Francis Amasa Walker had fought to preserve the Union in the Grand Army of the Republic, but by 1896 he saw its doom in the huddled masses coming from Eastern Europe. The “immigrants from southern Italy, Hungary, Austria, and Russia,” Walker lamented in The Atlantic, were “beaten men from beaten races; representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence,” people who had “none of the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self-care and self-government, such as belong to those who are descended from the tribes that met under the oak-trees of old Germany to make laws and choose chieftains.”
More than a century later President Donald Trump would put it differently, as he considered immigration from Africa, wondering, “Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” instead suggesting that America take in more immigrants from places like Norway.
These remarks reflect scorn not only for those who wish to come here, but those who already have. It is a president of the United States expressing his contempt for the tens of millions of descendants of Africans, most of whose forefathers had no choice in crossing the Atlantic, American citizens whom any president is bound to serve. And it is a public admission of sorts that he is incapable of being a president for all Americans, the logic of his argument elevating not just white immigrants over brown ones, but white citizens over the people of color they share this country with.
The racist pseudoscience underpinning Walker’s belief that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were incapable of responsible self-government is out of vogue today, but the both the sentiment and logic are now applied by the descendants of those very same “beaten races” who now work for Trump in the White House, who craft arguments defending his prejudice, and who cast ballots bearing his name. Whether through ardent commitment or conflicted resignation, they are all now a part of Trump’s only sincere ideological project, the preservation of white political and cultural dominance. That was the goal of Walker and the immigrant restrictionists of his day, and it is Trump’s project now.
It is one the president has pursued with abandon. As Elise Foley writes, since taking office, he has cancelled the Deferred Action Program for Childhood Arrivals,subjecting more than 600,000 people brought to the U.S. illegally as children to the prospect of deportation, and cancelled Temporary Protected Status for 50,000 Haitians and 200,000 El Salvadorans living in the United States. Trump has adopted policies that would be responsible for the displacement of nearly a million people of color in less than 12 months in office.
Virtually all of Walker’s complaints, staples of anti-immigrant rhetoric at the turn of the century, will sound familiar to those who have paid attention to American politics for the past two years.
Their habits of life, again, are of the most revolting kind. Read the description given by Mr. Riis of the police driving from the garbage dumps the miserable beings who try to burrow in those depths of unutterable filth and slime in order that they may eat and sleep there! Was it in cement like this that the foundations of our republic were laid? What effects must be produced upon our social standards, and upon the ambitions and aspirations of our people, by a contact so foul and loathsome? The influence upon the American rate of wages of a competition like this cannot fail to be injurious and even disastrous.
A few hours after news of his remarks broke, Trump attempted to reframe his objections as a matter of public safety. “The Democrats seem intent on having people and drugs pour into our country from the Southern Border, risking thousands of lives in the process,” Trump tweeted. “It is my duty to protect the lives and safety of all Americans. We must build a Great Wall, think Merit and end Lottery & Chain. USA!”
Or as Walker put it, “the present situation is most menacing to our peace and political, safety. In all the social and industrial disorders of this country since 1877, the foreign elements have proved themselves the ready tools of demagogues in defying the law, in destroying property, and in working violence.” He offered that “There may be those who can contemplate the addition to our population of vast numbers of persons having no inherited instincts of self-government and respect for law; knowing no restraint upon their own passions but the club of the policeman or the bayonet of the soldier; forming communities, by the tens of thousands, in which only foreign tongues are spoken, and into which can steal no influence from our free institutions and from popular discussion. But I confess to being far less optimistic.”
The benefit of this history is that we know how the story ended then; with the adoption of racist immigration laws, and the immigrants from the “shithole countries” of the turn of the century defending the country in two world wars. But their children and grandchildren, having assimilated into the very whiteness Walker and his ilk saw as endangered, now repeat the same slander laid upon their ancestors against a new generation of immigrants looking for a better life in America. The old lies are now again embraced by the descendants of those who once suffered because of them.
Already the president’s defenders lurch from one argument or another in transparent bad faith. No one is offended by the president’s use of profanity; it is the substance of his remarks, and not the specific word he employed, that is appalling. It makes the president’s remarks no less racist to say that many who voted for him share the same sentiments; it merely means that those voters subscribe to the same racism. The president was not making an assessment of the relative quality of life in Haiti or Norway, he was condemning entire populations of people of as undesirable because of where they were born. Trump’s remarks do not merely express contempt for foreigners; but also for every American who shares their origins.
The president’s focus on the nationality, rather than on the personal merits, of immigrants suggests what he means by “merit-based” immigration: Not accepting those immigrants who have mastered science or engineering or some other crucial skill, but instead a standard that finds white Scandinavians acceptable, while ruling out Haitians, Salvadorans, and Africans. The only “merits” here are accidents of birth and geography, owing to no individual accomplishment at all.
It would be useless to point out that African immigrants are, on average, more highly educated and more likely to be gainfully employed than native-born Americans, or that immigrants in general are less likely to commit crimes. Trump’s is not a logic that employs facts, it is one that employs tribe. It is the logic of “us” being better than “them,” with white Scandinavians reflecting a self-definition of “us,” that excludes blacks and latinos regardless of their relationship to this country.
This is to say nothing of the fact that America’s wealth relative to the poverty of Haiti, El Salvador, and the nations of Africa is directly related to U.S. and European colonialism. It is a convenient trick to rob a person of all they have, even their own body, and then mock them for their poverty, and blame it on their nature.
To describe the issue here, as many media outlets have, as one of coarse or vulgar language, is itself an obscenity. The president’s remarks reflect a moral principle that has guided policy while in office, a principle that is obvious to all but that some simply refuse to articulate. What is certain however, that is in the face of this delusion, the president will continue to articulate it himself.