Adam Serwer published a very good history of the American roots of white nationalism on the Atlantic website. This was before the massacre of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, by a white Australian citing the American white-supremacist “14 words” slogan and ranting about nonwhite “invaders,” but it was less prescient than simply descriptive. I had broken off reading the Serwer article right after this paragraph:
The seed of Nazism’s ultimate objective—the preservation of a pure white race, uncontaminated by foreign blood—was in fact sown with striking success in the United States. What is judged extremist today was once the consensus of a powerful cadre of the American elite, well-connected men who eagerly seized on a false doctrine of “race suicide” during the immigration scare of the early 20th century. They included wealthy patricians, intellectuals, lawmakers, even several presidents. Perhaps the most important among them was a blue blood with a very impressive mustache, Madison Grant. He was the author of a 1916 book called The Passing of the Great Race, which spread the doctrine of race purity all over the globe.
I didn’t stop because of anything in Serwer’s text, but because that was the point in the story at which the paratext around it on the Atlantic‘s website dragged up the cover of its April issue, with the coverline “How Much Immigration Is Too Much?” That cover story, by David Frum, ran online with the headline “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will,” and it was a call, by an elite, well-connected man, for a return to the principles of the immigration scare of the early 20th century.
Frum didn’t warn against the lower breeds dragging down the nation’s bloodline, but against “low-wage, low-skill laborers” dragging down its economy.
Frum was not crude enough to write about “race suicide”; the well-connected man of the early 21st century has to work in a different tone than he would have 100 years ago. Instead Frum wrote about the “more cohesive nation” that the United States had been before now, back in the “years of slow immigration”—the years spanning most of the 20th century, that is, in which American racists successfully passed and enforced laws to ban or heavily restrict immigrants from everywhere but Northern Europe. Frum didn’t warn against the lower breeds dragging down the nation’s bloodline, but against “low-wage, low-skill laborers” dragging down its economy.
Nor was Frum—an immigrant himself, from Canada—personally troubled. He was merely concerned about how other people felt about it. The mainstream pundit class is never alarmed on its own behalf about the growth of the immigrant population. It is just very deeply worried about other people, who are alarmed by immigrants, and it wants to persuade the political class to get rid of the immigrants before those other people decide to get rid of the immigrants.
This is treated as acceptable, reasonable discourse. Ross Douthat covered the same ground, in much the same language, last year in the New York Times, urging the paper’s readers to abandon their stubborn moralizing and be willing to bargain with Stephen Miller, the hardline xenophobe running the White House’s immigration policy:
The foreign-born share of the U.S. population is near a record high, and increased diversity and the distrust it sows have clearly put stresses on our politics. There are questions about how fast the recent wave of low-skilled immigrants is assimilating, evidence that constant new immigration makes it harder for earlier arrivals to advance, and reasons to think that a native working class gripped by social crisis might benefit from a little less wage competition for a while.
There were those low-skilled foreigners again, and the other people—not Ross Douthat!—who might resent them. But where Douthat gave himself away was with the word “diversity.” The respectable immigration-wary pundits prefer to present this as the issue: how much of some extrinsic quality, called diversity, the nation should absorb. The country is divided between people who embrace diversity and people who distrust it, and it is necessary for us to consider both points of view, “the shape of public opinion, not just the elite consensus,” as Douthat put it. Diversity, in these terms, is an affectation of the educated urban elites, who like to eat challenging food and feel cosmopolitan, while ordinary people anxiously watch their familiar way of living fade away.
But diversity is people. To treat immigration this way is to restrict the discussion to taking place between different groups of regular white Americans, about how many of the other kinds of people they are comfortable letting in before they feel “distrust” and fear losing their “cohesive nation.” Douthat and Frum betray no recognition that the people who came to the country after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965—from Asia and Africa and Latin America, once the old racist bans had been eased—are themselves Americans, and their children and grandchildren are Americans, and their presence in the country is not contingent, nor subject to anyone else’s approval or permission.
When the Trump administration expands not just deportation but denaturalization, it knows what it’s doing.
This is the logic that turns neighbors into “invaders.” When Stephen Miller or Jeff Sessions talk about turning back the clock to before 1965, they know what they mean, just as Steve Bannon knew what he meant in complaining about how there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon Valley. When the Trump administration expands not just deportation but denaturalization, it knows what it’s doing.
Do writers like Frum and Douthat know? The racists of the early 20th century had to put in the work to define and propound their ideas of an embattled white nation; the moderate conservatives of the 21st may simply inherit the ideas, unexamined and barely attributed. The real anti-immigrant sentiment lies somewhere else, out of their hands, down a long dark descent. They know what’s down there; they threaten reluctant, more liberal readers with it. Douthat wrote:
The present view of many liberals seems to be that restrictionists can eventually be steamrolled—that the same ethnic transformations that have made white anxiety acute will eventually bury white-identity politics with sheer multiethnic numbers.
But liberals have been waiting 12 years for that “eventually” to arrive, and instead Trump is president and the illegal immigrants they want to protect are still in limbo.
Frum looked even further into the promised darkness:
Without immigration restrictions, there are no national borders. Without national borders, there are no nation-states. Without nation-states, there are no electorates. Without electorates, there is no democracy. If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do.
We need to give the fascists what they want. The alternative is fascism. If stopping racism doesn’t matter to you, then racism is negotiable.