Columns » Ernest Dumas

Inhuman America

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Our history has included some evil passages — slavery and white supremacy, the forced removal of Native Americans from their homes, the imprisonment and dispossession of Japanese Americans during World War II, the torture of prisoners in latter-day wars — but it is also a part of our history that we came to officially regard them all with shame, as offenses to the human rights that were our original values.

When will we regard the severance of immigrant children from their moms and dads with the same revulsion? Perhaps for most Americans it is right now, judging from the condemnations of so many people, including even a few from the governing party, like former first lady Laura Bush.

The current first lady, herself an immigrant of once questionable status, also demands that the abuse of children and families stop, although she seems to embrace her husband's ridiculous story that the completely impotent Democrats are somehow at least partly to blame. It has been the official position of the leadership of both houses that no bill is to reach a vote unless it can be passed without a single Democratic vote.

The policy of taking children away from parents who reach the border after fleeing the tyranny of government or drug lords and gangs in Guatemala, Honduras and other Latin countries is the sole work of Donald Trump, carried out by his attorney general and his director of Homeland Security, although the latter both defends it and sometimes denies that it is happening.

In only the first weeks of this gruesome national policy, some 2,000 children have been orphaned at the border, placed in fenced compounds to await foster homes or unknown fate. The government has had no particular plan for what to do with them.

The purpose of severing kids from their parents seems to be twofold: to send the message to desperate Central Americans that if they insist on trying to reach sanctuary in the United States they will lose their children and, secondly, to gain bargaining power to force Congress to appropriate money to build Donald Trump's giant Berlin Wall along the country's southern border, the wall he promised that Mexicans would pay for. Give him the money and maybe he will stop terrorizing the children.

But we're missing the big picture. Taking Latino children as hostages is only the latest and most inflammatory move of the country's first nativist president. By today, he knows that he miscalculated, slightly. Who knew, as he might say himself, that people would get upset about the mistreatment of brown children? Not nearly as many people were bothered when he jeopardized the futures of millions of DREAMers, the young adults who came to the country as children like the youngsters now in the border cages, by revoking their protected status.

Trump is turning the Republican Party into a reincarnation of the nativist American Party (aka, the Know Nothing Party), which almost became the governing party in the 1850s by alarming people about the great surge of Catholic immigrants from Ireland and Germany who were corrupting the culture of Eastern cities. It has always been a powerful strain in American life, but only occasionally approaching governing power, principally before the Civil War and after World War I.

The uniting theme of both Trump's campaign and his presidency is that us real Americans of good European stock must protect ourselves from all the others — their dark skins, their alien religions and manners, the cheap products they sell us, their unusual sexual proclivities. The bad people, criminals probably, are those who are either not pretty white women or do not have a vivid attraction to them.

In the 1850s, the Trumpish American Party held nearly half the 237 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and many governorships. But it couldn't take a stand on slavery and became irrelevant. The Republican Party arose from the ashes of the American and Whig parties. Might Trump have read Thomas Whitney's "A Defence of the American Policy" (1856), the magnum opus of the nativist movement? Nah; he doesn't read.

It revived after World War I with the renaissance of the Ku Klux Klan, with a broadened field of foes that included immigrants, Catholics and whiskey as well as blacks. In the 1920s, Arkansas politicians scrambled to join a klavern.

In New York City, the KKK conducted big rallies. Donald Trump's father, then 21, was arrested in 1927 when an immigrant protest got out of hand and the protesters attacked policemen. As Trump might say, the apple does not fall far from the tree. The housing developed by Fred Trump and his heir kept out dark-skinned people. They constantly fought housing discrimination charges.

One human trait — conspiracy paranoia — always lies behind nativist movements: criminal plots by immigrants, foreign agents or the pope to cripple America. Trump constantly accuses immigrants of leading a crime wave. Those innocent-looking little toddlers, Trump said the other day, are anything but innocent. They are thugs in the making.

The good news is that these nativist surges are short-lived. Maybe the suffering children are the crest.

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