The Solution to Vulgar Nativism Is Not Polite Nativism

Conservatives nominally disavow Trump’s ugly nationalistic appeals, but their own anti-immigrant sentiments are hardly different…


In The New York Times, two conservatives who dislike Donald Trump have called on the Republican Party to reform itself. Reihan Salam and Ross Douthat believe, as many other observers do, that Trump’s ascendance has occurred because the mainstream Republican Party has failed to listen to its constituents, and become out-of-touch with the anxieties of its base. Trumpism is the logical consequence of the failure of the party to listen to its voters, and Salam and Douthat would like sober-minded Republicans to take their party back.

The proposals offered by these two conservatives are telling. Both ostensible moderates, they are personally horrified by Trump, and believe him to be a “shameless demagogue.” Yet while they affect a fear of Trump’s ugly nativism, their own vision for Republican politics amounts to almost exactly the same thing. Douthat and Salam thus offer useful evidence for the theory that Trump is simply the most vulgar expression of inclinations broadly shared among the conservative base; in fact, their entire purpose is to suggest Republicans become polite versions of Trump.

Douthat and Salam oppose Trump’s form of racially-charged nationalist sentiment. But they propose to replace it with their own form of soft nationalism. They challenge the “article of faith that skepticism about mass immigration is driven largely by racism.” Instead, they say that there are perfectly good reasons why (white) people are fearful of immigration:

Such concerns are reasonable. While less-educated immigrants are no less admirable and hard-working than those who have managed to acquire the skills most prized in our polarized labor market, there is clear evidence that they and their children need more of a helping hand from social programs, and that their descendants are more likely to assimilate downward when that help does not suffice.

Douthat and Salam believe that fear of immigrants is justified, and suggest that the country should “explicitly weigh questions of community and solidarity when it sets tax rates or immigration levels.” What they mean by this cryptic remark is not immediately obvious (how does one set a tax rate via the principle of “solidarity”?), but it turns out to be a careful way of saying that America should cater to white fears by keep poor immigrants out of the country. As they explain, “an immigration policy in the national interest should explicitly try to attract immigrants who will be in a strong position to provide for their families in a difficult economic environment.”

Because of the vagueness, it can be difficult to figure just what Douthat and Salam are actually advocating, policy-wise. But their argument seems to basically be as follows: immigrants are a drain on the social welfare system. Thus we should only admit those who are economically beneficial to us, i.e. those who are not poor. (No more huddled masses. Give us your rich, your well-educated, your self-sufficient.)

This is barely distinguishable from Trump’s own politics. After all, Trump “loves Mexicans,” but argues that “they are not sending their best.” Salam and Douthat love immigrants, but simply believe “that the United States should strongly favor high-skilled immigrants over low-skilled immigrants.” It’s free of the Trumpian nastiness, but it’s the same policy: keep poor immigrants out of the country.

Bear in mind what this means. It means barring the people whose lives are the most desperate, the ones who would most benefit from entry into America. It means that instead of giving opportunities to people who need them, we give them to those who already have them. Those fleeing violence, those in search of new lives and educations, will be judged on the basis of their “skills.” Ted Cruz’s dad, who came to the United States as a penniless Cuban teenager who could barely speak English, would certainly be turned away.

Douthat and Salam are at pains to prove that there is a rational, non-racist reason for opposition to immigration. As they say, “immigration skepticism seems to be rooted as much in concerns about how quickly immigrants assimilate, whether they rely on welfare programs and whether they compete for American jobs as it is in racial or cultural anxiety.” Of course, “assimilation” anxiety is cultural anxiety. But even the studies they cite state that “a majority of our respondents do appear to evaluate even illegal immigrants based on ethnic and socio-economic characteristics.”

Douthat and Salam argue that it is perfectly legitimate to restrict immigration, because immigrants eat up welfare benefits. To prove this, they cite a highly-flawed study from the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank co-founded by a notorious eugenicist. The CIS has long advocated both increasing deportations and encouraging “self-deportation” by making conditions for unauthorized immigrants so miserable that they won’t want to stay in the United States.

As the conservative Cato Institute explained, the CIS study cited by Douthat and Salam (arguing that immigrants gobble up welfare benefits faster than those born here) is a methodological disaster. It counts native-born children of immigrants as immigrants themselves, even though they are natural-born citizens. It doesn’t count the two largest welfare programs in the country, Social Security and Medicare (which unauthorized immigrants pay into but don’t receive benefits from). And it compares households rather than individuals, giving a misleading impression of how much each immigrant is consuming in welfare benefits. When you compare individuals, it turns out that poor immigrants consume less in public benefits than their native-born counterparts.

But Douthat and Salam do not spend much time on the question of whether the evidence supports people’s fear of immigration. Instead, they simply defend the principle of nationalism, that we should value ourselves more than we value others. They openly believe in a tribalistic “exclusive politics.” As they explain: 

A more nationalist politics is, in one sense, a more exclusive politics, as it is based on the premise that there is such a thing as an American national community, and that this community’s interests at times must be placed ahead of humanity as a whole. But nationalism can also be inclusive, insofar as it emphasizes the interests that Americans of all classes and ethnic backgrounds share. Why should privileged Americans care more about the fate of children raised in low-income United States households than poorer children elsewhere in the world? Part of the reason is that all Americans live under the same government, and if its policies fail the most vulnerable among us, its very legitimacy is in question. Another part, however, is that as Americans we are — or ought to be — linked by bonds of affection and a sense of shared fate.

Here, Douthat and Salam simply replace Trump’s ugly racism with a more palatable nationalism. It’s acceptable to care less about poor children elsewhere in the world, so long as your reasons are nationalist rather than racist. But this is simply another kind of prejudice. National categories are just as arbitrary as racial ones. There’s no good moral argument for the idea that people defined by a particular geographic area ought to have a special “bond of affection” that makes them more indifferent to the sufferings of others. In fact, we probably ought to care more about poor children elsewhere, since they tend to be poorer than those in the United States.

Douthat and Salam formulate a politics that “stresses the national interest abroad and national solidarity at home.” But the “national interest” is a poor grounds for a moral politics. It was, after all, President Clinton’s belief that the national interests of the U.S. should guide all policy that led to his refusal to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. To let the “national interest” and “national solidarity” guide decision-making means being content to let others suffer if it serves ourselves. It means turning away the poor, sick, and “economically useless” from our borders, because we cannot make money off them. It sees the arbitrary accident of a person’s birthplace as essential to determining how much moral worth we should assign them.

That’s just nativism, and it’s no different from Trumpism. Douthat and Salam have adopted the “immigrants are parasites” line and gussied it up in polite prose. They have taken Trump’s unfashionable, ugly racism and replaced it with a genteel, acceptable nationalism. But anti-immigrant sentiment, and the cruel policies it creates, are the same regardless of the tone in which they are presented. Perhaps the only people we should fear more than Trump himself are conservatives who propose Trump’s same hideous policies without the honesty that comes with his hideous rhetoric.

Author: Nathan J. Robinson

is the editor of Current Affairs.