itself as an elegant gender-neutral solution.

The message of the term, however, is that the entire grammatical system of the Spanish language is problematic, which in any other context progressives would recognize as an alienating and insensitive message. As Terry Blas has written for Vox, in actual Latin American countries, the term “Latine” has gained some currency as a gender-neutral grammatical form. Using a word like that would mark you out as unusual in any Spanish-speaking community. But it’s a formulation that at least respects the basic way the Spanish language works, instead of trying to foist a series of unpronounceable words on it.

Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), who represents a heavily working-class, heavily Hispanic area in and around Phoenix, advises Democrats to “start by not using the term Latinx.”

Supporters of President Trump rally in front of the Cuban restaurant Versailles in Miami on November 4.
Eva Marie Uzcategui/AFP via Getty Images

It surely goes too far to suggest the use of this one word plays a large — or even a small — role in Democrats’ struggles with Hispanic voters. But it is, if nothing else, a symptom of the problem, which is a tendency to privilege academic concepts and linguistic innovations in addressing social justice concerns.

Among self-identified Democrats, for example, a Pew survey this summer showed that African Americans were slightly less likely than whites to favor cutting police spending, while Hispanics were much less likely. Statistically speaking, disagreements were associated with age, not ethnic identity.

Self-identified white liberals report warmer feelings about immigrants than do Hispanics. And on a question that serves as a component of the standard academic racial resentment battery — do you agree that “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up: blacks should do the same without special favors” — white liberals were more likely to disagree with it than Black people were.

Progressive intellectuals have tried for years to coach people to see racism as a disembodied property of inegalitarian systems rather than a question of individual prejudice or bad manners. That’s why the Border Patrol can be “racist” even if most of its officers are Hispanic, or why the presence of Black cops on a police force doesn’t debunk the charge that the criminal justice system is racist. This style of thinking has some real power. I have often used it to press people to understand the ways in which zoning regulations perpetuate segregation even in the absence of formal discrimination.

After non-college-educated white voters broke hard for Trump in 2016, Democrats spent a fair amount of time sweating how to win at least some of them back, while many in the media observed that they tend to score high on racial resentment indicators. But educational gaps exist within nonwhite communities as well, and in fact, college degrees are much scarcer among Black and Hispanic populations than among the white one.

To say that working-class nonwhites don’t care about racial justice would be absurd. But many of them may not accept the academic constructs of what these things mean. At the same time, as Biden fell short in Florida, a minimum-wage ballot initiative won with over 60 percent of the vote. A higher minimum wage is, among other things, a powerful tool for closing the racial gap in income, seemingly one that’s more broadly popular than the overall Democratic Party gestalt.

The votes are not fully in. It will be weeks or months before we have all the data to hash out. But given the prominence of “Trump as white supremacist” narratives over the past several years, one question Democrats will need to answer is why some Latinos strayed from the party in 2020. They should be open to answers that go beyond tactics and outreach strategy and ask real questions about concepts and fundamentals.