Earlier this week, David Frum, the former George W. Bush speechwriter turned never-Trump scribbler, published a long article in the Atlantic arguing that the United States should massively reduce legal immigration by cutting the number of green cards it issues each year by about half. How come? Mostly because he thinks it might mollify white working-class voters, whose anti-immigrant rage he believes led them to back the authoritarian galoot who now occupies the Oval Office. “If liberals insist that only fascists will enforce borders, then voters will hire fascists to do the job liberals refuse to do,” Frum, who immigrated from Canada, writes.
Oddly, in all 7,800-ish words of his piece, Frum never once mentions that Republicans have introduced a piece of legislation that would do exactly what he’s recommending. It’s called the RAISE act. It was written by Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue in 2017 and backed by the president himself. Frum may not admit it out loud, but he’s basically arguing that the best way to defeat Trumpism is to cave on some of its most extreme policy demands. It’s Clintonian triangulation, but for white nationalism.
There are many reasons a reader might object to Frum’s argument.
One could object on moral grounds. If you believe that Trump’s immigration stance is racist and repugnant at its core, then accommodating it in the name of political expediency probably doesn’t sound like a hot idea.
Or one could object on economic grounds. Frum tries to downplay immigration’s benefits to growth, but the bottom line is that mainstream analyses of the RAISE Act have shown that it would make the country modestly poorer over the long term. (By 2040, the Penn Wharton Budget Model shows per capita GDP would be 0.3 percent lower.)
One could also object on political grounds. After all, Frum doesn’t actually provide any evidence that cutting immigration would make white working-class voters less likely to vote for demagogues like Trump in the future. He simply asserts that it might. Yet his own piece offers reasons to think otherwise. Early on, he cites academic evidence showing that white voters become more authoritarian in the face of ethnic change. Later on, he admits that ethnic change is already inevitable, even if we slash how many green cards Washington issues annually. “Under today’s policies, the U.S. will become majority-minority in about 2044,” he writes. “Even cutting immigration by nearly half would postpone that historical juncture by only one to five years.” Will giving caucasians an extra half-decade in the majority really be the magic bullet that saves us from being overrun by MAGA hats? Count me skeptical.
And finally, one could object to Frum’s piece on the simple grounds that most Americans really like immigration. Frum might think the whole Statue of Liberty, “Give me your tired, your poor” thing is just “nostalgia,” as he puts it, but just Thursday, the Pew Research Center released polling showing that 59 percent of Americans think immigration makes us a stronger country, while only 34 percent think it’s a burden. Most Americans also think immigrants want to assimilate culturally; only 19 percent think immigrants are more to blame for crime than native-born residents. You want an anti-immigrant country? Check out Poland, or Russia, or Greece, not the U.S.
Meanwhile, Gallup’s most recent survey results show that only 31 percent of Americans think immigration levels should be reduced, versus 30 percent who think they should be increased and 37 percent who believe they should be kept the same. Immigration restrictionists don’t even make up a plurality of this country, yet Frum thinks we should cater to them, largely on the hunch that it might make white voters less likely to back the next Fox-addled demagogue who runs for president.1 The U.S. electoral system might hand disproportionate power to a minority of voters in this country. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should cave in on our values to them.
1 Frum does try to make a wider case about the downsides of immigration, but it is astonishingly weak—and mostly shows that once you strip away the Ann Coulter–style bile, there’s little left in the restrictionist position. He admits up top that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or indulge in substance abuse than native-born Americans. He tries, halfheartedly, to cast doubt on the economics literature that has consistently shown that the arrival of new immigrants doesn’t hurt the wages of other workers much, if at all (other immigrants, or people without high school degrees, may see their wages drop slightly in the short term), before suggesting the issue isn’t that important. (“Neither the fiscal costs nor the economic benefits of immigration are large enough to force a decision one way or the other,” he writes.) He tries to claim that immigrants are lowering Americans’ average education and skill levels, but fails to mention that today’s new arrivals are now more likely to have a college or graduate degree than native-born Americans. In the end, he’s left arguing that the presence of unnaturalized immigrants has encouraged companies to abuse their employees—blame the victim, much?—while making the U.S. more hierarchical, sort of like Dubai. There’s also an odd Malthusian aside about how bringing more people to the United States could hasten global warming. Suffice to say, once you’ve given up on economics, public health, and public safety as battlegrounds for this subject, there isn’t a whole lot left to stake an argument on.