“I want terrorists out. I want people that have bad thoughts out. I would limit specific terrorist countries and we know who those countries are.”
—Donald Trump, June 25, 2016
“We are going to get the bad ones out, the criminals and the drug dealers and gangs and gang members and cartel leaders. The day is over when they can stay in our country and wreak havoc. We are going to get them out and we’re going to get them out fast.”
—Donald Trump, January 25, 2017
If you’re a fast-enough reader to get all the way down to the 10th point of Donald Trump’s 10-point immigration plan before a radicalized Muslim or a Mexican drug cartel sets upon you, you’ll discover that our president is simply trying “to serve the best interests of America” by “keeping immigration levels within historic norms.”
The next question might be, which norms? Because the levels have fluctuated by orders of magnitude for 200 years, depending on how many wanted to come and how many we let in. It’s safe to say that whoever wrote Trump’s plan thinks “normal” commenced on May 24, 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the National Origins Act and the Oriental Exclusion Act .
Coolidge, known as “Silent Cal” for his mum approach to life (even when he wasn’t taking his daily nap), used to be an object of mirth and derision. When the hilarious Dorothy Parker was told that he’d died in 1933, she asked, “How could they tell?” Gradually, though, he’s earned a small but devoted following because he advocated supply side economics before it was a thing. Some of the adoration that gets slathered all over Ronald Reagan has dribbled onto Coolidge. It’s weird that anyone would yearn for the economic policies of the president whose great bequest was the Great Depression, but people love what they love, especially when what they love is tax cuts.
Now that the cult of Coolidge exists, though, it’s on a quest for other improbable reasons to praise him. Since refugees and many Muslims are no longer welcome and the United States is about to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, Coolidge’s fan club has started promoting his embarrassing record on immigration as his next legacy. Writing in Forbes just last month, one of Coolidge’s recent biographers says his story proves that “it’s possible for an American government to restrict immigration and foster national comity at the same time.”
Coolidge’s immigration innovation—to be fair, he merely did the bidding of more engaged nativists in Congress, so it’s not so much his innovation as one he readily complied with—was to try to flash freeze the ethnic composition of the country. He not only limited the total number of immigrants to the United States but also picked and chose among them. The authors of the legislation he signed started by deciding which immigrants they liked (British, Germans, Scandinavians) and which they didn’t (Chinese, Greeks, Italians, Japanese, Jews, Slavs)—and then they reverse engineered a policy to make their dreams come true.
The character of immigration has changed and the newcomers are imbued with lawless, restless sentiments of anarchy and collectivism. Congressman Albert Johnson
The Chinese and Japanese, who helped out by not being white, were easy. The Oriental Exclusion Act said they couldn’t come, period. Or any other Asians, for that matter, just in case the Ceylonese started getting ideas.
Barring the door to nominally white Eastern and Southern European immigrants called for more creativity. So Congress got creative—and ridiculous. To start, it instituted an annual immigration quota: 2 percent of the total number of immigrants already in the United States from any given country could enter every year. This would have been strict but fair, except for one detail: they didn’t use the recently released 1920 census to generate the quotas. Instead, they used the 1890 census, which just so happened to be before Italians, Jews, and other undesirables started coming. Imagine a quota based on how many black people own Merle Haggard’s Greatest Hits. Or how many had Internet subscriptions in 1987.
Even the designers of this system were ashamed by their shamelessness (or at least they worried that others might be), so they promised to find a less arbitrary-seeming way to restrict immigration eventually. They hired a panel of experts to determine precisely where all 115 million Americans traced their ancestry and create a system of quotas based on these “national origins.” When all was said and done, after six years sweeping through the nation’s archives with slide rules, the committee’s findings surprised no one. The United States, it said, was made up of Anglo Saxons, Nordics, and Teutons. To take just one example of what the quotas accomplished, only 4,000 Italians would be allowed in the United States per year, even though more than 3 million had come since the turn of the century.
(The only people who could come and go as they pleased, without quotas, were immigrants from the Americas, because big farms and ranches in the West needed cheap Mexican labor. Back then it was no Asians and as many Mexicans as possible. Now it’s roughly the opposite.)
The National Origins Act was a big departure from American tradition. Throughout the country’s first century, there had been no restrictions on immigration whatsoever. Aliens, as they were known, could enter freely and cease to be alien. It was a point of patriotic pride that a country based on an idea instead of bloodlines, conquering ambitions, or fealty to a monarch could easily uplift and then assimilate newcomers. Our free air, it seemed, automatically changed any person who breathed it into an American. This is the conviction conveyed by the Emma Lazarus poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty. Other countries “teem[ed]” with “huddled masses” and “wretched refuse.” America offered a “golden door.”
But by the time Lazarus wrote those lines in 1883, Americans were already starting to lose faith in the American melting pot. First, instead of becoming American, immigrants seemed to be bringing European-style political radicalism into the country. It was the Gilded Age; capitalists like Carnegie and Rockefeller had more money than anyone ever; and the immigrants getting starvation wages to earn it for them were starting to unionize, strike, and blow things up. Second, a new pseudoscience called eugenics (meaning “good birth” in Greek), based on a misunderstanding of genetics and bastardized Darwinism, claimed that immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe were racially inferior and incapable of assimilating. The leading eugenicist of the day wrote things like this: “[The] cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew,” because the “more ancient, generalized, and lower type” is always dominant.
In 1921, Good Housekeeping ran an article by then-Vice President Coolidge—“Whose Country Is This?”—steeped in this sea of racism and reaction. “There can’t be too many inhabitants of the right kind,” he wrote, but “the vicious, the weak of body, the shiftless, or the improvident,” the “suicidal…inflowing of cheap manhood,” constitutes “a danger in our midst.” Some immigrants, politically twisted agitators, came “with a set desire to teach destruction of government.” Others may not have been intent on treachery, but there were still “racial considerations too grave to be brushed aside,” such as the fact that while “Nordics propagate themselves successfully,” race mixing “shows deterioration on both sides.”
When President Coolidge gave his first state of the union address in 1923, he included a promise to sign the legislation he knew was coming. “America must be kept American,” he said. In 1925, the year after the national origins system was instituted, the commissioner of immigration at Ellis Island said that already the people who came through looked like Americans again.
But when Lyndon Johnson replaced the national origins system in 1965, he said it “violate[d] the basic principle of American democracy.” The word and concept “America,” then, is a rorschach. Coolidge saw the threat of carnage. Johnson saw the promise of meritocracy.
Now Donald Trump is on the couch. He thinks Muslims want to murder the country, so they can’t come. Mexicans are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” They can’t come. But which people are undesirable for which reasons are ephemeral details. The lasting grievance expressed by Coolidge and Trump is that we are us and they are them, so we get to discriminate. “It’s our right as a sovereign nation,” Trump said, “to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us.”
It would be better for everybody if the lesson Trump learned from Coolidge was not about immigration but about how to shut his mouth. “Silent Don” sounds good right about now.
Amity Shlaes, the right-wing journalist, wrote an award-winning and very readable if long biography, Coolidge, just three years ago. She has a clear point of view, and her narrative is filtered through it, but as long as you know that, it’s an interesting window into Coolidge himself and a segment of the modern conservative movement. For a shorter treatment, as always, try David Greenberg’s entry in the American Presidents’ series. John Higham’s Strangers in the Land, first published in 1955, is still the go-to resource on American nativism. I also consulted Debating American Immigration, an unusual book that includes two essays pitting two leaders in the field, Roger Daniels and Otis L. Graham, against each other. Daniels is pro-immigration; Graham is pro-restriction (solve for some value of restriction). Obviously, I’m with Daniels all the way, but I have to say that I found Graham’s essay especially contorted and defensive. It’s a look into the mind of somebody I just don’t understand.