On December 7, Donald Trump issued a statement calling for “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.”
Trump’s rabble-rousing is nothing new in American politics. It wasn’t even new last month.
Remember the November Syrian refugee ban uproar after Paris? I know, a long time ago and many massacres away…
Here’s a memory assist:
Republicans…have called on congressional leaders to block the Obama administration from proceeding with plans to resettle thousands of refugees…
In a letter to Ryan, Ben Carson…called for Congress to block funding for any programs “that seek to resettle refugees and/or migrants from Syria into the United States, effective immediately.”
“Until we can sort out the bad guys we must not be foolish,” Carson said…
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee similarly heaped pressure on Ryan, saying in a statement: “Speaker Ryan needs to make it clear that if the President won’t stand to protect America from wholesale open borders, then Republicans will.”
In addition, Govs. John Kasich and Bobby Jindal of Ohio and Louisiana, respectively, said they would work to keep refugees out of their states.
And Sen. Rand Paul…introduced legislation that would block the United States from issuing visas to refugees from countries with a high risk of terrorism in an effort to “stop terrorists from walking in our front door.”
Religious litmus tests didn’t start with The Donald either:
[Cruz] has also said Christians from war-torn Syria are victims and do not pose a risk of terrorism, whereas letting in Muslim refugees would be “lunacy.”
Jeb Bush, supposedly the worthy heir to America’s premier terrorist-stomping dynasty, bumbled his way through his proposal for prioritizing Syrian orphans and Christians in his endearingly incompetent fashion.
Trump’s shutdown statement looks like little more than escalation of the “keep out the Syrian refugees” campaign that the Republicans, including presidential candidates, governors, and legislators, had adopted post-Paris massacre to wrongfoot President Obama and his attempts to contribute to resolution of Europe’s refugee crisis.
Then came the San Bernardino massacre, committed by non-Syrians, so some epistemological backfilling was necessary; and it was an opportunity to kick it up another notch with a bigger, more grandiosely Donaldesque ban.
Elements of the Republican establishment and the press, desperate to stop Trump as a loose cannon not beholden either to the party or its decisive megadonors , labored mightily to make Trump’s Muslim ban blather a huge issue, the killer gaffe that would disqualify as presidential material.
However, efforts through the press to neutralize him through public censure—“bigot,” “fascist,” etc.—do not appear to be getting much traction.
I believe there’s a good reason for that.
When confronted by discriminatory speech and actions, some make the high-minded appeal to Americans’ better nature: “this isn’t us.”
T’aint so, unfortunately. It’s more like “this was us and, apparently, still is at least some of us and maybe a lot of us.”
And maybe “us” isn’t just anxious blue-collar xenophobes. Maybe “us” includes a big chunk of the political elite and the strategists who guide them.
Trump seizes upon the implicit and makes it explicit; that’s his offense. And his strength.
A history of the synergy between popular bigotry, political calculation, and institutionalized discrimination is enlightening.
The storyline isn’t “It Can’t Happen Here”; try “It Does Happen Here, and with Depressing Frequency.”
African-American racial issues are, of course, the Big Daddy. The US Constitution as written consecrated slavery; the legal suppression of full black citizenship was advertised as an existential imperative by Southern politicians both before and after the Civil War; explicit de jure racism was not eliminated at the state level until the 1960s; racial strategies have energized—and continue to energize- the political campaigns of tens of thousands of local and national politicians over the last 180 years. Too many Trumps to count, in other words. Including Trump, for that matter.
In the matter of religious bigotry, before the Muslims were the distrusted intruders, it was the Jews. And before that, the Catholics. One of my favorite anecdotes in American history is the seizure of the Washington Monument in 1854 by the Know-Nothing Party—which carried the banner of anti-Irish discrimination and anti-Catholic bigotry in the pre-Civil War period- as a publicity, base-rallying and, inevitably, fund-raising scheme that will look very similar to connoisseurs of current political gambits.
The Washington Monument, you see, was being contaminated by “the Stone from Rome,” a gift of a venerable chunk of the Temple of Concord by the Pope that was meant to be incorporated in the fabric of the monument. Know Nothings invaded the construction site, seized the stone, and apparently smashed it and dumped it into the Potomac. Then they packed the board of the governing body of the monument in order to grab control and “protect” it and spent four years soliciting funds for the completion of the project. Miraculously, the monument was not completed (the US government eventually took it over to finish it off) and the money vanished.
The essential Know-Nothing platform was anti-immigration. It sought to lengthen the residence requirement for immigrants to 25 years before they could gain citizenship and vote. Nothing new under the sun, is there, folks?
The Trump, if you will, of this exercise was Millard Fillmore, who hoped to ride the Know Nothing wave to a second term as an independent candidate (don’t bother to check your history books; he failed) and provided political cover to the Know-Nothing shenanigans.
For institutionalized discrimination by region of origin, look no further than the Chinese Exclusion Act, which strictly limited the entry of Chinese into the United States from 1882 until 1943, when the whole “China is our ally in World War II” thing led to repeal. In excluding Chinese laborers, the Federal government was following the political wave out of California, which clearly led the nation in anti-Chinese popular bigotry and official discrimination. Consider the legendary cover of the magazine The Wasp, mockingly proposing “A Statue for Our Harbor” i.e. San Francisco Bay. It depicts a ragged Chinese coolie in the Statue of Liberty pose, his foot on a skull, opium pipe in his hand, the rays with the words “Filth,” “Immorality,” “Disease,” “Ruin to White Labor,” forming a halo behind his head.
In its 1879 constitution, the State of California enshrined Article XIX:
SECTION 1: The Legislature shall prescribe all necessary regulations for the protection of the State, and the counties, cities, and towns thereof, from the burdens and evils arising from the presence of aliens who are or may become vagrants, paupers, mendicants, criminals, or invalids afflicted with contagious or infectious diseases, and from aliens otherwise dangerous or detrimental to the well-being or peace of the State, and to impose conditions upon which persons may reside in the State, and to provide the means and mode of their removals from the State, upon failure ore refusal to comply with such conditions; provided, that nothing contained in this section shall be construed to impair or limit the power of the legislature to pass such police laws or other regulations as it may deem necessary.
SECTION. 2: No corporation now existing or hereafter formed under the laws of this State, shall, after the adoption of this Constitution, employ directly or indirectly, in any capacity, any Chinese or Mongolian. The Legislature shall pass such laws as may be necessary to enforce this provision.
SECTION. 3: No Chinese shall be employed on any State, county, municipal, or other public work, except in punishment for crime.
SECTION. 4: The presence of foreigners ineligible to become citizens of the United States is declared to be dangerous to the well-being of the State, and the Legislature shall discourage their immigration by all the means within its power. Asiatic coolieism is a form of human slavery, and is forever prohibited in this State, and all contracts for coolie labor shall be void. All companies or corporations, whether formed in this country or any foreign country, for the importation of such labor, shall be subject to such penalties as the Legislature may prescribe. The Legislature shall delegate all necessary power to the incorporated cities and towns of this State for the removal of Chinese without the limits of such cities and towns, or for their location within prescribed portions of those limits, and it shall also provide the necessary legislation to prohibit the introduction into this State of Chinese after the adoption of this Constitution. This section shall be enforced by appropriate legislation.
The Donald Trump of this particular episode was Dennis Kearney, an ambitious, cynical demagogue whose anti-Chinese bigotry was bookended with populist soak-the-rich, well maybe lynch-the-rich rhetoric. So he did not go far. But he did manage to elect the dominant bloc in California’s constitutional convention (hence the anti-Chinese rhetoric which, by the way, formed a baseline for the disastrous coolie labor policies in South Africa) and elect the mayor and most of the municipal government of San Francisco.
Here’s a taste of his rhetoric:
When the Chinese question is settled, we can discuss whether it would be better to hang, shoot, or cut the capitalists to pieces. In six months we will have 50,000 mean ready to go out…and if ‘John’ [the Chinese] don’t leave here, we will drive him and his aborts [sic] into the sea…We are ready to do it…If the ballot fails, we are ready to use the bullet.
The California legislature repealed Article XIX in 1952. However, its spirit still lives on in legally unenforceable restrictive covenants for many neighborhoods in Los Angeles which, as a perpetual condition of sale, forbid residence by members of the “Negro or Mongoloid races.” Supposedly as many as 80% of residences in Los Angeles are covered by restrictive covenants. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court declared these covenants could not be enforced, thanks to the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution; however, it declined to rule they were unconstitutional.
One thing that the War on Terror, Guantanamo, and NSA collection has driven home is that the U.S. plays with a different, much rougher book of rules when it is dealing with aliens and not U.S. citizens.
But then there’s Executive Order 9066, under which Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were interned during World War II. That act, by the way, did not overtly stipulate the internment of Japanese-Americans. What it did was give the Secretary of War and military commanders authority to set up exclusion zones at their discretion:
to prescribe military areas in such places and of such extent as he or the appropriate Military Commander may determine, from which any or all persons may be excluded, and with respect to which, the right of any person to enter, remain in, or leave shall be subject to whatever restrictions the Secretary of War or the appropriate Military Commander may impose in his discretion.
Lieutenant General John De Witt, in charge of Western Defense Command covering the west coast of the continental United States, exercised his discretion to first to curfew, then relocate, and ultimately confine over 100,000 Japanese Americans. The military authorities in Hawaii, on the other hand, chose only to intern 2,270 of its 140,000 Japanese and Japanese-Americans residents.
The Donald Trump of the anti-Japanese scare in California: none other than future Supreme Court Justice and civil rights avatar Earl Warren. Here’s a nice passage:
Many politicians used the psychological fears of the West Coasters against the Japanese Americans to gain political stature among the voters. Among them was Earl Warren…in 1942 Warren was the Attorney General of California preparing to campaign, successfully, for the governorship. In testimony before the Tolan Committee, a House Committee that was charged with examining the problems of evacuation, Warren said, in 1942, that “the consensus of opinion among the law-enforcement officers of this State is that there is more potential danger among the group of Japanese who are born in this country than from the alien Japanese who were born in Japan. We believe that when we are dealing with the Caucasian race we have methods that will test the loyalty of them, and we believe that we can, in dealing with the Germans and Italians, arrive at some fairly sound conclusions because of our knowledge of the way they live in the community and have lived for many years. But when we deal with the Japanese we are in an entirely different field and we cannot form any opinion that we believe to be sound.”
When Gerald Ford got around to rescinding E.O. 9066 in 1972, a commission determined that the internment was not justified by military necessity, so there was an apology and some financial restitution—but no legal sanction.
Apparently the whole wartime necessity/executive order thing was constitutional. And as alert readers are well aware, the state of emergency President George W. Bush declared after 9/11 by executive order is still in effect today. Here’s a link for the curious and/or anxious.
Long story short, various streams of bigotry continually burble along in American society. When politicians sense an opportunity in an atmosphere of crisis, fear, and dissatisfaction, they can convert these toxic sidestreams into the mainstream, normalize them and, if conditions permit, institutionalize them in the generous nooks and crannies offered by the constitution at least long enough for electoral and/or financial success, albeit at the cost of thousands of lives blighted by fear and prejudice and worse.
By things like this from November 25:
A postal worker arrested on hate crime charges had allegedly bumped into and spat on a Muslim woman before following her into a deli and threatening to burn down her place of worship, New York City police said. Dainton Coley, 34, was still wearing his Postal Service uniform when he was led out of a police precinct in handcuffs Tuesday night.
For the requisite sick humor:
‘I am going to burn your ‘f**king’ temple,’ Coley said, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
One of them woman reportedly told him that he was crazy, but he replied, ‘I’m not crazy, I work in the post office.’
And this, from a viral Facebook post concerning a woman’s alleged encounter on a bus in Chicago:
A man screamed at me. Called me a sand ni**er. Told me I was the problem. That I need to get the fuck out of his country…Then this man spits at me. A man in a suit and tie. Like anyone else I’d see. He spits at me and looks at me with these regular eyes now filled with anger and tells me to get the fuck off the bus, do what I’m told, because this isn’t my country. This isn’t my place.
For the requisite irony, the woman wasn’t even Muslim. She was half-Iranian, half-Irish, and “may have been wearing my scarf higher on my head than usual because it was cold out.”
Anyway, hate is as American as apple pie. So is pandering to it. So is Trump.