Resolute Square

Flip The Border Narrative

Rick Wilson discusses President Biden's opportunity to seize the immigration issue and expose the GOP as the party of political games, not solutions. Biden already reshaped how Dems are viewed on foreign policy. Can immigration be next?
Published:February 1, 2024

By Rick Wilson

Democrats can make a third significant reframing of a central political issue in the Biden era. 

The first came on foreign policy, where President Joe Biden upended generations of Republican swagger on being the strong party on foreign policy and international leadership. It’s a vastly longer piece than this, but Biden’s consistent support of NATO, his Pacific pushback on China, and his backing of Ukraine since the illegal Russian invasion is an astounding contrast with the pro-Putin GOP. (“Pro-Putin GOP” are words that I, as part of the last generation of Cold Warriors, find hard even to begin to write.)

Biden’s second significant reframing is an important one and is still a work in progress. The economic success story of Biden’s first term is just sinking in with Americans, and the stats alone are something so remarkable it’s led Fox and the MAGA Mighty Propaganda Wurlitzer to change the subject.

Now, Biden has a moment to reshape perceptions on immigration and border security. Not all Democrats see the political value yet, but the Biden White House has this more sorted out than most. As a former Republican, I feel like this is a moment I can be helpful to the cause.

Arguing this topic from a position of policy, responsibility, humanity, and the great American tradition is a fool’s errand in an era where the MAGA base has been conditioned to view immigration as a defining political issue.

This is one of those moments where highly educated, elite Democrats miss what’s happening in the lower-socioeconomic end of their party; working-class men, U.S.-born Hispanics, and African Americans are all significantly closer to the “anti-” than the pro-immigration position.

Source: Pew Research, 2021

The border and immigration issues are now purely emotional, and it’s time to invert public perceptions on the matter. Biden has the chance to own both strength and compassion when it comes to immigration.

I’ve often remarked that Republican campaign superiority is primarily not about better messages, better campaigns, or better ads — though those count for a lot — but rather about an appreciation for the power of spectacle in an entirely media-driven culture.

Democrats often seem to miss the power of spectacle in the culture war. Love it or hate it, Republicans know how to engineer a stunt. They understand that a jaded, itchy-swiping-finger populace needs new drama and outrage to stay engaged and outraged in the attention economy. 

Which is why the stunt playing out now on the Texas border gives Biden a chance to pop the MAGA issue in the face and knock Trump down many notches. 

Today’s anti-immigration position is a deeply wired fantasy that immigration is unambiguously negative that must be opposed in all forms. Forget that despite the best efforts of the Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, et al, America is still the one truly propositional nation not dependent on blood and soil to grant citizenship. We’re not debating philosophy and principle here: this is pure political tactics to deflate an issue the GOP relies on in the fight.

The moment on the Texas border is meant to be a frenzy. It’s an engineered spectacle and phony confrontation. The Texas Military Department’s kid-killing razor wire barricades in the Rio Grande are, of course — and stop me if this sounds familiar — just following orders. It’s a show.

A woodcut style illustration depicting a dramatic and intense scene. The image features troops equipped with AR15 rifles, positioned behind barbed wire. They are illustrated with stern and authoritative expressions, highlighting the seriousness of their role. The barbed wire in front of them adds a stark and formidable barrier element to the scene. In the foreground, a turbulent river flows, with people visibly struggling and appearing to be drowning. The river's current is dynamically represented with swirling lines, enhancing the sense of chaos and distress. The faces of the people in the water show fear and desperation. The overall mood of the illustration is dark and tragic, capturing the gravity of the situation.

Mike Johnson in the House, desperate to keep Trump’s blessing and approval is setting himself on fire to block the toughest immigration bill in decades. The Army of God Trucker convoy, when you run it back to its origin point, will be something cooked up in Bannon world.

Underlying the two arguments over immigration — how and how much — and border security — surveillance, physical, legal, enforcement, and how hermetic — is an absolutist anti-immigration position that either explicitly or tacitly involves a blanket opposition to immigration, regardless of the circumstances or nuances involved.

That’s the territory where Fox shrieking about caravans has an endless supply of outrage fuel. It’s good for clicks, eyeballs, Republican small-dollar fundraising, and endless Facebook posts.

It’s time to invert all the tropes and MAGA rhetorical garbage, even if it means some grumbling on the left.

Biden has a unique opportunity to assert both strength and humanity. He should work from assertion, not policy, and watch the cognitive dissonance on the right fly. This list is far from complete, but here are a few assertions I’d love to see Democrats start making:

  • Joe Biden is strong on immigration reform and border security; Donald Trump is weak.
  • Biden and a bipartisan majority are to Trump's right on immigration. They’re tougher than Trump.
  • Trump is the only thing stopping a shutdown of the border and more funding for the Border Patrol.
  • Joe Biden backs the Border Patrol and law enforcement; for Trump they’re props.

It’s best if Biden himself makes many of these assertions.

  • “Donald, I’m ready to close the border and get this under control. You’re stopping it.”
  • “Donald is helping the coyotes, the cartels, the child traffickers, and the fentanyl smugglers.”
  • “Donald Trump is the best thing that ever happened to the people brining drugs and crime over our border.”
  • “Donald, your so-called wall was just like most of your construction deals, you tried to get someone else to pay for it and it failed.”
  • “Trump is playing politics with the lives of Border Patrol and law enforcement.”

I could go on, and these can certainly be refined.

Republicans suck at playing defense, Trump is a petulant child, and Biden is getting good at trolling the man who once considered himself the greatest troll in political history. The Republicans in the Senate desperate to get a deal done for the good of the country — and yes, there are enough if we hit the right notes — and the Democrats both benefit from rolling Trump on this one.

I know this will some make my progressive readers cringe, hoping we can display some moment of compassion or nuance. As my friend Trygve Olson always says, “Play the game you’re in.” (And to use my St. Augustine reference again, “God, make me good…but not yet.”)

The question of how to frame this fight at hand, not the policy underpinnings. 

No humane, economically viable immigration reform is possible as long as the political utility of immigration in scaring non-college white men remains. The moment Joe Biden describes Trump as the weak one, the GOP is in the explaining position.

And in politics, famously, if you’re explaining, you’re losing.