Trump's Anti-Immigrant Racism Has a Long, Ugly History

Cheriss May/Sipa via AP Images

President Donald Trump speaking in the East Room of the White House

With each passing day, the Trump administration looks more and more like a replay of the 1920s racist, nativist far right.

Trump’s latest infamy, his shithole sonata, almost faithfully recreates the Klan-fed sentiment that gave rise to the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924, which created a quota system for immigrants that greatly favored those from northern, “Nordic” Europe. (It did this by admitting immigrants according to the national-origin breakdown of immigrants in the 1890 census—thereby favoring immigrants from the United Kingdom and Germany, and all but excluding Jews, Italians, Slavs, and other undesirables, while totally excluding Asians, Latin Americans, and Africans.)

Representative Albert Johnson, the bill’s co-author, was a member in good standing of the Klan, but you didn’t actually have to buy a sheet to believe in Nordic superiority. The 1916 pseudo-scientific bestseller, Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race, which warned against further pollution of America’s Protestant purity by Jews and Catholics, was widely read by proper professionals. As Linda Gordon documents in her excellent new history, The Second Coming of the KKK, almost every college offered required classes in eugenics—the science demonstrating Nordic superiority—during the ‘20s.

Like Albert Johnson before him, our president plainly pines for Nordic immigrants only. Why any Norwegian would want to immigrate to today’s United States is a mystery, however. Norwegian social democracy has produced the kind of broadly shared prosperity and economic security Americans can only envy. Immigrants have always come to the United States not to depress but to better their condition. That’s why immigration from Haiti, Africa, and Central America is in the most venerable of American traditions—save for the years 1924 to 1965, the years that Johnson-Reed was in effect. Its repeal, in 1965, was part of the wave of civil rights legislation eliminating racial and religious discrimination.

Moving from the Oval Office sanctum to the august halls of the Department of Justice, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been offering his own imitation of early 20th-century bigotry lately, with his war on marijuana. The antecedent for Sessions’s misguided crusade, of course, is Prohibition, which was enacted in 1919 with support from heavily Protestant and largely rural states. It was aimed at the Catholic-Jewish fleshpots of urban America, where licentiousness and drunkenness ostensibly reigned. Then as now, the old-style white Southern bigotry that Sessions so ably personifies was lashing out at polyglot, metropolitan America.

The Trump administration needs to go shopping at Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It’s time to update their sheets. 

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