The Deep Origins of Latino Support for Trump

May 12, 2022

Bertica Cabrera Morris, a business and political consultant who was born in Cuba and has spent most of her adult life in central Florida, has helped several Republican Presidential candidates with Latino outreach, among them George W. Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump. Some won; some lost, as Trump did this fall, but not before increasing his share of the Latino vote to thirty-two per cent, up four points from 2016, according to exit polls. “We are terribly sad” that Trump lost, Cabrera Morris said, but she expressed optimism that the next Republican will win a greater share of the Latino vote. “We moved the needle, and we changed history,” she said.

Many Americans were surprised when it became clear that Trump had done better than expected among Latinos. In places such as South Florida and South Texas, he did much better, but all across the country Trump won a greater share of the Latino vote than he did four years ago. He made marked improvements in Democratic cities such as Houston, Las Vegas, and Philadelphia, and even in Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York, which were not the focus of the Trump campaign’s spending on Latino outreach. The shift toward Trump has given Latino Republicans confidence that Latino conservatism is on the rise and will continue to grow.

Latino advocates on the Democratic side, meanwhile, seem reluctant to talk about the shift. Some have downplayed its significance and expressed frustration that it has received so much media attention, as if Trump actually won the Latino vote. Rather than dwelling on Trump’s gains, Latino Democrats would have us focus on the fact that a surge of Latinos turning out to vote helped Joe Biden win critical swing states such as Arizona, even though Trump improved his performance among Latino voters there, too.

To think about the Latino shift toward Trump, though, is to talk about the future of Latino politics. It means considering what lessons all Americans need to learn about Latinos, so that they aren’t surprised by the demographic’s diverse political views. It means taking part in the ongoing conversation about whether Latinos should think of themselves more as a group or as individual Americans, and how political parties should see them. And it means reckoning with what millions of Latinos found appealing about a President whose immigration policies included separating families at the Mexican border, and whether their support was to be expected, or a fluke, or a sign of a red wave to come. In response to these questions, Latino Republicans have a lot to say. Americans “think that we are Democratic,” Cabrera Morris said, “and we are not.”

Leaders of the Hispanic Republican cause today—historically, they’ve preferred the ethnic label Hispanic to others, such as Latino or, heaven forbid, Latinx—haven’t felt such momentum since the election of George W. Bush in 2000. At the time, many conservative Latinos saw the Texas governor, who went on to earn at least forty per cent of the Latino vote in his Presidential reëlection campaign, in 2004, as the future of the Republican Party. Latinos represented a rapidly growing share of the American population, and, for Republicans to remain relevant in the future, the Party had to make inroads with them. Bush showed that it could be done.

The Bush family had a long track record of cultivating Latino support. Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, was the chairman of the R.N.C. who presided over the formal recognition of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, an auxiliary arm of the organization that, among other things, encourages conservative Latinos to run for office and recruits Latinos to join the Party. Bush’s brother Jeb had married a woman from Mexico; helped their father win Puerto Rico’s first ever Republican primary, in 1980; worked as campaign manager for Florida’s Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the first Cuban-American congresswoman; and was popular among Florida’s Latino communities as governor of that state. As for George W. Bush, he spoke some Spanish, reportedly had tamales on Christmas Eve, was the first President to have an official Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House, promised comprehensive immigration reform, and hired many Latinos to work for his Administration, some of whom recalled a picture of them standing side by side outside the White House.

One of them is Daniel Garza, who today is the president of the libre Initiative, a branch of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-family-backed advocacy group. During the Bush years, Garza worked in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison. Bush’s victories, he said, were “confirmation in the minds of many conservative Latinos that if you just engage, if you just do the work, Latinos will respond.” Bush’s 2000 campaign appointed Latinos to head statewide grassroots groups, sent surrogates to talk with Latinos across the country, wrote op-eds, and ran ads on radio and television. “Viva Bush was a full-on effort with staff and clout,” Garza said. Because Bush had made such a great effort, he won a greater share of the Latino vote in 2004 than any Republican Presidential candidate before him.

Trump’s appeal to Latinos reminded some conservatives more of Ronald Reagan than Bush. For the 1980 election, Reagan hired the San Antonio advertising executive Lionel Sosa to create ads for his campaign’s national Latino outreach. Reagan famously told Sosa that he would have an easy job, because Latinos were Republicans who “just don’t know it yet.” Believing this to be true, Reagan turned away from Richard Nixon’s ethnicity-centered approach—defined by gestures such as the appointment of Latinos, the establishment of government agencies to represent them, and the creation of government jobs—to instead craft an appeal based on conservative ideology. His Latino campaign was able to articulate the core characteristics of Latino conservatism: family values, work ethic, patriotism, and anti-Communism.

Alfonso Aguilar was another Bush Administration official in the photo outside the White House. A lawyer born in Puerto Rico, Aguilar was the first chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, where he said he was responsible for developing programs to promote the civic integration of immigrants. Even though Aguilar worked in the Bush Administration, he never considered himself a “Bushie,” because, he said, he was more ideologically conservative than his boss. Today, he is the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, and a member of the Catholics for Trump advisory board.

About a decade ago, Aguilar said, he advocated for a return to Reagan’s theory that Republicans could win over Latinos with conservative ideas. Now Aguilar says he feels, “in a way, vindicated,” because Trump showed that Republicans can win Latino votes without talking, above all, about immigration or having a “radical open-borders agenda.” It’s worth noting that Reagan signed an immigration bill—the Immigration Reform and Control Act, from 1986—that led to legal status for more than two million undocumented immigrants. Reagan also highlighted the importance of maintaining close ties with Mexico, and argued that we didn’t need a border fence separating our countries. As for Bush, many Americans saw his positions on religious faith, so-called family values, the economy, and the military as quite conservative—hardly Republican-lite.

Nevertheless, Aguilar argues that Democrats misunderstand the aspirations of immigrants. They come to the United States, he said, to find economic and religious freedom, and because they believe in America’s promise of equal opportunity and inclusion. They see themselves, he argues, not as members of a minority group but as individuals and families who left Latin America to look for something better in the United States.

This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Latino voters, like other Americans, identified the economy as their top concern. Aguilar considers Trump’s economic populism as his main appeal to Latino voters, adding that this aspect of his Presidency also marked his contrast with establishment figures such as Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. They focussed on Latino small-business owners, who are certainly important, given that they make up one of the fastest growing segments of American business owners. But most Latinos, Aguilar noted, are employees, and it was meaningful to them that, under Trump—and before the pandemic—they enjoyed reduced rates of unemployment and poverty, increased rates of homeownership, and rising family median incomes.

To explain Trump’s appeal, Aguilar also pointed to his Administration’s support for religious liberty and the right to life. From early on in his Presidency, Trump made inroads with evangelical leaders, and during his four years in office he talked about the right to life, school choice, and prayer in schools. At a church in Miami, Trump said, “America was not built by religion-hating socialists” but, rather, “by churchgoing, God-worshiping, freedom-loving patriots.” There were also his Supreme Court picks, including, most recently, Amy Coney Barrett.

Most curiously, Aguilar named Donald Trump’s message of “true inclusion” as a third factor fuelling Latino support for the President. He said that Latinos thought, “You’re including me because you’re seeing me as an American—you’re not seeing me as a Hispanic that’s separate. Democrats just don’t understand this, because they follow the modern theories of all multiculturalism.” Aguilar added, “Well, to me, that’s not true inclusion—that’s separating people. That’s marginalizing people. I think President Trump made them feel like part of America.”

The truth is, of course, more complicated. As Betty Cárdenas, the national chairwoman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, said, the Hispanics she talked with in the Rio Grande Valley emphasized their Hispanic identity first, as part of their American identity. They didn’t want to be absorbed into the American melting pot but, rather, preferred to hang on to their unique Hispanic culture.

More broadly, when African-American voters fled the G.O.P. in the 1964 Presidential election, in part because of the Party’s nomination of Barry Goldwater, who had opposed that year’s Civil Rights Act, Republicans understood that they had to replace those lost voters with new ones. Latinos became primary targets. A memo to the Ford campaign’s deputy chairwoman, in 1976, acknowledged that Latinos were “different from one another,” and, even more importantly, that they differed from African-American voters. Latinos could be “played off against the negroes to break the monolithic low class mass” that voted Democrat, the memo read. Republicans had to show Latinos that they would “do more for them and not prefer the negroes (as the Democrats do).”

Just this year, Trump marshalled his own version of identity politics. During the Republican National Convention, he pardoned the Black ex-convict Jon Ponder, delivered remarks at a naturalization ceremony inside the White House, and showcased his endorsement by Latino Border Patrol union members, one of whom said that he had “personally witnessed the negative effects of illegal immigration.”

Rachel Campos-Duffy, a Fox News contributor of Mexican and Spanish descent, objected to the racial thinking of Democrats, who, she said, “divide, divide, divide, divide, until they can make it into this racialized preset narrative that they have in their mind.” She said that liberals “would try and make me somehow have to tear myself in half, because half of me has this indigenous blood and half of me is, you know, God forbid, imperialist Spanish blood. That’s all bullshit—we’re all Americans.” The “bottom line,” she said, is that Trump did “something that we were told by all these race hucksters that you can’t do, which is simply present an economic and social message based on patriotism, based on love of country, based on prosperity. And, regardless of whether you were Black, Hispanic, or white, that this could appeal to you because you were going to benefit from it.”

It remains to be seen whether the optimism of Latino Republicans, fuelled by Trump’s remaking of the Republican Party, will bear fruit. It will likely be a long time before a majority of Latinos vote for a Republican candidate for President. One also can’t be sure that the support Latinos gave Trump won’t end with Trump. Many have cited his macho-man appeal and his charismatic personality as reasons for his Latino support; who knows if it can be duplicated by whoever ends up being the next Republican nominee.

When I asked Cabrera Morris, the Florida political consultant, about whether the enthusiasm that Latino Republicans felt for Trump can carry over, she responded, “I don’t know,” adding that it will “depend on whether the candidate has the same conservative principles and leadership skills as Trump did.” Her advice for the next Republican candidate: “Do not be afraid,” and “stand for what you believe.” She said that she wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything the candidate says, just as she didn’t love everything about Trump. But, because Latinos “have been pushed around” by politicians in both parties, she said, they’re drawn to strong leaders.

Campos-Duffy loved Trump for how he challenged the Republican orthodoxy, but she believes that a different Republican might find even greater success among Latinos. “Trump is not perfect,” she said, “but what if you had Trump’s policies with somebody who wasn’t quite as polarizing?” Regardless of who the next candidate is, Campos-Duffy said, “I just pray that the Republicans can somehow realize this golden opportunity that is now in front of them—thanks, ironically, to Donald Trump. Because he’s supposedly this racist who, you know, blah blah blah, hates Latinos, and I don’t believe it for a second. I don’t believe he’s racist. I believe that he was just looking out for the working class. And that includes Latinos, you know?” She said that she wants to tell other Republicans, “Listen, there is momentum. Wake up.”

Leaders of the Latino conservative movement are gearing up for the upcoming Senate runoff elections in Georgia, which has a significant Latino population. After that, they’ll likely turn their attention to supporting the newly elected Latino Republicans in Congress, such as Maria Elvira Salazar, from Florida; New York’s Nicole Malliotakis, whose father is from Greece and whose mother is from Cuba; and Tony Gonzales, from Texas. At the same time, they’ll look ahead to the 2022 midterm elections, and they’ll work to cultivate future leaders, such as Abraham Enriquez, the president of the nonprofit organization Bienvenido, based in Dallas.

It’s not clear how or whether Democrats will combat the momentum felt by Latino Republicans. For some of them, acknowledging Trump’s greater share of the Latino vote amounts to blaming Latinos for the close election, as though they failed to fulfill a promise. Acknowledging the shift could also have consequences for how Democrats think about their coalition, what kind of investments they should make in Latino communities going forward, and what their platform should be on immigration, education, health care, and many other issues.

In the White House, Joe Biden will have the opportunity to show Latinos that they’re important to the Democratic coalition. First, though, Democrats will have to acknowledge that a shift did, in fact, take place. Carlos Odio, of the progressive Latino firm Equis Research, told me that it makes Latino Democrats “uncomfortable” to consider the move by some Latinos toward Trump, because “if you view Donald Trump as being the raging racist that he is, the guy who put Stephen Miller in charge of our immigration system, then people say, ‘Well, shouldn’t it be Latinos who fight back, who lead the charge?’ ” Odio said that, in upcoming elections, he hopes Latinos will get “the white working-class treatment.” He added, “I don’t need a Latino ‘Hillbilly Elegy’—we can pass on that part. But I think the rest of it would be great to see.”