In the early summer of 2015, I could not imagine that immigration had the power to deliver somebody to the White House. Just 7 percent of Americans believed immigration was the nation’s most critical challenge, according to Gallup. Three in four thought it was good for the country. Only a third said we should admit fewer immigrants. This was half the share who thought so in the mid-1990s, when California’s governor, Pete Wilson, ran for reelection by whipping up fears of an illegal alien invasion. Indeed, it was the lowest share since the 1960s.
Illegal immigration was, after all, pretty contained. There were 1.2 million fewer unauthorized immigrants in the United States in 2015 than there had been in 2007, when the implosion of the housing bubble wiped out the construction jobs that many of them relied on. The economy was growing briskly, after its painful slog out of the Great Recession, and the unemployment rate was falling fast, reducing what competition there might have been between immigrants and American workers for available jobs.
Then Donald Trump decided to run for president. He promised to protect the homeland from the rapist thugs streaming illegally into the United States from Mexico. He pledged to build a wall, to once and for all bring America’s sieve-like southern border under control. All of a sudden the fear of immigrants that was lying dormant in America’s subconscious propelled Trump to the presidency. It may change the United States for good.
There’s a public park in Brooklyn a few blocks from where my son, Mateo, used to go to school. It’s named, in true Brooklyn style, after a Beastie Boy: Adam Yauch. In the days after the election, somebody painted swastikas on the playground equipment, alongside an exhortation: “Go Trump.”
I was born of a Mexican mother and an American father and grew up mostly in Mexico. I consider myself both Mexican and American. At home I speak mainly Spanish, hoping it will encourage Mateo to embrace his Mexican side too. On the day after the election, we were riding the subway when he leaned into my ear and whispered, “Dad, perhaps we shouldn’t speak Spanish in public anymore?”
One might read this moment in American history as an aberration brought about by a uniquely racist political entrepreneur, or explain it as the product of specific economic circumstances. You’ve heard the argument: working-class voters frustrated by decades of wage stagnation lashed out at the cosmopolitan class that ignored their plight for so long.
There is some truth to this. Many of Trump’s voters are among the losers of America’s economic transformations. He won white voters without a bachelor’s degree by a thirty-nine percentage point margin over Hillary Clinton. The 2,584 counties that Trump won in 2016 generated only 36 percent of the nation’s GDP, according to research by Mark Muro and Sifan Liu of the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. They include most of rural and small-town America—depopulated, aging, in seemingly terminal decline. The 472 counties that voted for Hillary Clinton, by contrast, accounted for 64 percent of America’s economic output. This lopsided pattern can be made to fit the view that the “us” who were left behind by progress voted the smug beneficiaries of America’s prosperity out of power.
But that is hardly the whole story. It would be a historic mistake to gloss over the critical, defining role of xenophobia in America’s choice. It was not a freak event, not a bug in the system. The mix of contempt and resentment across frontiers of religion, race, ethnicity, and citizenship that anchored Trump’s seduction of sixty-three million voters has distorted American politics since the birth of the nation. It defines who we are.
You may call our condition racial hostility or simply racism. From America’s slaveholder past through the Civil War and beyond, in the form of legal segregation across the Jim Crow South and de facto segregation across the urban North, the poll tax deployed to keep blacks from the polls, and campaigns against imagined voter fraud to purge blacks from the rolls, “ethnic divisions”—to give them a tamer name—have conditioned every turn in the development of the American state. Standing in the way of social trust, blocking solidarity, they have made us decidedly poorer. Upon those injustices we have built the most exceptional country, one in which the most extreme wealth coexists comfortably with deprivation that has no place in the industrialized world.
Trump’s election might have exposed America’s ethnic divisions to the unforgiving glare of the klieg lights, but the uncomfortable questions raised by a president who likens immigrants to rapists ready to come for our women, who blocks Muslims from entering the country, who offers understanding to white supremacists marching torches in hand, coiled at the ready for a Nazi salute, have been lying in America’s political underbrush for a long time.
The very image of the United States as a melting pot—forged by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry James to evoke an exceptional culture, built of a multiplicity of immigrant experiences bound into a national American identity—was ultimately a blinkered concept. Emerson might have dreamed of America as an “asylum of all nations,” where Africans and Polynesians contributed to create a new race, a new religion, and a new literature to replace the old Eurocentric paradigm. In fact, the crucible smelted only Americans of European stock.
The term “melting pot” made its way into the American vernacular through Israel Zangwill’s homonymous play, which opened at the Columbia in Washington, D.C., on October 5, 1908. It’s an ersatz Romeo and Juliet
in which a Jewish Russian immigrant and a Christian Russian immigrant, in New York, overcome the vast historical and cultural chasm between them. “Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the crucible with you all!” trumpets the main character, David Quixano. “God is making the American.” At the premiere, President Theodore Roosevelt, to whom Zangwill had dedicated the drama, is said to have shouted, “That’s a great play.”
The indigenous communities living in the United States before all those Europeans arrived were not invited into the pot, though. Nor were the descendants of African slaves or the brown Catholic Mexicans from whom the United States had acquired about a third of its territory sixty years before. The American alloy certainly had no place for Chinese immigrants, who were prohibited from gaining American citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act. In 1924, sixteen years after the debut of The Melting-Pot
, Congress passed restrictions limiting legal immigration from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They would remain on the books until 1965.
Over the last half a century or so, however, these disparate peoples once excluded from the crucible have come to define the de facto American. As a response, all those Americans of European stock who melted over the years into the contemporary concept of non-Hispanic white ditched the crucible metaphor and replaced it with a different organizing principle: to each his own. For years they circled the wagons, hoping to bar the nonwhite from the benefits of citizenship. When the Civil Rights Act stripped them of this ability, they set out to sabotage the collective American project. Donald Trump is merely a natural step in this progression.
One of the most notable features of President Trump’s victory was its whiteness. Sixty-two percent of white men chose him, compared with 32 percent who voted for Clinton. He won a plurality of white women, beating the first female presidential candidate from a major party in history by a margin of 47 to 45 percent. He opened a new divide in American politics, a split between the mostly white homogeneous culture of small-town America in slow but steady economic decline and the messy mix of the nation’s vast urban hubs.
The urban-rural cleavage is just an old wound in a new place. In 2016 rural whites voted in lockstep to preserve what privilege they could despite their demographic stagnation. Their choice was an extension of whites’ long-standing effort to preserve for themselves what America has to offer.
Copyright © 2020 by Eduardo Porter. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.