COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa – Sometimes this fall, it feels as if the contours of a familiar world for Republicans are under assault.
They worry that immigrants here illegally are gobbling up jobs and benefits. They fear that Islamic State terrorists could sneak across a porous border with Mexico and find their way into the United States. They complain that the U.S. is bowing to political correctness in response to racial tensions and the legalization of gay marriage.
Together, these worries lend a sharp new edge to anxiety over wages, jobs and debt.
“We’re going down the tubes and I don’t know if we can recover,” said James Burrack, 77, a farmer in northeastern Iowa who believes illegal immigration poses a major threat to the country’s economy and security. “Just give it all to the Muslims and we can be their subjects.”
Less than 10 weeks before Iowans kick off the presidential nomination with the first-in-the-nation caucuses, interviews with more than 50 Republican voters across the state paint a dark picture of deep discontent with the direction of the country.
This intense and focused anxiety helps explain why the establishment – media and political – has been wrong so often this year when it’s predicted that an inflammatory comment about Mexicans or Muslims would doom a candidate, or that the attacks in Paris would drive voters away from unconventional contenders.
The candidates are reflecting that mood, not leading it.
So if comments about Mexicans being rapists, calls to exclude Muslims from being president or proposals to ban Syrian refugees from the country strike some Americans as disqualifying, they resonate with another part of America.
And just as the anger and anxiety can carry racial, religious or ethnic undertones, it’s also true that the top choices so far of these same voters include an African-American – Ben Carson – and two Latino candidates – Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
Carl Brandt, 75, a minister in rural Henderson (population 185), said he means “no disrespect to the Spanish people” and stressed that he’s not opposed to legal immigration: His grandfather arrived from Germany, via Ellis Island, he said.
“But he did it the right way and they should, too,” Brandt said. “Too many today are just slipping in. Do we know who they are? Do we know what they want?”
Many Iowa Republicans mention the protests that roiled the University of Missouri this month as black students complained about racism on campus. Republicans saw the response to the protests – including the ouster of the college president and chancellor – as over-the-top coddling and an assault on free speech.
“We’re willing to pander to anyone as long as it’s not a Christian conservative,” said Mark Tompkins, 73, a U.S. Army veteran and Council Bluffs resident. “Let’s look out for the Muslims,” he added sarcastically. “Let’s cater to spoiled college kids at Columbia.”
Jennifer Fredericksen, 47, who runs a small business in eastern Iowa with her husband, complained about the university’s reaction to the campus protests, which included an email from the school’s police department that urged those who witnessed “incidents of hateful and/or hurtful speech or actions” to call police.
“How can you prevent 35,000 people from saying bad things?” she said of the university. “Is it going to get to the point where we all have to watch every word that we say for fear of offending someone and losing our jobs?”
Fredericksen blames President Barack Obama, accusing him of worsening race relations. “He’s incited it. He doesn’t bother getting on TV when any cops are killed, but in Ferguson before we knew the whole story, he rushed to judgment.”
Worries over national security are aggravating fears about immigration even as the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States has leveled off since the end of the Great Recession.
A Pew Research Center survey this month found more Mexican immigrants returning from the U.S. than migrating here, a finding it attributed to the sluggish U.S. economy and stricter border enforcement. In Iowa, the undocumented population is estimated at 40,000 or less – 1.4 percent of the state’s total population.
“We need to close that border,” said Marlene Flanagan, 63, a retired legal assistant from Council Bluffs, who said she fears militants intent on harming the U.S. will be able to slip in through Mexico. “Why would we take any chances with our security?”
She supports Donald Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall. She is enthusiastic about his plans for a “deportation force” to round up some of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally and send them back to their countries. It’s the sort of thinking that most politicians won’t touch, she said.
“They’re afraid of being politically correct, but we need to deport them,” Flanagan said. “This is America and they need to abide by our rules. What are we if we don’t have our laws?”
Much of the dissatisfaction is aimed squarely at the Republican Party, particularly over complaints that the GOP in Congress has given too much to Obama.
Iowa Republican voters’ top choices for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination are almost all outsiders. A solid majority of 59 percent support the “non-establishment” candidates at the top of the field -Trump, Carson and Cruz – according to a recent CNN/ORC poll.
Voters are also anxious about what they see as out-of-control federal spending – many noted with chagrin that Republicans gave Obama a victory last month with a spending agreement that lifts the debt limit until two months after he’s left the Oval Office.
They want an end to those deals and a government “that doesn’t get in your way, that doesn’t throw up roadblocks” like excessive regulations and a host of taxes, said Cody Staker, 47, a certified public accountant in Muscatine.
He says he doesn’t know anyone who backs the top outsider candidates, but he understands the appeal.
“A lot of Republicans are tired of these Republicans who are too tied to the center of power and too often go along with the Democrats,” Staker said. “They’re looking for someone who is not just going to go along.”
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