Donald Trump, immigration and the end of American exceptionalism

At the risk of being rude, we need to revisit the big loss that millions witnessed on Fox last Sunday.

No, not the Atlanta Falcons. Their time will come. Eventually. Maybe. I speak of the loss of American exceptionalism — that sense, deeply rooted in Republican thought, that this nation is great because it is good.

A victim of the pre-Super Bowl hoopla, this concept vanished during the televised conversation between President Donald Trump and Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly. The topic was Russian President Vladimir Putin:

O’Reilly: Putin’s a killer.

Trump: There are a lot of killers. We got a lot of killers. What — you think our country’s so innocent? You think our country’s so innocent?

O’Reilly: I don’t know of any government leaders that are killers.

Trump: Well, take a look at what we’ve done, too. We’ve made a lot of mistakes.

Republicans often accused President Barack Obama of abandoning American exceptionalism. Trump has actually done it. “I don’t like the term — I’ll be honest with you,” Trump said as a candidate in June to a group of Texas tea partyers.

Look, I get it. When you’re sitting across from an adversary, cutting a bargain, making a deal, claims of moral superiority get you nowhere.

But last Sunday, Trump wasn’t talking to Putin. He was talking to us. And he was telling us that America would be great because it would be strong. And we have always hoped for something more.

We’ve seen this before. People forget that the election of Ronald Reagan wasn’t just a rejection of Jimmy Carter. It was also a rebuke of the realpolitik of Henry Kissinger and the Nixon administration.

Reagan traded in optimism. This president specializes in fear. Trump speaks of “this American carnage” that exists outside your doorstep, waiting to grab you by the throat. Only 28 years ago, a Republican president felt differently about his “shining city upon a hill.”



“In my mind, it was a tall, proud city, built on rocks, stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds,” Reagan said as he exited the White House. “And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors. And the doors were opened to anyone with a will and the heart to get here.”

We have not always been a force for good, but we have always aspired to it. And the evidence we most often cite as proof is our willingness to take in the lowest rejects of other countries — and give them the elbow room to thrive.

The problem that comes with holding your country out as a beacon of light is that people will be drawn to it. Shine it and they will come. Yet right now, walls with much smaller doors are a growth stock.

Two days after Trump’s pre-Super Bowl remarks, U.S. Sens. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., picked up the banner being abandoned by Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who was leaving the chamber to become U.S. attorney general.

Perdue and Cotton pitched a bill to cut immigration into the U.S. from 1 million to 500,000 a year. The bill is not aimed at illegal immigration. Nor at the H-1B visas that corporations seek to bring in specialized workers. Nor does it have anything to do with the travel bans now tied up in federal appeals.

This measure is directed at the “huddled masses” cited at the base of the Statue of Liberty. An annual “lottery” that allows 50,000 immigrants would be discontinued. As far as family members go, the new measure would restrict preferences to spouses, dependent underage children and elderly parents in need of personal care.

“Returning to our historically normal levels of legal immigration will help improve the quality of American jobs and wages,” Perdue said.

Cotton, too, drew a line between immigration and low wages. Automation and globalization might be factors, he conceded. He didn’t mention the decline in union membership, but I will.

All that aside, the two senators were focused on immigration as a means of boosting wages. “I think those two things are directly connected,” Cotton said. Except that a great deal of evidence argues that they’re not.

Supply and demand works if there are only two choices. That’s not us. “Senators Cotton and Perdue may intend to raise the wages of lower-skilled Americans, but their bill is more likely to line the coffers of firms that manufacture machines that can substitute for them,” wrote Alex Nowrasteh of the conservative Cato Institute.

But it does put a face on the problem of low wages.

Ideas are investments in the future. Perdue, who backed Trump early in last year’s presidential contest, has made his — though he has hedged that bet with his opposition to a House Republican plan to that would levy heavy taxes on all goods imported into the U.S. That’s another strategy aimed at increasing the wages of those left behind.

Other Republicans, too, will have to choose between the last-chance revolutionism of Trump and the optimism of Reagan. Among the first will be candidates in the Sixth District race to replace U.S. Rep. Tom Price, who is now secretary of health and human services.

The field is large. One of the lesser-known Republican candidates is Kurt Wilson, a Roswell small business owner. “It is important to recognize and celebrate that President Trump’s campaign proved the out-of-control political machine in Washington, D.C., is, in fact, vulnerable,” he has been quoted as saying. “There is real opportunity to break into a system that has outgrown its purpose and build a modern, representative government.”

Another possible candidate is Charles Kuck, a GOP immigration lawyer. At this writing, he’s not sure that he’ll run. His business is about to experience some heavy traffic.

But in a way, I hope that he does. He would bring an argument that might be outdated but deserves a hearing.

Kuck could be considered a Republican in the mold of John Kasich — who finished fourth, with 10 percent, among Sixth District voters in last March’s GOP presidential primary. (U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida came in first with 39 percent, followed by Trump with 28 percent.)

Kuck doesn’t cotton to Perdue’s immigration bill. Nor is he a fan of the new president’s vision of America. “This is the complete opposite of what Ronald Reagan did for our party 30 years ago. I’m sure he’s rolling over in his grave at this point,” he said.

“The 6th District is not a Donald Trump/anti-immigration district,” he said. “If you drive through Alpharetta, and see all the software companies here, and the neighborhoods in Sandy Springs and Dunwoody, what you see is the modern American society. Which has immigrants and native-born Americans living side by side in a booming economy.”

That would make for an interesting argument in a largely Republican district: Do you live in Ronald Reagan’s world? Or Donald Trump’s?

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