As a historian who specializes in the study of anti-immigrant sentiment, I know that Trump is not the first president to denigrate newcomers to the country. But Trump has attacked and scapegoated immigrants in ways that previous presidents never have — and in the process, he has spread more fear, resentment and hatred of immigrants than any American in history.
Trump’s nativism is especially striking for its comprehensiveness. Over the centuries, nativists have leveled 10 main charges against immigrants: They bring crime; they import poverty; they spread disease; they don’t assimilate; they corrupt our politics; they steal our jobs; they cause our taxes to increase; they’re a security risk; their religion is incompatible with American values; they can never be “true Americans.”
Trump has made every one of these charges. No American president before him has publicly embraced the entire nativist worldview. A commander in chief who is also the nativist in chief has the potential to alter immigrants’ role in American society now and for generations to come.
There have, of course, been upsurges of nativism in previous eras, but presidents have rarely been the ones stoking the flames. President John Adams signed the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which among other things nearly tripled the time immigrants had to wait before they could become citizens and vote, but his voluminous writings contain nary a word critical of immigrants.
Millard Fillmore, president at the height of the massive influx of Irish immigrants fleeing the Great Famine, remained silent during his administration on the social tensions these newcomers caused. Even in 1856, when the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant American Party (popularly called the Know Nothing Party) nominated Fillmore to return to the White House, he and his surrogates eschewed attacks on immigrants and rebranded the party as a moderating force between proslavery Democrats and anti-slavery Republicans.
Congress has typically been the source of the greatest nativist zeal in national politics — and presidents have generally tried to tamp down that zeal. Rutherford B. Hayes and Chester Arthur vetoed legislation barring the immigration of Chinese laborers in the 1870s and 1880s, though Arthur later agreed to sign a 10-year ban. In subsequent decades, Grover Cleveland, William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson vetoed bills making the ability to read a prerequisite for adult men to immigrate. Congress eventually overrode Wilson’s veto to enact such a law in 1917.
By the 1920s, most Americans were convinced that further limits on immigration were necessary. “America must be kept American,” President Calvin Coolidge declared in December 1923, following the political winds, and by “American,” he meant white in race, Anglo-Saxon in ethnicity and Protestant in religion. Coolidge endorsed the severe limits Congress placed on the immigration of Slavs, Poles, Italians, Greeks and Eastern European Jews and accepted a ban on immigration from Asia and Africa, as well.
Those racist restrictions were rescinded in 1965. When Lyndon Johnson sat at the feet of the Statue of Liberty and signed legislation that ended the discriminatory quotas, he predicted that the federal government would “never again shadow the gate to the American nation with the twin barriers of prejudice and privilege.” But Johnson could not have imagined a president like Trump.
The only Americans who came even remotely close to rivaling Trump’s nativist influence were more narrowly focused than the president is. Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford were widely admired anti-Semites whose views reached millions, but their animus was focused on powerful Jews at home and abroad, not Jewish immigrants in general. Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest, had millions of loyal radio listeners in the 1930s, but he, too, was more an anti-Semite than a broad nativist. None of them commanded the devotion of nearly as large a share of the population as Trump does.
John Tanton, who died this year, was a driving force behind the modern anti-immigration movement, organizing and raising money for a variety of groups that have advocated a reduction in immigration. But those groups didn’t have influence until Trump began spreading their ideas and appointing their leaders and allies to positions in his administration.
Trump’s anti-immigrant efforts have featured several classic nativist tropes. He falsely associates immigrants with crime, as when he said during his campaign that Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” In truth, immigrants commit significantly less crime than the native-born do. He scapegoats entire immigrant religious groups for the actions of one or two criminals, calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” after Syed Rizwan Farook (who was not even an immigrant) and his wife (who was foreign-born) killed 14 people in San Bernardino, Calif. He perpetuates the notion that immigrants pose a public health threat, as when he wondered in 2018 why we let “all these people from shithole countries come here.” One of his objections, reportedly, was that Haitians “all have AIDS,” though the White House denies he said that. He’s making it harder for low-income immigrants to come here in ways that would almost certainly reduce immigration from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean, justifying his proposal on the grounds that he needs to “protect benefits for American citizens.” And he argues that even the U.S.-born children of recent immigrants — if they are part of ethnic, religious or racial minorities — are not real Americans, as he suggested when he tweeted that four congresswomen of color should “go back” to “the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
What makes Trump more influential than any previous American nativist is the size of his audience and the devotion of his supporters. Trump has more than 66 million Twitter followers and a powerful echo chamber in conservative media, allowing him to instantaneously convey his ideas to a quarter of the adult population. Other presidents had passionate followers (Andrew Jackson, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan come to mind), but none of them expressed much, if any, animus toward immigrants. Trump’s rhetoric has changed the way many Americans view immigrants: Nearly a quarter now call immigration a “problem,” more than double the percentage who characterized it that way in 2015, and the highest share since Gallup began asking that question a quarter-century ago.
Trump has made public expressions of nativism socially acceptable for the first time in generations. As he lambasted Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a Somali immigrant, at a July rally in Greenville, N.C., the crowd erupted with chants of “Send her back,” echoing Trump’s notorious tweet. “There was a filter,” a Latino resident of Greenville noted after the rally, that previously prevented Americans from expressing such hatred of immigrants, but “now the filter has been broken. My Hispanic friends are afraid to go to the store. They’re afraid to do anything. It’s scary.”
Trump’s spread of nativism has led to an upsurge in animosity directed at immigrants. Those who read or hear the president’s nativist views are more likely to write offensive things on social media about the groups he targets, one political science study found. One study using data compiled by the Anti-Defamation League found that counties that hosted Trump rallies in 2016 saw a 226 percent increase in hate crimes in the following months, primarily assaults or acts of vandalism, compared to counties that didn’t host rallies. ABC News identified at least 29 cases in which violence or threats of violence were carried out, and the perpetrators targeted immigrants or those perceived to be immigrants more than any other group.
The president’s rhetoric inspires not merely petty violence but occasionally full-fledged acts of terrorism as well. Throughout the fall of 2018, Trump relentlessly sowed fears that an “invasion” of Central American refugees was imminent via an immigrant “caravan” heading through Mexico toward the United States. Before a gunman killed 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018, he apparently justified his actions on the grounds that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which these days assists refugees from all over the world, “likes to bring in invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”
Five months later, the man accused of killing more than 50 Muslims at two mosques in New Zealand hailed Trump as a symbol “of renewed white identity” in an online manifesto. In August, a man traveled to El Paso with the goal of killing as many Latinos as possible, authorities said, slaying 22 people at a Walmart. A manifesto linked to him echoed many of the president’s favorite talking points: It condemned “the Hispanic invasion of Texas,” charged that immigrants are taking jobs from natives and lauded Republicans for reducing “mass immigration and citizenship.” These accused shooters all seemingly found Trump’s nativist rhetoric inspirational.
While this upsurge in nativist violence is terrifying, history suggests that, over the long term, those who embrace immigrants will win out over those who fear them. The percentage of Americans who want to cut immigration has risen since Trump took office, but that figure is still down by almost half since the mid-1990s. Ironically, Trump’s nativist pronouncements and actions may have galvanized Americans who oppose him to look even more favorably at immigrants than they did before. Seventy-six percent of Americans now say that immigration is good for the country — an all-time high in Gallup’s poll — while the percentage who call it harmful, 19 percent, is at an all-time low.
Anti-immigrant attitudes have always been part of American culture. They have spiked periodically — in the 1850s, in the 1920s — but those nativist upswings have proved ephemeral. The one we are witnessing today can be traced primarily to the uniquely powerful influence of Trump, the most successful purveyor of anti-immigrant sentiment in American history. But the admiration that the vast majority of Americans hold for immigrants cannot be extinguished by any man or woman, no matter how influential.
After all, most Americans understand that immigrants make America great.