At a town-hall event on Thursday in Greenwood, South Carolina, an immigrant-rights activist named Carlos Rojas asked Joe Biden about deportations. The exchange came shortly after a woman named Silvia Morreno — speaking in Spanish and using Rojas as a translator — told the former vice-president that she lived in constant fear that ICE would arrest and forcibly expel members of her family. Biden listened as Morreno and Rojas rattled off the deportation numbers that marked the Obama presidency — more than 3 million people total, a greater number than any other administration in history including President Trump’s. Rojas asked the aspiring president if he’d halt removals, but Biden refused, saying he’d prioritize deporting people who committed felonies or “serious crimes” instead. Rojas objected. “You should vote for Trump,” Biden replied fliply. Then he turned his back on the activist and walked away.
We can spend days deconstructing the cringeworthy optics and disrespect communicated by the former-vice president functionally brushing a concerned potential constituent off his shoulder — to say nothing of a man whose community is in real peril due to the candidate’s proposals. But the underlying subtext is equally sobering: Biden thinks he can be glib in large part because, if he secures the nomination, the alternative is a man who believes Mexicans are rapists and Central American asylum-seekers are an invading army. Come general-election season, Rojas’s choice as a voter could very well be no choice at all: He can either refuse to vote, vote to reelect a president who thinks undocumented people are subhuman and thus unworthy of basic human rights, or settle for Biden, who aims to greet them with the same mix of rhetorical compassion and iron-fisted law enforcement as his former boss. For moderate Democratic candidates uninterested in major changes to the cruel status quo around immigration, Trump is a boon: An opponent so hateful and repugnant that they can get away with doing little to improve the system as it was and still come off well by comparison.
This is the dynamic that Democrats have been able to count on for years, and coast to overwhelming support from nonwhite voters as a result. The hostility that Republican lawmakers have shown toward protecting — let alone advancing — civil rights for black and brown people on both the federal and local levels has polarized the electorate not just politically but racially: The party of white people on the one hand, versus a multiracial party on the other. The resulting absence of viable alternatives for most nonwhite voters is necessary context for their loyalty to the Democrats. Many are stuck. And though some black conservative activists and pundits may use the party’s shortcomings as pretext for encouraging their more liberal counterparts to abandon the Democratic Party and take a flyer on the GOP, their appeals are almost uniformly unserious: The same people will turn around and deny the threat of white-nationalist terrorism before Congress and defend a president who praised neo-Confederates in Charlottesville, all while trying to cast Democrats as the real racists.
I’ve written before about how Republicans benefit from the reputational laundering they get, mostly unsolicited, from moderate Democrats on the rare occasion that they deign to cooperate with them. One contributing factor is what Politico editor John F. Harris terms a “centrist bias” among political media and the general public — ”an admiration for difference-splitting” that takes the virtue of compromise between any two competing ideas as a given, sometimes regardless of the merits of either one. Biden would no doubt benefit from a similar dynamic if presented with a Trump-era general electorate: The simple act of being less monstrous than he could be — but more important, less so than Trump — on the subject of immigration would be an improvement over white nationalists kidnapping and imprisoning migrant children. But his lack of interest in implementing a more humane policy than Obama’s means the fundamental terror of undocumented life would remain intact. That Biden can dare his would-be constituents to vote for Trump anyway, knowing full well that doing so would subject them to even greater peril, tacitly acknowledges the captive nature of their votes — and the disregard they face even from putative allies.