Baby boomers have a Donald Trump problem: Immigration, nativism and the mythic golden age of the middle class

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tags: election 2016, Trump



Edward McClelland is the author of "Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President" and "Nothin' But Blue Skies: The Heyday, Hard Times and Hopes of America's Industrial Heartland." Follow him on Twitter at @tedmcclelland.

If you grew up in mid-20th century America, you probably didn’t know many immigrants. There was Gus, the refugee from the Greek civil war who ran a bar across the street from the factory gate; and Mrs. DiNardi, the parish widow who sailed from Sicily to Ellis Island in 1900. Television offered a few lovingly comic portrayals: Lucy’s husband, Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, and Danny Thomas’ Lebanese Uncle Tonoose. For the most part, though, the immigrant experience was a relic of an earlier era in the nation’s history. In the 1960s, only 4.7 percent of the population was foreign born, the lowest proportion ever.

When Donald Trump promises to Make America Great Again by building a wall to keep out Mexicans and banning all Muslims from entering the country, this is the Great America to which he hearkens. It was a nation created by an earlier nativist panic, which occurred during a period of jarring demographic change and economic dislocation similar to today, and whose outcome still resonates in the anti-immigrant attitudes of 2016.

Between 1900 and 1910, 8.2 million immigrants arrived in the United States, mostly Catholics and Jews from Italy, Poland, Austria-Hungary and Russia. World War I put a temporary halt to the arrivals, but after the conflict ended, the ships began returning to New York Harbor, just as the wartime boom bottomed out. America’s rural Protestant majority found the newcomers alarming. They practiced exotic religions, drank to excess, and slavishly obeyed urban political bosses. Worst of all, their rejection of birth control meant they might someday outnumber the real Americans. The Saturday Evening Post, a leading organ of small-town thought, predicted that more Jews, Slavs and Latins would result in “a hybrid race of people as worthless as the good-for-nothing mongrels of Central America and Southeastern Europe.” The Ku Klux Klan got a second wind, this time with Bolshevik Jews and Romish Papists as its demons. In California, voters approved a referendum forbidding Japanese land ownership. Unions battled for restrictions on immigration, against industrialists who wanted to keep the spigot of cheap labor open. And Prohibition banned an Irish and Italian vice corrupting farm boys moving to the city.

To pacify white Protestant fears of an ethnically dominated America, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, establishing immigration quotas based on each nation’s representation in the population of 1890 – before the surge in immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.

“Through the whole movement, from 1921 on, for more drastic curbs on the new immigration ran an increasingly assertive racial nativism,” wrote John Higham in “Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925.” “Out of the rising vigor of the racial tradition in the early twenties came one plea after another for an immigration law specifically designed to keep the old stock from becoming ‘hopelessly bogged down in the mire of mongrelization.’” ...




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