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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.
Men such as Buchanan and Sessions fine-tuned the anti-immigrant message well before the 2016 presidential election cycle.
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.”
Prominent political and legal elites often serve as “patrons” for little noticed or “off the wall” ideas, giving comfort to a cause by explicitly endorsing movement objectives or, tacitly, by speaking in movement vernacular. Each of the major figures who developed Trumpism before Trump served as patrons for a grassroots form of conservative nationalism.
The intellectual progenitors of Trumpism reworked older ideas and ways of speaking to create a potent anti-immigrant vernacular. At the 1992 Republican National Convention, Pat Buchanan called on conservatives to engage liberals in a grand “culture war” for “the soul of America.” He depicted “God’s country” under siege by “militant” gay rights activists, “radical” feminists, and “environmental extremists”—all while warning against going back to “the failed liberalism of the 1960s and ‘70s.”
Although Buchanan lost the nomination to George H. W. Bush, he served as a critical link between movement conservatism’s past—associated with Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan—and its current incarnation of anti-immigration firebrands. He considered himself a “Goldwater zealot” and traced his militancy to “that charismatic man from the desert” whose words comprised “our new testament” and “the core beliefs of our political faith.” A refusal to compromise, he observed in an introduction to the 1990 printing of Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), characterizes “every great movement.” “Its True Believers are impatient,” Buchanan wrote, “to the point of intolerance, with the half-hearted and the half-committed.”
When Buchanan first announced his run for the presidency in 1991, he said that “America won the Cold War,” but the “new world” would not be characterized by internationalism. Instead, “The dynamic force shaping that world is nationalism.” He wanted to be the voice for U.S. workers who had lost their jobs and faced “tough times,” and he excoriated “predatory traders of Europe or Asia, who have targeted this or that American industry for dumping and destruction.”
He derisively labeled Bush “a globalist” (a term with anti-Semitic overtones that has gained currency among Trump’s followers), and he promised that his movement would “take America back” and “put America first.” As he explained: “When we say we will put America first, we mean also that our Judeo-Christian values are going to be preserved. . . . not dumped onto some land fill called multi-culturalism.”
Buchanan served as a critical link between movement conservatism’s past—associated with Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan—and its current incarnation of anti-immigration firebrands.
Notably, eight months later, Buchanan ended his speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention with an appeal to the aggressive use of force to remake the country. He told a story about meeting with the California Army National Guard and federal troops deployed to Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots. The soldiers had intervened when a mob that “had burned and looted every single building on the block” turned its attention to a nursing home.
“The troopers came up the street, M-16s at the ready,” Buchanan said. “And the mob threatened and cursed, but the mob retreated because it had met the one thing that could stop it: force, rooted in justice, and backed by moral courage.” He closed by comparing foot soldiers in the conservative movement to those law enforcement officers: “as those boys took back the streets of Los Angeles, block by block, my friends, we must take back our cities, and take back our culture, and take back our country.”
By the mid-90s, then, all of the rhetorical elements were on the table ready to be pieced together for another run at conservative dominance: cultural nationalism as the lingua franca of grassroots conservativism, the diagnosis of the United States in decline at the hands of “globalist bureaucrats,” an enduring resistance to pluralism, the yearning for bygone “social stability,” and the valorization of force against disobedient citizens and protesters.
The only thing missing? One issue that could bring them all in and bind them: immigration.
Buchanan was an influential political entrepreneur, but few have done more to put immigration restrictions on the front burner than U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In the days before Trump, Sessions built on the Buchananite foundation not only by mastering the art of speaking about cultural dilution in a way that was not overtly racist, but also by marshalling his expertise as a former federal prosecutor to secure movement objectives.
In the twenty years he was a U.S. senator, his contribution consisted mainly of bucking party elders and serving as a patron to fringe organizations committed to reducing the United States’ foreign-born population. He has been a strong advocate for a return to 1980s-style law enforcement, but he also opened a new front in the Nixon-Reagan “war on crime and drugs” by attacking what he sees as rampant “illegality” presented by immigration. “Eleven million people are already here illegally,” he said recently. “That’s more than the population of Georgia.”
In California, he told district attorneys, chiefs of police, state patrol officers, and sheriffs that the United States admits “the highest numbers [of immigrants] in the world.” It was happening at “an unprecedented rate,” he said, and “we will soon have the largest percentage of non-native born in our nation’s history with the percentage continuing to rise every year thereafter.”
While Buchanan and Sessions prefer the mainstream language of assimilation and respect for the rule of law, their uncompromising bottom line has made them the darlings of white nationalists.
Sessions, who hails from Alabama, traces his own conservative awakening to discovering William F. Buckley’s National Review. Buckley, Sessions has said, outlined a “principled, lawful understanding of the role of the government” that “was not based on racism” but was “consistent with the American heritage.” Like Buchanan, Sessions had come to reject the Republican party’s pro-immigration and global trade stance; he even broke from Goldwater’s views on immigration by demanding stiff penalties for companies that employed undocumented migrants. The United States of America, he has insisted, “is not an idea. It’s a nation-state.”
He took a hard line on amnesty from which he has never wavered (Buckley, too, had opposed amnesty): “there’s no moral, no legal, no principled reason why this United States government should reward people who broke the law and entered the country illegally with every benefit that you give to somebody who comes lawfully.”
Sessions earned the wrath of business leaders when he helped kill comprehensive immigration reform. He helped stoke the politics of resentment around foreigners, taking umbrage on behalf of workers when President George W. Bush said that immigrants were needed to do jobs that “simply aren’t getting done because American won’t do them.”
Sessions called Bush out for disrespecting workers: “Americans are doing tough work every day. . . . They shouldn’t be looked down for it.” He described the remark as “one of the greatest errors in [Bush’s] entire presidency.”
But Sessions has also added economic arguments to his emphasis on “the rule of law” as a way to attract mainstream support for aggressive population control tactics. In a January 2015 memo titled, Immigration Handbook for the New Republican Majority, Sessions asked, “What sense does it make to continue legally importing millions of low-wage workers to fill jobs while sustaining millions of current residents on welfare?”
Citing numbers from the Center for Immigration Studies, a hardline group committed to reducing immigration across the board, he warned his colleagues of the potential economic fallout from the presence of so many foreign-born residents over the past fifty years.
Sessions also cited a poll commissioned by Kellyanne Conway that three in four voters wanted “substantial immigration cuts” and that, by a two-to-one margin, respondents believed undocumented migrants “should be encouraged to return home by closing off access to jobs and welfare benefits.”
Demographic control may have been the objective, but the polling contained a crucial finding: casting that goal in economic terms “resonates especially with working class and women voters who are being hammered in this economy. It generates very strong, highly motivated support, and very weak opposition.”
In these years, Sessions’s counterpart in the House was Steve King, a Republican member of Congress from Iowa since 2003. King tweeted in 2017 that “diversity is not our strength,” and “we can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” But even before Trump’s rise, King had joined Sessions and had fixated on immigration reduction as a life-or-death issue. “We shouldn’t be a suicidal nation,” he said in an interview with Steve Bannon in 2015. “We have a right to protect our borders, our culture and our civilization,” he explained.
King said that Europe was “committing cultural suicide” by admitting so many refugees and immigrants—a situation the United States should avoid with Syrian refugees. He made used an analogy to make his point: “If you had 100 grapes and you knew that two of them were fatally poisonous, would you sit there and eat the grapes until one of them killed you? Or would you decide, I’m not going to take that bunch of grapes at all?”
King's argument was the proverbial slippery slope: if someone is willing to violate one law, no matter how minor, then he’ll be willing to rape and murder as well.
The trope of disease-ridden or morally licentious foreigners was evocative of past efforts to restrict immigration from China and Eastern Europe; King simply updated it to cover Hispanics and Muslims. But his remarks were not just a matter of whether dehumanizing rhetoric makes people more accepting of barbarity; they also showed how such discourse can do political work by forming bonds between different kinds of communities that feel besieged for a variety of reasons—and by cutting into older alliances.
King also modeled the use of inflammatory rhetoric that would later be deployed by Trump’s campaign. In May 2016 he authored a Breitbart piece sensationalizing the tragic death of a young Iowa woman who was killed in a traffic accident by a drunk driver. King said that the man, an “illegal immigrant,” was “a criminal by all definitions of our law.” After blaming the Obama administration and “the Left” for releasing “85,000 criminal aliens” he then issued a dire warning: “it will not take long for our country to crumble.”
This was common sense, in King’s view, since “illegal immigrants utterly disregard our Rule of Law and way of life here in America.” His argument was the proverbial slippery slope: if someone is willing to violate one law, no matter how minor, then he’ll be willing to rape and murder as well.
This unsparing language left no room for compromise—a lesson from Buchanan—and no possibility that refugees or undocumented migrants could be useful members of society. In this way, King practiced the “extreme vetting” discourse that would later emerge as the Trump administration’s justifications for across-the-board restrictions on the admission of refugees and Muslim travelers, as well as its unapologetic refusal to extend legal protection for Dreamers.
King earned a 100 percent rating from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and an A+ rating from NumbersUSA for trying to end “anchor baby citizenship,” reduce “chain migration,” and stop “illegal immigration rewards.” In turn, he and other elected officials happily gave speeches extolling these organizations’ work and used their research (which often exaggerate the criminality and social service dependency among immigrants) to craft laws and policies.
These acts of political patronage have not only spread dubious empirical information, they also helped to mainstream what were otherwise fringe discourse and priorities.
One crucial aspect to creating and maintaining a movement is to engage in political code-switching: speaking alternately in the dialect of moderates and radicals, or that of grassroots and elites. While Buchanan, Sessions, and King prefer the mainstream language of fairness, assimilation, sovereignty, and respect for the rule of law, their uncompromising bottom line has made them the darlings of white nationalists.
At the end of the day, after all, it is not just violent immigrant criminals that they are worried about; it is the ratio of non-white people to white people in the country’s population that makes them nervous. In an interview with Breitbart media in October 2015, for instance, Sessions fretted, “In seven years we’ll have the highest percentage of Americans, non-native born, since the founding of the Republic . . . it’s a radical change.” It is this rhetoric of cultural integrity that resonates with racial nationalists who believe that white people must act to preserve their way of life and political power.
Consider how Anne Coulter has straddled both discourses. When striking a provocateur’s pose, she warns of “penis-chopping immigrants” and “Hispanic child rapists.” At other times, she code-switches into the mainstream conservative dialect of cultural incompatibility. “We’re not changing the immigrants, they’re changing us,” she asserts in her New York Times bestseller, Adios, America! (2015).
The code-switching is also obvious when both groups—proponents of cultural integrity and white nationalists—talk about the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas on the number of immigrants from certain countries, and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which revamped the system and repealed the quota system. As Sessions has explained, the 1924 law is the model we should return to as “it slowed down immigration significantly . . . and created really the solid middle class of America, with assimilated immigrants, and it was good for America.”
The power of code-switching is most obvious when proponents of cultural integrity and white nationalists talk about the Immigration Act of 1924.
Since its conception, however, the 1924 law has also been applauded by those who believe sovereignty is rooted in racial purity. In fact, as James Whitman and others have documented, Hitler himself admired the U.S.'s immigration laws for using racial quotas and decisively rejecting the notion that a nation could consist of “an international porridge of peoples.”
Not surprisingly, the 1965 law has been denounced by this crowd. Buchanan has lamented that “due to the Immigration Act of 1965 and the cultural revolution of the ’60s . . . America will be a Third World nation.” Likewise, FAIR blames the law for turning “chain migration” into “the driving force behind immigration.”
Richard Spencer, who describes the United States as a “white country designed for ourselves,” has said that the forty years between the 1924 law and 1965 law were the country’s best, and that it has all gone to pieces since. “The age of mass immigration and the age of multiculturalism,” Spencer has diagnosed, “has been an age of division and fragmentation.” He proposes that we “take a break from all immigration, particularly non-European immigration.”
David Duke, former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has called for the repeal of the 1965 law and the signing of executive orders that strip U.S. citizenship from non-whites who gained that status under the law.
Without much progress on federal immigration reform, however, some turned to state and local laws to ratchet up the suffering of migrants. Enter Kris Kobach, an Ivy League and Oxford credentialed lawyer and current Secretary of State of Kansas who has done more than perhaps anyone to move the anti-immigration fight to the local level. His strategy, in short, is to make life inhospitable for migrants.
In 2010, Kobach helped both Arizona and Alabama draft draconian anti-immigration law. His 2008 law review article, Attrition Through Enforcement, laid out his approach and cited research from the anti-immigrant think tank Center for Immigration Studies. It advocated measures that sought to decrease employment opportunities for migrants and increase the possibilities of criminal prosecution. “When the risks of being detained and/or prosecuted go up dramatically,” he argued, “illegal aliens make the rational decision to leave the United States on their own.”
Kobach worked with mainstream conservatives such as then-Attorney General John Ashcroft while at the same time cultivating ties with FAIR and Joe Arpaio, the infamous Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, who bragged that his tent-city for warehousing “illegal immigrants” and overflow prisoners was a “concentration camp.” Kobach took the rhetoric of immigrant criminality to new heights. His talk radio show even billed itself as a movement: “When our values are under assault, when our sovereignty is invaded, when our constitution is in tatters, when political correctness is on the march, it’s time to mobilize!”
Kobach also tightly wove together the GOP’s claims of voter fraud with anti-immigrant politics. Based on little evidence, Kobach has claimed that because voting fraud by “aliens” is “pervasive,” there is a need to pass tough voter ID laws. Similar to Sessions, he described these measures as efforts to “restore the law.”
While most of Kobach’s laws suffered stinging losses in the federal courts during the Obama years, his message was generating national attention. In 2012, for instance, Mitt Romney awkwardly invoked “self-deportation,” a term generated by Kobach’s work, on the campaign trail, and by 2016 immigration was a front-page issue.
Ironically, Kobach’s efforts demonstrated that even adverse judicial rulings could be converted into long-term political wins at the ballot box. After all, if earnest efforts by states and local officials couldn’t get immigration under control because judges ruled that immigration was a federal issue, then the answer might well be a national movement that captured the White House. More conservative judges, the argument went, were needed to restore the “original” Constitution.
Originalism—the claim that the Constitution should be interpreted according to the generally accepted meaning of the text at the time it was written—has been especially powerful in unifying conservatives of all stripes. The approach was first unveiled as the Reagan Administration’s official constitutional philosophy in 1985, and in 2016, the GOP party platform gave its most complete affirmation of originalism to date: “all legislation, regulation, and official actions must conform to the Constitution’s original meaning as understood at the time the language was adopted.”
As Sessions instructed Trump, ‘this isn’t a campaign, this is a movement.’
In terms of immigration policy, this has meant a new interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which most legal thinkers believe grants “birthright citizenship” to anyone born on U.S. soil. Yet starting in the 1990s, some conservatives began to coalesce around a new originalist position that denied U.S. citizenship to the offspring of foreign nationals.
By 2004, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese and his co-author, John Eastman of the Claremont Institute (“the academic home of Trumpism”), wrote an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld arguing that the generally accepted interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Citizenship Clause was “incorrect, as a matter of text, historical practice, and political theory.” As Sessions has said, “I don’t think the founders understood when they did [sic] the Fourteenth Amendment that they would create a circumstance where people could fly into America, all over the world and have a child and that child would have dual citizenship, fly back to their home countries.”
While the anti-birthright citizenship position is disputed by other conservatives, including John Yoo and David Rivkin, it gained favor as the national immigration debate became increasingly polarized. And it wasn’t just the likes of Coulter and King who held this view. By 2010, GOP governing elites, including McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and John McCain advocated rethinking birthright citizenship.
Trump came late to this game. In August of 2015, he promised to “end birthright citizenship,” calling it “the biggest magnet for illegal immigration.”
So while Trump happened to be the right vehicle at the right time, a number of figures had been working for years to fine-tune the message that became known as Trumpism: dark, foreign forces swirled around hard-working Americans, spurred on by globalists who enriched themselves through “crony capitalism” but never did a thing to lift wages. “Cosmopolitan elites” were portrayed as advocating open borders, worldwide criminality, and relativistic moral attitudes. And none of this could sustain the United States as a cultural project: a shining fortress-city exemplifying the “Judeo-Christian West.”
With Trump’s ascent to the White House, a once marginal vision in the Republican Party has finally become mainstream.
By the time Sessions finally met with candidate-Trump in February 2016, the Alabama Senator boasted, “he had already adopted my immigration views, in large part.” As the first sitting senator to endorse Trump’s presidential run when few other respected politicians would touch him, Sessions blessed Trump as a vehicle for these grassroots aspirations against “soulless globalism.” As Sessions instructed Trump, “this isn’t a campaign, this is a movement.”
Embracing that movement’s vision enabled Trump to lock down roughly a third of Republican voters. By then, Buchanan had already endorsed Trump and, no longer feeling it necessary to be politic, called him “the Great White Hope” for a “white America [that] is dying.” Kobach and King would soon follow.
The more mainstream candidates did not, or could not, reckon with the shifting electoral terrain. First up was Jeb Bush, who was lavishly funded but came off as a docile figure who was out of step with agitated Republican primary voters. “Love?” a Trump ad asked, hitting Bush with his own choice of words on immigration. “Forget love. It’s time to get tough.”
Lasting longest was Ted Cruz, a Tea Party hero who Trump marginalized by highlighting his Canadian birth and Cuban heritage. Trump said Cruz had come “straight out of the hills of Canada” and that “not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?”
Trump made border security his signature issue, enabled deeply conservative theories of the Constitution, and spoke in the dialect of right-wing conspiracy. His vision of “American carnage” ratified movement conservatives’ dark worldview and became codified as the GOP’s official stance. Indeed the 2016 GOP platform urged slowing down legal immigration (“it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year”) and insisted that “the interests of American workers must be protected over the claims of foreign nationals seeking the same jobs.”
Anti-immigrant politicians and policy makers have now been installed among the president’s staff, in the Justice Department, State Department, and federal judiciary. And movement leaders now possess institutional power to implement their agenda, which features slowing the intake of refugees and expelling undocumented foreigners in creative and increasingly merciless fashion. Indeed, with Trump’s ascent to the White House, a once marginal vision in the Republican Party has finally become mainstream.
Robert L. Tsai is Professor of Law at American University. He is the author of America’s Forgotten Constitutions and Practical Equality: Forging Justice in a Divided Nation.
Calvin TerBeek is a PhD student in the Political Science Department at the University of Chicago whose work focuses on postwar movement conservatism.
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