Are there more bigots now than there were before Trump became the GOP front-runner?

Here’s what I’ve been wondering since last year, when Donald Trump made race and immigration central to his campaign:

Has the country become more bigoted as a result, or does it just seem that way because of how rabid and vocal Trump supporters are?

Troglodytes have always been a part of American culture, and I suspect they always will be. But they seem to have become more emboldened, which is understandable, given that a candidate for president of the United States is obsessed with people of color. And he’s revved up followers by exaggerating crime stats and ranting about rapists and drug dealers flowing across the border.

On Sunday, my column was about a comment from the head of Latinos for Trump, who warned that if we don’t do something about immigration, we’re going to end up with — horror of all horrors — taco trucks on every corner.

What could be so bad about that, I asked.

“Because it would be an eyesore and this is not Tijuana — yet,” a reader responded.

“If I wanted to live in Mexico or Latin America, I would move there,” wrote another.  “A taco truck on every corner, and they wonder why kids are overweight.”

Some readers missed the point altogether, scolding me about the impact of food trucks on bricks-and-mortar restaurants (OK, a legitimate concern but a different column), or arguing that more trucks means more low-wage jobs (then leave a bigger tip), or making cracks about food poisoning (sprinkle some lime on your taco and take a walk on the wild side).

Then there was a reader named Diane, who checks in regularly. This time she dropped a note to me and my colleagues saying, “Gang members are the offspring of the illegal laborers, who due to their illiteracy & ignorance know NOTHING about how to raise a civilized, productive member of society.”

Diane’s expertise extends to science and hygiene. She blasted American citizens for hiring anyone “who’s never taken a biology course & knows NOTHING about bacteria to clean their home.”

And she closed with this:

“Deportations cannot come soon enough. TRUMP 2016-2024!”

Look, I get that some Trump supporters love the idea that he’s not Hillary or some other career politician, or they think he can actually grow jobs and wages. And there are important conversations to be had about the costs and benefits of illegal immigration, and how best to reform a hypocritical, ridiculously broken system.

But we’re not having them.

Gas bag proclamations dominate the discourse, and when a candidate for president is happy to let it rip, the posse is ready to ride.

But are there more Dianes now, for whom immigration is a critical issue, than there were before Trump began race-baiting?

Fernando Guerra of Loyola University’s Institute for the Study of Los Angeles doesn’t think so.

“Overwhelmingly, public opinion, led by Los Angeles and California, has moved away from this really being a wedge issue,” Guerra said. “All of a sudden Trump and his campaign are making it a wedge issue again, and creating a divisiveness when we’re trying to move away from that.”

As Guerra sees it, there are few congressional, state or local elections in which immigration is key, particularly in California.

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That’s because Trump’s immigration policies seem to be at odds with the views of most Americans. Maybe that’s because they understand that most people who come north are simply trying to escape violence and economic hopelessness.

A recent Pew Research poll found that Trump’s border wall is losing support, with 61% currently opposing the idea.

Seventy-six percent of those surveyed said undocumented immigrants are as hardworking and honest as U.S. citizens.

Two-thirds said undocumented immigrants are no more likely than U.S. citizens to commit serious crimes.

And about 7 in 10 people said undocumented immigrants take jobs that, for the most part, citizens don’t want.

These numbers are pretty much in line with the way Californians think, according to Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute of California.

“A strong majority say immigrants are a benefit to California,” Baldassare said. And by an overwhelming number, Californians “want a path to citizenship and are against  building a wall.”

The presidential campaign does not appear to have had an impact on those positions, Baldassare said. 

“We’re not seeing any evidence that people are expressing an anti-immigrant perspective in polling this year.”

In May, two-thirds of Californians opposed building the wall, and 75% of likely voters — including a majority of Republicans — said undocumented immigrants should be allowed to stay in the country legally.

Baldassare speculated that if my mail bag suggests there’s an increasingly hard line against immigration, “what you might be seeing is a difference in terms of people’s willingness to express opinions, because you now have people at the national level expressing opinions that maybe weren’t that openly expressed previously.”

I think he’s onto something, and in fact, I heard from lots of readers who had nothing but good things to say about taco trucks and the people who run them, and nothing but negative things to say about political candidates who indulge our worst instincts.

“I love the idea of a taco truck on every corner of America,” wrote Roz Levine.

“It means hardworking people are running a business, earning money for their families… Bring on taco trucks, the sushi trucks, the trucks that bring us samosas, fajitas, pizzas, burritos and falafels; bring on the rich tableau of foods made by Americans from everywhere that help to make our country beautiful and great.”

Take that, haters.

And Roz?

You name the truck of your choice, and lunch is on me.

Get more of Steve Lopez's work and follow him on Twitter @LATstevelopez

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