Last Saturday afternoon, I listened to a gathering of Wall Street Journal editors and writers on Fox News discussing the congressional deadlock on immigration. Paul Gigot, Jason Riley, and Karl Rove were all disturbed that the president and congressional Republicans who followed his lead were stalling a compromise over DACA and other related immigration issues. These intransigents should have accepted something like the Graham-Durbin proposal that would have amnestied DACA recipients and their families while continuing chain migration but also making some provision for increased border security.
As I listened to these judgments, I thought, "Spoken like true Republicans." These remarks explain why Trump rallied the working-class base that had long eluded Republican politicians. Trump and his advisers noticed what had been clear for some time: for many decades, the Democrats generally took the harder line on immigration, even if neither national party offered steady resistance. Although both parties voted for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for that legislation in Congress.
The most vocal opposition to this reform came from Southern Democrats, who feared that the immigration act would change the ethnic profile of the country by removing national quotas. Republicans had no interest in the concern raised in 1965 by North Carolina Democratic senator Sam Ervin:
The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, [and] the people of Holland. With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don't know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.
The most comprehensive amnesty act ever passed by any administration (it granted amnesty to over three million illegals) was under President Reagan in 1986, and it enjoyed near unanimous Republican congressional support. A major opponent of immigration in the 1990s was a black Democratic congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordan, who believed that immigration drives down the wages of poor whites and blacks. It is important to recognize that Jordan and her Democratic supporters were not making the cultural conservative argument advanced by Senator Ervin and his Southern Democratic colleagues in the 1960s. They were making traditional working-class arguments against immigration, arguments that had been heard from the American Federation of Labor in the first half of the twentieth century and from the French Communist Party after World War II. But this opposition to increased immigration stood in stark contrast to the multicultural perspective of the current Democratic Party and the corporate capitalist donor base of the GOP. Significantly, Jordan's position continued to resonate in Ralph Nader's presidential races in 2000 and 2004. It was also reflected in Bernie Sanders's vote against the immigration reform act of 2007, which he thought would hurt low-paid American workers.
There are good reasons why the Republicans before Trump were arguably the more leftist party on immigration and why their flagship paper, the Wall Street Journal, has toyed with the idea of open borders. Providing a steady supply of cheap labor in accordance with the wishes of corporate executives and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was one reason; trying to signal that the GOP, despite its continued WASP appeal, is open to minorities was another one. Another possible source of Republican enthusiasm for immigration has been the influence of neoconservative ideology on Republican operatives. According to neoconservative doctrine, the United States is a universal democracy and propositional nation, and therefore suitability for citizenship should be based on the acceptance of neoconservative ideas about democratic equality. In any case, up until the time the Democrats began to champion ethnic and lifestyle grievances, they were generally the more conservative of our two parties on immigration.
In the 1950s, they were also the more conservative party on cultural issues, as any informed denizen of the Northeast might have recognized. George W. Bush's grandfather, Prescott, was our senator in Connecticut, and he and his son George H.W. Bush and their wives were generous backers of Planned Parenthood. Most Democrats when I was growing up in Connecticut were ethnic Catholics, and they attended Mass regularly and supported the Catholic Legion of Decency. They were also okay with the ban on the public sale of contraceptives. This ban in Connecticut was kept in place by the Catholic Democratic state government, even if the governor happened to be a left-leaning Jew. Needless to say, the Southern Democrats were probably to the right of our Democrats on race and immigration issues, although one of the most conservative Democrats of my acquaintance was my father's friend, our Connecticut senator Tom Dodd. Tom would breathe fire and brimstone whenever the commies were mentioned or the term "hippie" came up in conversation. His son, Chris, who succeeded him, was of course another story. Almost all my school teachers from K through 8th grade were Irish-Catholic ladies who went to Mass several times a week. They were Democrats but, like the Kennedy family, ardent admirers of Senator Joseph McCarthy.
These attitudes were indicative of where many Democrats of an earlier generation stood, before the great transformation that carried the party to the left of the Republicans on social and cultural issues took place. Thereafter, the GOP was pushed willy-nilly into the role of a culturally conservative party, something it did not have to be when it was still the party of big business and sociological Protestants. During the Cold War, Republican politicians became ardent advocates of military buildup and have remained so ever since. But being for military spending is different from trying to fill the cultural and moral void that was created when the Democrats became the party of LGBT, feminist, and Black nationalist activists.
Trump has rattled establishment Republicans, and part of the reason may be his bad manners and frenzied tweeting. But the president may also have driven the NeverTrumps out of their comfort zone because of his alliance with the old Democratic Party, including Southern Baptists, the white ethnic working class, and critics of largely unrestricted immigration. When Trump came down the golden escalator on June 16, 2015 to announce his presidential candidacy, he became overnight the hero to those abandoned Democrats.
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in American Thinker and has been rerun with permission of its author.
Paul E. Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe. He serves as head of the editorial board of The San Francisco Review of Books.