The city of Phoenix, located in the middle of the Arizona desert, is expanding. Every year, its periphery moves outward, pushing its way past the mountain ridges that once served as a natural barrier.
The Salt River Valley near the Mexican border once epitomized the Wild West and the American frontier. Today, it hosts an expanding metropolis. Not long ago, Phoenix had been voted the worst city in the United States. To many, it represented a lack of culture and imagination, devoid of definable attributes, except for population growth.
That might be why Phoenix, of all places, is where the future of the United States could be decided — a future that teeters between openness and isolationism; between absorbing political and demographic challenges or glorifying the past; between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Rarely has there been so much on the line during a presidential election. The battle for the White House appears to be nothing less than a battle for the soul of a nation. And in Phoenix, it’s palpable.
Phoenix resident Tony Navarrete considers himself ideologically armed and politically dangerous, toting voter registration forms through Phoenix with small, mobile strike forces. Their approach, which he describes as a “guerilla” tactic, is house-by-house, street-by-street.
Have Republicans allowed themselves to be maneuvered into a political dead end by Donald Trump?
It’s a Saturday morning, and Mr. Navarrete, dressed in a blue polo shirt, is in the community center of a Catholic church. In front of him are his recruits, a mix of white and Latino volunteers.
“We won’t accept it when somebody claims Mexicans are rapists,” he said. “Instead, we choose to empower ourselves .” At 30, Mr. Navarrete represents not only one of the Democratic party’s most important target voterships, but also a new generation of up-and-coming politicians.
As a candidate, he is likely to enter the Arizona state legislature in the fall. Republicans don’t stand a chance in his electoral district, which is why Mr. Navarrete is turning his focus towards the more immediate goal of fighting against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Mr. Navarrete is mobilizing voters for the civil rights organization Promise Arizona, which seeks to provide a voice to citizens and residents that don’t have one, particularly the immigrant working class; those ubiquitous cleaning ladies, gardeners and construction workers who are at the core of Phoenix’s continued expansion.
Mr. Navarrete and his campaigners have set a goal of registering 80,000 new voters in the Arizona capital alone. Somewhat ironically, organizers believe they have a good chance of achieving their goal precisely because Mr. Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has put Latino communities in a state of alert. The Republican presidential candidate’s demands that a wall be built along the U.S..- Mexican border and that deportation officers patrol immigrant neighborhoods has unleashed a wave of grassroots countermeasures.
These initiatives could prove powerful enough to turn traditionally conservative Arizona into a battleground state. The Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, thinks she has a good chance of beating Mr. Trump in the historically Republican stronghold.
As a result, Democrats have launched a major offensive, with Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook announcing plans to spend in excess of $2 million (€1.8 million) on political advertising in Arizona. Ms. Clinton is also sending her most effective campaign surrogate to Phoenix: First Lady Michelle Obama.
The anti-Trump effect currently reaches far beyond Arizona, and could dampen Republican prospects for decades to come. Mr. Trump’s populist and often xenophobic rhetoric appears to have kicked loose an avalanche of backlash that not only could decide the outcome of the November election, but also permanently shift the United States to the left. It’s a prospect that former President George W. Bush registered months ago, having confided to his advisers: “I’m worried that I will be the last Republican president.”
With the U.S. population in the midst of a demographic shift, the percentage of conservative-minded white voters is dwindling. Democrats have seized the moment and seek to convert the shift into a long-term voting majority, thanks to Mr. Trump.
Resistance against Mr. Trump seems to be growing by the day, with Latino voters and residents speaking out and finding their voice. Claudia Faudoa, for example, entered the United States illegally 22 years ago, and, without a residency permit, can’t vote. But she can fight for those who can and is counted amongst the best of Mr. Navarrete’s voter registration “guerillas”.
At the church, Mr. Navarrete has just wrapped up the morning briefing, and it’s time to move out.
Ms. Faudoa tries her luck in a parking lot in front of a bargain supermarket in south Phoenix. With the sun beating down hard, Faudoa holds voter lists over her head for shade. A few rows of cars away, a man heaves shopping bags into his truck. Ms. Faudoa heads towards him, her hand held out.
“Hi, I’m Claudia. Do you have a moment?”
She lives in constant fear of deportation, but it’s the small victories that drive her to approach dozens — sometimes hundreds — of strangers every day. She is usually turned away and occasionally has to endure a variety of insults before finding someone who says, “Where can I sign up?”
Voting in the United States is anything but straightforward, with different voting rules in each state. However, most states require potential voters to register to vote before election day.
Ms. Faudoa has registered hundreds of voters, but one in particular, a young African-American student, sticks in her mind. She approached him on a college campus, and at first, he showed little interest.
Then Ms. Faudoa told him her story: As illegal aliens, she and her husband live a kind of shadow existence, even though their three sons, who were born in the country, are U.S. citizens. She worries about her family being torn apart. That fear is with her wherever she goes. “You can be my voice,” she told the stranger. Eventually he agreed to be just that and registered. “I’ll do it for you,” she recalls him saying.
What many Republicans see as a horror scenario could soon become reality. Back in 2012, after former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was defeated by Barack Obama in the last presidential election, Republicans analyzed their missteps in a so-called “autopsy” report. In it, strategists argued for more inclusiveness and for the party to commit to a more open immigration policy in order to avoid “shrinking down to their core electorate.”
In the coming election, the tragedy for Republicans might be having committed to doing the exact opposite, allowing themselves to be maneuvered by Mr. Trump into a political dead end, despite having known better. And they are already paying the price.
Mr. Trump’s political stances, advertised as a radical break with convention, are anything but new. In the 1990s, Republicans in California rallied around an initiative to bar illegal immigrants from access to schools and hospitals. The position subsequently took a heavy toll on the party in state elections. Suddenly, in a state where Ronald Reagan once ruled as governor and the politics of the New American Right were born, the Republican party was securing its own extinction. In California today, Republicans are impotent, and Democrats rule.
The conservatives’ nightmare is the progressives’ dream. For Ms. Faudoa however, it’s the result of voting along ethnic lines.
“It’s hard having a brown skin,” she said, “but I love this country.”
Moritz Koch has been the Washington correspondent for Handelsblatt since 2013. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org