Both the far Left and the neoconservative Right were appalled by Donald Trump’s reported skepticism about taking in immigrants from “shithole countries.” The usual script ensued; he was called vulgar, impolitic, insane, and, of course, racist. Today not only are all men created equal, but apparently, all nations, all cultures, and all lifestyles are as well.
Trump, like the wise fools of Shakespeare, yet again, stumbled upon a forbidden truth. What he said was certainly true factually: some countries are profoundly dysfunctional, which is why their people want to leave, and why pro-immigration groups are aghast at sending them back. But what Trump said was also a true moral expression: why should a nation absorb immigrants who will do our existing people more harm than good?
The Left’s commitment to mass immigration is fairly rational and self-interested. They are future welfare state clients, and they undermine the political power of native-born Americans, who tend to support a more limited concept of American government.
The “nation-as-idea” also has a great deal of more idealistic support among mainstream “conservatives.” Lindsey Graham intoned that America is an “idea,” defined fundamentally as “a land of immigrants—it is who we are …” The sanctimonious NeverTrumper Rick Wilson said, “don’t bother calling yourself a conservative if you don’t believe there’s a way where people who come and embrace the proposition of this country can become Americans. Because we’ve worked very hard in this country to accept people from around the world and of varying backgrounds.”
While immigration has certainly been part of the American story, can it really be the defining principle of this or any nation?
Non-European immigration—save for slavery—did not begin significantly until the 1960s. All immigration was restricted significantly from 1924 until 1965. And prior generations of mostly European immigrants did not find a generous welfare state or acceptance of their attachments to their native tongue and habits. In most cases, these habits were stamped out through a not-entirely-gentle process of assimilation and, being European, through high rates of intermarriage. For a purported defining concept of the country, it is a late arrival: “nation of immigrants” was a phrase hardly uttered before the 1960s.
And the concept is troubling in other ways. While America the nation is perhaps uniquely philosophical, as its founding documents show, America is not only an idea. Most fundamentally, it is a place, and it has borders. America’s awesome and diverse geography has a central place in our patriotic songs—“purple mountains majesty” “fruited plains,” and so forth. The country’s enormous size and frontier helped define it, as too did the land’s conquest by its pioneering people, their enterprise, and love of freedom.
As a people inhabiting a particular place, this nation has a common set of interests, as distinguished from the interests of other nations. What happens next door is more important than what happens in Europe or the Middle East, while what happens within our borders is more important still. Confusion about this basic reality is why so much political activity takes place that can only be called suicidal.
After the mass murder of our countrymen on September 11, 2001, the obvious idea of security-oriented immigration restrictions was taken off the table. Some 17 years later, we permit legal immigration from places like Somalia and Afghanistan, some of whom promptly murder our countrymen.
In less dramatic fashion, in spite of high rates of structural and minority unemployment, we let in massive numbers of uneducated and unskilled people, who bring with them all of the maladies and burdens of poverty, which burdens are exaggerated by not knowing our language. These policies stem from the liberalism at the heart of today’s Democratic and Republican parties, a liberalism defined chiefly by a strong notion of equality, which refuses to make distinctions of who is part of the group to which we owe loyalty and who is not.
The idea of a nation being only an idea is profoundly at odds with America, because it turns politics upside down, where the government and statesman’s task becomes not to advance the particular good of America, even when the interest is as basic as self-defense. It’s instead to support the triumph of the idea of America—defined roughly as elections and constitutionalism—among strangers at home and abroad, even if this policy leads to the destruction of the actual America and actual American people. Since America is only an idea, such destruction is of no moment if the idea lives on among an entirely new people at home or among other nations founded on that idea abroad. As neoconservative New York Times columnist said (allegedly) in jest, “So-called real Americans are screwing up America. Maybe they should leave, so that we can replace them with new and better ones.”
The nation of immigrants concept is problematic in other ways. If this is the defining mark of the nation, the newcomer is the quintessential American, more American than actual Americans, in spite of his language, manners, and actual political ideas. By ignoring actual voters, a fetish is made of voting, even if the new American uses the procedures of self-government to impose substantive ends like sharia, socialism, or Satanism. The mere act of fleeing a bad place does not show they know or can adapt to the qualities that made this country a desirable place. Like locusts, they may simply be on the move, having destroyed their homelands—whether consciously or by accident—they may now destroy this place, and then move on to destroy another.
Finally, if America is only an idea, why does anyone need to move here? Can’t they read about the idea and establish it among their native people?
We know intuitively this is unlikely. Indeed, this was actually attempted on a large scale in Latin America, where, following Simon Bolivar, many of the newly independent nations in the 19th century established American-style constitutions. The results were unhappy, as Sir Henry Maine observed, “The Spanish Colonies in North, Central, and South America revolted, and set up Republics in which the crimes and disorders of the French Republic were repeated in caricature.” The unique and surprising occurrence in America is that republican self-government, which mostly fails when put into practice, succeeded brilliantly. And the reason for our imitators’ failures is not the idea, which is the same at home as it is abroad, but the unique qualities of the American people, whose basic character was extant in 1776.
The real idea of America is inseparable from its people and what older generations would have called its “genius.” While all men may be created equal, all men are not equally suited for successful self-government. Since government in general involves questions of what is important, whom to honor and punish, and what government should and should not do, those disagreements must be kept in certain boundaries by pre-political understandings and characteristics. In the absence of an existing nation, every election become a plebiscite over the destruction of this or that cohort of the populace or by the imposition of unspeakable oppression in the name of majority rule. Far from thinking this a mere detail, the Founders knew that the prospects of American success were reinforced by the happy circumstance of “a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.”
Perhaps this is mere pessimism. After all, were not the same things said of Italians, Germans, and Irishmen? But this interpretation of that immigration wave obscures more than it reveals. The late 19th- and early 20th-century wave of Irish, Eastern, and Southern European immigrants, waxed upon so poetically by liberals and neoconservatives alike, was not entirely a success story. Poor, urbanized, and uneducated people, then as now, are not good stewards of limited self-government. At the very least, their presence changed the nation. They infused un-American socialist ideas, which radically changed the relationship of people to the government. The New York Draft Riots, the Haymarket Square Bombing, the assassination of President McKinley, the Homestead Riots, and the rise of organized labor were all products of the earlier wave of immigration.
Even in an older America more culturally unified, the 1880-1924 wave of immigration created problems of conflict and cultural change. Their assimilation took time and benefited from a sustained 40-year reduction in immigration. Their identity was further cemented by the unifying experience of military service of immigrants and their sons in a massive world war. Today, with greater philosophical and ethnic disunity and with few unifying cultural institutions and mores, it seems unlikely that a mostly Third World immigration wave will be nearly as successful as the last large immigration wave. After all, the transformative effects of the earlier wave of immigrants suggests they may transform the nation in spite of our best efforts, and that those effects may only be mitigated by a long break and a commitment to educating immigrants in the unifying ideas of our nation. Under the current milieu, such education appears highly unlikely, as Trump’s critics suggest we should instead be flattering the immigrants’ flawed lands of origin.
President Trump and the country’s success will depend upon radically reducing the number of immigrants from illiberal, chaotic, and alien parts of the world, that is, from the world’s “sh**holes.” If he fails, the increasingly radical and envy-driven Democratic party will prey upon the productive, mostly American-born half of the country. Future political debates over everything from war and education, to taxes and social security, will be colored by crude identity politics that places older stock Americans in the crosshairs. After all, why would a 20-year-old Guatemalan newcomer want to pay taxes to shore up social security so that “rich, old white people” can play golf. If America is just an idea, who can argue with that?