After studying in England for a year, I returned to the United States in summer of 2017. A new Republican president had been inaugurated that winter; my grandfather had died that spring. By the time I got back to California, my dad had already collected some of my grandfather’s personal effects. Among the items were family photographs, bottles of rum and mint liqueur, and a note of congratulations from President Bill Clinton on White House letterhead. (“Hillary and I welcome you as a new citizen and extend our best wishes for much happiness in the future.”) But what I found most interesting was a navy-blue ball cap commemorating the 2005 inauguration of George W. Bush. My dad didn’t know where my grandfather had gotten it.
My grandparents immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the 1960s. My dad is the youngest of their eight children, born after the family had settled in America, just a few months before John F. Kennedy was shot. My grandfather generally had been a pro-labor Democrat, but took a brief detour during the George W. Bush administration. As a cousin explained to me in a recent text message, “Yeah, things got weird after 9/11 and Bush pretended to say a few words in Spanish.” My grandfather supported the wars and national-security measures that followed. Eventually, in his last years, he switched back to voting for Democrats. He’d always liked Bill Clinton, and supported Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The historian Geraldo Cadava’s grandfather also flipped from Democrat to Republican, though his conversion stuck. The fierce political debates he used to have with his grandfather spurred him to write The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump. Cadava’s goal in publishing the book was to explode the myth that the growth of the Hispanic population in the United States will inexorably lead to a permanent Democratic majority. He rightfully underscores the difficulty in applying tidy ideological labels to Hispanics. Many, such as my grandfather, both believe in more generous immigration policies and have patriotic pride in their adopted country. Still others are socially conservative, but might hold more progressive views on the economy.
Cadava focuses on the nearly one-third of Hispanics who lean Republican: in 2016, 28 percent of Hispanics voted for Trump, compared to 27 percent for Mitt Romney in 2012 and 31 percent for John McCain in 2008—a decline from the 40 percent Bush garnered in 2004. “Although the majority of Hispanics or Latinos vote for Democrats,” Cadava writes, it’s also important to understand these Republican Hispanics, “because if we do not, either because we continue to insist that [Hispanics] are part of the liberal majority, or because Hispanic identity itself is too diverse to describe categorically, then we’ll miss something fundamental about Hispanics in the United States and therefore about the United States itself.” Although Cadava mainly discusses presidential politics, he also notes that U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz bested challenger Beto O’Rourke in their 2018 senate race due, in part, to his support from Hispanic Republicans.
Cadava argues, mostly convincingly, that the support Republicans receive from Hispanics is the result of decades of cultivation and organization. For the past seventy years, he suggests, a confluence of factors—including patronage, anti-communist posturing, and candidate-specific traits—have driven turnout among Hispanic Republicans. The last of these is especially important: Eisenhower led the United States to victory in World War II, Nixon and Reagan were anti-communist Californians amenable to immigration reform, and both George Bushes seemed more moderate on immigration than others in their party. In recent years, however, that seems to have changed. Cadava charts a significant shift among Hispanic Republicans away from that emphasis on candidates. The Hispanic Republican leaders Cadava interviewed for the book—sixteen in total—said they didn’t like Trump personally and instead had come to value party loyalty. But in seeking an answer to the question he raises—why the shift from man to party?—Cadava focuses too much on the gestures and symbols, and not enough on continuities in Republican leadership, chief among them an aversion to social spending.