History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Do You Favor Independence for Scotland?


Over the last month, a number of people (mostly students) have asked One Thing after Another, “What do you think about the referendum on independence for Scotland?” One Thing after Another has always hesitated to respond because such a question involves predicting the future (i.e. determining whether or not Scotland will be better off alone). The study of history sharpens our judgment and allows us to meet the challenges of today’s world in an informed manner. It does not, however, allow anybody to make prognostications with any kind of accuracy.

While ruminating upon this question, One Thing after Another noticed the following article in The Atlantic which uses the referendum in Scotland as a launch pad to discuss the future course of world politics:

One Thing after Another had something of an “a-ha” moment (an epiphany, not a flashback to the band), and thought this article called for a historically informed response that addressed some major issues associated with Scottish independence.

In tackling the particular case of Scotland, Parag Khanna, the author, makes much sense. He is correct that from a political perspective, those who favored greater autonomy for Scotland would win, no matter what the outcome of the referendum. If the measure passed, Scotland obtained independence. If the poll failed, the Scots would nevertheless obtain many devolved powers.  It is when he wanders from the example of Scotland that Khanna encounters some semantic difficulties and makes a number of questionable assumptions.

There are two semantic problems with Khanna’s argument about devolution. First, Khanna leads his essay by claiming, “The 21st century’s strongest political force is not democracy but devolution.” However, demands for devolution of the sort that Khanna refers to are expressions of nationalism. And nationalism, especially in its voluntarist version, has long been tied to democracy. As John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote in Chapter XVI (entitled “Of Nationality, as Connected with Representative Government)” of Considerations on Representative Government (1861), “Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed. One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do if not to determine which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves.” If, as Mill argues, the “question of government ought to be decided on by the governed,” the case is a democratic one. In other words, pace Khanna, then, devolution (and the desire for self-determination that lies behind it) is not distinct from democracy—rather, it is an expression of democracy. In this context, One Thing after Another can think of no better authority than Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the French historian who wrote, among other things, the famous essay, “What is a Nation?” (1882). Renan argued that the most important element of nationality was a willingness on the part of the nation’s members to live together as part of a national community. As he put it famously: “The existence of a nation . . . is a daily referendum, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.” What an appropriate analogy in the case of Scotland—the Scots voted in a referendum and decided, just barely, to continue living as part of a national community of Britons.

Second, Khanna uses the word “devolution” to describe both independence and increased autonomy. Independence for Scotland is placed in this category as are the 75 new states that resulted from decolonization in the post-World War II era and the 15 states that emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But in the course of his argument, so are Texas, California, Western Australia, British Columbia, Quebec, Catalonia, and Basque country. Unfortunately for this type of taxonomy, there is a world of difference between an independent state and one that constitutes part of a federal union (or possesses the status of a semi-autonomous region). Independent states are sovereign, while members of a federal union are not.

Two of Khanna’s assumptions are also questionable, and both of them seem to stem from the kind of breathless, contemporary forecasting that assumes globalization, connectivity, and information technology have changed everything beyond recognition.  First, even though we have only reached 2014, he declares that devolution is the “political force of the 21st century.” As any historian can tell you, Fortune’s wheel can turn rather suddenly. Think about what the world looked like 86 years ago (1928). The world was dominated by European empires, and although an intelligent observer might have spotted the approach of world-wide devolution (George Orwell was one such figure), such a vision would have required much prescience. Who is to say that the globe of 2100 will resemble our devolving world? Making statements about the 21st century eight-and-a-half decades in anticipation of its completion leaves many hostages to fortune.

This point is related to a second one.  Khanna does not provide us with a good idea of what the future holds because he completely disregards the fact that small states live in a world dominated by big ones. The United States, China, and Russia all have important spheres of influence that they seek to shape through military and economic means. While they have not necessarily always been successful, they are more movers than moved. Certainly, they have intervened decisively with smaller states—ask the Iraqis, Tibetans, and Georgians, to name just three examples. At the same time, the massive economic influence of large powers has yielded important political results. To take the most crude example, the Russians have used their control of energy to manipulate Europe. Large states and empires may be unwieldy, as Khanna claims, but collections of small states acting together in pursuit of common interests are just as unwieldy. The European Union is not exactly a nimble beast. Moreover, at the end of the day, such supranational organizations rely on large or medium-sized powers as backstops. Germany has come to dominate the European Union, and a Scotland escaping English control might, like the Greeks, eventually find itself at the mercy of Teutonic bankers. Likewise, Eastern European states with large Russian minorities (e.g. Latvia) are turning to NATO for support because they see what has happened to the Ukraine—but what credible deterrent does NATO present if not the fact of American power? It is for this very reason that František Palacký (1798-1876), the historian and leader of the Czech national revival, famously claimed that if the Austrian Empire did not exist, it would have to be invented. In other words, the Czech people needed room to grow, but they could only do so within a larger multi-ethnic Austrian Empire, otherwise, they would fall prey to either Germans or Russians. In a devolved world, where can small states find security?

Finally, devolution is not a universal solution to political problems. In many cases, ethnicities and nationalities are so thoroughly intermingled that it is impossible to redraw territorial boundaries in a way that suits everybody (a point that even John Stuart Mill understood in 1861). The Balkans, of course, is the obvious example, but the problem exists in many other parts of the world. This difficulty of intermingling raises another question: to what level should devolution descend? How little can a devolved state be? Historians of nationalism have long noted a “threshold principle”—that is, a nation has to be large enough to be viable. Nationalists used to speak of economic or cultural viability, but what about military viability? Where is that threshold, especially in a world where bigger states can prey upon smaller ones? To use one example, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the forging of the Paris settlement of 1919 led to the creation of many small Eastern European states—almost of all of which fell first  into the German orbit before succumbing to rule from Moscow.

Should one be for or against independence for Scotland? For sure, there are many local or parochial issues to consider with regard to the relationship between the Scots and the English (e.g. changes in taxation). But, as one contemplates these questions, one should also explore the larger global context that will influence the resolution of these issues.