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Before Pope Francis spoke a single word at the Mexican border, Donald Trump had — quite predictably — denounced the pontiff’s message. The real estate mogul and former reality-TV star has built his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination on an ugly nativism, so the moment was tailor-made for him.

The counter-messaging only escalated after the pontiff told reporters that anyone who wants to build a border wall, as Trump has infamously proposed, “is not Christian.” That prompted a retort from Trump, of course: “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” he said.
(If the pontiff’s remarks were recorded correctly, he didn’t say Trump isn’t “a” Christian. In other words, he didn’t question the faith to which Trump ascribes; rather, the pope described Trump’s behavior as failing to follow Christian principles.)

Trump-isms notwithstanding, Pope Francis couldn’t have picked a better moment for his message of compassion toward migrants. This presidential campaign season has revealed some unseemly passions roiling in the American electorate — especially on the right; those resentments needed the criticism of an authority figure outside elective politics. Who better than the pope?
Concluding his swing through Mexico with a pointed stop at the border city of Juarez, Pope Francis bemoaned the global “human tragedy” that forces people to risk death to try to gain sanctuary in safer places. He called migrants “the brothers and sisters of those expelled by poverty and violence, by drug trafficking and criminal organizations.”

Not that the pope’s call for charity is likely to have an immediate calming effect. In this country, the conservative electorate is in the midst of a massive meltdown over the nation’s changing demographics. Make no mistake about it: Stagnant wages and economic uncertainty have fueled the fires of outrage, but the flames were lit by a deep-seated resentment over a slow-moving but obvious cultural shift as white Americans slide toward losing their majority status.

The election of President Barack Obama is among the more striking signs of that shift, but there are others: Among the wealthiest and most influential pop culture figures are two black women known only by their first names, Oprah and Beyonce. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which hands out the Oscars, has been hit by protests over its lack of diversity. Interracial couples, and their kids, are routinely featured in television commercials for common household products.

But the “browning of America,” as some social scientists have called it, has not been propelled by growing numbers of native-born blacks, but rather by increasing numbers of immigrants from Asia, Africa and the rest of the Americas. Of those, Latinos constitute the largest and most visible group. That helps to explain why immigration has occupied a central place in this presidential campaign — and why it threatens to tear apart the Republican Party.

Its leaders have spent decades pandering to the fears of those white Americans who are least comfortable with changes in the social and cultural hierarchy. Instead of displaying a leadership that might have eased the anxiety of white conservatives, GOP candidates broadened the old “Southern strategy” to disparage not only native-born black Americans but also immigrants of color.

Now, those GOP voters are displaying a xenophobia that has pushed the party even further to the right — and which threatens to alienate voters of color for decades to come. Even as Republican strategists tear their hair out over the hateful tone emanating from the campaign trail, the candidates, with a couple of exceptions, keep up their harsh rhetoric. While The Donald has displayed the most outrageous bigotry, including a call to bar all Muslims from entry, his rivals have tried not to be out-Trumped. Sen. Marco Rubio, for example, has disavowed a plan, one he once endorsed, to grant legal status to undocumented workers.

President Obama and the Democratic contenders, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, have pushed back against the biases oozing from the GOP hustings, but they have no credibility with ultraconservative voters. Perhaps there are still a few of them who will be swayed by the loving and generous message of Pope Francis.

(Cynthia Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)

COPYRIGHT 2016 CYNTHIA TUCKER
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Photo: Pope Francis blesses the United States while standing next to a wooden cross at the border between Mexico and the U.S. in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico February 17, 2016.  REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

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