Perhaps the most surprising aspect of South Carolina's recent Republican primary wasn't that Donald Trump won by such a large margin, but that so many Republican voters here and across the country are endorsing his views and ideology.
South Carolinas's primary presented a clear contrast between two opposing directions for the Republican GOP. One was a more inclusive brand of conservatism as exemplified by the personal stories of Florida's Marco Rubio and our own Nikki Haley and Tim Scott. This wing of the party seeks to broaden the base of the party and emphasizes the idea that a son or daughter of immigrants or an African-American son of a single mom can find a place in the new, multicultural GOP.
The opposing vision is one of nativism, xenophobia, and anti-immigrant pathology as exemplified by Donald Trump's plans for a border wall paid for by Mexico and his call to keep Syrian refugees out of the United States regardless of circumstances.
Voters in South Carolina were given the clear choice between the two, and they resoundingly chose the latter.
South Carolina Republicans are not outliers in their wholehearted embrace of Trump's anti-immigrant ideology. The voters of New Hampshire and Nevada also overwhelmingly chose Trump as the spokesman for the 2016 Republican Party. Many of the Super Tuesday states will surely do the same.
Following the presidential election of 2012 when President Barack Obama easily won reelection by racking up huge margins among Latino voters, the narrative among Republican elites was that the party needed to reach out to Latinos in order to have any chance of winning the presidential election in 2016. From this idea came a willingness to compromise among some Republican senators, culminating in the Gang of Eight in which our own Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rubio participated. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush also wrote a book saying that illegal immigration was an "act of love," confirming that there were at least some leading Republican presidential contenders who would be aggressively courting the Latino vote.
However, these entreaties were met with a severe backlash from Tea Party activists who branded any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants as "amnesty" and immediately rejected consideration of any bipartisan legislation which would accomplish this. Donald Trump has ridden this sentiment from the initial announcement of his candidacy to his present position as the consensus frontrunner. The Republican electorate has overwhelmingly endorsed that position ever since.
It is clear to see why some Republicans would be fearful of welcoming droves of new Latino citizens into the United States. Historically, non-Cuban Latinos have overwhelmingly voted Democratic and have recently provided the margins of victory in swing states for President Obama in 2008 and 2012. There is a very real fear that America is rapidly becoming a minority-majority country, that is, a country where minorities outnumber white voters. Providing a path to citizenship for more immigrants would hardwire a Democratic majority for elections to come. This fear has combined with a pervasive insecurity that other immigrants also bring terrorism, drugs, and crime and take American jobs. Trump has capitalized on this fear and insecurity. Not surprisingly, a few of the Republicans more open to naturalizing illegal immigrants were among the first to drop out of the presidential race.
Donald Trump is not the first person to espouse such radical ideas, and strains of his message can be heard in Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich's campaigns of years past. The surprising difference this year is that Trump's message is reaching a more receptive audience. If The Donald becomes the eventual Republican nominee, South Carolinians will have the dubious distinction of being among the first to propel his candidacy and also to have rejected the attempts at inclusion championed by Nikki Haley, Tim Scott, and Lindsey Graham.