Here in the United States, as a nation of immigrants, we have a long history of trying to slam the door behind us. From the Know Nothing party in the 1850s (a real party, you can look it up) to the Republican party in 2015, that aspect of America hasn’t changed. What does change is that the immigrant group being despised changes, so there’s a weird sense of deja vu with historical updating.
This is not a history blog, so I’m randomly pulling bits and pieces for illustration, but let’s look at some American rhetoric against immigration. One basic motif against immigrants is to dehumanize them and show that they are not civilized like us, that in some sense they are not fully human. A second, extremely common, motif is to show that they pose a serious danger. The exact nature of the danger varies, but there are plenty of examples claiming rape, murder, diseases, destroying the nature of our culture, and refusing to accept our way of life.
Dehumanization is wonderfully illustrated by an 1881 cartoon that literally shows a monstrous creature in a cage, titled “The Most Recently Discovered Wild Beast”. The cartoon is meant to show a man from Ireland. The Irish were regarded by native-born Americans as lazy, undisciplined, drunken criminals who would take orders from the Catholic church.
In 1891 a group of nine Italian men were accused and found not guilty of murder, but before they could be released, a mob broke into the jail and dragged them all out (along with two unrelated Italians just for good measure) and lynched them. Following this news, Italians across the country were attacked. Commenting on the events, an editorial in the New York Times referred to the murder victims (those who were lynched) as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” In this phrasing, we can see the motif of dehumanization, claiming the victims were “sneaking and cowardly” and furthermore that they were “Sicilians” as if that word needed no explanation. The motif of danger appears in describing the immigrants as “bandits and assassins”. Speaking of the lynchings, Teddy Roosevelt said they were “a rather good thing”.
The rhetoric regarding the Chinese took a slightly different approach than with the Italians, not only referring to the danger they posed, but viscerally emphasizing their difference from Anglosaxon Americans. Thus the newspapers of the time would refer to the Chinese collectively as the “yellow peril”. Such a phrase embodied both danger and difference. A labor leader of the time, Samuel Gompers, said that “the superior whites had to exclude the inferior Asiatics, by law, or if necessary, by force of arms.” Notice that open threat of violence. Yet what else could you do against a peril?
I hardly need to go into much detail discussing hatred toward the Jews, but I include one little bit that so astounded me, I sat gaping when I found it. During the Civil War, General Ulysses Grant wrote a directive reading “The Jews, as a class violating every regulation of trade established by the Treasury Department and also department orders, are hereby expelled …within twenty-four hours from the receipt of this order.” Grant was expelling all Jews from the area he controlled in Tennessee, reminiscent of how they were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella.
So here we are in 2015. Among some of the cynical, vicious assholes running for president, the current newsmaker is Donald Trump. Personally, I don’t think he actually has strong feelings one way or another about illegal immigrants. Trump cares about Trump, and that’s the end of it. But as his ego expands outward like the universe after the Big Bang, he has found it convenient to latch onto the kind of malicious nativism I’ve illustrated above from previous American history.
Trump recently said in reference to Mexico: “people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Who knows why he tacked that last bit on there, as if that would help. You can easily see the old motifs that were applied at one time to the Irish, to the Italians, to the Chinese. Exactly the same rhetorical approach. We’ve gone from wild beast to bandits to yellow peril to criminals and rapists.
In that short quote from Trump, he actually invoked four things: a vague “problems” so you can fill in the blank, plus drugs, crime, and rape. This is the old danger motif, such as Italian assassins, combined with dehumanization of people so vile they combine all these awful qualities.
The truly disturbing thing is that while we may not be surprised to see a raving idiot like Donald Trump grasp at demogogery to gain attention, he does not rave in a vacuum. The Republican party has spent years laying the groundwork in preparation for him. Even now, most other Republican presidential candidates refuse to openly condemn what Trump says, and Ted Cruz (also a cynical asshole) even praises him. Furthermore, look at this quote from the National Review, a conservative journal not known for calm rational discussions, commenting on a statistic of low crime rates among legal immigrants: “One would expect legal immigrants to have low crime rates, since they are, by definition, the type of people who follow the law.”
This quote implies that illegal immigrants, people who will break the law to find work to feed their families are, by contrast, inherently people who will commit crimes (rape and murder, for instance). Such an attitude is not only logically wrong and despicable on a human level, but it is also cretinously stupid politically, when the people who you degrade are increasingly numerous.
It is not a good sign when one of our major political parties has lurched into angry nativism, when GOP stands for “Get Out of this Place!”