Why do Hispanic voters support Donald Trump?

If polling is to be believed (and we should generally believe polling), Donald Trump’s support from Hispanic voters is higher today than it was four years ago, even as his overall numbers are significantly worse. This feels counterintuitive to many people, for obvious reasons. But it certainly seems to be a real effect, so it’s worth thinking a bit about why the candidate who built his image around attacking latino culture and demonizing immigrants is treading water—or even making progress—here.

Of course, Trump still isn’t doing well with these voters. He’s down roughly 30 points with Latinos in most polls. Still, that is a relative gain. So what’s going on?

The most obvious explanation: Trump’s racial problems with these voters was baked into the cake from the very first moment, so there was never much room for things to get worse. And, relatively speaking, his targets have shifted over the past few years. The wall is still discussed, sanctuary cities are still demonized. But they’re not front and center the way they were in 2016. Perhaps that creates some space for reversion to the mean.

Still, it’s worth trying to parse what actually brings Latino voters into Trump’s camp. To that end, I want to offer some (anecdotal) observations based on my experiences living in the Rio Grande Valley over the past four years–a region which is broadly anti-Trump but which still contains plenty of his supporters, many of whom I’ve had the chance to talk with.

1. They mostly don’t see Trump as racist, but instead think that he (like them) is merely attacking the ‘bad’ parts of Hispanic culture.

In their minds, Hispanic culture in America operates on two very different tracks. The first set (in which they locate themselves) are hard-working and highly motivated. That compares to the second group—who cross illegally, who are just here looking for a free ride. To these folks, Trump’s criticisms are exclusively targeted at the ‘bad’ group and don’t apply to those (like them) who work hard and buy into the American Dream.

To this point, Latino Trump voters often share his critiques of other racial groups—specifically Black people but also Muslims, Asians, etc. To the extent that they’re motivated by racial solidarity, they see whiteness as a fluid category to which they can gain admission, and which needs to be protected against those other groups.

2. They are generally very culturally conservative

They highly value masculine identity and traditional family structure. The America they love is the America of the post-war boom, and that’s what they see Trump hailing. They are deeply skeptical of ‘woke’ cultural politics.

In particular, the enthusiastic Trump-supporters I’ve met here have almost exclusively been men, who are particularly unhappy with the perceived ‘feminization’ of American politics. They like that Trump flagrantly breaks the rules because it shows he’s not beholden to the kind of people who tut tut about norms.

Importantly, though, I’ve haven’t seen much to suggest that this ‘cultural’ support is particularly driven by concerns about abortion. I have certainly talked with some folks who see abortion as a decision rule, but they have almost all been women, and have generally expressed deeply conflicted feelings about this.

3. They have a strong self-image of being independent-minded

Trump’s supporters in the Valley generally take pride in being open-minded. This combines with a self-perception as a politically-engaged and thoughtful about politics. They are often quite disdainful of their neighbors or family-members who don’t care about politics, or (even worse) who simply engaged in ‘identity politics,’ which they regard as ill-informed and lazy.

This phenomenon–where anti-identity politics becomes its own form of group identification–is hardly unique to Hispanic Trump supporters. But that just means we shouldn’t be surprised to find it showing up here as well.

4. They’re extremely skeptical of the government as such

In general, they regard government as corrupt to the core and they see professional political classes as leaches on society. And for people who expect graft and corruption, Trump doesn’t feel abnormal. If anything, the brazenness of his actions serve as proof of his authenticity. The attitude being: “he’s out for number one, sure, but at least he doesn’t pretend otherwise.”

This general expectation that government can do little to fix problems seems to align closely with Trump’s narrative about COVID. For obvious reasons, I haven’t spent much time chatting with people since March. But even in my limited interactions with the outside world, I’ve heard a lot of skepticism about the seriousness of the virus, disgust with the idea of ‘retreating,’ and dissatisfaction with governmental mandates.

A battle over the terms of whiteness

Again, these are only anecdotal observations. But putting them together together allows a picture to emerge.

In short, many Hispanic Americans are increasingly affiliating more closely with the ‘white working class’ mode of politics, which aggressively grounds cultural and social issues and is organized primarily around issues of comparative standing. That suggests that for many Hispanic Americans, politics is primarily a battleground over the terms of whiteness–who gets to partake and how much its benefits are sustained or challenged.

Again, this is hardly unique to Hispanic politics. In fact, I would argue it is the critical feature of modern American politics. So it shouldn’t actually be surprising to see it manifesting here as well.

For all that Trump has overturned many of our expectations, he remains far more a symptom than a cause. The underlying dynamic of racial identification remains the same, with groups fighting over the relative benefits that will accrue as they struggle to qualify as interior to whiteness. That Trump has made these issues explicit only magnifies the importance of drawing such distinctions.