Immigration - the wedge issue

White nationalism remains a core part of the Trump's agenda, notes William Milam

Immigration - the wedge issue
What to write about this week? Imran Khan will not even be sworn in until August 18, according to what I read. So I have to look elsewhere for a subject. This week, while waiting for Imran to a take office, I decided to deliver on my promise of some weeks ago to follow up on the article I wrote about the political problems in Europe over EU immigration policy with an article describing the political struggle in the US over immigration policy. This will require, however, a detour through the ideology that drives Trump and his immigration advisors. A political symbol is at hand.

This weekend is the one-year anniversary of the now-infamous white nationalist “rally” (which became a riot) in Charlottesville Virginia. While the violence between the army of white nationalists and those who had come to protest their presence in Charlottesville was still going on, and while the white nationalist leaders strutted around on TV in brown uniforms sporting swastikas and carrying weapons, President Trump held a press conference in which he said that there were “fine people on both sides.” It was a key point in his presidency and many thought it marked the beginning of the end of his administration.

The reaction from not only the left, but well into the center, of the US public was loudly negative, and the president had to back away quickly from what was taken as a supportive statement of the white nationalist cause. Most of the white nationalist leaders of the rally are now facing criminal or civil prosecution. The nominal reason for the rally—to save statues of leaders of the southern rebellion against the United States that municipalities all over the South were moving to replace or destroy—is even more of a lost cause than it was. The great majority of Americans clearly repudiated white nationalism, with polls showing only seven percent identified with the goals of white nationalism. This reaction seemed to show clearly that the aim of the white nationalist/alt right, to rebrand white nationalism as something benign enough to be respected by the great swath of the independent moderate right, was a total failure.

Yet on this first anniversary of that debacle, the white nationalist organisations undertook to have another rally—this time in Washington, DC. This rally turned out poorly also, though without violence, but the wall-to-wall media coverage this paltry crew of white nationalists received, gave their cause an importance it should not have. But white nationalists sense that they have something going for them. The fact that white nationalism is still alive and well in the Republican Party is reason enough for them to celebrate. This is true because, despite the beating Trump took and the nosedive in his ratings after the Charlottesville disaster, white nationalism remains a core part of the Trump agenda, and these days as Trump goes so goes the Republican Party. So one can say that white nationalism has found a home in one of the two major parties as long as Trump leads that party, and the significant portion of the electorate that blindly supports the Trumpian Republican Party will fervently support the white nationalist part of its agenda, perhaps without realising it. It is, perhaps, the greatest of all American historical ironies that the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, which exactly 150 years ago established that the US would not be a white nation is now asserting white nationalism as a (probably unspoken) part of if its ideology.

This phenomenon has been exacerbated by the right wing media, especially Fox News, the bible of Trump’s supporters, picking up on white nationalism, if not by name, then by inference. Its star reporters talk of other countries “changing of election outcomes [in the US] by forcing demographic changes,” and assert that “the America we love and know doesn’t exist anymore,” because of immigration. They are basically repeating the white nationalists’ basic theme that whites are losing their country as the nation grows more diverse. Their message is that “the mere presence of non-white people, citizen or noncitizen, is an existential threat to the country,” says Adam Serwer of the Atlantic magazine.

Trump’s immigration policy is rather easy to summarise: he is against it, particularly when it concerns people from poorer countries with darker skins and/or different religions. In an unguarded moment, he once indicated that he would be happier if the US got more immigrants from Norway and fewer from such countries. But the White House would not agree with my summary. In January, it put out a policy proposal with four “principles” which went nowhere but gave us an idea of what Trump would want in new immigration legislation. They were: 1) guaranteed funding for a border wall between Mexico and the US along with all the increased personnel and equipment to maintain the wall and enforce a policy of faster deportation of anyone crossing the border illegally (without due process Trump added later) and also designed to deter illegal entry; 2) reduce legal immigration by limiting family sponsorship and ending the diversity lottery, which would reduce legal immigration by about 340,000 people; and 3) as bait to get Democratic Party support, a provision making a path to citizenship (some call it amnesty) for the so-called “Dreamers” those persons under 21 who were brought to the US illegally by their parents when they were very young and who are basically Americans without citizenship.

This proposal ran aground immediately in the Republican House where a large right wing bloc cannot abide the idea of amnesty, and it would only have gained acceptance of the House Democrats, who oppose the wall, if it were the price they had to pay to get the dreamers legalised. I should also point out that the administration’s proposal for quick deportation of those caught crossing the border illegally was put into effect anyway in February this year with the added proviso that the children of those caught crossing the border illegally were to be separated from their parents; this was thought to be an added deterrence. As most readers will know, it didn’t work out so well and Trump was forced to rescind this inhumane policy; and, believe it or not, not all the separated children have yet been reunited with their parents.

The racist and/or nativist content of this policy is pretty clear for all to see. Yet that will not stop Trump from using it in the midterm election campaign that is now beginning to heat up. Credible reports assert that the president believes that immigration is the issue that will fire up his core supporters and get them out to vote in the mid-term election, i.e. a so-called wedge issue. Fox News and the other right wing media are doing their best to ensure it does, and truth has been largely ignored in their all-out effort. In recent primary and by-elections, in the rural areas where Trump is still very popular, the voter turnout has been low. So Trump’s aim has to be to get his still-solid rural base to the polls. His calculus is that immigration is the issue that will do it. We will see.

The difference between Europe’s immigration crisis and that in the US? Clearly a lot of racism and nativism is at play in both. But in Europe, the leaders of the major countries are not using it, or trying to appeal to white voters who fear their dominance is threatened by immigration. In fact, racism and nativism (and white nationalism) are major factors only in the Eastern European countries that have taken such hard lines against the EU immigration policy. It strikes me that the anti-immigration feelings in these countries was the result of the sudden influx of refugees and will abate as the immigrants become a more integrated part of the landscape. In the US, the rise of white nationalism, and more importantly its incorporation into the blood of the Republican Party, may make the issue a continuing thorn in the sides of future administrations be they Democratic or Republican.

As I was finishing this article, I saw a breaking report from reliable sources that asserts that Trump is planning a new assault on immigrants by cutting drastically the number that would be able to become US citizens. This, of course would clearly disenfranchise millions of immigrants and be, perhaps, the most significant act of political exclusion in our history. It would be also an assault on democracy itself. I do not have space to write more, but if true, it shows how deep Trump’s racist, nativist, instincts run.

The author is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, and a former US diplomat who was ambassador to Pakistan and Bangladesh

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.