Our Know-Nothing Politics

The best analysis comes from people who are passionate but not overly emotional about the topic they analyze. I grew up in a community where a large population of the town was likely undocumented. I went to college with a not insignificant number of students who were not in the country legally. I have made good friends, bitter rivals, and acquaintances I know almost nothing about. For this reason, I see undocumented immigrants not as a threatening mass of faceless “other” but as individuals with hopes, dreams, families, ideas, and, above all, rights. And so, when discussing the president’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants my cool, logical German half is subsumed by a fiery Irish temper. But I will do my best.

During the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump blamed many of the high profile public policy challenges facing our country on immigrants, refugees, and Muslims. We could be made safe from terrorism and crime not by showing that human rights are superior to tyranny and working with allies to defeat enemies or through smart community building but by discriminating against Muslims and banning the entry of refugees. Our economy is stagnant not because of the tradeoffs of new technologies and a changing economy but because immigrants are stealing our jobs. The drug epidemic can be fixed by building a border wall rather than investing in public health and community wellbeing.

And far too many Americans bought into this obvious scapegoating. Too many of us bought into this because of the psychology of scapegoating. It is disturbingly easy to blame people from “the Other” for social and economic problems. We are all dangerously susceptible to such thinking because our brains are hardwired for simple solutions and distrusting the unknown. We have difficulty understanding that problems are complicated and that often the fault lies not in the stars, but in ourselves. It is easy to say that a migrant farmer stole an American job but much more difficult to explain the complexities and challenges of a global economy and the hard work that will benecessary to build an economy that works for everyone including and especially in those areas that relied on industries that are now defunct.

The problem with scapegoating outsiders is that problems go unsolved. The challenges of building a new economy remain, the drug epidemic continues, and the world is just as dangerous– if not more so since we have alienated potential allies. All we will have achieved is a society in which residing in a country without going through the proper channels is a worse crime than assault and abuse. And all we will have to show for four to eight years of hate is human suffering.

And the problem is that xenophobia has remained maddeningly consistent through the centuries, even if the groups that draw the ire of Know-Nothings change. Other forms of bigotry that have plagued American life since before the founding of the country—racism, sexism, and classism, to name a few—still exist and are still terrible but have changed as social and economic progress has been made. For example, women face terrible abuse on social media but no longer have to worry that they will be hung as witches by Cotton Mather. Somehow, throughout our history, hatred and distrust of immigrants and other “outsiders” has relied upon some very predictable principles: outsiders are responsible for  our social and economic problems, they undermine the safety of Americans, and they are in conspiracy against America.

Trump and his supporters blame Mexican immigrants for stealing jobs from Americans and for causing the drug epidemic. The president also seems convinced that immigrants are committing rampant voter fraud. Respected economists point out that the first point is utterly false. Immigrants do not steal jobs, they supplement the labor market. If the child of an undocumented immigrant goes to college and becomes an engineer or an artist, that is a net positive for this country because that child of immigrants is an engineer or an artist we did not have in this country before (they do not steal the job of an American raised engineer or artist, economics does not work as a zero-sum game but rather, if done in a way fair to everyone, a positive-sum game). The latter assertion is also false. The causes of the drug epidemic are complex, but the roots can be found in the economics of our healthcare system and American aversion to pain and not in “drug pushers” from Mexico. As for the accusation that undocumented immigrants are stealing our elections, voter fraud is a vanishingly rare crime.

These arguments made against Latin American immigrants (not all immigrants are from Mexico, just so that is clear) are identical to arguments made against previous generations of immigrants. The Irish and Germans were accused by Know-Nothings of worsening the alcohol epidemic. Prohibition was very much a nativist, anti-immigrant movement. Irish and German immigrants were accused of stealing jobs and elections. Riots broke out against these immigrants. Riots have not broken out in our current fit of nativist hysteria, but the poison language used against undocumented immigrants can have the effect, intentional or not, of sowing violence.

Our president has said that immigrants cause crime and refugees undermine our national security. No, immigrants are not more likely to engage in criminal activity. And no, it is incredibly unlikely that a refugee will commit a terrorist attack. These are the words of a nativist fool, not the sober rationality needed to actually keep Americans safe (and we are relatively safe).

And somehow Trump supporters have overlooked the human suffering caused by baseless accusations of the criminality or the foreign allegiance. During the 1940s, Japanese immigrants and their children and grandchildren were herded into concentration camps on the terrible assumption that Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were more loyal to Japan than America. This was a black mark on the great presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and an action that then-Governor of California Earl Warren would spend the rest of his life making atonements for as an advocate for civil liberties on the Supreme Court. Another black mark on FDR’s presidency was his refusal to allow Jewish refugees into the country out of fear that there may have been German spies among them. Thousands of those turned away would be killed in the Holocaust, including a girl named Anne Frank. During the Civil War, abolitionist German immigrants in Texas were massacred as they attempted to flee to Mexico (because, well, they were afraid of being killed) on the basis that they posed an internal threat to the Confederacy. I have written here about how Federalists discriminated against French immigrants out of fear that they were more loyal to the Jacobin Reign of Terror than the American experiment.

The third principle of American xenophobia, closely related to the idea that immigrants undermine safety and national security, is the idea that there is a conspiracy involving immigrants and outsiders to undermine the American Republic. A good example comes from this Alt-Right “fake news” propaganda site during the last months of the Obama Administration:

“It is a notorious fact that the Mullahs of the Middle East and the Ayatollah of Iran are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Islam.”

Just kidding. This is actually an editorial on Catholicism from a Texas newspaper in 1855 dug up by Richard Hofstadter in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics”:

“It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”

The problem is that very real Congressmen with very real power really did accuse their opposition of being infiltrated by Muslim groups during the Obama Administration and followers of the president really are accusing American Muslims of being part of a conspiracy against the United States.

We have been down this dark road before. We know that Xenophobia does not solve our problems. We know Xenophobia causes nothing but suffering. It is time that we move past the narrow-mindedness of our forefathers (and even our fathers). Immigrants and refugees do not undermine our society, they contribute to it. But I would not expect a Know-Nothing like our president to understand that.


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