Why California Will Save America From Donald Trump's 'Dog Whistle' Immigration Policies | Opinion

Illustration by Alex Fine

The images of screaming children were searing, the cries unforgettable.

In June, as the public reeled from around-the-clock coverage of the Trump administration's systemic separation of immigrant families, the president dug in. "They could be murderers and thieves and so much else," Trump said of those crossing the border. "We want a safe country, and it starts with the borders, and that's the way it is."

As the criticism mounted, he accused Democrats of wanting migrants to "infest our Country." And even after signing an executive order to end the controversial separations, he remained defiant. At a White House press conference, the president stood with family members of people killed by undocumented immigrants—or, as Trump called them, "the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones."

Amid the uproar, according to The New York Times, Trump sought to reassure his advisers; while two-thirds of the American public disapproved of separating families at the border, most Republicans backed the practice as a deterrent. "My people love it," he told them.

Members of gay and lesbian organizations protest Proposition 187 in San Francisco. Judi Parks/AP Photo

Is this smart politics? Should the Republican Party follow a polarizing figure willing to criminalize immigrants and asylum seekers to shore up his own popularity? Or is this a recipe for political extinction?

In making a choice, GOP leaders may want to remember that we've seen this movie before—actually a grainy television advertisement in which former Republican Governor Pete Wilson of California resuscitated a lagging 1994 re-election campaign by depicting immigrants dashing across the U.S.-Mexico border: "They keep coming," intoned a deep and foreboding background voice. California voters responded by re-upping with Wilson and passing Proposition 187, a ballot measure aimed at denying nearly all public services, including access to education, to undocumented residents.

For Republicans, the victory was fleeting. Nearly all of Proposition 187 was soon ruled unconstitutional, forcing the state to take a more rational approach to managing the integration of immigrants into civic and economic life. And the long-term political consequences were devastating. In 1994, the GOP did indeed win five of the top seven statewide positions and control of the state Assembly. But today, not a single Republican holds statewide office, the Democrats run Sacramento, and the GOP is on track to effectively become a third party; just 26 percent of Californians identify as Republican, almost 20 points behind Democrats and nearly even with "no party preference."

So is California a warning signal or a one-off? After all, Trump won the presidency in 2016 on an anti-immigration platform. Meanwhile, the Golden State is home to Hollywood, high-tech and hybrids; surely, its political evolution is as unique as its free-spirited character.

But while we Californians do like to proclaim our differences—and many in other states are happy when we do so—the parallels between California's yesterday and America's today are striking. For example, between 1980 and 2000, struggles over immigration, affirmative action and proper policing wracked the state as it experienced a rapid demographic shift from about two-thirds white to majority people of color. The entire country is now confronting this change, only in slower motion. And just as the state's politics were torn asunder in the early 1990s, so was its economy: Nearly half of the country's net job losses in that period were suffered in the Golden State. Standing in the wings to fan the flames of discontent was that era's early version of Fox News: Rush Limbaugh perfected his bombastic talk radio shtick in Sacramento in the late 1980s, and a slew of local right-wing hosts picked up the race-baiting mantle in the decade that followed.

Talk show host Rush Limbaugh prepares for his program at KSEV radio station in Houston. Shepard Sherbell/CORBIS SABA/Getty

Divisive politics fueled by demographic anxiety, reinforced by economic uncertainty and stirred up by those who stood to profit from polarization. Sound familiar?

Several factors turned things around and pushed the Republicans out of power. The first was demographic: The shock of change subsided, residents got more accustomed to the realities (and benefits) of diversity, and a growing electorate of color remembered exactly which party had painted them as bandits.

A second was economic: The rise of the state's high-tech sector shifted the political leanings of business. Supporting an anti-immigrant politician to secure deregulation or a tax cut became less palatable to entrepreneurs wanting to tap into talent from all over the world. (Silicon Valley also realized that the state's nearly 3 million undocumented residents were a key part of the service economy propping up programmers too busy to tend their children, care for their elders and grow or even prepare their own food.)

A final set of factors were political. On one hand, a series of rule changes weakened the political establishment. Citizen-driven redistricting took away the power of lawmakers to draw the boundaries of their own districts, making races more competitive. And term limits made it possible for leaders to leap from protest to politician: Former state Senate leader Kevin de León, the architect of the 2017 "sanctuary state" bill limiting police cooperation with federal immigration authorities (tellingly called the California Values Act), cut his political teeth as a young organizer battling Proposition 187.

Former California state Senate leader Kevin de León, the architect of the 2017 “sanctuary state” bill. Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times/Getty

But it wasn't just new rules. Community organizers, frustrated by a series of ballot measures that followed 1994's immigrant-bashing with successful attacks on affirmative action (1996), bilingual education (1998) and juvenile offenders (2000), began to dig in to change the politics of the state. They realized their task was not to chase the electorate (in today's terms, that would mean pursuing the elusive Trump voter with promises to punish immigrants, just not as inhumanely) but to change the electorate.

Activists targeted disenchanted and disengaged citizens who could provide a progressive difference in key swing races. These new and occasional voters lent crucial support for ballot measures that raised taxes on the rich and shrank the prison population. They also offered the sort of political cover that allowed Democratic officeholders to grant driver's licenses to undocumented residents and extend state-sponsored health care to undocumented children.

It's a road map for the national resistance: lower racial anxiety, reach out to business, focus on the rules of engagement (for example, fighting voter ID laws) and build a grassroots base that can align with but also push the Democratic Party from below. And it's a warning to Republicans as well: Keep up the current anti-immigrant tilt and the tsunami that toppled a state party that once brought us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and tax-cutting fever could eventually head your way.

The blinking warning signs in California itself are clear. In 2016, Orange County, a bulwark for the Republican Party and a historic base for right-wing extremist groups like the John Birch Society, voted for the Democratic presidential candidate for the first time since the Great Depression. And Republicans will be battling to retain seven highly competitive House seats)—about a third of what is necessary to hand the lower chamber to Democrats—in districts that Hillary Clinton won.

Now, Republicans find themselves chasing the electorate. Two at-risk Republican incumbents, Representatives Jeff Denham and David Valadao, both of the Latino-rich Central Valley, were early signers of a "discharge petition" in May seeking to force the House to vote on bipartisan immigration reform. Still, it's hard to escape the shadow of a state party that dug itself into a political hole a long time ago with its support of anti-immigrant legislation—or a president who launched his campaign by labeling Mexicans as "rapists."

When you've been playing dog-whistle racial politics, don't be surprised when someone with a fully racist bullhorn walks in to find a warmed-up audience. And don't be shocked when that act eventually wears thin on a changing America. Like California Republicans before them, the national party seems to be keeping its eye on the past rather than the prize. But we Californians know how this movie started and how it ends: with a rejection of the politics of division and an embrace of the future.

Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California and author of State of Resistance: What California's Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America's Future.