Latinos and Democrats: A Love Affair Gone Wrong
Robert Oscar Lopez
As I drive along a suburban thoroughfare, I see cars honking wildly in support of several men with massive Trump flags standing on the roadside. One of them is Latino and looks like me! “Are Latinos going to turn Texas blue?” I ask him.
“No, we’re going to make Texas bleed red!” He says, smiling. And then I capture his thoughts on video:
As Mark Twain tells us, there are lies, damn lies, and statistics. I don’t know what to make of polls right now. Like most of the mainstream polls forecasting a Biden landslide, many polls are claiming that Trump has turned off Latinos with his border wall rhetoric and will lose major states like Texas as a result.
But I see signs everywhere that the polls may be misreading Latinos. Against all the odds, there a large segment of the Latino population likes the man who’s been packaged as a rich bigot who despises them and wants them to die. While many Latinos did support Trump in 2016, four years later we see caravans and salsa parties in his name. And there’s a noticeable trend among Latino men to proclaim an excitement about Trump. Latina woman, perhaps less enthusiastic about him, have been seen coming out and cheering for Trump.
Needless to say, I love the change. It’s great not to feel weird as a Latino Trump supporter or to be cast as a race traitor. It also felt good to participate in a Spanish-language debate in which my support of Trump got equal time beside a progressive opponent of Trump. Things have changed. As we debated “Decisión 2020,” the four of us reflected a range of Latino perspectives: Mexican, Puerto Rican, Panamanian, and Salvadoran. And the overall vibe felt, surprisingly, very Trump-friendly.
I looked closely at the Pew research on U.S. Latino populations, which included an exhaustive survey of fifteen different ethnicities, completed in 2017. Brazilian Americans, who are Latino but not Hispanic, are not included in the data. Brazil has the largest population in Latin America, topping 200 million. Unlike Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans, they have not been closely studied or tracked.
When one examines the most recent data about Latinos in the United States, then the shift makes a lot of sense. We have to take into account the context of 2020’s events as well. To understand why Trump has garnered surprising support from these communities, let us first consider the four points of the Democrats’ Latino square. These are the four pillars of the Democrats’ traditional lock on the Latino vote:
- Antipoverty programs, assumed to appeal to Latinos because of their poverty rates.
- Identity politics, akin to the rhetorical appeal to African Americans, assumed to appeal to Latinos because they are a racial minority.
- Revolutionary Latin American rhetoric drawn from the Cold War mix of Jesuitical liberation theology and anti-imperialist Marxism, assumed to appeal to Latinos because so much of Latin America’s intellectual elite espouses these views.
- Open-borders immigration, assumed to appeal to Latinos because so many of their friends and relatives stand to benefit from resolving their residency status and possibly becoming citizens.
This quadrivium did work for the second half of the twentieth century, up until recently. The Republicans were easy to cast as racist. Most Latinos in the United States were of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent and came from lands that the United States invaded in the nineteenth century. While Blacks and Latinos do not always get along, Latinos did like Obama generally and tended to feel affinity for other racial minorities as a result of their own encounters with racism.
But how have recent events changed these four points of the Democrats’ Latino square? Let’s take a look.
Even before COVID struck, many of the fastest-growing Latino groups in the United States came from countries devastated by left-wing policies. While the Mexican and Puerto Rican populations have increased since 2000 by 76% and 65%, respectively, consider the growth among other groups. Argentine Americans have increased by 158%, Colombian Americans by 148%, Ecuadorian Americans by 174%, Guatemalan Americans by 255%, Nicaraguan Americans by 128%, Peruvian Americans by 174%, Salvadoran Americans by 225%, and Venezuelan Americans by 352%. In many of these Latino communities, over half the population residing in the US has recent memories of socialist dreams turning into terrible nightmares. Even if they came from countries that had right-wing governments recently, they have interfaced with radical and sometimes violent leftists attempting to gain power.
Since 2000, Cuban Americans have grown at a slow pace of 50%, but they are still the fourth largest Latino group (after Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Salvadorans) and have a high degree of visibility in Florida, a swing state where 66% of them live. They have long spoken about the terrors of Castro’s communism and have served as an example to many of the other Latino immigrant groups. Cuban-dominated Florida is also the #1 state of residency for Argentine Americans, Colombian Americans, Nicaraguan Americans, Peruvian Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Venezuelan Americans. My liberal friends in Miami have admitted that they are very concerned about the Democrats’ failure to grasp how strong the anti-socialist rhetoric is in Spanish-language discussion communities. While Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a big hit among New York liberals, she’s actually the worst possible template for Latino outreach on a national scale.
Many Latin American countries have found frustration in international aid arrangements so they take a skeptical view of statist social spending. Latinos are not necessarily enthused about Obamacare. Biden defeated the Democratic alternatives who talked about replacing Obamacare with more expansive health-care programs like expansions of Medicaid. While Trump opposes Obamacare, he has stated in the past that he’s not entirely opposed to expanding Medicaid. So even if Latinos are worried about health care, that doesn’t mean they will jump up to vote for Biden, or hate Trump.
But most of all, COVID was an obvious game changer. Because I lost my job at a Baptist college a year ago, I began 2020 humbled, living a life like countless Latino men in America. Cobbling together income from contract work, not enjoying the comforts of absolute job security, Latino men can’t feed their families if everything has been shut down. As crazy as it sounds, catching COVID doesn’t scare us as much as not being able to earn enough to support our wives and children. Confronted by someone this year with the question, “are you willing to risk death to get out and earn a week’s pay?” I answered “of course” and couldn’t fathom why anybody would see that as strange. The Democrats’ flippancy about shutting down cities and sending kids home from school felt, for many of us, like a slap in the face. By contrast, Trump confronted his own COVID infection with a macho resiliency.
For the most part Democrats seem stunned that Latinos aren’t in love with their COVID lockdowns and promises of government aid. Never have they been more disconnected from Latino neighborhoods across America where men set out each day with the resolve to spend the day working so their children can eat. This shocked me because they have spent so much time talking about immigration. Immigrant men come to the US overwhelmingly to work so they can send money back to their families. This is where the recent Latino community came from. Why would it surprise anyone that they would end up rallying around Trump, who brashly insisted that America reopen for business, instead of rallying around Biden?
A year ago, I think Latinos were largely in the bag for Democrats because of the party’s antiracist focus. That changed in 2020. After the death of George Floyd, the sudden prominence of Black Lives Matter turned a lot of Latinos off. This too went over Democrats’ heads and I don’t think they’ll ever understand it. A spate of news articles in June 2020 declared that Latinos were firmly behind BLM, complete with the usual, and always questionable, polling data. After four months it was clear that support for the movement had fallen but many polls, such as this one, tried to downplay the obvious drop in support among Latinos.
Naturally identity politics will face a steeper climb among Latinos than among Blacks, since the Latino population includes so many different ethnicities. But Black Lives Matter brought out four points that likely repelled Latinos.
First, the violence does not go over well with Latinos who live in vulnerable neighborhoods and generally want the police to help them if they become the target of attacks.
Second, as “white supremacy” eclipsed “racism” as the trending term, Latinos found themselves uncertain of their role in an increasingly radical discourse. Many Latinos are white. Latinos who are Black do not necessarily embrace the same radical rhetoric. And as Black Lives Matter took advantage of its spotlight, the rhetoric became more and more exclusive of Latinos and Asians. The term “BIPOC” trended: — “Black, Indigenous, and People of Color” – thereby separating Blacks and Native Americans from Latinos with a not-too-subtle implication that Latinos don’t have the same right to claim the antiracist banner for themselves.
Third, Black Lives Matter followed the rules of intersectionality and lumped in LGBT and women’s issues with antiracist activism. This dilution of focus probably led to mixed results in the Latino community. One statistical difference among Latino ethnicities that people tend not to consider is the percentage of adults who are married. In the U.S. population as a whole, 48% of adults are married. Look at the percentage of adults married in this diverse collection of Latino ethnicities:
Average for US population 48%
Average for Latinos 46%
Puerto Ricans 37%
While poverty or education rates are considerable factors, the adult marriage rate offers a snapshot of the ethnic communities’ lived experience. Ethnic groups that have low marriage rates, like Puerto Ricans, will probably be more receptive to Black Lives Matter rhetoric about deconstructing the nuclear family. The groups with very high marriage rates are also the groups that are likely not to feel affinity for that kind of radicalism.
Fourth, Latinos have also had to contend with police profiling but simply don’t have a monolithic response to police shooting controversies. Some Latinos see police shootings of Blacks as a mirror to their own struggles while others, who have also been confronted by police, feel skeptical about the high-profile cases where they picture themselves being less aggressive to law enforcement than George Floyd or Jacob Blake.
The revolutionary Latin American Marxism
The radical left that we associate with Mexican Americans in California or Puerto Ricans in New York is frankly outdated and feels, ironically, very Anglo. The revolutionary poet or bespectacled professor ranting about American fruit companies colonizing guileless brown people feels like a parody left over from the Cold War, even though the young and lipstick-wielding Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez performs this academic agitprop like a champ. In the case of Argentines, Colombians, Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Panamanians, Peruvians, Salvadorans, and Venezuelans, over half the community in the US came to this country since 2000, meaning that they saw a full arc of post-Cold War Latin America. Someone who’s thirty-five today won’t even remember the Cold War. Latin Americans of today have witnessed left-wing and right-wing governments in their own countries imprison people, seize property, threaten journalists, and engage in corruption. They come from urbane countries that have cell phones, internet cafés, and gay bars. They know about K-Pop and Brazilian hip-hop. Many even cross the famous US-Mexico border with their Instagram and WhatsApp accounts active.
The Jesuits who became famous for bringing liberation theology are not as adored as the intellectual left in the United States imagines. Neither is Cuba or the leftists who took over Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina in recent decades. One thing that the new Latino communities do care about is pedophilia, sex trafficking, and child abuse. This is why, to the shock of some of my liberal Latino friends, many of the Latinos they canvassed got into tangents about Q-Anon. The Democrats stupidly avoided dealing with these issues because they fantasized that border-crossings, porn, and the LGBT agenda have done no harm to the innocence of children. People who’ve been through those horrors know the left-wing fantasies are hurtfully deluded. Because Trump’s supporters took the lead on sex trafficking, a segment of the Latino population has an additional reason to feel warm toward them while feeling cold to the left’s perverse revolutionary rhetoric.
Certain recent history also complicates the Cold War left’s understanding of Latin America. Chinese economic influence has displaced American influence in many business zones, which weakens the traditional left’s casting of Trump as a colonizer and strengthens Latino connection with Trump who speaks strongly against Chinese trade practices. Also, Puerto Ricans have voted against statehood in multiple plebiscites yet Democrats have recently taken to claiming they will “make Puerto Rico a state,” which negates their own standing as watchdogs against settler colonialism.
A large segment of the Latino population will always see the immigration issue as a deal-breaker. They feel the Democrats will get green cards for people they love while the Republicans will deport them. Even though the reality is far less clear than this binary implies, the rhetoric does present Latinos with that either/or choice. Many will stick with the Democrats on that issue. I do think, though, that many Latinos have grown up with a nonchalance about immigration that works in the Republicans’ favor. Millions of Latinos dealt with the immigration system and followed the rules, so they don’t necessarily think the US is at fault for forcing others to follow the same rules. Millions of Latinos don’t hate or fear their home countries and therefore don’t see deportation as a death sentence. Many Latinos also know that their home countries have gone through a diaspora, and it’s not healthy to have a third of a country’s people exported to the US. Lastly, countless Latinos just don’t see their home countries as insufferably terrible places to live or even as remote from them in the US in an age of so many communications and social media. While it stings them to think that some in the US don’t want their people to come to the US and become citizens, an increasing number just don’t think that the enforcement of immigration law is necessarily fatal or even unfair.
Will the Democrats and Latinos break up?
I don’t think 2020 signifies a lasting riff between Latinos and the Democrats. Certainly many Latinos who like Trump will probably find much of the Republican Party distasteful. And some Democrats will wise up and change their strategy. But this has been a year of surprises. Now we have to see who wins the election.