September 21, 2018

Bigotry in Context—the Dangers of Trump

The media “sh*tstorm” is perpetual. Donald Trump has managed to suck up the media oxygen virtually 24/7. If it isn’t his “sh*thole” comments about much of Africa, Haiti and El Salvador, it’s his tweets about compromises in Congress or his unrelenting dismissal of opponents with derisive diminutives.

The media has little choice but to report, analyze and comment on the daily distractions. What the media should do, but usually don’t, is put Trump’s actions and words into perspective. Admittedly, there is little precedent for the narcissistic self-aggrandizing occupant of the White House—what president has come close to his performance and personality? Historians suggest that he is truly sui generis. But an effort should be made to educate Americans as to what might transpire were his prescriptions to be enacted.

There are historic precedents for the kind of jingoistic, ethnocentric bigotry that has emanated from this administration regarding immigration and its implications—short term and long term—are pretty ugly.

For starters, we should all be reminded—-as the Bible admonishes—-to never forget from whence we come, “remember that you were slaves in Egypt”(Deuteronomy 15:15).

We were almost all immigrants at one point in the not too distant past. The kind of hostility and simple-mindedness that Trump (and his attorney general) have demonstrated should chill every thinking American. But the impact is attenuated by the historic ignorance that abounds.

A partial curative emerged today from one of the bulliest pulpits in the land short of the White House—The New York Times. Bret Stephens, the Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning columnist has a brilliant column reminding us all that bigotry, fear, lies and distortions are  nothing new in the immigration debate. In fact, virtually every one of the “America First” tactics of the Trump administration has been employed before against different sets of immigrants—what’s new is the administration’s ability to reach tens of millions with their hate and lies.

The target cohort that Stephens chose as an example of historically similar nativism is Jewish immigrants to the US of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Not unlike today’s targets (El Salvadorans, Iranians, Haitians, et al.) Jews were decried as purveyors of crime (the NYPD police commissioner falsely asserted that half of all crime in New York City was committed by Jews); Jews were viewed as socially undesirable (“social discards”) as compared to northern Europeans (sound familiar?); Jews were attacked as “moral cripples” “reeking of the ghetto” who were unprepared for citizenship, and on and on.

The list of accusations from a century ago is extensive and the ring of familiarity is chilling. What Stephens brilliantly does is ask the question, what if the bigots had prevailed? What would America be missing if those of supposed “genetic inferiority” had been denied admission, if the restrictionists had prevailed?

A question that our historical perspective allows us to answer. A media bound to today’s headlines can’t ask what would America be missing if we pulled up the gangplanks and closed our ports of entry. We have only history as a guide, and it suggests that Trump’s ethnocentric fears are insidious foolishness.

Yet imagine if the United States had followed the advice of the immigration restrictionists in the late 19th century and banned Jewish immigrants, at least from Central Europe and Russia, on what they perceived to be some genetic inferiority. What, in terms of enterprisegeniusimagination, and philanthropy would have been lost to America as a country? And what, in terms of human tragedy, would have ultimately weighed on our conscience?

Today, American Jews are widely considered the model minority, so thoroughly assimilated that organizational Jewish energies are now largely devoted to protecting our religious and cultural distinctiveness. Someone might ask Jeff Sessions and other eternal bigots what makes an El Salvadoran, Iranian or Haitian any different.

Stephens’ piece is powerful and right on target. Today’s bigots see the world through their distorted prism, it takes reason, logic and some historical context to counteract their warping of reality.

Bravo Bret, an important piece that should be mandatory reading in every home in America!