When Donald Trump’s stumbling campaign blew into Texas for a three-city tour last week, its literature described its second and last rally in the state as an event in Houston, one of the most diverse cities in the United States. But it wasn’t. Trump’s rally was held in The Woodlands, a too-clean and vaguely menacing compound of glass, steel and well-manicured lawns some 35 miles north of Houston’s downtown.
Instead of a city council, The Woodlands, founded by George Mitchell, the pioneer of shale fracking, has an executive board. Residents of The Woodlands are more than 92 percent white. It’s easy to see why Trump went there: The few protesters who drove in from out-of-town were easily kept in check by the horse cops providing picket defense for oil company headquarters and chain restaurants.
Trump’s rallies and fundraisers in the state were chock-a-block with the color we’ve come to expect. He didn’t make a lot of sense. He said some provocative things. He swore, and acted out. At a fundraiser in San Antonio, he was cornered by some donors who wanted him to walk back his trash-talking of NAFTA, and he told them, in essence, to shove it.
But the comical theatricality of Trump’s visit obscured something more sinister. Texas used to be a slightly more welcoming place for immigrants, even undocumented ones. But anti-immigrant rhetoric, weaponized over the course of successive elections, has been ratcheting up. Nativism is a drug, and Trump and his greasy surrogates are offering right-wing Texas voters something closer to the uncut kind than anything they’ve had before. Now that the state’s Republicans are embracing Trump, the risk is that even after he flops in November, they’ll have to peddle it too.
Take Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s speech introducing Trump in The Woodlands. Patrick is one of the strangest politicians in the state’s modern history — a local TV sportscaster from Baltimore who became a right-wing radio shock jock after a devastating midlife crisis and ended up controlling the Texas Senate.
He’s a leader of a new wave of Texas conservatism: It’s Patrick, not Gov. Greg Abbott, who you want to watch if you’re looking for clues about where Texas Republicans are headed. In 2014, Patrick ran one of the most anti-immigrant campaigns in the state’s history. He’s out to dismantle Texas’ public education system. Those outside the state might know him for his anti-trans bathroom activism.
Patrick was an early and staunch supporter of Ted Cruz. Every time Cruz climbed a stage for an election-night event, Patrick made sure to stand close by, in view of the TV cameras. But as soon as Cruz dropped out of the 2016 race, Patrick hopped in bed with another. At the state convention two weeks later, Patrick flaunted his communications with Trump HQ.
In The Woodlands, he sealed the deal. He was now on the Trump train, he told the crowd, declaring his intention to help “squash [Clinton] like a bug in November.” He promised Trump’s supporters that “Donald Trump will be the change agent that you’ve been hoping for and praying for and working for your entire life.”
Patrick had traveled with Trump from a fundraiser in San Antonio to The Woodlands. “I was so impressed,” he said, by “his willingness to listen, to learn.” Trump had been “so fascinated by everything in Texas.” He vouched for Trump’s character in the strongest possible terms. “I can tell you in just one day that this is someone that everyone in this room, every one of your coworkers, every one of your friends and neighbors, will be proud to call Mr. President.”
Trump’s visit to Texas came at an odd time for the presumptive GOP nominee, whose campaign seems less cohesive than ever — but at an odd time, too, for Texas conservatism, which seems at once stronger than ever and strained to the point of breaking.
The Donald has not been particularly well-liked in the state: He won just 26.7 percent of the state’s Republican primary back in March, and members of the Texas elephant tribe are still heartsick over the defeat of Cruz, the man Trump once called a “soft, weak little baby.”
And Trump’s footprint in the state has been relatively light. He’s never held a rally west of the invisible line in the state where the American South ends, and each of his rally locations has been in a different locus of white reaction: Beaumont, the most southern of Texas cities; The Woodlands, rich and pale-hued; and Dallas, twice, a diverse city that’s surrounded by suburbs with at times radical right-wing politics.
But unlike his first Texas visits, Trump’s appearance last week made clear that he’s synced, finally, with some significant portion of the Republican Party in the state, and that bodes ill for both the state and the country at large. For a long time, Texas, despite its far-right reputation, had a gentler approach to undocumented immigrants than might be expected. The guiding principle was economic growth. A growing population, and cheap labor, were felt to be beneficial to the state.
Republican state politicians called for border security, but there was a greater pragmatism about the future of Texas’ migrant population. In 2001, Texas became the first state to allow its undocumented kids to pay the same tuition as citizens at state colleges, a measure passed with the near-unanimous support of both parties. (Rick Perry’s strong defense of the law in a 2011 debate marked the beginning of the end of his presidential campaign.) Democrats then hoped, and still do, that the state’s growing Hispanic population would revive their political fortunes.
Migrants have brought about a revolution in how the state thinks about immigration — but not in the way Democrats hoped. The state’s population has exploded over the last two decades, thanks in large part to new arrivals from California and other states. They’ve filled newly created suburbs outside of the state’s big cities. When the Tea Party wave hit Texas, many of the most visible organizers were people who had come from somewhere else — and they spoke out against the browning of the state.
Some of these conservatives seemed fearful and contemptuous of Hispanic culture in Texas, which of course predated their arrival in the region by at least three centuries. During the 2014 gubernatorial election, one Tea Party blogger who had recently moved to Texas from Virginia took a multi-day tour to the southern tip of the state — the border between Texas and Mexico is some three-fifths of the U.S.-Mexico border — and wrote of her disgust at the unclean spaces and ignorant people, in a lengthy, photo-annotated post that she later deleted.
Patrick, who backed Trump so forcefully in The Woodlands, is the product of this shift from country club Republicanism to the new suburbs. He had always focused on immigration, but doubled down during his run for lieutenant governor. One of Patrick’s lizard-brained consultants, the Republican meme impresario Vincent Harris, generated iconography that would define his campaign: posterboard signs in the shape of a white picket fence, featuring a padlock, with the words “secure our border.” These signs proliferated at that year’s state convention, where the party’s delegates stripped out existing platform language that called for a guest-worker program. At his inauguration, Patrick pledged to “secure the border” in his first legislative session. He tried, and failed, to repeal the in-state tuition law that the previous generation of Republicans had enshrined.
Then Trump came on the scene. At first, he was too much even for Patrick, who declared in a lengthy Facebook post last year that Trump’s “wild and personal attacks” on Hispanics and others were damaging Republicans’ chances of winning the White House. It seemed like Donald had found a low to which Texas Republicans would not sink: They preferred Cruz’s slightly more calculated brand of nativism. But then he bellyflopped in Indiana.
Some notable Texas Republicans, like Gov. Abbott and the conservative organizer Michael Quinn Sullivan, have embraced Trump a little more cautiously. They fear losing the Supreme Court for a generation, and the effect that undermining him will have on down-ballot races. Patrick, who has never met a promotional opportunity he didn’t like, has shown no such reluctance.
Trump’s Texas rallies featured rhetoric on immigration that would have been surprising to hear in Texas as little as two years ago — or at least politicians used to be better at coding it. Trump’s speeches were as incoherent as always, but one of his advisors, Stephen Miller, a former aide to Alabama’s retrograde Sen. Jeff Sessions, fired up the crowd at both Texas rallies with an explicit appeal to his sense of American national identity that underlined the tenets of Trumpism better than the candidate himself has been able to do.
“Everyone who stands against Donald Trump now are the people who have been running this country into the ground,” Miller said in Dallas. “Everything that is wrong with this country today, the people opposing Donald Trump are responsible for.”
“All of you in this state have seen the effect open borders have had on this country,” Miller said in The Woodlands, where he spoke before Patrick. The plutocrats and the politicians had been thrilled to “let innocent Americans suffer at the hands of immigration.”
Wages and jobs had suffered, and blood of the nation had been spilled. “How many innocent Americans have died because we haven’t secured our border?” he asked. Trumpism, he said, offered a chance to “beat the people who betrayed you.” And time was running out. “Are you ready to protect the working men and women of this country?” The crowd exalted.
By the end of this year, Patrick’s enthusiasm for Trump may still look an outlier among Republicans. But if Texas lawmakers come away from this year with the message that even stronger nativism is needed to win GOP primary races — the only elections that really matter for them — things are likely to get even worse for migrants in the state over the next few years. Thanks to this year’s primaries, next year’s legislature already looks set to be more anti-immigrant than the last, and Patrick will face an easier time advancing his agenda.
It’s understandable why some Democrats cheer Trump’s pending nomination — he’s easy prey. But Trump’s bombing campaign may incur a lot of collateral damage in places like Texas, and it may be years before we can sort out exactly how much.