Jeb Bush’s bizarre comments about “Asian anchor babies” that were delivered near the Mexican border on Monday were no doubt of a political nature. Bush was merely trying to react to Donald Trump’s populism which includes a strong nativist streak much like populist movements of yesteryear as well as protectionism, Governor Bush’s record and rhetoric stand in stark contrast to this nativism. But still Bush tried the age of old game of racial polarization by trying to turn his favorable record with one ethnic minority group into bashing another, smaller and less vote-rich group. We’ve seen this motif in American history also in conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, Irish and Italians in large cities, Eastern European immigrants and those from Northern Europe, and in so many more cases.
By the strict definition Governor Bush offered, I am an anchor baby. My parents were both green card holders when I was born, but neither had citizenship and in fact my father did not attain citizenship until I was 14, a full 24 years after he moved to the United States. Should I be offended? Of course I am because it was a racist statement, but as a pol myself I know Bush was simply trying making a calculated gesture politically by attempting to maintain his relationship with the Hispanic/Latino community while race-baiting for populist support on the right which he might need to win the nomination in the wake of the Trump threat.
Bush’s rhetoric while inexcusable was logical politically in some ways. It was a clumsy attempt to engage in subtle race baiting while appealing to a larger minority group. Race baiting is part of the American political landscape and rather than condemn it at every turn sometimes you have to admire the intent politically to polarize and just laugh at its absurdity. Otherwise you’d be angry every single day because race baiting one way or another happens every single day in American politics.
As a student of politics I completely understand the cross-cutting cleavages in American society and in this day and age believing a political figure can “united” people of all races and ethnicities is simply naive. Sometimes especially for Republicans you have to hunt where the ducks are and the United States has far more Hispanics than Asians, so politically Bush was on pretty safe ground even if morally it was a sloppy attempt to play Strom Thurmond or George Wallace. This is not justify the racially-charged rhetoric of Bush’s statement especially since it was directed at people like me specifically, because racism is never right morally, but sometimes especially for 21st Century Republicans it is beneficial politically. The reality also is that many in Asian-American community have their own racial prejudices that probably are stronger than Bush’s, so maybe this statement and the subsequent outrage could teach some in that community to perhaps be more tolerant.
But unfortunately for Bush, he didn’t pull this off. In so many cases already in 2015, Bush’s ability to sell his record and his rhetoric have fallen short. The rustiness of the former (failed) Florida Governor in delivering himself to an electorate that today is very different than his last run for office in 2002 has been noticeable consistently.
So while many might be offended by Bush’s sloppy attempt to race-bait, the real takeaway is that even this Jeb! cannot pull off cleanly. Despite the best efforts of the Republican establishment and conservative media to discredit Trump and elevate Bush, Jeb! himself is the best friend Trump has. Every time Bush opens his mouth, Trump looks a stronger bet to be around for the long haul.