By Chris Newman, General Counsel of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON)
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California had a harder job than Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida during “The Great Red vs. Blue State Debate” on Fox News on Thursday night. Unlike his opponent, Newsom also had to wrangle with the host, Sean Hannity, who skewed most of his questions to the MAGA worldview. All night, it was two against one.
Newsom mostly held his own, even as he kept having to unpack the questions and arguments from their Trumpian framing, trying to explain to the folks at home how a rational person might think about everything from taxes to education to immigration.
This was especially true on immigration. Hannity kept challenging Newsom to accept the Fox News version of the border — that it was a deadly war zone overrun by terrorists and drug smugglers and that this was all the Democrats’ and especially President Biden’s fault.
Hannity tried over and over to get Newsom to agree that “unvetted” border crossers from hostile countries — Afghans, Egyptians, Iranians, Syrians, Russians and Chinese — were a “clear and present danger” to American citizens. DeSantis, of course, had no problem with that — he bobbed his head and said, yes, definitely, it was “100 percent” true that terrorists were walking across the border to try to kill us all.
But Newsom’s response, accusing DeSantis of hypocrisy and trying to outflank him from the right, was troubling in its own way. While he correctly noted that the Florida governor’s effort to “out-Trump Trump” has been embarrassing and immoral failure, Newsom didn’t make any progress on immigrant rights. Instead, he simply personified Democrats’ retreat. His main argument was ultimately just a charismatic and forward-leaning defense of President Biden’s back-pedaling on immigration reform.
Newsom accepted the premise that the borderlands should be militarized further, and lots of money should be spent for things like hiring Border Patrol and customs officers, and adding more drones, surveillance and fencing. He insisted, accurately, that most of his fellow Democrats are all-in with that approach. He said Biden has been trying to pass a hugely expensive border-security bill from Day One — but that the Republicans keep rejecting it out of hand.
[Here’s a quick fact check: As a candidate, Biden did promise to introduce an immigration bill during his first week in office, and on his first day, he introduced a four-page outline of the bill. The bill did not appear until his fifth week.]
If there was one solid argument Newsom made amid the yammering and yelling and interruptions, it was this: Republicans have no solutions on immigration and won’t until the party is taken back from Trump’s hands. This is the point that needs to be told and retold and amplified until it finally sinks in with the public. The Fox-Republican border paranoia is a bottomless pit.
Like fascists and xenophobes of every land and era, the Trump-led G.O.P. wants to demonize and dehumanize immigrants, asylum-seekers, and “others.” They want the native-born to feel terrorized, victimized, and helpless so their party can tap the political whirlwind generated by fear and hatred. Fox wants the same so it can sell advertisements for pillows. Any version of the national story that veers from MAGA doctrine and admits other truths — that immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers help, not hurt, the society and economy; that newcomers deserve protection, justice, and the same shot at success afforded to previous generations of white people — is to be denied and denounced.
Democrats can win the argument, but they need to state the problem and offer solutions unequivocally: There are ways to harmonize things in the borderlands and to fix things inside the United States — especially for the 11 million people deemed illegal by our current laws. Once celebrated as having been essential workers during the pandemic, having worked often to their death so that others could live, they have been completely abandoned from the national conversation. And they were abandoned by Newsom last night. In passing whatever audition test that TV show was about, Newsom failed to overcome the persistent problem — finding a way to defend immigrants without falling into the trap white nationalist “border security” framing.
Yes, DeSantis is a smarmy, immoral bully, punching down on immigrants. Yes, Congress is broken. But the problem isn’t Republican obstruction, as Newsom suggested. The real issue is that we have an entire country lying to itself about what the problem is, and nobody in Congress or the White House or courageous enough to speak the truth — and act on it. Newsom had the chance yesterday to draw comparisons to JFK, but instead, he punted on the third down.
Immigrants– and the country– need an immigrant rights champion to emerge, and quick. We need Democrats to forcefully reject the presumption that immigration is threat that should be defended against along the Rio Grande. We need them to proudly stand with immigrant workers whose fight against exploitation, criminalization, and disenfranchisement benefits of us all.
Newsom, Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas — everyone supposedly leading the “pro-immigrant” team continues to capitulate to the post- 9/11 idea that more “border security” should be used as a bargaining chip for amnesty. This approach is fundamentally wrong, and it never worked anyway. Not under George W. Bush, and not under Barack Obama. And it’s not going to work now. Especially not now, when anti-immigrant hatred is dangerously spiraling out of control.
Let’s acknowledge that more immigrants may be in more danger in this country than they have ever been, as Republican politicians and voters have gotten ever more crude, brutal and violent with their xenophobic words and deeds. And let’s acknowledge that the political potency of this hatred may result in the end of democracy as we know it if Republicans win the presidency next year. Those were the stakes of the red versus blue debate.
Newsom showed last night he has a strong TV presence and command of the issues. He can be an effective voice to transcend the polarization bedeviling the country. And he should be commended for taking his case to the opposition. But let’s hope the next time Governor Newsom gets a holiday primetime special on Fox, he uses the opportunity to neutralize the Republican’s most dangerous and dangerously effective arguments. It’s the best way he can help defend American democracy against the ugly, retrograde fascism exemplified by his ugly debate adversaries, DeSantis and Hannity.