Nativist tendencies are pulling down the United States

Many Americans still cling onto the idea that their country is in some part a “racial” project, that there is a core cultural or ethnic identity to the nation, and that their whiteness in some way makes them superior to others.

columns Updated: Jan 24, 2018 17:38 IST
Benjamin Franklin,Donald Trump,Nativists
US President Donald Trump waves as he steps off Air Force One, Maryland, January 18. (AFP)

“Those who come here are generally of the most stupid sort of their nation… they will soon outnumber us.” Those are not the words of Donald Trump, but rather of one of America’s much-loved “founding fathers,” Benjamin Franklin, speaking in the middle of the 18th century about the migration of Germans, who he feared would be unable to learn English and assimilate. In his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind,” he writes that Germans, as well as Swedes, Spaniards, Italians, Frenchmen, and Russians were insufficiently white, having “a swarthy complexion.” Their coming to the New World was tainting an otherwise virtuous project. America should not be so willing to let immigration “darken its people.”

From the beginning, Americans have fretted about whom they should accept as part of their national collective and who they should reject. There exists the powerful notion that America is a country for all people, a country idealised by symbols such as the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour, which lifts a light to the world and embraces its “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” In reality, that ideal has been undercut at all times by a tenacious force in American life: nativism.

One of the strange boons of Trump’s presidency is that it has exposed quite starkly the underlying tensions in American society. He recently made terrible comments about immigration, in which he used a vile expletive to refer to countries in Africa, Central America and the Caribbean while insisting it would be preferable for people to come to the United States from Norway. These baldly racist remarks have sparked yet another cycle of outrage and indignation. They are further proof for Trump’s critics of the aberration of his presidency.

Their sentiments, however, are nothing new and find echoes throughout American history. Americans are taught to think of Benjamin Franklin as a liberal exemplar of reason and a champion of liberty. Yet his beliefs about Germans would presage centuries of xenophobic and racist thinking. In the nineteenth century, anti-immigrant ideologues lamented the influx of Germans and Poles, Irish and Italians as fatally compromising the American project. Like immigrants today, these people were seen as coming from ruined, impoverished countries with nothing to offer America.

Nativists also feared the spread of Catholicism as a fundamentally un-American religion. They raised the spectre of “yellow peril” regarding the Chinese migrating to the western United States, eventually leading to legislation that explicitly banned their coming. In the early 20th century, Jews arrived in enormous numbers from Eastern Europe and were vilified not just for their religion, but because they supposedly brought radical politics with them. There is a striking parallel between the language used to describe Muslims in early 21st century America and Jews one hundred years before.

Nativists often were able to push through legislation that limited the arrival of certain peoples to the United States. In the grand scheme, however, they lost. America has grown immeasurably richer thanks to its inclusivity and its willingness to welcome people of different linguistic, religious, and cultural affiliations. These different groups became integral parts of American life and reconfigured how Americans imagined their national collective. Nobody can insist, for example, on the necessary Protestantism of America and be taken seriously. Shared understandings of national identity shifted and now continue to shift.

At the same time, that primordial animus of nativism has survived and adapted to modern times. There is an awful, but perceptive insight in the seemingly clumsy, scattergun offensiveness of the Trump White House. Many Americans still cling to the idea that their country is in some part a “racial” project, that there is a core cultural or ethnic identity to the nation, and that their whiteness in some way makes them superior to others. Trump won the 2016 election in large part because he recognised the tenacity of white nativist thinking. He pandered to it at all times, constantly inveighing against the current nativist bugbears, Muslims and Spanish-speaking Latinos. It seems his administration will continue to draw from an ancient vein of xenophobic and racial thinking.

But it will only help them so much. Trump’s voting base represents a minority of the country. American history suggests that nativists have always raged against the dying of the light, only to be left behind by changing times.

Kanishk Tharoor is the author of Swimmer Among the Stars: Stories.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Jan 24, 2018 17:35 IST