Who Belongs in the Republican Party?

The GOP must disavow Trump's xenophobia and open itself to a changing America

Series Introduction

It’s tempting to write off the GOP after the Trump years and Republican officials’ complicity in his behavior—to believe that the health of American democracy depends on ensuring this party never again occupies the White House. But in a two-party system, it is neither likely nor healthy for one side to be in power indefinitely. This is why Persuasion is publishing a series on the future of the Republican Party, which began with Geoffrey Kabaservice on what’s next for the GOP and continues with Linda Chavez on why the party must appeal to a more diverse America. I hope you will enjoy the articles and see their value, even if (like me) you are left-of-center. —Yascha Mounk

Part Two: The Outreach Strategy

By Linda Chavez

My old boss Ronald Reagan was fond of saying that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, it left him. I feel the same way about the GOP. The only question is whether there are enough principled conservatives left to resuscitate a party that has become, at least temporarily, a personality cult. 

How Joe Biden will govern as president remains to be seen, but based on his early cabinet picks, the signs are good that there will be no sudden leftward lurch. Nonetheless, a revitalized, center-right Republican Party that can appeal to a wide swath of voters is the best guarantee that the United States retains a strong national defense and a vibrant, free-market economy, and that individual liberty and rights, not group classification or preferences, remain at the core of our national identity.

Whether the Republican Party can again play that role depends on many things, not least how it responds to the country’s changing demographics. Republican voters are overwhelmingly white and older, and are more likely to be male and less likely to have earned a college or advanced degree than Democratic voters—facts that do not bode well for the future of the party in a country that is increasingly diverse, and becoming better educated.

Donald Trump won election in 2016 in part by exploiting anxiety about what America will look like in the future. Who belongs here? Will newcomers change America more than it changes them? Will they contribute to the greater good or drain scarce resources? In crude form, Trump made clear he believed some people—Muslims, Mexicans and those from what he deemed “shit-hole countries”—didn’t belong here.

He even suggested that “we should have more people from Norway.” Few Norwegians immigrate here today, but they did in large numbers a hundred or more years ago. Those Norwegian immigrants, however, were far more like today’s Mexican, Honduran, Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants than Trump’s fantasy of Northern European professionals.

Nearly a quarter of all working-age Norwegians left their homeland between 1870 and 1910, most sailing to America in search of opportunity. During the announcement of his 2016 presidential run, Trump complained, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” Neither did Norway during the great migration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, if migrants are to be judged only by wealth and class.

Those who arrived from Norway came from the lowest-skilled strata in their native land, mostly farmworkers, fishermen and common laborers, according to the Princeton economics professor Leah Boustan, who studied census data from Norway and the United States from that period. Compared with immigrants from 15 other European nations in the same era, Boustan told NPR, “The Norwegians held the lowest paid occupations in the U.S.” It took decades before Norwegian immigrants caught up to other Americans in earnings and education, yet they did.

Sadly, Trump and much of the Republican leadership in Congress seem not to have studied such history. Yet the future of the Republican Party may well be determined by whether the party understands the lessons of American immigration and assimilation to broaden its ranks beyond a shrinking base.

One of the big surprises in the 2020 election was Trump’s improved support among Hispanic voters, especially in Florida and Texas. In 2016, an estimated 28% of Hispanics nationally voted for Trump despite his racist rhetoric and xenophobic policy proposals. Although reliable national data on Hispanic voters in 2020 is not yet available, Trump clearly outperformed among Hispanics in South Florida and the Rio Grande Valley in Texas.

The Trump campaign raised fears in southern Florida that a Democratic win would set the United States on the path to socialism—a message that resonated with voters whose families had fled authoritarian leftist regimes in Latin America. In Texas, the Trump campaign used a different tactic, focusing on the economy, law and order and religion.

In both states, the key to the Trump campaign strategy was to appeal to Hispanic voters not so much on the basis of identity but as small-business owners and workers whose faith and security in their communities were paramount. The tactic didn’t work everywhere. Mexican Americans in California, Nevada and Colorado helped keep those states safely blue; and in Arizona, Hispanic voters were a major factor in turning the traditionally Republican state not only for Biden but for the Democratic Senate candidate, Mark Kelly. New Mexico, where Hispanics now make up about half of the population and were until the mid-20th century a majority, voted heavily for Biden. Nonetheless, New Mexico has voted Republican in 12 of 28 presidential elections since becoming a state in 1912, and has elected many Hispanic Republican office holders.

Like Hispanics, Asian Americans are a diverse group whose different histories and countries of origin make lumping them together not altogether useful. But on average, Asian Americans are better-educated, earn more than other Americans, and might generally be seen as a group that the GOP could do well with. Yet in 2020, exit polls suggest that only 31% voted for Trump. Studies suggest that many Asian American voters are well disposed to the Republican Party, with at least one 2014 survey showing 39% approve of the GOP and equal numbers disapproving, with Koreans and Vietnamese showing the highest approvals for Republicans and Indian and Chinese the lowest.

All this demonstrates that the Republican Party has not hopelessly lost support in immigrant communities despite Trump’s attacks on non-European immigrants. The challenge will be to rebuild a party that appeals to voters on shared values as well as public policy; that encourages entrepreneurship but also evinces compassion; that builds a strong national defense but also recognizes that America cannot go it alone; and that focuses on law and order but acknowledges that laws must apply equally to all Americans, regardless of color or national origin; and that requires law enforcement to never abuse civil rights or liberties.

I wish I were confident that the Republican Party is up to this task. The test will be the year ahead as Biden takes office and congressional Republicans choose to work with the new administration or fight it at every turn.

Trump still wields outsize influence over millions of voters, convincing many that the election was stolen from him. Most Republican elected leaders have remained silent, fearing the wrath of Trump’s base. But, unless we are witnessing mass psychosis, most Republicans will move on once Trump leaves the Oval Office.

The test will be whether the leaders of the party can fashion a vision of the future that welcomes immigrants and their children, the young as well as the old, blacks as well as whites. Optimism, not the fear that has driven the past four years, can build a better party—and a better America.

Linda Chavez, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, served as director of public liaison in the Reagan White House, and was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate from Maryland in 1986.