A month ago the Trump administration announced it would start separating families detained at the U.S.–Mexico border in its effort to deter unauthorized border-crossings. The policy, which has torn young migrant children from the arms of their distraught parents, has supercharged the immigration debate around the country.
But while Donald Trump is credited with inaugurating this fiery brand of nationalism and “zero tolerance” enforcement approach, it is myopic to consider these inhumane policies in isolation from the conservative coalition that cheers or enables them.
Indeed, we can’t fully appreciate the current anti-immigration moment without understanding the persistent political efforts that created the ideological framework for such measures—efforts that also primed the American people to tolerate the increasingly cruel treatment of dislocated populations.
The truth is that a number of key figures staked out a form of conservative populism based on ruthless demographic control long before Trump came along to rebrand it. He didn’t invent the distinctive, anti-humanitarian rhetoric of “anchor babies,” “criminal aliens,” and “animals” all on his own. He just happens to be its most flamboyant and successful practitioner.
The Republican Party’s lurch toward ever-harsher immigration politics is a product of decades-long investments by “political entrepreneurs” who tied new understandings of this issue to evolving meanings of conservatism. A host of key figures—among them, Pat Buchanan, Jeff Sessions, Steve King, and Kris Kobach—consistently made control of the non-white population, especially the foreigners in our midst, the centerpiece of right-wing movement politics.
Well before the 2016 presidential election cycle, these men saw immigration politics as the key to mobilizing a predominantly white electorate around questions of race, status and safety, concerns of cultural degeneration, and even conspiratorial worry about foreign efforts to destroy the economy.
That ideology fused a traditionalist critique of industrial capitalism with a bleak outlook on high-tech internationalism and social progress. And by emphasizing “unchecked immigration” as the number one threat to the U.S. way of life, they would help accomplish other conservative goals such as restoring aggressive Reagan-era law enforcement policies, blunting the influence of progressive social movements, and facilitating the rise of a permanent Republican governing coalition.
In fact, these men not only changed the terms of the debate from forgiveness of unauthorized migrants to mass exclusion and punishment, they also developed a potent political language capable of mobilizing loosely connected fringe groups and mainstream conservatives worried about economic stagnation and changes in cultural mores. All these concerns were rhetorically yoked together so that migrants could be blamed for all manner of ills: violent crime, drug abuse, unemployment, ecological damage, social fragmentation, and even the decline of “white civilization.”