While Donald Trump has suffered opprobrium for wondering aloud at a White House meeting why he must tolerate immigrants from “shithole countries” rather than venues like Norway, critics should at least credit him for an aphorism that strikes a deep-rooted cord in the American imagination. Albeit couched in crude terminology, Trump’s musing compresses in a succinct, pithy phrase the essence of the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 that curtailed immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (Jews and Italians) in favor of citizens from Nordic lands. While Trump’s phrasing may be somewhat more pungent, it is virtually congruent with the intent of the 1920’s Immigration Act: to keep out the racially undesirable and maintain the nation’s white supremacy. Should Trump be re-elected he can culminate his second term by celebrating the centennial of this exclusionary legislation that he has done so much to restore.
Nativism has a venerable pedigree in the United States: The ante-bellum Know-Nothings with their anti-Catholic bigotry, the animus against Italians and Jews during the Great Immigration on either side of 1900, and the more recent prejudice against Latinos and people from Asia and Africa arriving after the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act that abolished the national-origin quotas whose precepts Trump now seeks to rescind. These immigrants were once considered un-American, a threat to the nation’s lifeblood. That they and their children would assimilate and contribute to the growth and greatness of the country was a possibility not entertained by the restrictionist forces opposed to them.
People fleeing poverty and persecution from what then would have been considered the backwaters of Europe were reviled here as perpetrators of crime and carriers of disease (Italians spreading polio; Jews, tuberculosis). None of them were capable of internalizing American values. The 20s, when these quotas were imposed, coincided with a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. In this second morphology, as we learn from Linda Gordon’s “Second Coming of the KKK,” the targets were Jews and Catholics and the venues spread from the South to the Midwest and beyond. Mixing nativism and anti-Semitism, the Klan declared that supremacy belonged to “Nordics” or White Protestants who were “100 % American.’’ Klansmen longed for “an imagined once-perfect America.”
Although the Klan receded, the nativism it appropriated found new venues. Hardly more than a decade later, the immigration quotas of the 20’s proved to be a death sentence for Jews fleeing Hitler’s clutches who sought refuge on our shores. “Patriotic” organizations mobilized to block every attempt to bring Jews to safety. Their rationale was keeping jobs for Americans but even efforts to save Jewish children foundered in the face of their resistance. On their side was the law, which they invoked with diligence.
Today, their spiritual descendants are equally deaf to the plight of immigrants already here, many of whom have children born in this country. The current efforts to hold Dreamers hostage to a wall, to sentence the undocumented from Central America to death by deportation, to give American-born children of illegals the choice of losing their family or their country, are all in keeping with the racist impulses of American nativism. The common thread that runs through this is a streak of cruelty salted with sanctimony shared by both the old and new restrictionists.
In the President of the United States, they have found both ally and inspiration.
When Donald Trump wonders aloud why he must put up with Mexicans (rapists), Muslims (terrorists), Nigerians (hut-dwellers), Haitians (see above) and what the now outdated Emma Lazarus once called “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore,” he echoes a familiar motif sounded by a race-baiting demagogue of the last century who lamented “the Jews are our misfortune.” Both found ready enablers.
Detractors complain that Trump’s action is unprecedented. Perhaps in style, but not in substance. Rather, it is a re-emergence of a strain long dormant in our body politic. The only question is the damage it may do before the fever passes.
Jack Schwartz was formerly book editor of Newsday.