Lunacy of the Campaign Lemmings


“Trump driving migrant debate,” read the headline over the lead story in the Washington Post.

The story beneath the headline seemed to imply that Presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rants on immigration have frightened into submission some of his opponents for the Republican nomination for President. Like lemmings heading seaward, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Rand Paul, and Lindsey Graham, according to the Post, have been suddenly converted to Trump’s way of thinking on several immigration issues, particularly overturning the birthright provisions of the Constitution.

Let’s look closely at the Trump prescriptions.

  • Build a wall, at Mexico’s expense, the entire length of the 1,933 mile Mexico-United States border.
  • Remove all undocumented immigrants, rounding up those who won’t leave voluntarily.
  • End all remittance checks that undocumented immigrants now send back to their home countries.
  • Place a moratorium on new green cards.
  • Increase the cost of H-1B visas for skilled immigrant workers.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Trump preaches a kind of “nativism,” a fear of immigrants and immigration dating back to the earliest days of our Republic. The nation was less than 10 years old when President John Adams signed the four Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which made citizenship harder to achieve and imposed restrictions on those who were not. Thirty years later in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, one of the most brutal nativist actions in American history. Two hundred years later Japanese Americans were put behind barbed wire during World War II.

The nation succumbs to a paroxysm of immigrant fear most often during times of economic or national security stress. Immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Italy, Japan, East European Jewish communities, Poland, among others, suffered discrimination and alienation for no other reason than they were “others.”

This fear of “the other” gives Trump’s rants a primitive power that appeals to our innate group loyalty. At the risk of pendency, I quote the eminent neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, who deals with much of this in his brilliant book, “Human.”

“Social psychologists have shown that group loyalty and
And hostility emerge with predictable ease. The process begins
With groups’ categorizing into Us and Them. It is called the
In-group—out-group bias and is universal and ineradicable.”

This innate immediate, reflexive bias explains the appeal of an Andrew Jackson, or of other racist rantings that scar our history, or the divisive shouts of Huey Long and the  “us against them” sophomoric  rhetoric of “rich versus  middle class.”

What stops humans from surrendering to this “innate bias” is another part of the brain. This part (characterized as the “slow” part by Nobel Prize-winning  economist Daniel Kahneman), which brings into play our ability to reason. Let’s look with this reasoning part of the brain at the Trump immigration plan outlined above.

  • It is silly to suggest that Mexico will pay for a border-long fence and probably nonsensical to believe that such a fence will do much except make trade between America and one of its largest trading partners more expensive and more difficult.
  • The notion of rounding up and deporting all undocumented immigrants stirs up memories of door-to-door searches by other nations, would require an armed force of an unimaginable size, and would never be tolerated by the vast majority of citizens.
  • Ending remittances, which help keep millions of potential immigrants at home, would prove counter-productive, leading to greater immigration.
  • Curtailing green cards and H-1B visas would merely make filling jobs that require high technological and innovative skill more difficult for American business.

The immigration policies that Trump and others urge violate our Constitution, make a mockery of the words on the Statue of Liberty, appeal to our worst instincts, and potentially kindle a dangerous inclination to succumb to racial bigotry and broader social division.

I have been involved in many federal races for the House and the Senate. Others who have been in the bare-knuckle political ring say that Trump’s immigration policy is smart politics in the large Republican field. They claim that this forces immigration to the forefront as an issue and appeals to part of the GOP constituency. As one who went through the 2007 immigration battle, working for a Republican Senator who supported true immigration reform, I can attest that immigration was and continues to be at the forefront of political issues and part of our discourse across the length and breadth of American society, without interruption, without pause  Immigration was at the forefront of our national challenges long before Trump need comb over his locks.

In the end, if Trump either wins the nomination, or some Republican who espouses Trump’s immigration policy wins, the basic decency of the American people will yield a Democrat in the White House. And the GOP will have scarred itself for decades to come.

Editor’s Note: Steve Bell is now a Visiting Scholar at the BiPartisan Policy Center and a consultant to financial firms. He was Staff Director of the Senate Budget Committee when the Reagan Revolution budget was enacted, was appointed by President Reagan to the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board and was a Managing Director of Salomon Brothers for 10 years.