And the men of the towns and of the soft suburban country gathered to defend themselves; and they reassured themselves that they were good and the invaders bad, as a man must do before he fights.
Fear and hatred of the stranger is nothing new, here in this nation of strangers. “Mr. Trump,” asked the father of a fallen Muslim American captain, “Would my son have had a place in your America?”
Would any of us have a place in Donald Trump’s America?
The voters who helped propel Trump to primary wins across the South seem to have forgotten: There was a time when white Southerners were the strangers, the refugees, the outsiders, the despised immigrants from a dusty and impoverished land.
The name of that land was Oklahoma.
Other states were struck by the dust storms too. But the name they gave the refugees was “Okies,” and it stuck. “Good people” in the Western states once hated Okies with the same ferocity Trump’s worst supporters have for darker-skinned people today.
In the 1930s, Trump would probably have hated Okies too.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” Those are Trump’s now-famous words. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
They said, These goddamned Okies are dirty and ignorant. They’re degenerate, sexual maniacs. These goddamned Okies are thieves. They’ll steal anything.
– “The Grapes of Wrath,” John Steinbeck (1939)
After the dust storms hit, 2.5 million people left their ravaged homes to seek better lives in greener places. By 1940, 200,000 of them had emigrated to California alone.
After just six years, the refugees were nearly 3.5 percent of California’s population. They settled in some parts of the state in large numbers, triggering a hate-filled backlash. As Steinbeck wrote:
The local people whipped themselves into a mold of cruelty. Then they formed units, squads, and armed them – armed them with clubs, with gas, with guns. We own the country. We can’t let these Okies get out of hand. And the men who were armed did not own the land, but they thought they did.
And now, old patterns are made new again. From a Vice News report about border vigilantes:
“Some of them are retired veterans, they’re construction workers, they’re plumbers,” Rogers said. “We’ve had a retired pastor from the Army call the hotline — they’re just regular Joes and Janes from across the United States who want to close the border and bring America back to the place it used to be.”
Then, as now, a position of authority can be an invitation to abuse others. In the Dust Bowl days, the Los Angeles police chief sent 125 officers “to act as bouncers at the state border,” in the words of PBS’ American Experience website.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio isn’t the first of his kind.
Trump’s brand of bigotry goes back a long way in this country. Baptists were marginalized and brutalized by Anglicans in colonial Virginia, and the attacks read like a listing of recent anti-Muslim hate crimes. Baptists were “pelted with apples and stones,” and “commanded to take a dram” – of alcohol – “or be whipped.” Their services were “broken up by a mob,” and they were “pulled down and hauled about by (the) hair.”
What about Trump’s own paternal background? Prejudice against German Americans is as old as the nation itself. Benjamin Franklin wrote these words in 1751:
“Why should Pennsylvania … become a Colony of aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us, instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion?” (emphasis ours)
The fear of “Germanization” is echoed in present-day remarks about “creeping Sharia law.” As for complexions: Whiteness is an evolving concept that at times has marginalized Italians, the Irish, Jews, and people of German ancestry like Trump himself.
Nor did the hatred of Trump’s ancestry die with Benjamin Franklin. The Alien Enemy Act was used against people of German background during World War I, and they became the objects of national hatred.
The National Archives tell the story: German-language newspapers were shut down or forced out of business. Bilingual churches were pressured to stop conducting services in German, in a foreshadowing of Trump’s proposal to monitor and close mosques. German-language societies and even choral groups were disbanded as “volunteer watchdog societies reported on such German American gatherings and activities to federal authorities.”
“German-Americans became the ‘face of the enemy,’” the National Archives article adds, “as their businesses were boycotted and many people of German heritage were physically and verbally attacked.”
In a Flag Day Speech in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson said this about people of Donald Trump’s ethnicity: “The military masters of Germany . . . have filled our unsuspecting communities with vicious spies and conspirators.”
Wilson didn’t say he saw thousands of German Americans cheering on New Jersey rooftops as Germany invaded Belgium. But he might just as well have. Bigotry never changes.
Trump’s brand of hate is nothing new. We have had demagogues before. We will have them again.
… And the defending people said, They bring disease, they’re filthy. We can’t have them in the schools. They’re strangers. (“The Grapes of Wrath”)
We were all strangers here once, all except the first people of this land. Some people can’t remember that, because they’re too consumed with hate, or fear, or anger, or ambition. Some see themselves as different from the black, the brown, the LGBT, the differently gendered, the Muslim, the Jew. But it’s true. We were all strangers once.
If we’re not careful, we may become strangers again.