Thanksgiving is our holiday of refugee commemoration. We have no holiday to commemorate the first successful English settlement, Jamestown, which was a commercial and political venture, or the first French and Spanish settlements, which were also commercial and political. We celebrate only the arrival and survival of a band of Pilgrims seeking not only opportunity but also refuge. Of the many and varied American creation epics, this is the one we have chosen to celebrate.
We have never been a land, of course, where refuge has gone uncontested. The Germans, the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, the Slavs, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Mexicans, the Muslims — every group of newcomers has been reviled and labeled a peril to our way of life. Each group, to be sure, contained a dangerous few, just as the non-immigrant population did. At the turn of the 20th century, a handful of native and immigrant anarchists preached a gospel of violence and assassination. A Jewish immigrant shot and wounded industrialist Henry Clay Frick; a Slavic American shot and killed President William McKinley; two Italian immigrants probably (the verdict of history is still out on this one) killed a Massachusetts bank guard. The number of murders committed during the same period by native old-stock Americans gripped by racial and religious hatred exceeds that committed by the new-stock anarchists by thousands, but to the nativist mind, all murders are not created, or considered, equal.
In 1924, by an act of Congress, virtually all immigration from Asia and Southern and Eastern Europe was halted. (The law was not to be repealed until 1965.) Fortunately, immigration from those lands had not been banned earlier. Had Americans always excluded millions due to their fear of a few, this would be a very different country. Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio (and Frank Sinatra, and Enrico Fermi) indeed?
Today, we may marvel at many of our forebears’ conflation of “anarchist” with “Italian,” but the same nativist and racist phobias now dominate the discourse of one of our two major political parties. Arabs are jihadists; Mexicans are rapists; a little more than 80 percent of murdered whites are killed by blacks — whoops, it turns out that a little more than 80 percent of murdered whites are killed by whites, but to the neo-Nazi who concocted this Big Lie, and to the Republican presidential front-runner who publicized it, spreading that lie and similar sewage is apparently how they intend to win adherents and, for Donald Trump, take power.
We’ve had presidential candidates whose campaigns were rooted in appeals to racism and even racist violence: That was the very essence of George Wallace’s political appeal. But it’s been a long time since a front-runner of a major party’s presidential contest has based his appeal on raw racism, much less dropped hints that roughing up his critics was fine by him. To find Trump’s antecedents, you have to go back to the Southern segregationist demagogues who whooped up their crowds by affirming the rightness and necessity not merely of their racism but of racist violence as well.
In Trump, the Republicans’ Southern Strategy — pioneered by Barry Goldwater and perfected by Ronald Reagan — has hit bottom. Just as the Southern economic elites found they could count on the electoral support of the region’s largely impoverished white working class by steering those workers’ resentment at their lot toward even more impoverished African Americans, so today’s Republicans look at their own (no longer just Southern) white working-class supporters — whose jobs have been offshored and whose paychecks have been shrunk by indifferent financiers and corporate executives — and steer their resentment toward immigrants and minorities.
Trump’s distinctive contribution to this decades-long process has been the rawness of his racism, the thuggish tone of his speech and the huge growth of anti-minority police powers that he has championed. In proposing to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and their U.S. citizen children, in suggesting that the government monitor mosques , he has positioned the Republican Party much closer to fascism than to the libertarianism toward which some mistakenly believed the GOP was headed. (The broad appeal that Trump’s proposals have among right-wingers makes you wonder whether their nonsensical phobias about the Democrats’ seizing their guns and throwing them into camps isn’t just a psychological projection of what they’d like to do to their opponents.)
It’s all a far cry from the spirit of the holiday we celebrate today. For today’s Republicans — including Trump’s rival candidates afraid to call him out for what he is — celebrating Thanksgiving is an act of high hypocrisy.