All week, President Trump has been suggesting that black, Latina and Muslim congresswomen critical of his policies should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested” countries “from which they came,” even though all but one of the lawmakers he has been attacking were born in the United States.
That made Trump just the latest in a long line of American politicians who have demonized ethnic and religious minorities for political gain. The congresswomen may be citizens, Trump’s argument goes, but they are not real Americans, and therefore they have no right to be “viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.”
The racist and nativist themes Trump and some of his supporters have taken up since he tweeted about the four women on Sunday have a long history in American political discourse. The idea that immigrants and their offspring should either accept America as it is or “go home” echoes attacks made against other groups a century ago. Immigrants, especially those not seen as white, have long been subjected to claims that they’re not entitled to the same rights and freedoms as other Americans.
The first large-scale American anti-immigrant movement, popularly referred to as the Know Nothing Party, did not advocate that immigrants “go home.” The vast United States only had about 23 million inhabitants in 1854, the Know Nothings’ heyday. Even nativists could not imagine the United States succeeding without immigrants doing the backbreaking kinds of work — digging cellars, unloading ships, scrubbing floors, washing clothes — that native-born Americans disdained.
The political issue that most often caused clashes between immigrants and nativists then concerned public schools. Most public school systems, relatively new institutions, were run by committees of ministers who made Protestant Christianity an integral part of the curriculums. When Catholic immigrants began arriving in large numbers in the late 1840s during the Irish Potato Famine, they asked school leaders where they settled to remove Protestantism from the classroom or to publicly finance Catholic schools so their children would have an alternative to overtly Protestant public systems.
Some people saw these Catholic requests as reasonable. But most were furious that newcomers had the nerve to tell native-born Americans how to run their schools. The Know Nothing response was not to direct immigrants to “go home,” however, but to “stay in their lane.” Keep digging our ditches and mucking out our stables but, even after you become citizens, don’t “dictate” how the country should be run.
Exactly how Catholics, who at this point made up no more than 10 percent of the population, could dictate anything to native-born Americans was never explained. Just having the temerity to question the status quo was seen as objectionable; to nativists, being Catholic rendered these immigrants incapable of being “true Americans.”
The language used by Trump supporters to excoriate Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Muslim born in Somalia, closely parallels that employed by the Know Nothings to attack the legitimacy of Irish Catholic politicians in the Civil War era.
To suppress political activism by “ungrateful” immigrants, Know Nothings tried to effectively strip the newcomers of their political rights altogether, proposing legislation that would have changed the waiting period until immigrants could became citizens and vote from five years to 21. But the Know Nothing movement was fleeting. In the North, where most immigrants and Know Nothings lived, voters came to see the growing political power of slaveholders as a more dire threat than the political threat posed by immigrants. So the naturalization laws remained unchanged.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Americans began to fear Catholic immigrants less and “godless” socialist immigrants more. Native-born Americans associated German immigrants (a group that, by then, included Donald Trump’s immigrant grandfather, Friedrich Trumpf, who arrived in America in 1885) with socialism and especially the radical brand of socialism known as “anarchism,” which espoused the use of violence to bring the movement’s goal to fruition.
A year after Trumpf’s arrival, a group of German-born anarchists in Chicago, angry about the violent suppression of a strike at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Co., threw a homemade bomb into a squad of police breaking up a rally outside the factory. Seven policemen were killed, sparking nationwide outrage against immigrants in general and immigrant radicals in particular.
Most immigrants were not socialists. They came to America with dreams of getting rich, not fomenting revolution. And most immigrant socialists were not anarchists. They were democratic socialists who sought to achieve their goals at the ballot box. Some of their objectives were radical, such as government ownership of important industries. But most of their agenda — a ban on child labor in factories, guaranteed compensation for workers who are injured on the job, government financial assistance to those who lose their employment, limits on the rents landlords could charge, cut-rate “public housing” for the poor, and small government payments to the elderly “to take the edge off the fearful poverty and hopelessness of old age of members of the working class” — are today considered mainstream. Several socialists, including Russian Jewish immigrant Meyer London of New York, were elected to Congress in the 1910s and 1920s, where they endured vitriol from the right similar to that now directed at Omar and other members of “the Squad.”
The themes of that vitriol precisely mirror Trump’s line this week. By seeking to change the laws of the United States, nativists argued, immigrants (or even the children of immigrants) demonstrated a lack of gratitude to the country that took them in. If these immigrants, their American-born children and their elected representatives didn’t like the United States the way it was, they could keep quiet or go back to where they “came from” — even if they were not only citizens, but also duly elected representatives of their communities.
The most famous example of these sentiments being carried to their logical extreme was the case of Emma Goldman, another Russian Jewish immigrant. Drawn to radical politics by German immigrant anarchist Johann Most, Goldman became one of the American socialist movement’s most famous orators, sometimes advocating violence to punish rich industrialists who exploited their workers. She and Alexander Berkman plotted the assassination of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick after Frick brutally suppressed a strike at his factory in Homestead, Pa., in 1892. Berkman’s shot only grazed Frick, however, and while Berkman went to prison, Goldman escaped punishment. But she was jailed several times for disseminating information to women about birth control.
When Goldman became an outspoken critic of the draft during World War I, she was again arrested, this time for suppressing enlistment, and imprisoned for two years. Upon her release in 1919, “Red Emma” was deported back to Russia (by then, the Soviet Union) at the behest of a young J. Edgar Hoover. Goldman insisted that her deportation was unconstitutional because she was an American citizen. But a judge ruled that, because the citizenship of Goldman’s husband had been revoked in 1908, she was also no longer a citizen and thus could be deported for her anarchist beliefs.
Goldman was not the only immigrant deported for a political activism that native-born Americans decided showed ingratitude. Marcus Garvey was an immigrant from Jamaica who argued in the 1910s and ’20s that black Americans were so mistreated in the United States that they ought to go back to Africa of their own accord.
Whites did not like anyone fomenting discontent among African Americans, especially not an immigrant of color. Hoover tried to have Garvey deported around the same time as Goldman but was told by his superiors that he lacked sufficient grounds. Hoover then initiated an investigation of Garvey’s movement and eventually charged him with mail fraud. Meanwhile, the federal government declined to process Garvey’s application for citizenship, apparently due to his political beliefs. After he was convicted on the mail fraud charges and had served his sentence in federal prison, Garvey was deported in 1927 to Jamaica.
Since then, the “love it or leave it” idea has become a staple of right-wing demagoguery. The concept became especially prominent during the Red Scare in the early days of the Cold War and again during the presidency of Richard Nixon (when this cry was also used against white, native-born Vietnam War protesters). Now Trump is reviving it. His supporters, at a rally in North Carolina on Wednesday night, even started chanting, “Send her back!” when the president mentioned Omar, though Trump disavowed the chant on Thursday. It is ironic, and sad, that the president who has done so much to demonize immigrants was born in New York City, the world’s quintessential city of immigrants.