I spent the first 13 years of my life in Tucson, AZ, just an hour and a half north of the Mexican border. The Mexican influence was visibly woven into the landscape from our Spanish street names to our architecture. Just as visible was the racial hierarchy that existed between white and Mexican Americans—while their Mexican culture was interwoven, the people were left behind.
My experience is reflected in Trump’s vision of America. While some critics have labeled his absurdities comical, his assertions outlandish and noted that he is an embarrassment to himself and his party, there are troubling implications in his candidacy and it is a mistake to miss or minimize them. Early in his campaign, it was easy to write off his prejudiced, racist and ignorant comments, as it seemed unlikely his candidacy would advance. But now, since his popularity has maintained, we must grapple with Trump’s significant following, which has implications for our national identity. In short, Trump’s primary appeal is xenophobia, a condition that has plagued this country from its founding.
Some of Trump’s most televised quotes focus on Mexican immigrants. He has stated, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they’re telling us what we’re getting.” He further referred to Mexicans as “desperate migrants and crafty smugglers.”
Trump plays fast and loose with facts to pander to Americans’ basest fears of outsiders. Only a reality television star would treat the opinions of a few acquaintances employed by border patrol as a demographic fact worthy of influencing presidential policy. But like many in the public eye who came decades before, such as Father Coughlin or Henry Ford, facts are less relevant than thin evidence that fuels pre-existing stereotypes while also appealing to voters’ fears of people different from themselves (claiming that they are rapists and “crafty smugglers”). Trump’s rhetoric connects to a latent American fear of the other that has real-world implications. According to Pew, 70 percent of American adults believe that undocumented immigrants threaten traditional American beliefs and customs (See: white beliefs and customs).
If Trump would like to return to a strictly white America, he would be hard-pressed to find a moment in history when it existed. In fact, even groups that are now classified as white such as Jews, Irish and Italians weren’t always so. All three of these ethnicities were once racialized others. And according to census data, Mexicans were once classified as white as well. This proves that the fundamental differences between “us” (white Americans) and “them” (Mexicans) that Trump attempts to hammer home are actually more fluid, as Mexicans have been grouped with “us” previously in history.
The reality is that Mexicans make up the largest immigrant group in our country right now. And unless we plan to give Texas back, this Mexican influence is part of our current America. We adapt pieces of their culture to add spice and flare to our own without allowing its people the dream this country was founded upon: one of equal opportunity. When we as a nation cast a people as inherently other, we inhibit their access to that dream.