Today’s video gets into some very interesting territory that I hope to cover more in future (years?). So much of today’s politics in the United States is rooted in this weird idea of “whiteness” and who is a “good American” and who isn’t. These dumb, dumb conversations are of course as old as our republic. Let’s leave aside the fact that the “realest Americans”, the indigenous, and African Americans (few of whose ancestors were forced here after the early 1800s), are somehow never invited to the party.
What today’s video gets into in a small way, is the role of folks from our last (much larger) wave of immigrants around the beginning of the 20th century. It sometimes seems like it’s the newest members of US “whiteness” that are the most vicious in its defense. I’m thinking specifically of the very Irish Sean Hannity, and the very Italian Jeanine Pirro of Fox News. In a small way, the largely illusory “clash” between Trump and the Establishment is a clash between a fresher 20th century New York, Italo-Irish version of whiteness, and an older version. It’s the Nouveau Riche vs. the folks who never let them into their yacht clubs.
This too is a tale as old as time. I’m not sure if it’s seen as not polite, or just plain not relevant to bring up, but I think it’s worth focusing on a bit. You can’t really understand the silliness of conversations around Latinos and other immigrants without understanding how foreign the Irish, and later the Italians, Slavs and Jews were once seen. This idea of “Real America” or “Whiteness” is becoming more and more of a focus of the Trump administration’s public profile. Today’s pardon of the Hammond family, a goal of domestic white terrorists, is one example. As I’ve said before, Trump’s presidency is almost certainly the dying gasp of an older version of “Real American”. Presidential politics has served this role before, though in a more positive sense. John F. Kennedy’s election in 1960 symbolized the acceptance of Catholics into the US mainstream. It didn’t prompt a Trumpian reaction the way that Obama’s presidency did. But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s version of White supremacy is any less dead than the WASP ascendancy is. Like I said, we’ve seen this story before. A new US identity is already forming. That’s why the “whites” are so pissed. Obama got into the yacht clubs before they did.
Is there a contradiction in the foregoing paragraph? Absolutely. And I think it’s worth exploring further. Someday.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there, about 9 months back I pointed out how Donald Trump is killing his version of White America, through his tone deaf championing of causes like Confederate statues, and his harassment of NFL players. Over the past month or so this process has gone into over-drive. Poorly planned moves from Trump have brought immigration to everyone’s attention again, and once again, it’s been terrible for Trump’s vision of White America.
Trump’s attempt to use the separation of families to deter immigration has been a horrific failure for his agenda. As with Trump’s unleashing of agencies like Customs and Border Protection and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, this brutality may reduce immigration in the short term, but it should increase it in the long term. I should emphasize that very little of the brutality or insanity of these agencies and policies comes from Trump. Both Bush and Obama did a lot more to put these policies and agencies in place. What Trump has done however, is call the entire country’s attention to the brutal policies used to solve a border crisis that does not exist.
The two years of Trump’s presidency have already seen a 10% swing in US attitudes towards immigration. Less than 30% of Americans want less immigration, for the first time since Gallup started asking the question in 1965. And those polls happened before Trump and Sessions made the question about the abuse of children last month. The US government started separating children from their families. Trump backed down quickly, but some of the children have been lost in the system. This is a horrific situation, and it is causing many to despair. But recent history tells us that this will probably accelerate the country’s shift away from Trump’s policies on immigration. I’m talking of course about California.
For many right wing Americans, California is a hate object. Our largest and most economically dominant state is seen as a refuge of hippies and immigrants that steadily pushes our country towards the left. What few realize is how very new this situation is. Both Reagan and Nixon, the last two successful Republican presidents had their political power base in California.
For most of the 20th century California was the center of an older idea of White America than even Trump would recognize. The cities of California got their big population pushes from waves of White Anglo Saxon Protestant refugees from the East Coast. By the 1920s and 1930s, most eastern cities had been taken over by Catholic Irish and Italian waves of immigrants. Mike Davis’s fantastic book, City of Quartz, documents the way that Los Angeles WASPS set up an exclusionary form of local government and society that shut out Jews and Catholics just as much as it did people of color. As late as 1960, Los Angeles was still the most WASPy of US big cities.
You can still find the remnants of this in the powerful home owner associations that put a progressive veneer on the time-honored insistence that only “our kind of people” should ever be able to afford a house in our neighborhood. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, California suburbs provided a reserve of wealth and power for Republican candidates like Nixon and Reagan. Republicans were powerful in state politics as well. Immigration played a large role in changing this, but that wasn’t what killed the Republican party in California. In fact it was a really bone-headed move by a Republican governor that made the immigration issue all about children. Sound familiar?
Compared to Trump, Republican Governor Pete Wilson wasn’t such a bad guy. But in 1994 he misread California politics in a spectacular way. Unlike today there actually was a real border crisis. Illegal immigration from Mexico accelerated throughout the 1990s. Pat Buchanan, the guy Donald Trump stole most of his talking points from, had made a serious run at the Republican Incumbent in the 1992 Presidential primary, contributing to George H.W. Bush’s eventual loss. Immigration was Buchanan’s big issue. Seeing all this, Wilson decided to support a ballot initiative known as Proposition 187 in a big way.
Proposition 187 was supposed to create a state-level system to screen immigration status. Those who were found to be in the country illegally would be blocked from accessing state services. This was popular in the short term. The ballot initiative won with 58% of the vote in 1994, and Pete Wilson was re-elected. But after the election, people had to think more deeply about what it meant. The children of immigrants would be barred from public schools, healthcare and other services. Thanks to court challenges, the policy was never enacted, but the perceived cruelty of the measure basically killed the Republican party in state-wide politics. It’s easy to be anti-immigration in the abstract. Prop 187 made it painfully clear how brutal anti-immigrant policies could be, and seriously shifted California politics, towards immigration, and against Republicans. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a very high name recognition candidate, remains the only Republican governor or senator elected in California since Pete Wilson.
Last month Donald Trump pulled a Pete Wilson. All my social media accounts have absolutely exploded with opposition to US immigration policies. I’m not talking about the normal politics nerds like myself, it’s everybody. Nobody likes to see their government brutalizing kids. The US immigration system is fundamentally broken. Because of a vocal and angry minority of immigration restrictionists, it’s been skewed towards brutality for almost two decades now. To solve a problem that’s already been solved. Donald Trump just let everybody know how brutal our policies actually are. Expect support for immigration to grow by leaps and bounds. Once again Donald Trump is doing tremendous damage to the policies his supporters care about the most. I’m pretty OK with that.
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