Trump's Call To Bar Muslims Echoes Crises From The Past
Perhaps it was fitting.
Donald Trump was touting his (now globally famous) proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. — and he was standing onstage at an event commemorating Pearl Harbor.
Trump and his supporters rallied this week on the deck of the USS Yorktown, anchored off the shoreline of South Carolina. The occasion was the 74th anniversary of the "date which will live in infamy." On Dec. 7, 1941, the air and naval forces of Japan struck the U.S. naval base in Hawaii, killing more than 2,400 U.S. service personnel and sinking eight battleships.
The next day, the U.S. was mobilizing to join World War II, a conflict that would devastate Japan and scramble the world order for generations to come. But in the more immediate aftermath, a post-Pearl panic in America prompted a White House decision to drag Japanese-American families from their homes and intern them in makeshift camps for years — a decision the U.S. has been apologizing for, in one forum or another, ever since.
Trump was born after World War II but knows the basic story of this period. He even referred to it with approval this week in his speech about barring Muslims, saying that Franklin D. Roosevelt (whom he referred to as "a respected president") had done the right thing at the time.
Certainly others thought so at the time. Roosevelt had bipartisan support in Congress for his internment policy. The Supreme Court reviewed it in 1944 and declined to interfere. Although more than 100,000 Japanese were shipped off, protests from the rest of the citizenry were muted.
Trump clearly saw all that as good precedent for his latest political inspiration: a ban on Muslims entering the U.S.
That is what you call a bold proposition. With all the attention Trump has had over the past six months, nothing has approached the worldwide furor he touched off on the deck of the Yorktown.
Trump's latest lashing out has given a raw edge to the debate over immigration and terrorism in our time. For his fans, it was one more instance of "common sense" winning out over concerns about being "politically correct." But the idea has drawn criticism from his rivals for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, not one of whom was willing to support it.
Even in Congress, where members usually vie to be the most passionate in their denunciation of radical Islam, there was no immediate show of support for Trump's policy prescription.
One reason may be the hangover from past episodes of exclusion in this country. Not many Americans could recite them all, but there is a kind of shared national memory about them. And it is not a happy memory.
Each instance has its own particulars, and while none offers an exact precedent for Trump's proposal, there is a pattern of fearfulness that runs through each of these spasms.
In the mid-1800s, large populations of Irish and German Catholics were driven from their homelands by famine or fighting. They crowded into the port cities of the Eastern Seaboard, causing a nativist movement to take root among some white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.
Some of these resistance activists were urged to deny their involvement, leading to their being nicknamed the "Know Nothings." But not a few of their confrontations with recent arrivals were violent, and the conflict was often frightening on a local level in the years before the Civil War.
After that war, immigrants were generally more welcome in the restored and rapidly expanding Union. But on the West Coast of that expansion the arrival of Asians, especially Chinese, began to trouble some of those with European backgrounds. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, a remarkable bar not only to the entry of people from one culture but a set of shackles for Chinese already living in the U.S.
An increasing surge of immigrants came in the 1800s and early 1900s (much of it from Southern and Eastern Europe), causing unease and outright hostility among many native-born Americans. There were efforts in Congress and elsewhere to set quotas on various national groups, especially those deemed to be further from the American mainstream.
The First World War spurred animus toward Germans, a phenomenon that featured people changing their last names to avoid persecution. Sauerkraut became "liberty cabbage," and many who had been in America for generations felt the need to assert and demonstrate their loyalty.
In the 1930s, the question of relations with Germany became increasingly salient with the rise of the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Ideas about ethnic purity and anti-Semitism, while far from new, gained acceptance in some quarters — encouraged by a variety of media voices.
Foremost among these was the Rev. Charles Coughlin of Royal Oak, Mich. Originally a local radio star as a preaching priest and mesmerizing on-air personality, Coughlin became a national political phenomenon as his radio program went national and his rallies filled ballparks. Coughlin shifted from earlier support for the New Deal policies of Roosevelt to vehement opposition, but he reserved his most venomous rhetoric for Jews.
In his weekly radio homilies and stadium rants, Coughlin blamed international Judaism for the Russian Revolution and for the Great Depression. Jews, he said, were responsible for the international banks that had beggared the working class. Coughlin was a media phenomenon of unprecedented influence in the years just before the Second World War, when many Jewish refugees from Europe were denied entry into the U.S.
The war brought a kind of consensus to national politics, as deep differences were subsumed in the drive for victory. But the postwar euphoria, such as it was, proved short-lived. The shadow of national dread returned, cast by fear of the international communist movement, which had swept across much of Europe and conquered mainland China.
That led to the meteoric rise of a first-term Wisconsin senator, Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican who insisted there were hundreds of communists employed in the State Department and elsewhere in the administration of President Harry Truman.
For McCarthy, the sympathies of even the most obscure federal bureaucrat were the stuff of Armageddon, and certainly fodder for front-page news coverage. Unable to capture any real communists, he and his subcommittee "show trials" focused on previous associations and tenuous connections, eventually wearing out the national audience and exhausting the patience of the Senate. But his high-profile run largely defined the era, feeding on and exploiting the fears of ordinary Americans and sowing suspicion and distrust in government.
McCarthy, like Coughlin before him, found a ready audience among those who were convinced the country had lost its way. Beyond a sense of aimlessness, these voters also shared the perception that an enemy was at large — at home as well as abroad — actively subverting their way of life. It was not a hard sell in the tumultuous times of economic hardship, war and global upheaval.
And for many, it is not a hard sell today.
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