Nativism: the comparatively recent heart of white populist backlash

Thinking about a history which I understand poorly, though it is a history of the period of my life: anti-immigrant politics as a key element of the politics of white backlash in the US. I've seen a couple of people posting this video of Reagan and Bush from 1980, and it set off a chain of fascination. There seems to be a reading of this that it just shows how far to the right we have moved since 1980, and of course that's part of it. But for Nixon and Reagan and in a slightly different sense maybe even Bush I and Clinton, the racially coded Silent Majority / Southern Strategy stuff seems to have been most consistently focused on anti-Blackness rather than immigration. Of course there were virulent strains of anti-immigrant politics in the US well before the 1960s, but listening to this, I get the sense that the Chamber of Commerce position on immigration still held sway in the Republican Party at this time, though I bet people with a better knowledge of recent history will be able to cite some counter-examples. In fact, it seems like populist nativism may have been a bigger issue in the Democratic Party and the AFL-CIO from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. (Remembering, for example, the debate over the murder of Vincent Chin by a Chrysler supervisor and a laid-off autoworker in 1982, a time when white working-class nativism could be placed in and around unions and the debate over protectionism, and conservatives and Republicans could be expected to back both fewer trade regulations and the freedom of employers to hire immigrants.)

Nevertheless, sometime around the Proposition 187 campaign or slightly before, anti-immigrant politics became a staple of populist white backlash which they hadn't necessarily been in the preceding couple of decades. And every uptick of populist white backlash since then seems to have had an anti-immigrant dimension, whereas immigration was in the background for Reagan's appeal to the "Reagan Democrats" and Nixon's Silent Majority / anti-counterculture "hardhats." And, around this same time, coincidentally or for an articulated set of reasons I'm not sure, populist white backlash became primarily associated with something that was happening in and around the Republican Party as opposed to something that was happening both in/around the Democrats and in/around the Republicans in different ways.

This history relates to a common misreading of Trump among leftists and liberals: that, because he is embracing populist nativism / white backlash to such an extreme degree, he must be an ultraconservative. In the last 20 years, to be sure, those politics have been linked with the far right wing of the Republican Party. In fact, what Trump is doing is more like a remix of the last 45 years of white backlash politics that combines some of the "flavor" of Nixon's Silent Majority (he's even been reviving the term), a downbeat version of Reagan's nationalism, Howard Beale's ideologically muddled anger, the contemporary salience of nativism as a backlash issue, post-Occupy distrust of monied elites (even though he is one par excellance), and even a bit of toothless rhetorical protectionism that might as well be an homage to George Meaney. Homage and pastiche: Trump might be as good as J. J. Abrams at assembling something that gives us that new, exciting or scary feeling out of elements which we've mostly seen before.

Whatever else he may be or perform, he's not an ultraconservative, at least in terms of what "ultraconservative" has meant since the Goldwater / Reagan era. No, that term properly belongs to another candidate in the Republican primaries, the one parts of the Washington establishment are trying to stop (more due to personal dislike and lack of decorum / respect for party elders than for his ultraconservatism, if pundits are to be believed). In terms of his economic and foreign policy agendas, Trump is somewhere between moderate and inchoate compared to the rest of the contemporary Republican Party. He's just really willing to go there with overt racism, and close to a semi-fascist, certainly authoritarian wing of modern populism (helped along by personality traits that resemble, from afar, some form of narcissism).

Anyway, if somebody knows a good Slate article on the rise and persistence of anti-immigrant politics in the post-Proposition 187 era that will help me stew in the juices of political melancholia, please send it along. Meanwhile I'm going to watch this classic I had never heard of until recently, stewing on the politics of white male resentment even before the Archie Bunker era.

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