I want to love #ResistanceGenealogy, the hashtag and project started by Jennifer Mendelsohn. The journalist and researcher digs up genealogical information on prominent Trumpsters, especially those who are architects and cheerleaders of the administration’s restrictive stance on immigration. Tomi Lahren’s great-great-grandfather forged citizenship papers; Mike Pence’s family benefited from “chain migration”; James Woods’ ancestors fled famine and moved to Britain as refugees. Plenty of liberals applaud Mendelsohn’s finds; others have joined in the project and contributed to the hashtag with their own family stories. She’s gotten coverage everywhere from Politico to Wonkette to CNN.
But #ResistanceGenealogy is fundamentally flawed. Its popularity showcases the left’s inability to recognize how deeply racism is embedded in the Trump administration’s approach to immigration, and to see clearly what the effects of that racism are.
Starting in the 1830s and 1840s, some American abolitionists advocated for a tactic called moral suasion, arguing that surely white Americans who truly knew about the full horrors of slavery would change their minds and fight for its abolition. They tried to promote fellow feeling, telling stories of separation and sexual abuse to play upon Victorian idealization of family togetherness and womanly virtue. This worked for some listeners, but not for others, whose racism and complicity in the system deadened any natural empathy they might have had. Ending slavery took a war.
It feels like we’re making a similar mistake here. Mendelsohn has tweeted that her project is about compassion, and strives for the awakening of empathy. But no extremely moving information about John Kelly’s or Mike Pence’s families from decades ago will make immigration hawks rethink the way they perceive a story like the one about ICE taking an 18-month-old child from his Honduran mother—telling her to strap him into a car seat, and then driving away without allowing her to say goodbye. From an immigration hawk’s point of view, that’s not anyone like their mother, not anyone like their family.
The chasm between the life and experiences of a white American, even one who’s descended from desperate immigrants of decades past, and the life of this Honduran mother is the entire point of racist anti-immigration thought. Diminishment of the human qualities of entering immigrants (“unskilled” and “unmodern” immigrants coming from “shithole” countries) reinforces the distance between the two. People who support the Trump administration’s immigration policies want fewer Honduran mothers and their 18-month-olds to enter the country. If you start from this position, nothing you hear about illiterate Germans coming to the United States in the 19th century will change your mind.
Besides giving people who rally against immigration too much benefit of the doubt, this comparative approach is ahistorical (purposefully so, since it’s making an argument for the connection between human experiences across time). This, like our reliance on the invocation of the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty, flattens everything out in a way that does nothing to enhance a pro-immigration argument for 2018.
We need to get past the idea that immigration hawks simply don’t know the immigration history of this country. In an influential 1992 article in the National Review, anti-immigration hard-liner and white (excuse me, “civic”) nationalist Peter Brimelow wrote that the restrictive decades between the enactment of restrictive quotas in the 1920s and the 1965 Immigration Act—a time he called “the Great Immigration Lull”—gave the country time to absorb and assimilate the immigrants who came in the early 20th century. (In one surreal passage, he writes, “the American nation was just swallowing, and then digesting … an unusually large and spicy immigrant meal.”)
That 1920s decision to install quotas based on racist pseudoscience, which historians on the left view as a damning episode in American immigration history, was, to Brimelow, a positive story: “[O]nce convinced that their nationhood was threatened by continued massive immigration, Americans changed the public policies that made it possible.” (Jeff Sessions is a fan too.) Brimelow’s 1995 book Alien Nation got positive coverage from the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, Atlantic Monthly, and so on. Brimelow, and those who think like him, know very well what the history of American immigration was like. They just draw different lessons from it than liberals do.
What about the idea that Americans who benefited from immigration in the past should not “pull up the ladder” after themselves—that they should, knowing their family’s history of struggle and success, give others the chance their ancestors were accorded? Liberals, animated by a sense of fairness, can’t believe that somebody descended from Italian peasants can live with the idea of excluding Syrian refugees today. But what looks like the most galling hypocrisy to liberals seems, to immigration hawks, like self-protective common sense. In one passage, Brimelow mocked the core of the very argument animating #ResistanceGenealogy: “How can X be against immigration when the nativists wanted to keep his own great-grandfather out?” This concept is illogical, Brimelow writes: “This, of course, is like arguing that a passenger already on board the lifeboat should refrain from pointing out that taking on more will cause it to capsize.”
It’s not possible to overcome today’s racist thought on immigration with reminders about past discrimination. The Irish and Italians and Germans weren’t “white” back then, as resistance genealogists like to remind people like John Kelly, but they sure are white now. Since it’s a stated belief of many on the right that a history of discrimination, even a horrific one, shouldn’t matter to a person living in 2018 (see: “Why are black people always talking about slavery?”), it makes little sense to expect that this information about past oppression would move any immigration hawk to defend today’s huddled masses.
One mistake that the left tends to make in engaging in historical fights is to believe the right is simply ignorant and that exposure to more history will change their minds. Liberals do this again and again: writing pieces about Andrew Jackson’s horrific treatment of the Cherokees, issuing correctives about the cause of the Civil War (slavery—it was slavery), telling Kanye to read a book. We seem to hope, all evidence to the contrary, that the real information will get through—and once it gets through, it’ll meet minds that share our moral values and will change accordingly. #ResistanceGenealogy makes all of these assumptions. It gravely underestimates the gulf between these two belief systems. I wish it would work. It won’t.