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.