By Edip Asaf Bekaroglu
U.S. President Donald Trump, in a New York Times interview before he became president , promised to be an unpredictable bargainer. Yet we all know that there are contexts and structures that condition the odds in a bargaining. In other words, actors are not “almighty”, be it the president of the U.S. In the foreign policy, Trump seems much stronger with his “bigger button” than he actually is, but when it comes to domestic issues, the American political system and social history do not grant him the power that he desires.
Trump’s struggle with the immigration question is a clear example of this. He issued the so-called “Muslim ban” in the very early days of his presidency, which was overruled by the courts. His desire to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA) ended up with the government shutdown just before his first anniversary in the office. And we have yet to see the outcomes of his promise to build a wall along the Mexican border. Trump’s bargaining capacity has not worked well in these areas. To realize his promises, he needs the support of the Democrats in the Congress, yet he does not even have the full support of the Republicans. Having a bipartisan deal was actually jeopardized by Trump’s “s**thole countries” remark, as claimed by a number of senators who attended the White House meeting on Jan. 11.
Township culture versus melting pot
The immigration issue is a tough one because it reflects a fundamental paradox in American social history and political development. On the one hand, American political culture, as admired by Tocqueville, is built on the base of the “township system”, where every member of the town knows each other, contributes to the town, participates in decision-making, goes to the same church, and relies on their community of mutual trust. Yet, the arrival of a stranger usually causes anxiety in the community. At that point, the sheriff steps in with his gun fully cocked, stops the stranger, and makes it clear that they do not like strangers in the town. Trump is now playing the sheriff. He is representing the anxious town community; he is speaking on their behalf.
Yet, against this “township culture,” there has been a paradoxical dynamic at play since the beginning: “the new world” has always been a land of immigration with “strangers” coming to America one after another. Towns were in the first place established by puritan immigrants, who had left England to build a new life where they could freely practice their religion. Then other Europeans arrived, running away from political turmoil mostly caused by the French Revolution. After a while, Irish people arrived, having left their fatherland because of a great famine. The Chinese, the Japanese, Italians, Mexicans, and others followed as the U.S. widened westward.
The influx of various immigrant groups, either for economic, political or humanitarian reasons, continued in the 20th century. Being a traditional immigration country, the U.S. has managed to absorb all these peoples with her inclusive citizenship regime, which is not based on blood or ethnicity but on civic components. It is more or less about sharing a dream of having a more decent and free life. “The melting pot” is a famous phrase by which American nationhood is defined. Each newcomer, although not always welcome, has contributed to what the melting pot is all about.
Politics of resentment
The tension between the “township culture” and the melting pot dynamic has always been an important factor shaping American politics. While all other American presidents and mainstream politicians have usually chosen to be politically correct on the immigration issue, which is at the center of this tension, Trump insists on a hardcore anti-immigrant stance. Why? The reason is actually clear. He knows that anti-immigrant attitudes appeal to a significant portion of the citizens (or “American taxpayers”), whose political values are mostly shaped by the township culture.
Katherine Cramer, based on her research across Wisconsin that spanned a decade from 2007 to 2017, argues that Trump’s rhetoric is particularly attractive to town people, who harbor resentful feelings against the government and city people . According to Cramer, rural people, as hardworking taxpayers, think that they do not get their fair share of the resources, attention and respect, and this resentment to some extent explains the support Trump enjoyed in the 2016 elections.
It should also be noted that the anti-immigrant attitudes have deep-running historical roots. Although the U.S. has always been a popular destination for those seeking a more decent life, it is actually not true that the earlier groups of settlers always welcomed the newcomers. For example, Irish people were considered un-American because they were Catholic, and they faced blatant discrimination in the job market. Italians were treated the same. In the late 19th century, some discriminatory acts were issued to prevent the Chinese immigration.
Interestingly, the earlier immigrants, though they themselves were discriminated against and treated as if they were less than human, continued to despise the newcomers. This in turn established a cultural hierarchy in which the white Protestants enjoyed the top position while the latecomers were bound to remain at the bottom.
This history has some ugly pages, and it appears uglier given the racism that accompanies the anti-immigration attitudes. Discrimination based on race, ethnicity or religion has always been a part of American history. Yet, since the 1960s, the civil right movements in the U.S. have gained many fronts legally, politically and socially.
Trump basically provokes these deep tensions. He is aware of the fact that the resentment about immigrants has an electoral value. And it will be more valuable in a close race. He also knows that these resentments have significantly increased because of the link between terrorism and immigration. Nevertheless, the political and institutional resistance against Trump’s anti-immigrant populism will also continue.
The Congressional resistance recently resulted in a government shutdown that did not last long with Trump’s short-term funding bill. Although Congressional leaders reached a bipartisan deal on Tuesday to increase the budget for two years, which decreased the possibility of another government shutdown, new crises on immigration are highly likely to break out soon. Neither Trump nor the Democrats are likely to step back.
As he faces resistance, Trump will likely complain about how the political establishment is preventing him from “making America great again,” a kind of resentment in line with that of town people. These kinds of complaints may politicize and motivate Trump’s potential voters, and this would make a difference in the political landscape, considering the high levels of political indifference and low levels of electoral turnout among American citizens.
[ The writer holds a PhD in political science and is currently a visiting fellow at Princeton University. ]
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.