WASHINGTON — Donald Trump has a point when he talks about the need for immigrants to learn English. “That’s how we assimilate,” he says. Which is true, as any visitor to Miami’s Little Havana has observed.
You can spend an entire day in this mostly Cuban section of the city and hear nary a word of English. Many never bothered to learn English because, mainly, they didn’t have to. They’ve gotten by just fine in their tiny nation within a city. Nor, to Trump’s point, have they assimilated.
Such pockets doubtless exist elsewhere, especially in border states, and are likely to expand as more people come here illegally. To Trump and those he appeals to, these population trends pose an existential threat to the country. A nation divided by language is a nation divided.
Which is also true. But it is utterly ridiculous to insist that only English be spoken at all times. This was the implication from Trump’s latest jab at Jeb Bush, who recently answered questions in Spanish during a Miami news conference. The questions were asked in Spanish, so it must have seemed natural for Bush, who is bilingual, to respond in kind.
This is classic Trump. He sees his opponent’s positive and converts it to a negative. One of Bush’s trump cards is that he can speak directly to Hispanic voters who are crucial to winning the presidency. Thanks to Trump’s derogatory remarks about Mexicans and his deport-’em doctrine, his net favorability among Hispanic voters is minus-51 compared to Bush’s plus-11 (compared to Hillary Clinton’s plus-40!). This, despite the fact that Trump persists in reminding everyone that he employs thousands of Hispanics and “they love me!”
Rather than modify his message to include a smidgeon of empathy for people who come here looking for work, Trump figured out a way to diminish Bush’s advantage, or at least to rebrand it from Hey, a bilingual Republican nominee. Cool! to, “He should really set an example by speaking English while in the United States.”
Well, yeah. One should. But as a bilingual person myself, I can’t express how grateful I am to my father who insisted I learn the language, telling me: “You’re going to need to know Spanish to survive in the world you’re going to inherit.”
Circumstances didn’t prove to be quite as urgent as he had imagined, but he was prescient about future demographics. As it turns out, I speak Spanish daily, which I enjoy for its own sake. But also I enjoy warm relationships with countless new Americans who haven’t yet mastered the predominant language and appreciate the gesture of respect. We connect on a level others can’t. Giving Trump his due, we’re connecting because of our shared language. And, you can be sure, Bush and Marco Rubio are also connecting with those voters and reporters who address them in Spanish.
Trump knows full well how valuable bilingualism is in this country, especially when it comes to his own businesses. A 2014 job posting for one of his hotels said bilingualism was “preferred.” That’s just plain business sense — and Bush is merely brandishing his political sense.
Another positive-turned-negative is Bush’s “low energy,” a trait identified by Trump that others might recognize as maturity or calm. Trump is demonstrably high energy when it comes to talking loud and fast, which somehow in the past decade or so became conflated with being really, really smart. The motivating idea seems to be that super-smart people have to talk really fast to keep up with their super-fast brains. Tell that to the country lawyer.
Bush’s style isn’t exactly, say, electric, but he does have actual policies in his actual brain to back his campaign points. You may not like or agree with them, but at least there’s something there — a book on immigration, a legislative history on education, a longtime personal relationship with the Hispanic world. With Trump it’s all later, baby. Essentially, his motto is: Trust me, I can do this.
Trump is instinctively brilliant, however, as narcissists tend to be. He intuits what people want and gives it to them. When people say they like Trump because “He speaks his mind,” they really mean they like him because he speaks their mind.
Be careful what you think. With Trump, you just might get it.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.