There’s not an ounce of original thought in Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant bigotry. It treads an ugly, but well-worn path in American politics.
In famously asserting, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems … They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” Trump echoed a long line of quite similar accusations against most every immigrant group.
Writing of Trump’s own German immigrant forbearers, no less than Benjamin Franklin did not find “stable geniuses,” but rather some of the same traits the president ascribed to Mexicans: “Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant, Stupid Sort of their own Nation.”
(The fact that Trump himself provides evidence for Franklin’s proposition says nothing about its general applicability.)
“Why,” Franklin lamented, “should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Thomas Jefferson, too, worried about the supposed inability of Trump’s ancestors to become real Americans. “It is thought better to discourage [foreigners] settling together in large masses,” he wrote, lest “as in our German settlements, they preserve for a long time their own languages, habits, and principles of government.”
In every generation, immigrants have come to America from different parts of the world, but the libels against them have been rather consistent: they aren’t capable, they’re criminals, uncouth, and can’t or won’t assimilate into the American melting pot, threatening our culture and way of life.
Alexander Hamilton, lauded in the recent eponymous musical as a friend of immigration, concluded, “The influx of foreigners must, therefore … change and corrupt the national spirit … complicate and confound public opinion …introduce foreign propensities.”
By the mid 1800s, Irish immigrants were the source of concern. As one observer reported, “whiskey and tobacco seemed the chief delight of the men …The emigrants who land at New York …are not merely ignorant and poor … they are drunken, dirty, indolent, and riotous, so as to be the objects of dislike and fear to all in whose neighborhood they congregate.”
After winning the Civil War, Ulysses Grant predicted that if another broke out “the dividing line will not be Mason and Dixon’s, but between Protestant patriotism and intelligence on one side, and Catholic superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
By the late 1870s, California, now a bastion of support for immigration, pressured Congress to limit, then end, Chinese immigration.
Famed newspaperman Horace Greely defined the “yellow peril” this way: “The Chinese are uncivilized, unclean, and filthy beyond all conception without any of the higher domestic or social relations; lustful and sensual in their dispositions; every female is a prostitute of the basest order.”
After “confirming” that Bolshevism was a “conspiracy of international Jews” in 1922, a group of U.S. military attaches demanded that Congress stop the immigration of a “herd” of “inferior” Jews which constituted “a decided menace to the future welfare of our country.”
Popular culture went beyond official reports. A leading writer penned a novel charging Jewish immigrants with being the most “cold-blooded murderers” in the world, who “immolate human lives from fanaticism” and are the only “living cannibals.”
Italian immigrants, too, elicited great antipathy. “The disposition to assassinate in revenge for a fancied wrong,” declared the Baltimore News, “is a marked trait in the character of this impulsive and inexorable race.”
While anti-immigrant calumnies predate our Republic, one would hope that watching each wave of newcomers build and improve our country would have taught us the evil inherent in such attacks.
Unfortunately, our president, and too many of the Republican officeholders who enable him, have failed to learn this, and many other, lessons of our history.
Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years and as president of the American Association of Political Consultants.