Debunking the Racist Immigration Myths Fueling Trump's Campaign
Breaking down the far right's obsession with welfare, crime, and the coming "reconquista."
Image via Flickr user Mike Schinkel
Two months ago, the Huffington Post made a gimmicky declaration: The news site would be relegating news of Donald Trump's presidential run to its "Entertainment" section. Back then, Trump's candidacy was a joke, a "sideshow," as HuffPo's editors put it. Today, it doesn't seem quite so funny—at least not to the 11 million people living in America Trump says he wants to deport. Fuckface von Clownstick could still very well flame out before a single primary vote is cast, but there's no getting the toothpaste back in the tube: A major presidential candidate waged a virulent, unabashed campaign of incitement against Latino immigrants—and was greeted with rabid adulation from millions of Americans.
Trump's candidacy did not grow in a vacuum. That a rival like Jeb Bush, a Spanish-speaking gringo with a Mexican-American family, would mimic Trump by repeating some diluted swill about " anchor babies," speaks to the pervasive nativism in American politics today. Over the past decade, the anti-immigration wing of the far-right fringe has reemerged from the shadows, led by armed vigilante groups like the Minutemen. With the passage of state laws like Arizona SB 1070 and Alabama HB 56—legislation that have terrorized Hispanic communities and empowered coercive police action against them—the fringe is no longer the fringe. Nativism is as robust in America today as it has been in decades.
And why shouldn't it be? "When the perceived primary environment in which a person lives is directly threatened," academic David H. Bennett wrote in his 1995 book The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement , "then individual life stresses can no longer be handled; peculiar and disruptive forms of stress demand new forms of resocialization and adaptation... frequently they focus on elimination of alien elements and influences."
Unsurprisingly, in the wake of dislocating economic crises, widening inequality, and rapid social upheaval, white Americans are spoiling for a scapegoat. It's easy to see how they could see the mainstream media dismiss Trump as ridiculous and draw comparisons to the way their own concerns— many of which are legitimate—are dismissed by "elites" and ignored by the powerful.
The grievances and resentments Trump exploits in his speeches, as pioneered by segregationist George Wallace and perfected by Nixon—whose " Silent Majority" Trump is now invoking—bubble just below the surface of polite discourse. And what better way to understand the grievances than by diving into the political cesspool, as it coheres online?
Myth #1: Undocumented Immigrants Are Murderers, Rapists, and Drug Dealers
A constant strain in American nativist rhetoric is the claim that undocumented immigrants crossing the Mexican border into the United States comprise a sort of criminal fraternity—a constellation of rapists, baby snatchers, drunk drivers, dog killers, and throat-cutters eager to find their way to a leafy "sanctuary city" where they can shoot mailmen and firebomb nursing homes with impunity. In the hands of nativists, several high-profile crimes committed by undocumented immigrants have coalesced into an all-out assault.
Most of the nativist right—with some significant exceptions—doesn't want to talk about race outright, so instead they talk about crime, about how dangerous the Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing desperate poverty are, about how there's no difference between narco-gangsters and economic migrants. That's how you get racist Facebook groups entertaining their followers with the simple charms of badly photoshopped moonlit border fences.
There are, of course, some minor issues with the theory of a Latino crime wave sweeping north; for instance, it's not true. To wit: According to the Wall Street Journal—no pinko leftie rag—"numerous studies going back more than a century have shown that immigrants—regardless of nationality or legal status—are less likely than the native population to commit violent crimes or to be incarcerated." The national crime rate has dropped by nearly half since 1990, even as the undocumented population in America tripled.
As for the flow of drugs across the border—well, cartels wouldn't smuggle drugs by whatever means necessary if there weren't a lot of Americans who wanted those drugs. The forces of supply and demand tend to be more powerful than any border, no matter how high the wall: Witness the way Second Amendment-sanctioned guns drift south, where they're used to maim and kill thousands of innocent Mexicans each year.
Myth #2: Undocumented Immigrants Get Unfair Advantages
The obsession in nativist circles with "illegals" gaining unfair advantages from the state—whether via welfare checks, Social Security payments, in-state tuition rates, affirmative action policies, or other means—is not an original grievance. Ronald Reagan's laughable fiction about welfare queens driving Cadillacs constituted a publicly acceptable way of signaling to voters that resentment and hatred of black people—and in particular, black mothers—was as American as apple pie.
The durability of this myth, and its reconstitution for use against immigrants, actually has very little to do with black and Latino communities. Undocumented workers, like everyone else, pay into Social Security, to the tune of $100 billion since 2004—but being undocumented, they have little hope of getting that money back. Such immigrants do not qualify for most forms of welfare, even as they pay taxes; if their children do, it is as US-born American citizens.
The fears of stolen benefits are spurious—but the white working-class anxieties at their root are not. Most Americans, particularly on the right, don't usually talk about economic class, but this fixation with unwashed hordes conning the government, and getting one up on all hard-working white taxpayers, is a notable exception. As Bennett argues in Party of Fear, the nativists of the 19th century found prejudice to be a powerful escape from their problems:
Unwilling to accept the dark side of their American experience—the wages of slavery, the stresses of a competitive culture, the crisis of community—they struck out at the most vulnerable group within their midst... in a nation in which nativists were in the forefront defending the individualistic ethos, the rise of nativism became a monument to the desperate desire for community.
We see that dynamic echoed today: Beset by economic instability and unable to reach the grand promises of prosperity which dominate our culture, many find it easier to transfer that pain to a defenseless victim in the tradition of modern-day suck-up, kick-down American conservatism.
Myth #3: Undocumented Immigrants Plan to Infiltrate and Take Over America in a Grand "Reconquista" of Little Babies
These smaller grievances lead nativists with paranoid tendencies to a dark conclusion: Immigration poses an existential threat to America. This suspicion was crafted into high art by truly deranged anti-immigration activists like Glenn Spencer and the late Barbara Coe who, looking at a 1969 radical Chicano student statement called the " Plan Espiritual de Aztlán," saw a blueprint for the eventual revocation of all territory gained by the US in the Mexican-American War.
This concern with land and the race of those who inhabit it leads one to perhaps the most frightening plank in the nativist platform: the proposal to revoke the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution—originally instituted to protect the citizenship of emancipated slaves—and thereby deny the children of undocumented immigrants birthright citizenship. GOP candidates besides Trump are triangulating on the issue to determine how best to capture this bloc. It is insane and nauseating.
The most revealing summation of nativist thought comes from a line that Trump frequently spouts in both interviews and stump speeches, when he's explaining why he wants to erect a massive wall along the US-Mexico border: "We don't have a country without a border. Without a border, we just don't have a country."
If a country can be destroyed simply by the flow of human beings across its terrain, then it possesses no special fate, no exceptional status—and America is nothing without its claims to being a "shining city on a hill." If America is a polity, and nothing more, than it will be no more resistant to the ravages of time and decay than any other empire swept away by the normal course of human history.
Despite the grandiosity of generation after generation of self-proclaimed American patriots, who for 400 years have beaten and disparaged and harassed and killed any people who came in the door after them—despite all Trump's superlative descriptions of himself—nativism springs from a place of insecurity and weakness. It never emerges from a place of strength. As an ideology, it is ultimately hollow and self-defeating. It is designed to preserve a place which never existed.
May the reconquista come tomorrow. God Bless America.
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