“Make America Great Again!” That was the promise that President-elect Donald Trump made throughout the presidential campaign of 2016. His was a pledge to return the United States to an era of prosperity and world leadership which he claims has been lost. As well as a promise, this slogan is a call to action to remove the tarnish and enhance the luster of a great nation and a noble people. Bad decisions by previous presidents in the face of challenges domestic and foreign necessitated turning the page in America’s history, Trump insisted. Prominent among the challenges, the presence of millions of unauthorized immigrants, especially from south of the border, who Trump characterized as drug dealers and prostitutes, as well as the Muslim newcomers who have been deemed a national security threat. Refugees clamoring for sanctuary from the horrors of war in the Middle East? Also, a threat. The remedy? Make America Great Again by padlocking the Golden Door against migrants on the way and deporting millions who already are here.
The Trump trope is not new, but an updated version of one popular in the early decades of the twentieth century. Then millions of newcomers from Southern and Eastern Europe and parts of Asia pursued opportunity or fled oppression by voting with their feet. Some left Eastern Europe for Western Europe. Others departed for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil. Over fourteen million arrived in the United States between 1900 and the 1920s before Congress built a wall – not of bricks and mortar, but of laws and procedures.
Among the loudest voices demanding restriction were nativists who wanted to “make America great again.” For them, as for Trump, America’s resurgence depended upon excluding those they regarded as inferior or dangerous, individuals who diminished the country by their very presence. One such nativist, sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross, wrote The Old World in the New in 1914, a volume well-known and oft quoted by immigration’s opponents. Ross feared what he called “race suicide” if newcomers were permitted to marry the native-born and to breed after arrival. No stranger to sweeping generalization, Ross insisted, “By their presence the foreigners necessarily lower the general plane of intelligence, self-restraint, refinement, orderliness and efficiency.” What Donald Trump said of Mexicans and Central Americans today, Ross spouted about Southern Italians and Eastern European Jews a century earlier. Of the Southern Italians Ross wrote, “In homicide, rape, blackmail, and kidnaping they lead the foreign-born.” Of the Jews he complained, “On the physical side the Hebrews are the polar opposite of our pioneer breed. Not only are they under-sized and weak-muscled, but they shun bodily activity and are exceedingly sensitive to pain.” Making America great again required restricting the admission of newcomers prone to violence or just too weak to be anything other than a social burden.
Another such critic Madison Grant made clear his position on American greatness in the very title of his 1916 anti-immigrant diatribe, The Passing of the Great Race. Just as wearing a toga could not transform “a Syrian or Egyptian” into a Roman, Grant despaired of making an American of “the Polish Jew, whose dwarf stature, peculiar mentality, and ruthless concentration on self-interest are being engrafted upon the stock of the nation.”
Restrictionists in Congress embraced a literacy test as a convenient instrument of exclusion. They passed bills requiring literacy examinations of all newcomers in 1896 and 1913, but presidential vetoes scuttled the effort. The anti-foreign sentiments amplified by World War I renewed legislators’ hopes and literacy test bills passed in 1915 and 1917. President Woodrow Wilson vetoed them both times, but in the midst of wartime fervor Congress overwhelmingly overrode the second veto.
Making America great again following the Great War and the Russian Revolution drove enthusiasm for an even better tool of exclusion, the national origins quota system embodied in the Johnson-Reed immigration bill of 1924. The system included annual quotas for newcomers set at 2 percent of those already present in the United States according to the 1890 census when migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were just beginning to arrive in growing numbers. The scheme reflected the prejudices of those who passed it and the legislative debate in Congress was nourished by nativist rhetoric, including the pronouncements of eugenicists who believed that America could be great (again) if Americans could be better bred. Some of these genetic managers advocated carefully arranged marriages among those they deemed society’s most talented and successful. Others went further and advocated the sterilization of individuals of inferior stock. Restricting immigration would keep the American stock uncontaminated by newcomers of an inferior breed.
If the coalition that elected Donald Trump embodies the old adage that politics makes strange bedfellows, so too did the coalition that passed the restrictive legislation of the 1920s. The inclusion of the Immigration Restriction League and Ku Klux Klan in the nativist coalition should surprise none. However, just as the Trump coalition echoes the discontent and apprehensions of many American workers, so too did the restrictionism of an earlier era when the American Federation of Labor supported immigrant exclusion to keep high the wages of American workers. Organized labor feared the competition of foreign-born labor willing to work for less than the wages won by strikes and collective bargaining.
Making America great again infused the rhetoric of the congressmen advocating the Johnson-Reed Act. Congressman Albert Johnson, in arguing for the bill that bore his name, made clear what he thought was necessary to ensure American greatness, declaring “The United States is our land. . .We intend to maintain it so. The day of indiscriminate acceptance of all races has definitely ended.” When the act passed, the support was bi-partisan, but the Republicans could proudly claim the vanguard, albeit narrowly. In the House, 164 Republicans joined with 157 Democratic allies. In the Senate, 32 Republicans and 28 Democrats supported the legislation. Republican President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill without reservation.
In the early decades of a previous century those who abhorred the foreign-born often cloaked their opposition in the rhetoric of recovering or preserving national greatness. Donald Trump’s agenda for making America great again assumes a decline in the nation’s prosperity and security which can only be reversed if present patterns are turned around as well. Among these patterns is a generous and welcoming policy toward the foreign-born. Honoring the nation’s rich tradition of religious pluralism also seems to Trump a pattern worth reversing based on his misguided assumptions about Islam’s threat to national security. His nativist, ethnocentric rants are not original. They are merely the latest challenge to those who read the history of the republic quite differently than he does, thank goodness.