President Trump’s recent budget proposal asks Congress for $8.6 billion to fund the construction of a southwestern border wall. His request comes just a couple of months after his failed attempt to extort congressional funding by shutting down the government for a record 35 days. Trump followed that gambit with a national emergency declaration that both houses of Congress overturned, though Trump vetoed the resolution.
Not only is the proposed wall at odds with popular opinion — 60 percent of Americans oppose a border wall — but Trump’s justifications for why we need it are also devoid of evidence and facts. He has concocted imagery of migrant caravans, drug smuggling and rapists to inflame emotions and distort reality. In fact, experts insist a wall will do nothing to limit illegal immigration (most of which occurs through visa violations, not unlawful entry) and may have disastrous environmental and humanitarian consequences.
Still, Trump continues to erroneously insist only a wall will assure the nation’s safety. “This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. …. This is just common sense,” he told viewers in a recent prime-time address.
Why ignore reality and public opinion and double down when called out?
Trump’s border wall is about politics, not security. His rhetorical attacks on immigrants of color mobilize the white nationalists in his base by linking Americanness with whiteness and criminality with non-whiteness. His travel ban, family separation policy and deployment of troops to the border have further reinforced this narrative.
Limiting Trump to one term is at the top of Democrats’ agenda. They might take solace in that the first one-term president in U.S. history also took an unpopular stance on immigration. This move backfired, hinting ominously at how Trump’s refusal to look beyond his base could prove politically fatal.
In 1798, President John Adams and his Federalist Party passed three pieces of legislation known collectively as the Alien Acts. The Naturalization Act lengthened residency requirements for citizenship from five to 14 years; the Alien Friends Act allowed the president to detain and deport any alien he deemed dangerous; and the Alien Enemies Act enabled the automatic deportation of aliens from countries with which the United States was at war.
Adams hoped the laws would stem the flood of European immigrants to the United States, who, according to the Federalists, brought with them radical, anarchic ideas. One Federalist congressman explained the purported danger: “Escaping from their own country, embittered against its government …. they harangue the mob, preach against the oppression of the laws, rail at all good men.” Federalists warned that immigrants would spark rebellion and the overthrow of law and order. They were a threat to the survival of the young nation.
Sincere or not, these claims shrouded a far more basic political motive: Immigrants almost always allied with the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican opposition, and the Federalists hoped to shield American politics from their electoral influence. The Democratic-Republicans howled that the legislation was a partisan power grab. By extending immigrant disenfranchisement and enabling the president to deport any alien who opposed him, Adams “can thereby considerably diminish the influence of such political principles he dislikes,” argued one newspaper, and so “do a great deal in this way towards securing his own election.”
Criticizing the acts as an unconstitutional expansion of executive power, Americans protested with resolutions and public demonstrations. The most famous dissent, the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions penned by James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, respectively, gave this opposition official backing. Echoing their popular counterparts, the resolutions denounced the laws as unconstitutional, and the Kentucky Resolutions pronounced them null and void.
But like Trump’s proposed wall, the Alien Acts’ potency was in the rhetoric rather than the policy. Adams kept only a handful of immigrants under surveillance, and he did not deport anyone during his tenure, probably for fear of igniting further backlash. But by labeling immigrants and their supporters as disloyal and dangerous, the Federalists painted all of their political opponents as internal enemies of the republic.
This move, however, backfired. Widespread distrust of Adams, over the laws and other legislation, swept him out of office in 1800, with the Democratic-Republicans securing 61.4 percent of the popular vote. The electorate rejected the Federalists’ assault on immigrant rights for partisan gain. While the Alien Enemies Act remained on the books, the Jeffersonians allowed the Alien Friends Act to expire in 1801, and the following year they repealed and replaced the Naturalization Act with legislation that reduced the residency requirement to five years.
The 1800 election rendered Adams the first one-term president in American history and mortally weakened the Federalist Party, which many now saw as dangerously power-hungry. Regardless of whether Trump gets his wall, the president’s attempts to expand executive power and shore up his base by targeting immigrants may well produce a similar result. Continuing to ignore public opinion and attacking immigrants might excite his base, but it also alienates and enrages large swaths of the electorate, narrowing the pool of voters who might support Trump in 2020.
Republicans would do well to remember the Federalists, who never again won a national election after Adams’s loss. More than two centuries later, the American people have another opportunity to deliver a strong rebuke to anti-immigrant rhetoric and policy.