Rally after rally, speech after speech, Donald Trump frames immigration as a “crisis” and even a “national emergency” requiring the militarization of the southern border and the caging of children ripped away from their parents. He constantly refers to “illegal immigrants” and the approaching caravan from Central America as “invaders.”
Families too poor to fly into the country are walking thousands of miles, according to the president, to breach the nation’s sovereign borders.
“They are trying to take over our country,” says the president.
Observers have often pointed out how Trump stokes the fires of populism and nativism to his political advantage. “Build the wall,” is still a popular chant at his incessant rallies. Some commentators do emphasize the irony of a billionaire populist but few note the bitter and pathetic irony at the heart of American nativism.
Most Americans are not native in the full sense of the word native.
Native can mean being born in a land — the US constitution’s 14th amendment ensures birthright citizenship — but it also means being indigenous to the land, being one of the land’s original inhabitants. Nativism is a growing trend in Western countries but how is the US brand of nativism even possible when you consider how oxymoronic and inherently contradictory it actually is?
Can you be a nativist when you are not a native?
The answer to that question is yes but only because of a convenient if powerful historical amnesia. About 2% of the US population is Native American and the rest are descended from slaves and immigrants, some whose forebears came more recently than others. It is these descendants of peoples from other continents who now lay nativist claim to the US but American nativism is only made possible by the complete and utter erasure of Native American indigenousness from the national consciousness and indeed the national conscience.
Despite the 14th amendment of 1868, Native Americans were only granted American citizenship in 1924. American nativism in all its irony can trace its origins to the aptly-named Know Nothing Party of the mid-1850s. It was formed to protect the interests of Protestant Americans who were cast as the true natives somehow at risk because of the “invasion” of European Catholics. Native became further associated with white Anglo-Saxon Protestantism.
Fast forward 150 years over the racist Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the horrors of the Japanese internment camps and the ceaseless encroachment onto Native American lands and we come to Pat Buchanan, widely considered the most direct forebear of Trump-Bannon nativism.
In 2006, Buchanan published State of Emergency: the Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, which made the case that white Americans were being “drowned” by “the wave” of Latino immigrants. Appearing on The Daily Show, Buchanan told Jon Stewart, apparently without irony, “Look what happened to the Indians, they had a liberal immigration policy.”
Trump’s signature issue is immigration — building a wall, criminalizing immigrants and stoking fear about immigrant take-overs. He built his political brand on racially-tinged birtherism, the idea that Barack Obama was not a native-born American.
His nativism has also intersected with a virulent strain of white supremacy that traffics in racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Before allegedly shooting down eleven people in the Pittsburgh synagogue, Robert Bowers, posted on social media that he preferred the term “invaders” instead of “illegal immigrants” and referred to a Jewish “infestation” as an obstacle to #MAGA (Mak[ing] America Great Again).
Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man who allegedly sent pipe bombs to Trump’s long list of enemies, often used to declare, “Take back the world.”
But what did he mean by this? Whose world has actually been taken? Native American reservations constitute barely 1% of US land.
White supremacist nationalism depends like nativism on a central historical amnesia that erases Native Americans from the land. But it is not only Trump and the GOP who practice this historical amnesia. Across the political spectrum and in society in general, this stunning lack of historical awareness is dominant.
“This land was made for you and me,” said Oprah whilst campaigning for Georgia’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams.
Declaring a naturalized ownership of the land elides the fact that the US is a white settler colony which shares a similar history with the other white settler colonies of Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. As badly as these countries have treated their indigenous populations, at least they do recognize them more frequently and more fulsomely than the US which has succeeded in branding itself as nothing more than a land of immigrants, as if there is no substantive indigenous history before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
New York’s Ellis Island is well-known across the country as the port of entry for millions of 19th-century immigrants who arrived by boat whereas the Native American and African slave burial ground on Wall Street has barely punctured the nation’s imaginary which constantly and conveniently forgets that New York also had slaves.
If we were more historically cognizant of this terrible erasure of Native Americans past and present, we might ask how many indigenous Americans form part of this approaching caravan from Central America? Wouldn’t it be ironic if they were turned away at the border as “invaders” by a nativist administration bent on fear-mongering and the vilification of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants? Wouldn’t it be ironic if any of them donned that old T-shirt with a sepia-tinted picture of three Native Americans holding shotguns emblazoned on the front. Above the picture reads, “HOMELAND SECURITY,” and below it reads, “Fighting Terrorism since 1492.”
Until the descendants of immigrants and slaves who form the majority population of the United States choose to reckon with the actual history of who invaded whom, this historically-vacuous strain of nativism will continue unabated. And will continue to fuel white supremacy, populism, xenophobia and blatant racism.