Imagine the following scenario:
Donald Trump enters the 2024 presidential election, but announces he’s replacing former Vice President Mike Pence as his running mate with a Latino. The former president argues it’s about time everyone acknowledge what was once thought impossible: Latinos want to go Republican en masse.
He picks someone younger, more charismatic, and even more conservative than him — a child of an immigrant who grew up poor but pulled himself up by the proverbial bootstraps to succeed in the U.S. It’s such an impeccable story that any accusations that Trump’s choice is a vendido — a sellout — fall flatter and are cheesier than a quesadilla.
From East Los Angeles to South Texas, Little Havana to Washington Heights, just enough inspired Latinos become the swing vote that secures Trump’s win — maybe even the first time ever that a GOP presidential candidate wins a majority of the Latino electorate. The GOP thus finally fulfills the prophecy long attributed to Ronald Reagan — that Latinos are Republicans who just don’t know it yet.
Crazy scenario, right? Actually, no.
In an alternate universe, this could’ve totally been a thing — and recent polls and studies that show Latinos are more politically conservative than at any point in recent memory are proof of this.
Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the Latinos its pollsters talked to support Republicans and Democrats in equal numbers, and that only one percentage point separates Joe Biden from Trump in a hypothetical 2024 rematch among the Latinos they surveyed. Two Democratic-friendly research groups found that Latinos are increasingly dissatisfied with the blue view. Another Democrat-aligned firm discovered that the use of “Latinx” by Democratic politicians offends enough Latinos to the point that 30% of the ones they talked to would be less likely to vote for a politician who used the term.
Even a Fairleigh Dickinson University study that found Americans believe there’s a War on Christmas more than ever before revealed that Latinos buy that humbug more fervently than any other ethnic group.
All this news comes a year after Trump — who, quick recap, dismissed Mexicans trying to come into the United States in the 2015 speech that announced his first presidential run as rapists and drug dealers, posed with a hideous-looking taco salad in a 2016 Cinco de Mayo tweet, and referred to El Salvador as a “shithole” country in 2018 — built bigly on his 2016 Latino support to earn 38% percent of our vote. It was the highest such percentage since George W. Bush got 44% of the Latino vote in 2004.
The conservative political swing by Latinos has set off furious finger-pointing among Democratic operatives and glee among conservative ones, who now hope one of the gifts under their Christmas tree this year is the 2022 Latino vote (poor Democrats, meanwhile, are stuck with a giant lump of West Virginia coal in their stocking).
I wrote about this phenomenon in multiple columns leading up to and after the 2020 presidential elections. I’m seeing it on the streets, in social media, and in the poll numbers — it’s real, and it’s reaching a boil.
There are many immediate reasons why more Latinos are voting Republican right now: an attraction to Trump’s bluster, an exhaustion with COVID-19 mandates, a repudiation of the social justice causes that Democrats have campaigned on for the past couple of years at the expense of the economy.
Democratic activists dismiss these points, and instead blame the very real disinformation campaigns on social media that paint President Biden as a communist at best and a child-eating reptilian at worst as swaying too many Latinos to leave their party. But the most important reason why there’s always a chance for Latinos to flip conservative is because it’s inherently within us thanks to a political philosophy that I call rancho libertarianism.
It’s the core beliefs of working-class Latinos, many influenced by their roots in the rural parts of their ancestral countries. Whether you live in Appalachia, the highlands of Jalisco, County Cork in Ireland, or Sicily, country folk often share common traits — rugged individualism, distrust of government and elites, conservative moral beliefs, a love of community and a hatred of political correctness — that are like catnip for Republicans.
It was the worldview of the millions of Catholic European immigrants of previous generations — Irish, Poles, Italians, Germans — who once reliably voted Democrat but whose descendants embraced Trump. It’s the worldview of my dad, uncles, aunts, Mexican-born older cousins, and their millennial children with businesses and young families. Traces of rancho libertarianism are still in my political veins, much to the consternation of my leftist pals.
Every single GOP president going back to Richard Nixon has known about rancho libertarianism, even if they didn’t call it by that name.
It’s why Nixon was about to propose the first amnesty for undocumented immigrants before Watergate derailed those plans. It’s why Reagan remains the only president to ever pass such an amnesty. It’s why George W. Bush — whose brother Jeb married a Mexican immigrant — famously said that family values don’t end at the Rio Grande, a perspective that helped him earn almost half of the Latino vote in 2004,
So if Latinos have always been potential Republicans, why hadn’t party leaders capitalized on rancho libertarianism? The standard answer for a generation has been California Republicans.
Over the course of 12 years, from 1986 to 1998, they helped pass a series of xenophobic propositions — 63, 187, 209, and 227, which respectively made English the official language of California, made life miserable for illegal immigrants, ended affirmative action, and stopped bilingual education in public schools. That turned off a significant portion of the Latino electorate and radicalized a generation of them. Those Latinos, of course, have turned California into a place bluer than Papa Smurf.
What happened in California to the GOP is frequently offered as a cautionary tale of the last gasps of a dying party. But that was a generation ago. Younger Latinos either don’t know that history, or don’t care because they got theirs already — and have now followed in the footsteps of their fellow ethnic Catholics in assimilating and hating the new immigrants in town. It’s why Trump could trash Central American migrant caravans trying to come into this country during his administration and not see his support among Latinos crater but actually increase.
It brings to mind “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” Thomas Frank’s brilliant 2004 book about why his fellow Jayhawkers voted against their political interests by consistently siding with the GOP. In a 2022 election that’s already shaping up to be a ballot-box bloodbath for Democrats, seeing more Latinos go Republican could unleash an electoral earthquake that would change American politics forever.
I hope this doesn’t happen, because I’d rather not see Latinos side with a party that’s anti-science and anti-reason. Anti-logic, anti-women — and still, pretty darn often, beneath the giant taco salads and calls for personal responsibility, anti-Latino.