Does Trump’s Language on Immigration Matter? A Series.

This is part 1 of a series. See part 2 here, part 3 here, and part 4 here.

While immi­gra­tion has been a top­ic of debate in this coun­try for many decades, the 2015 announce­ment of Don­ald Trump’s can­di­da­cy for the Pres­i­dent, which fea­tured the pres­i­dent derid­ing Mex­i­cans as rapists and mur­der­ers, sparked an imme­di­ate con­cern: will a can­di­date for pres­i­dent open­ly run­ning on dehu­man­iz­ing rhetoric toward migrants of Lati­no ori­gin have a real world impact?

A com­mon response to the extreme rhetoric spo­ken by the pres­i­dent and his advi­sors is to ignore it — after all, words mean lit­tle com­pared to actions, and actions are what real­ly count. While the poli­cies the admin­is­tra­tion has imple­ment­ed are mean­ing­ful and do gen­uine, last­ing harm to men, women, and chil­dren alike, I am inter­est­ed in the way the White House frames those bru­tal poli­cies. Does the fram­ing mat­ter? Does it make things worse?

In the four years since Trump’s speech, both his cam­paign and his admin­is­tra­tion have engaged in an ongo­ing dis­in­for­ma­tion cam­paign against immi­grants of Lati­no her­itage. For every bru­tal pol­i­cy designed to strip peo­ple of their dig­ni­ty, safe­ty, and health, one can find lan­guage issued by the gov­ern­ment to jus­ti­fy such treat­ment. The administration’s cam­paign of law enforce­ment bru­tal­i­ty has been but­tressed by claims that they are “only enforc­ing the law” (even when those cam­paigns vio­late the law and are stymied by court orders). They also include human rights vio­la­tions like child sep­a­ra­tion, decrepit con­di­tions in deten­tion, con­stant vio­la­tions of court orders to safe­guard the basic rights of detainees, and dozens of deaths due to neg­li­gent care — all jus­ti­fied by appeals to either the law or the minor­i­ty party’s “refusal” to pass addi­tion­al laws.

Some of these actions are less direct in their effect. The “enforce­ment” cam­paign has suc­cess­ful­ly made more Lati­nos afraid for their per­son­al safe­ty than any time in the last decade, and there as been a dra­mat­ic rise in hate crimes against peo­ple per­ceived to be of Lati­no ori­gin since Trump’s inau­gu­ra­tion as Pres­i­dent.

Can the wors­en­ing state of the Lati­no com­mu­ni­ty in Amer­i­ca be linked to the President’s rhetoric? After all, many Lati­nos already felt fear and alien­ation from main­stream Amer­i­can soci­ety due to immi­gra­tion enforce­ment under pre­vi­ous pres­i­dents. And elite opin­ion can dri­ve pub­lic opin­ion about immi­gra­tion and nation­al iden­ti­ty — with exclu­sion­ary mes­sages being much eas­i­er to seed into the pub­lic dis­course than uni­fy­ing mes­sag­ing. So what is the con­nec­tion?

This is a com­pli­cat­ed ques­tion, but one for which there is research that can help us under­stand.

Polit­i­cal sci­en­tists have found mixed evi­dence that the lan­guage choic­es employed by the “bul­ly pul­pit” of the White House can affect pub­lic atti­tudes toward ques­tions of pub­lic pol­i­cy – par­tic­u­lar­ly in terms of “agen­da set­ting” in media cov­er­age. Fur­ther­more, the degree to which pres­i­den­tial rhetoric real­ly does affect pub­lic atti­tudes on a giv­en top­ic is not always clear.

In some cas­es, pres­i­den­tial rhetoric can appeal to a wide vari­ety of peo­ple and thus shift pub­lic atti­tudes, but the effect is not con­sis­tent. The way in which pres­i­den­tial rhetoric is struc­tured can also have an effect, where­by an admin­is­tra­tion adopt­ing sim­pli­fied, anti-intel­lec­tu­al lan­guage on a pol­i­cy can affect pub­lic atti­tudes for a peri­od of time. This means Pres­i­dent Trump is well suit­ed to shift­ing pub­lic atti­tudes, as his use of sim­pli­fied, anti-intel­lec­tu­al pop­ulist lan­guage is inher­ent to his appeal in many quar­ters.

One of the president’s most impor­tant back­ers, Robert Mer­cer — respon­si­ble for plac­ing Steve Ban­non and Kellyanne Con­way with Trump — is a direct ben­e­fi­cia­ry of a hard­line stance on immi­gra­tion (his hedge fund is heav­i­ly invest­ed in the pri­vate com­pa­nies that oper­ate pris­ons and immi­grant deten­tion camps for the gov­ern­ment). This sug­gests that Trump’s already hos­tile atti­tude toward immi­gra­tion was appeal­ing for a pow­er­ful king­mak­er in Repub­li­can cir­cles — but that does­n’t estab­lish causal­i­ty between his lan­guage and the lived expe­ri­ences of Lati­nos.

There is, how­ev­er, evi­dence that the par­ti­san make­up of an audi­ence can deter­mine how recep­tive it is to White House rhetoric on immi­gra­tion in par­tic­u­lar – unsur­pris­ing­ly, par­ti­sans tend to agree with their own par­ty more strong­ly than non-par­ti­sans. Thus, we can con­clude that the pres­i­dent is almost cer­tain­ly rad­i­cal­iz­ing Repub­li­can atti­tudes toward immi­gra­tion in an inten­tion­al way; how­ev­er, it is unclear whether the rhetoric used by the White House is alter­ing broad­er pub­lic atti­tudes toward immi­gra­tion in gen­er­al. While a major­i­ty of Amer­i­cans still broad­ly favor immi­gra­tion, there is a widen­ing gap between the par­ties that could be mask­ing a deep­er move­ment in atti­tudes.

Over the next few blog posts, I am going to explore some of the empir­i­cal research that ana­lyzes how Pres­i­den­tial and elite rhetoric shape pub­lic atti­tudes, and try to under­stand whether there is some­thing we can do in response.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.