US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

When Todd Akin ran for a Senate seat in Missouri in 2012, he breathed new life into the war-on-women narrative with his comments on rape and pregnancy: "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down." The comments not only sunk Akin's candidacy, but also badly damaged the Republican image with white women, a key voting demographic.

Donald Trump set in motion the same chain of events with his comments that undocumented immigrants were primarily criminals and rapists. ("If they're legitimate rapists," one can imagine Trump saying, "the new border fence has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.") Like Akin, Trump risks crippling Republican efforts to make inroads with another key demographic: Hispanic voters.

Both incidents underline a core problem Republicans have with the general electorate — a suspicion that GOP policy choices rest not on a set of political principles, but on a sense of meanness paired with disdain for certain groups. George W. Bush recognized this problem, running as a "compassionate conservative." Richard Nixon tried to deflect similar doubts in the 1950s when, as vice president, he declared that GOP candidates should be "conservatives with a heart."

The reason the war on women rhetoric was so effective in 2012 was because it pressed this sore spot at precisely the right point. Though Republicans initially presented their opposition to contraceptive coverage in terms of religious freedom, they were soon undercut by conservatives offering a different set of motivations: Rush Limbaugh calling Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" for advocating free birth control, Akin and Richard Mourdock diminishing the experience of rape victims.

Trump and his comments on immigration function in precisely the same way. While opponents of immigration reform tend to cite economic and national security concerns, Trump offers something more visceral. Like Sharron Angle did in her infamous political ad "The Wave," part of her 2010 campaign against incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, Trump blends nationalism, crime, race and immigration into a toxic nativism.

It would be easy to dismiss Trump as just a bleating blowhard thirsting for headlines — and to be sure, he is — except for what happened next. He bounced to the top of the Republican presidential polls and began attracting large crowds (especially in Arizona, where he teamed up with Sheriff Joe Arpaio, defender of the country's worst racial profiling practices). At the same time, Senate Republicans introduced amendments to an education bill to defund sanctuary cities that protect undocumented immigrants. Those events have helped blur the lines between Trump and the rest of the GOP.

The timing is nothing short of disastrous for the Republican Party. At a time when it fields the most diverse set of candidates in its history, many of whom support immigration reform, the party is being dragged back into the nativist muck. It's something that has plagued the GOP over the past decade — during the 2005–2006 battles over immigration reform, as well as during last summer's child-refugee crisis.

At the end of the last national election, Republicans redoubled their focus on bringing Hispanic voters into their coalition; three years later their prospects look dimmer than ever. Trump may not be a serious candidate for the presidency, but he is becoming a serious problem for the GOP. 

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report