Why Trump now?

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I realize I’ve been living in a dream world by thinking that everything’s fine between mainstream Americans and Mexican-Americans. Last summer I felt blindsided by the response of many people to Donald Trump’s statement about Mexican immigrants being criminals, drug dealers and rapists. I expected them to be shocked and offended and many were, but apparently a lot of people either approved of what he’d said, were indifferent to it or actually agreed with it. Maybe they’d even been saying the same thing for years. When he vowed to send all Mexicans back to Mexico and advocated locking all Muslims out of the country, I waited for his polling numbers to go down. I felt hurt as well as disappointed when they didn’t.

But as he emerges as the Republican presidential candidate, I’m realizing how naive I’ve been, how naive we’ve all been, including the Republicans who are panicked at the idea of nominating Trump in July. Of course many Americans are ready for someone who calls a spic a spic. It’s absolutely consistent with the growing numbers of Latinos in the U.S.

I remember when I was growing up, there were just a few people of color at Las Lomas high school. We were Latinos with names names like Kendall and Mark (and Regina) who no one really saw as Hispanic. At moments I would become Hispanic, for instance when I got an A on a Spanish test or when I would pronounce “enchilada” correctly. But most the time my presence, along with Kendall’s and Mark’s, made no difference and, if asked, the families of our friends would have certainly said they had no problem with Hispanic people and liked us very much.

That’s how it goes when there are only a few people who are different from the rest: the majority accepts them. But when the numbers of Mexicans or Blacks or Asians grow, we become a presence that can’t be ignored. In larger numbers we become a presence with our own identity that doesn’t just sit quietly and blend in with the dominant culture. And that’s when the problems start.

This is what’s happening in the United States. Immigrants of color and their descendants have reached numbers that scare many mainstream, English-dominant, white Americans. In recent years we’ve been startled by the news that by 2040 white, non-Hispanic Americans will be a minority group in this country. It’s a prospect that panics a lot of people, so of course Donald Trump’s demands for shipping out Mexicans and locking out Muslims has strong appeal. He’s just getting started.

There are also a lot of people of color who like Trump. He won the Latino vote in the Nevada caucuses yesterday (44% of all Latino voters), and the phenomenon of immigrants and their descendants who want to close the door behind them isn’t new. In a country that feels like it’s losing it’s traditional identity and a shared set of definitions for things like “American,” “marriage,” “family” and “authority,” Trump looks like he has the answers. He’ll roll back the march of social progress by force, with ever more massive deportations, restrictive laws and the vilification of non-white people and immigrants.

Trump’s rise is disturbing and emotionally shocking, but it shouldn’t be historically surprising. It’s actually a completely predictable backlash to the progress the U.S. has made in becoming a more diverse, pluralistic society. The American people elected a Black man as our president in 2008. What was I thinking to expect we would continue that trend in 2016? Of course it’s time for the backlash, and its name is Donald Trump.

But because Trump is playing on the fears of a decreasing demographic, Americans can defeat him no matter who the Democratic nominee is. All they need to do is mobilize the voting power of people of color and other marginalized populations, and what better motivation than a man who offers no apologies for the marginalized populations he has already alienated? Any backlash is inevitable, but not permanent.