Jeremy Beck's picture


  by  Jeremy Beck

Perhaps no other mainstream writer examined the 2016 electorate's position on immigration more consistently or presciently than Vanity Fair's T.A. Frank

The mainstream media's typical approach to covering immigration is to divide the debate into two camps: the "pro-immigration" side and the "anti-immigration" side. As my high school coach used to say: "You're either with us or you're snot." The typical story casts one side of the debate as "moderate" and inclusive; and the other as "hard-line" and exclusive. Ironically, this framing device is itself exclusive, leaving little to no room for Americans who like immigration and want it to continue but at lower levels that are enforced (the media has typically portrayed this as a "fringe" view). Propped by polls that offer false choices, the "pro-vs-no" narrative has enabled Republicans and Democrats to actually avoid the fundamental debate.

In the aftermath of Trump's electoral victory, the media itself faces a binary "blue pill, red pill" choice: (1) Stick with the "pro-vs-anti" narrative and try to explain how the "anti" side won; or (2) Re-examine the conventional paradigm and seek out new ways to cover the debate.

Anyone who chooses the latter "red pill" choice, would do well to review T.A. Frank's election coverage over the past year. Writing from a Liberal's perspective, Frank had his finger on the pulse of the electorate that the professional pollsters (outside of Kellyanne Conway) missed. 

On January, 14 - more than two weeks before the Iowa Caucuses - The New York Times ran a feature on Marco Rubio shifting to a security-first immigration position while holding on to his commitment to allowing employers to keep their illegal hires. The Los Angeles Times ran a column about immigration-expansionist Paul Ryan and the "sane wing of the GOP" desperately attempting to deny Trump the nomination. Frank wrote that not only was Trump likely to be the Republican nominee, but his path to victory had been laid out to Republicans more than two years prior:

The intellectual groundwork for Trump’s campaign, and the Republican civil war that he has unleashed, was laid without much notice in an unlikely place. In the summer of 2013, Alabama senator Jeff Sessions noted that passing immigration reform, at least as Washington understood the term, would be an unmitigated disaster. “Now is the time to speak directly to the real and legitimate concerns of millions of hurting Americans whose wages have declined and whose job prospects have grown only bleaker,” he wrote in a memo to his colleagues. “This humble and honest populism . . . would open the ears of millions who have turned away from our party. Of course, such a clear and honest message would require saying ‘no’ to certain business demands and powerful interests who shaped the immigration bill in the Senate."

As it turned out, Sessions was right about the audience for his message. What he probably didn’t guess - what nobody guessed - was that the populism would be catalyzed by a member of the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent. And that the messenger might not be super concerned about the "humble" bit.

On January 28 Frank sized up a potential Clinton-Trump match up:

Many working-class Americans feel hurt by trade and illegal immigration, and they feel abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats go left on trade during elections but side with Republicans on trade deals, while Republicans go right on immigration during elections but (at least in the Senate) side with Democrats on immigration reform. Trump has tossed a grenade into this arrangement, saying that both sides are useless and pledging a more nationalist approach to immigration and trade. It’s working for him with these voters. To be sure, Democrats have already been losing working-class white voters for years, and in 2012 they went nearly two to one for Mitt Romney over Obama, so there are limits to how many more Trump can peel off, but the effect will be powerful if he wins more of them over in a Rust Belt state like Pennsylvania....

....At the same time, Hillary Clinton is the toughest opponent he could face. She’s an unflappable debater and consummate insider, and no one has trouble picturing her as president—something that cannot be said of Trump. Ultimately, the choice will hinge on just how deep our current populism runs. More Americans than ever have had it with the elite consensus on immigration and trade, and the resentment they feel over political correctness is profound. It took a Trump to show us this.

On February 4, after Trump finished 2nd in Iowa, Frank explained why he thought the Trump campaign would avoid a death spiral, despite "doing the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do - like speaking with care, hiring seasoned consultants, avoiding indiscriminate insults," etc.:

His initial pitch, when he declared his candidacy, was that we had to fix illegal immigration and get rid of leaders who were stupid. He promised to be the businessman who could build a wall and make better deals - and that was pretty much it. But those issues, especially immigration, turned out to be so powerful that voters were willing to excuse far more than they ordinarily would.

On February 10, after the New Hampshire primary, Frank questioned the GOP's 2012 "autopsy" and suggested that Trump and Sanders were the candidates most emblematic of the changing zeitgeist: 

In 2013, {Republican elites} decided that Romney had proven to be resistible only because of a failure to win the Latino vote - a belief with a rickety empirical foundation -- and designated Rubio to be the face of a massive bipartisan immigration bill, which would have led to larger Democratic majorities....

...At this moment, we have a candidate in each party trying to resurrect the New Deal coalition; both Trump and Bernie Sanders sound popular themes of nationalism over globalism and commoners over elites. Whoever does this best stands a good chance of winning the White House and becoming the leader of a populist party.

On February 23, amidst a broad media consensus that Marco Rubio was the new GOP favorite (despite consistently polling in the teens), Frank doubted:

{Rubio's} core portfolio of policies - more force abroad, more immigration at home, bigger tax cuts, less government-subsidized health care, lower Social Security payments - has the support of, oh, maybe eight or nine ordinary voters. But G.O.P. Washington and K Street love it. Rubio is a fine new wrapping in which to present the same old butter cookies. If anyone can prevent the G.O.P. from having to offer anything other than a new face, it's him.

On February 26, Frank noted one of Trump's weakest debate moments: 

Trump couldn’t hide an ignorance of policy specifics, and the excuse he provided for hiring foreign workers at his hotels - that you can’t find adequate help during the peak season - flies squarely in the face of the theoretical underpinnings of his immigration policy: plenty of American workers, after all, are available if you pay them enough.

On March 7, after Nancy Reagan's death, Frank put the issues of the 2016 election in historical political perspective:

But it was under Nancy’s husband that the Cold War effectively ended. And, suddenly, once the big foreign-policy question of the age had evaporated, conservatives split. (It’s no surprise that Buchanan’s first insurgency arose in 1992.) The new question was about what role America should play in the world henceforth—whether we should use our reprieve to play a much-reduced role on the world stage or instead double down on a lot of stuff we were doing during the Cold War. The mainstream wings of both parties came out in favor of the internationalist view: expand trade, expand NATO, expand immigration, and commit to intervention for either humanitarian reasons (liberal hawks) or for the sake of retaining superpower status (conservative hawks). But a meaningful minority on both sides - a less intellectually esteemed one, albeit - said much of what Donald Trump is saying today: we’re getting killed on trade, we don’t need to have troops stationed everywhere, and immigration policy is a disaster for the working class.

On April 20, on the heels of big New York primary victories for Clinton and Trump, Frank wrote that "Trumpism" (with its populist immigration-reductionism) and "Clintonism" (with its corporatist immigration-expansionism) could result in a profound shift in the identities of the Republican and Democratic Parties, leaving the Democrats as the "party of the 1 percent":

The more that Democrats write off the white working class, which has been experiencing a drastic decline in living standards, the harder it is for them to call themselves a party of the little guy. The more that the rich can frame various business practices as blows to privilege or oppression - predatory lending as a way to expand minority home ownership, outsourcing as a way to uplift the world’s poor, etc. - the more they get a pass from Democrats on practices that hurt poorer Americans.

On May 17, as headline on Real Clear Politics blared "1996 Flashback: Bill Clinton Talks Like Trump On Immigration" Frank wrote that immigration was so important to the election, that it could be "The One Issue That Could Destory Hillary Clinton":

If the question about immigration policy becomes one of being pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, then Clinton will be helped in the general election. By contrast, if the question becomes one of being for immigration control or being for open borders, then Clinton will be hurt -- perhaps hurt enough to lose.

Many media outlets will be trying to frame the debate in terms of question one.

On June 1, As CBS and ABC ran stories on Gary Johnson and Obama respectively taking shots at Trump's immigration proposals, Frank wrote that Trump could use immigration to take a bite out of Clinton's coalition (exit polling here):

Trump’s focus on immigration and trade is theoretically attractive to a subset of African Americans, many of whom have been negatively affected by both, so there might even be an opening for Trump there. If he makes a serious effort to win their votes and shed his David Duke baggage—pretty much the dumbest suitcase he could have picked up, but Trump is Trump—he might have a chance at winning over an increased African-American vote share, or at least a black voter who isn’t Ben Carson.

On June 22, amidst new controversies, declining poll numbers, and a campaign shake-up, Frank predicted that immigration would act as a kind of political life preserver for Trump:

...his hard-line approach to immigration, while more drastic than the American consensus, may be less frightening to independents than Clinton's promises of non-enforcement.

On July 19, as the Republican convention was underway in Cleveland, Frank wrote movingly of the long-buried immigration "reexamination" Americans needed, but might not get:

The nomination of Donald Trump is a tragedy, not because Trump is everything wrong with our politics but because he isn’t. Against a bipartisan elite that is almost uniformly globalist in outlook, Trump gave an unexpected voice to populist localism, channeling fears about uncontrolled borders and a narrowing spectrum of acceptable opinion on numerous social and political issues. Aligning himself against a party that had degenerated into a mindless belligerence abroad, fiscal fantasy at home, and relentless pandering to its donor class, Donald Trump took on those entrenched interests and beat them.

By the time he had wrapped up the nomination, however, Trump had become an antidote laced with poison. The party reinvention offered by Trumpism, as a doctrine, could have offered Americans a serious debate on a consensus that could use reexamination: on war, on trade, on immigration. But that debate has come close to vanishing under the weight of Trump’s obvious and irredeemable flaws.

On July 20, Frank reported an anecdote from the GOP convention that perfectly illustrates how establishment Republicans and establishment media closed their ears to the worker-first economic arguments for immigration moderation: 

The Trumpian line was voiced most cleanly on Monday night, when Alabama senator Jeff Sessions took the stage to lay out the anti-establishment case. “This year our voters spoke clearly on two critical issues in our primaries: trade and immigration,” he told the hall. "They affirmed Donald Trump and his positions.” If there was even a smattering of applause, I missed it. Many of the delegates stopped listening and started chatting, leaving their chairs, or checking their phones. The cable channels cut away from it altogether.

On July 26, Frank reviewed the first night of the Democratic National Convention:

...if there was any question about whether Hillary Clinton was going to dial back the positions on immigration that she’d staked out in the primary, ones that came close to a policy of open borders, this resolved it: no - she’s not going to dial it back. “Is tonight’s message: Hillary Clinton won’t enforce [any] immigration laws at all?” wondered David Frum on Twitter. Blogging at New York, Andrew Sullivan asked much the same question: "Are the Democrats going to abolish the U.S.C.I.S. {U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services}? Given the rhetoric at this convention, I don't see why not." As I’ve argued, this is hazardous political ground to occupy.

The blurring of distinctions between citizen and non-citizen also made some of the ideas murkier. "You know, I happen to believe the crazy notion that people who weren’t born with the same opportunities as you and me should be given the same opportunities as you and me,” said comedian Sarah Silverman, who made a quick but raucous cameo with Al Franken. This was a perfectly fine political sentiment, but who are the people she means? Americans, or everyone on earth? Or U.S. citizens plus anyone who happens to be present physically in the United States? Such questions aren’t hairsplitting or lawyerly; they get to the heart of our fights about national identity. No one has clear answers on this, and Democrats are especially vague. It won’t satisfy voters if the trends in favor of greater nationalism persist.

On August 8, 2016, as headlines across the country spoke of Republicans distancing themselves from Trump, Frank wrote that GOP should have seen the Trump wave coming:

{Dave Brat's upset victory over Eric Cantor} should have been a warning to Republicans nationwide that voters didn’t like Cantor’s pro-trade, pro-bailout, pro-immigration reform record. But few wanted to hear the lesson. Instead, the party put its hopes behind Jeb Bush.

On August 26, as the media wondered about an immigration flip-flop in Trump's upcoming speech in Phoenix, Frank wondered if the promised "softening" might be a smart move:

Just by sticking to a policy of advocating a wall and promising to deport criminals, Trump is still solidly to the right of current policy but not so far as to frighten off droves of moderates. (For instance, the bipartisan Gang of Eight immigration bill, which was supported by Barack Obama, technically called for 700 miles of security fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.) That puts Hillary Clinton, who has vowed that anyone who makes it in illegally will be allowed to stay, in a position of weakness, as it is out of sync with the middle.

On September 1, Frank wrote that the New York Times' over-the-top response to Trump's Phoenix speech on immigration was the best clue that Trump was "a threat once more." The column discussed some of the policy specifics that Trump laid out (including one the Times had distorted), but was consciously measured regarding the political effectiveness of the speech:

...immigration speeches don’t usually move people on the topic, because convictions run too strong. Immigration is about identity, and few things carry more emotional weight. Most of us are also inclined to sacralize our how-we-got-here origin stories, whether we descend from passengers on the Mayflower or from migrant farmworkers in California. So, if your ancestors came as refugees, then you tend to insist that the United States take in more refugees. If your ancestors came to the U.S. illegally as workers and later got amnesty, then you tend to insist that people coming to the United States illegally as workers should similarly have a chance at amnesty. (Of course, those Americans who are descendants of slaves do not want their origin story to be experienced by others, but the historical memory of it plays its own important role.) The intensity of feeling makes even wonky people get decidedly unwonky. Spotted on my Twitter feed yesterday was speechwriter Michael Cohen announcing, “As the child of immigrants I tend to think immigration is good for America.” O.K., then....

....We have a broken immigration system, but an even more broken immigration debate. It would be silly to say that being “reasonable” will get us to an answer. Emotion has its place, and it must shape people’s values and priorities. Once the values have been laid down, however, reason needs to be allowed to enter the room. That’s how you reconcile aims when they are in tension with each other—such as tightening labor markets versus giving more people a chance to come here - and develop mechanisms, set numbers, and generally get real. Will our anger diminish enough to allow for a good-faith and honest debate about immigration, leading to a just and durable policy?

On October 7, Frank wrote:

...the great tragedy of Donald Trump’s nomination isn’t that he legitimized bad ideas. It’s that he discredited good ideas. After decades of going full throttle on trade, immigration, and the projection of military power, more and more Americans now want to hit pause or stop. That Trump, in voicing such sentiments, empowered such Americans and left the establishment fanning itself was his great achievement. That he poisoned his ideas with his character—trafficking in racial provocations, cynicism, cruelty, prevarication, bullying, narcissism, ignorance, and impulsivity - was his great crime.

On November 9, the day after the election, Frank wrote

Millions of Americans feel trapped in a speeding car going the wrong way, seeing their way of life overturned with too much force and suddenness, and our establishment was saying, “Doesn’t this thing go any faster?” The tragedy was that only Donald Trump seemed to pick up on this. But he did, and voters rewarded him.

The next day, Frank had further thoughts, not just on immigration policy, but on how we debate each other about immigration policy:

I used to think border control was a fringe issue highlighted by buffoons like Bill O’Reilly, but research and reporting later caused me see uncontrolled immigration as a genuinely serious social problem.....the enthusiasm for Donald Trump always made some sense to me, even if I couldn’t get there myself...

....Eight years ago, 16 years ago, 24 years ago, people who viewed themselves as liberal or progressive worked hard on persuasion through argument and meeting their foes on enemy turf....Lately, though, it seems like many more causes relied instead on social pressure, threat of ostracism, or simple strength in numbers...

...Those of us who hope for a more equitable society stop letting shaming and demographics do the work for us. We accept that Americans want to pick who gets to come to their country, and we work things out with fellow citizens who are here, rather than just trying to crowd them out with newcomers. We present respectful arguments.

JEREMY BECK is the Director of the Media Standards Project for NumbersUSA

Updated: Mon, Dec 5th 2016 @ 11:25am EST

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