At the time, the Obama administration was cracking down on illegal immigration in an attempt to bring Republicans to the table for a grand bargain on comprehensive immigration reform—but it was more effective politics for both Democrats and Republicans to pretend that Obama was less of a border hawk than he really was.
Again and again, Republicans have targeted groups they believe too small or too powerless to spark a costly political backlash. By attacking them, the GOP seeks to place Democrats in a political bind. If they decline to bow to demagoguery, Democrats risk looking either too culturally avant-garde for the comfort of more conservative voters—whose support they need to remain viable—or too preoccupied with defending the rights of a beleaguered minority to pay attention to bread-and-butter issues that matter to the majority. This strategy has worked in the past—President Bill Clinton, who signed the federal statute outlawing same-sex marriage in 1996, was no Republican. Many people across the political spectrum accept the premise that defending a marginalized group’s civil rights is “identity politics,” while choosing to strip away those rights is not.
In 2004, Republicans pursued a good-cop/bad-cop strategy: Bush sounded notes of tolerance and acceptance in public, while Republican strategists pursued an anti-gay-rights agenda behind the scenes. In 2012, the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, ran to the right of Bush on both immigration and LGBTQ issues in order to prove that he was “severely conservative.” In 2016, the Republican base wanted a nominee who would sound their hatreds with a foghorn rather than a dog whistle. Trump obliged, promising to ban Muslims from coming to the United States and build a wall on the border with Mexico. Trump had previously mocked Romney’s harsh “self-deportation” policy as “maniacal,” but the reality-show star knew what the Republican base wanted in a president when he finally ran.
That brings us to 2021. Republicans lost the fight over marriage equality so decisively that some now pretend not to have vigorously opposed it in the first place—much to the alarm of many religious conservatives, who are their most dedicated supporters. The fight over immigration is locked in a stalemate, because Trump showed national Republicans that embracing nativism is less politically costly than they had supposed. Anti-Muslim animus has hardly disappeared, but it is no longer as useful a tool to oppose the current leader of the Democratic Party, an elderly Irish Catholic man.
Read: The GOP’s Islamophobia problem
Conflicts between civil rights and religious freedom can certainly present thorny legal dilemmas, but most of what I’m describing here involves Republicans consciously choosing not to leave people alone. There was no threat to life or liberty that demanded same-sex-marriage bans, Sharia bans, or draconian state-level immigration laws. They embraced these causes because they believed that picking on these particular groups of people was good politics, because of their supporters’ animus toward them, and because they believed that their targets lacked the votes or political allies to properly fight back.