Wednesday, July 16, 2014
The Return of the Know-Nothings
The recent refugee crisis of children fleeing unrest in Central America to cross the Rio Grande has occasioned the most vehement outburst of nativism I have yet witnessed, with screaming mobs of protestors hurling abuse at young immigrants. Congress has reacted to the influx thousands of vulnerable children who have endured things that most adults in this country will never experience with a push to get those children deported as fast as possible. This coming from a body that has repeatedly failed to pass any meaningful immigration reform policy because the House's reigning Republican Party is scared to death of alienating the nativist base of their party.
Put in historical context, these events are both predictable and surprising. I'll start with the surprising side of the issue. Back in 2000, George W. Bush ran as a candidate explicitly sympathetic to Hispanics and supportive of immigration reform. When he was president he was unable to get said reform passed due to intransigence within his own party, but the GOP's leadership seemed to be embarrassed by that turn of events and maintained an interest in courting the votes of Hispanics. Those voters rejected Mitt Romney by a historic margin, which got many pundits asking whether the Republicans would finally get behind immigration reform in order to stem the loss of votes.
Despite what the pundits predicted, the Republicans have embraced nativism whole hog. That should have been predictable, since xenophobia has long been a potent political force in American life, along with its brother, nationalism. Americans, of course, like to speak of "patriotism" when referring to themselves, with nationalism being a "bad" thing that "other" countries engage in.
When I hear the screaming mobs spewing hatred clothed in the fig leaf of "protecting the border" I hear the echoes of the 1850s and the Know-Nothings, the first major anti-immigrant group in American history. It formed in response to the massive waves of migrants from Germany and Ireland, and mostly directed its ire against Irish Catholics. It was a movement powerful enough to have its own political party (the American Party, known colloquially as "Know-Nothing" for its members' early devotion to secrecy.) Nativists of that era burned Catholic churches and engaged in other acts of mob violence. American nativism survived the death of the Know-Nothing Party in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924 (which set strict quotas on immigrants from outside northern Europe), and the massacre and ethnic cleansing of Chinese immigrants in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1885. If those children in Murrieta today did not have protection I fear that the blood would flow.
Just as the Know-Nothings of yesteryear hatched theories of Catholic immigrants being part of a papal conspiracy, modern nativists claim that the president is somehow encouraging their arrival to get more voters. They claim refugees will bring disease and will rape the women of America. That may sound like the ravings of a street-corner railer, but they are in the Congressional record, coming from the mouth of Representative Louie Gohmert. Granted, he is batshit crazy, but his party is not denouncing him. In fact, Republicans have decided that they need their Tea Party base more than they need the votes of Hispanics, who they have been busy trying to disenfranchise. While the most important GOP leaders would never use such inflammatory rhetoric, they are willing to let others do it for them, and reap the reward at the polls.
They aren't stupid. Like I said, nationalism is a secret and very powerful force in American politics, and Republicans have benefitted by being the de facto nationalist party. Appeals to nationalism can supersede class interests and class identity, something the modern GOP needs for its success. Reagan used nationalism masterfully, getting many of the very people he was actively screwing over to vote for him because he had "made America strong again." The Tea Party gets voters to the poll with the call to "take our country back." (The "our" in that slogan is telling.) It was probably sadly inevitable, based on our nation's history, that an influx of immigrants would be met with hatred by extreme nationalists. However, it was not inevitable that one of our major parties would join that extremist chorus for its own greedy gain. When and if the party decides to go back to the Bush-era policy of moderation, they cannot and should not be allowed to live down their shameless opportunism in reaping a harvest of hate at the polls.