If there’s one thing that’s always struck terror into the quivering hearts of status-conscious white American whimperers, it’s the threat of the looming “not like us” immigrant hordes. Throughout history, Real ‘Muricans of blanched complexions and insecure egos have duplicitously ignored their own non-tribal status while insisting that America should embrace the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses just so long as said masses ain’t too Catholic, too dusky, too Asian-y, too Slavic, or too Messican.’
Enter Sir Donald of Trump. In an era when the American ethnic demographic is rapidly shifting towards a non-white majority amidst an uncertain, recession-smashed 21st-century world, Trump’s hard-line immigration plan is just the sort of paranoid tonic to sooth conservative America’s anxious cultural cough.
Trump’s pandering to nativist tendencies fits squarely within a long history during which the “right” kind of Americans have done their darndest to keep the “wrong” kind of immigrants from tarnishing U.S. shores — all in the name of preserving the de-facto status quo of the day. Whether the supposed threat came from Irish and German Catholics in the 19th century or from super-scary Mexicans and other Latin American brown folk today, the white status quo has always feared the influx of people who might upend the norms of “traditional” America.
The Trump immigration plan — like most Republican policy proposals — is long on bluster but short on the details of actual implementation. It has three core pillars: 1.) Build a gimungous, Pink Floyd-style wall at the Mexican border 2.) Enforce the living hell out of the Constitution by exploding the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement Officers (ICE) and deporting every illegal alien within earshot of a Home Depot parking lot, and 3.) End birthright citizenship so illegal immigrants can’t use their “anchor babies” to stay in America, take American jobs, and bloat the American welfare system.
Every detail (such as there is) of Trump’s plan is geared towards maximizing conservative resentment. The overall plan will, of course, “Make America Great Again” by trying to keep the country majority-white. Trump also accuses Mexico of “using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country,” a charge that no doubt sprinkles conservative nightmare cupcakes with images of pillaging Pepper Bellies. Moreover, Trump is doubling down on the need to end the “automatic citizenship” that comes from merely being born on U.S. soil. That’s right: Mexicans will have to steal citizenship from some Injuns, just like our forefathers did!
Indeed, when the New Republic’s Jeet Heer describes Trump as “the voice of aggrieved privilege” who “plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors,” he’s recognizing a long-running trend in American politics in which nativism has been the go-to solution for maintaining existing social dominance in the face of impending demographic shifts.
One of the most virulent of all American nativist movements exploded during the mid-19th century, and it gave rise to a national political party literally called the Nativists, a.k.a. the American Party, a.k.a the Know Nothings. The Know Nothings were a semi-secret society: when pressed for the details of their activities, they commonly answered with the phrase, “I know nothing,” hence one of their more popular handles. Know Nothings resented both Irish Catholic immigrants who came to America from the 1840s onward to escape the Great Potato Famine, as well as German Catholics who fled the political unrest that ultimately resulted in the German Revolution of 1848.
Mid-19th century America was a predominantly Protestant America, and the Know Nothings feared that Catholic immigrants would bore themselves into the Lutheran wood of American culture and lay their termitic Papist eggs, thereby destroying America’s small “r” republican society and replacing it with a festering nest of idol-worshipping heretics who answered only to the pointy-hatted Roman Anti-Christ.
The funny thing is, minus the anti-Catholic stuff, the Know Nothing platform of 1856 would feel right at home when belched from the spittle-flecked maws of Trump and his lily-white followers. Among other things, the American Party favored “American Institutions & American Sentiments,” “More stringent & effective Emigration laws,” “the sending back of all foreign paupers,” and the “Formation of societies to protect American interests.” The Know Nothings signed off their 1856 platform with the slogan, “Our Country, our whole Country, and nothing but our Country.” You know, it’s almost as if the Nativists wanted to “Make America Great Again!”
Much like the way contemporary Trumpites heed their hair-pieced hero’s call to “Put American workers first” and deport brown-skinned miscreants who poach American jobs, the Know Nothings feared losing their employment to undeserving Papist peasants. In 1852, for example, one of the Know Nothing Party’s short-lived newspapers, fittingly titled the American Patriot, called for “the protection of American Mechanics against foreign Pauper Labor.” Moreover, just as Trump’s immigration platform calls for the “mandatory return of all criminal aliens” back to their home countries, so too did the Know Nothings advocate “Carrying out the laws of the State, as regards [to] sending back Foreign Paupers and Criminals.” And just as the mighty Trump doth tout the need to “End welfare abuse” by the alien invaders, so too did the Know Nothings object to “Being taxed for the support of Foreign paupers millions of dollars yearly.” Heck, it’s not hard to imagine a red ball-capped, helicopter-stroking Trump waxing apocalyptic against the filthy Irish during a mid-1850s stump speech in a WASP-nested section of the Big Apple.
Contrary to the cliché, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure does echo loudly. Donald Trump’s success as a no-nonsense, semi-non-traditional candidate for the Republican presidential nomination rests, in part, on his ability to pour plenty of verbal propane on the long-smouldering fires of white American paranoia towards outsiders. Trump thrives on the raw intensity that combusts whenever privilege is threatened in American society; an intensity that emerges whenever the ruling class feels besieged by groups over whom it can’t maintain cultural dominance. As political scientist Corey Robin observes, conservatism is “a meditation on, and theoretical rendition of, the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” Donald Trump is nothing less than the epitome of “traditional” privilege and power, and he’s betting that Republican voters will volunteer in droves to be his border-patrolling bricklayers.
When Trump gets on stage and vows to “Make America Great Again” by pontificating against the foreign menace lurking like fork-tongued desert rattlers in America’s unkept amber waves of grain, he’s not speaking as a Republican, a Democrat, or even an Independent: he’s speaking as an “American,” the very same type that once deemed foreign Catholics the greatest internal enemy the republic ever faced.
The Donald’s bombastic brand of “American” has consistently reared his steam-popped noggin whenever “undeserving” outsiders have threatened America’s ruling status quo, and his uncouth rise to the top of the crusty Republican crab bucket attests to the continued staying power of Know Nothingism in U.S. culture. After all, when faced with the daunting changes that come with national demographic shifts, it’s just plain easier to claim you know nothing — and then go back to building a wall.