Prior to accepting his party’s nomination, Donald Trump in December 2015, following the attacks in San Bernardino, California, called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Trump’s controversial proposal seemingly shifted its focus from targeting Muslims to, according to his running mate Mike Pence, “immigration from countries where terrorist influence and impact represents a threat to the United States.”
During a “Meet the Press” interview over the summer, Trump explained his proposed ban as completely constitutional. He stated, “Just remember this: Our Constitution is great, but it doesn’t necessarily give us the right to commit suicide, okay? Now, we have a religious, you know, everybody wants to be protected. And that’s great. And that’s the wonderful part of our Constitution.”
He continued by explaining that, “I view it differently. Why are we committing suicide? Why are we doing it? But you know what? I live with our Constitution. I love our Constitution. I cherish our Constitution. We’re making it territorial. We have nations and we’ll come out, I’m going to be coming out over the next few weeks with a number of the places.”
While you may not agree with Trump, his ideas and policy proposals in the name of patriotism are not a first in American history.
The first major waves of Chinese immigrants into the U.S. began with the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855 and increased during the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad of the 1860s.
Very few Americans gave a second thought to the newly arrived Chinese immigrants, but as gold grew harder to find and competition grew, many American miners became angry with the Chinese workers. The physical threats of the American miners forced many of the Chinese immigrants into small enclaves, mainly around San Francisco; many found work in low-wage jobs.
As American citizens faced the Panic of 1873 and the economy fell into a recession, many white Californians blamed the Chinese laborers for stealing their jobs and posing a threat to the communities they lived in.
During this time, the Workingman’s Party of California emerged with the slogan, “The Chinese must go!” Led by Denis Kearney, the party used racial fears and claimed the Chinese would only steal white American jobs and threaten their safety to gain support from white Californians. The tactics used by Kearney resonate with those used by Trump.
The pressure from Kearney and his party and other anti-Chinese policy makers led to several state laws dealing with Chinese immigration. In 1858, the California legislature passed a law that made it illegal for anyone “of the Chinese or Mongolian races” to enter the state.”
However, the California State Supreme Court struck it down in 1862. As more Chinese immigrants arrived and violence caused by anti-Chinese white citizens rose, Congress decided to act. Congress passed legislation excluding Chinese from immigration, but President Rutherford B. Hayes vetoed the bill.
On May 6, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur, a member of the Union Class of 1848, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years and barred Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens.
Historian Mary Roberts Coolidge in 1909 cited popularly supported racial hatred as the primary reason why Arthur signed the bill into law. She stated the racial animosity “was sufficient to change the policy of a nation and to commit the United States to a race discrimination at variance with our professe[d] theories of government.”
The similarities between the efforts of Kearney, his party and the final decision of Arthur and the actions of Trump are striking. The law was sold as an act of patriotism to protect the country, something Trump constantly refers to when discussing his proposed ban on Muslim immigration.
In the 1870s and today, specific minorities are often targeted during times of real or merely conceived social, political and economic crisis.
Kearney used the downturn in the economy as an opportunity to attack the Chinese and Trump now uses the fears of terrorism to target all Muslims.