In an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in July, for instance, 52 percent of noncollege Republicans (compared with 32 percent of Republicans with degrees) said all undocumented immigrants should be deported. In a 2011 Pew Research Center survey, about half of both noncollege- and college-educated Republicans said they would revoke birthright citizenship. And in 2012, Pew found that three-fifths of noncollege Republicans (and two-fifths of those with degrees) said it bothered them when they came in contact with immigrants who speak little English. More fundamentally, a Public Religion Research Institute survey in June found that a majority of noncollege Republicans (again joined by about two-fifths of those with degrees) believes “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens traditional American values and customs.”
All of these results show that, to borrow from Billy Joel, Trump didn’t start this fire; he has simply fanned the embers that were already smoldering in the GOP coalition. And now that this flame is burning, it’s not clear how GOP leaders can extinguish it, though they fear its long-term electoral implications. Even if Trump falters, the sentiments he has stirred are likely to inspire a platform fight over immigration at next summer’s GOP convention—and redouble Republican congressional resistance to comprehensive immigration reform in 2017 no matter which party wins the White House. By demonstrating how many Republican voters respond to a deeply insular, even nativist, message, Trump may have seeded heightened conflicts over immigration that will long outlive his political career.
Simultaneously, the tensions between black leaders and law enforcement are loosening a second stitch. The grassroots movement that has emerged since 2014 to challenge how the criminal-justice system treats African-Americans is increasingly attracting a conservative backlash that several of the GOP presidential contenders are now actively fanning. Rising murder totals in many major cities, several high-profile shootings of police officers, and the massacre of African-American worshippers in a Charleston, South Carolina, church have heightened tensions across this racial and ideological divide.
These volatile ingredients are reconfiguring the political landscape around the Black Lives Matter movement. So far, the movement’s leaders have focused more on challenging than on persuading white America—a strategy symbolized by its repeated disruption of Democratic campaign events. But the growing conservative effort to portray the movement as a threat to law enforcement—and by extension, middle-class safety—shows the risks of failing to build a transracial consensus for change.
In the coming years, the United States will grow increasingly reliant on workers from minority groups, as the number of working-age whites is projected to decline. This means not only African-Americans, but all Americans, would benefit from ensuring that fewer black lives are lost to mass incarceration or unequal policing. Yet the early volleys from the 2016 GOP contenders signal that the Black Lives Matter movement could become politically isolated—and provoke further white alienation from Democrats—if activists can’t define reform in an inclusive way that values both equal treatment and personal responsibility.