What is at stake in the long-running battle over illegal immigration? The answer from the overwhelming majority of Americans who worry about it is “the defense of the rule of law.” Others speak of the economic impact of unskilled workers on employment and wages. But for a minority, there is something else at issue. They think that the influx of Hispanics from Mexico and Central America or immigrants from the Middle East — whether they arrive legally or illegally — is a threat to the fabric of American culture and values.
That is the context in which we must understand Representative Steve King’s tweet this past weekend:
Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.
King’s tweet was in support of Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose nationalist party is a serious contender in Wednesday’s general election in the Netherlands. King also included a link to another account that praised Wilders’s stand against immigrants:
Hundreds of Islamists shouting “Allahu Akbar” in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Wilders is right for over 10 years.
This is not the first time the Iowa congressman has courted controversy, but it is vital for conservatives and the Trump administration to make clear that their concerns about immigration have nothing to with King’s suggestion that the threat to Western civilization is “other people’s babies.”
The challenge that nations such as the Netherlands face from large-scale immigration raises questions about how a national identity rooted in a homogeneous ethnic and religious culture can accommodate newcomers. The question isn’t merely whether immigrants accept the country’s laws; it’s also whether those who don’t share a common ethnicity and who practice a different faith will transform the nation into a place that isn’t Dutch. The threat of Islamist terrorism and the establishment of ethnic minority communities that become “no go” zones for Europeans have transformed Wilders from a xenophobic outlier into a man whose party is among the largest in parliament. Electorates all over Europe are replicating the trend.
But whatever one may think about the choices facing Europeans, there is little or no analogy between what is happening there and the choices Americans face. The Left is attempting to portray as xenophobic President Trump’s temporary travel ban from six countries that are terrorist hotbeds; Trump is as bigoted as Wilders, they claim. But this hyperbole misrepresents both the controversy in the Netherlands and the entire debate about immigration in this country.
One can think that current vetting procedures for legal immigrants and refugees are not as rigorous as they should be and still accept the idea that the United States is — in contrast to the nations of Europe — a nation of immigrants. The same is true of those who rightly insist that America has — like every other sovereign state on the planet — a right to police its borders and determine who may enter.
While the United States began its life as a nation of white Protestants whose forebears came from the British Isles, the national identity the Founders forged was not based, at least in principle, on race, ethnicity, or religion. That is why an American culture rooted in ideas about liberty, democracy, and the rule of law not only survived but flourished as the population of the nation was eventually transformed from a WASP majority into one in which the descendants of the Scotch Irish and English settlers became a minority.
Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were each branded in turn as aliens from a culture with no history of supporting democracy.
That transformation was not without struggle: Irish, German, Italian, and Eastern European Jewish immigrants were each branded in turn as aliens from a culture with no history of supporting democracy. Even as each group took its place in American society, other Americans feared that the newcomers could never assimilate.
That is why King’s attempt to inject race into the immigration debate is unacceptable. He might claim he was talking about culture, but the mention of “babies” is a not-so-subtle attempt to say that the survival of Western values requires white children to outnumber those who are not white.
Support for multiculturalism and bilingual education undermines the process by which contemporary immigrants from Hispanic or other Third World countries can successfully assimilate into the American mainstream. But the sort of problems that exist in European nations — where even immigrants who wish to fully assimilate may never be seen as full-fledged members of society — will never be replicated in America. Here, having one’s descendants come over on the Mayflower isn’t the test by which one judges American identity.
By asserting that preserving “our civilization” cannot be accomplished by “other people’s babies,” King is promoting a view of American identity that is at odds with the country’s basic principles. To believe that Hispanic or Muslim immigrants — or those of any other ethnicity or faith — can’t fully accept the values about liberty that King claims to cherish is to ignore two centuries of U.S. history and ideas. “Other people’s babies” have been fighting and dying to defend American values since before Iowa was a state.
At the heart of King’s statement is not only a prejudicial mindset but also a profound pessimism about the strength of the values the congressman says he wishes to preserve. The country thrived because those values were not the preserve of a specific ethnic or religious group but could be embraced by anyone regardless of his background or faith. It is not naïve to assert that this hasn’t changed even while the skin color of immigrants is darker today than it was in the past. That is the essence of American exceptionalism. To think that only white babies can preserve this legacy is a betrayal of conservative principles that are rooted in faith in the law rather than race.
The fact that some immigrants or their children reject American democratic traditions or embrace violence is certainly discouraging — just as it was a century ago when anarchists and violent leftists posed a threat that inspired the same kind of fear we experience today. But the vast majority of newcomers always understood the enormous value of the opportunity and freedom on offer in America. That is why people from all over the world still clamor to come here, whether or not they have permission.
Trump’s election victory was enabled by a strong turnout of white working-class voters who were understandably dissatisfied with the status quo and disillusioned with the promises of liberalism. He showed that it was possible to win — albeit with a minority of the popular vote — while demanding that illegal immigration be curbed.
If conservatives wish to continue governing in the future, they must reject talk about ‘other people’s babies’ and promote their ideas.
But Trump’s targeting of a voting group that was neglected by his opponents is no excuse for Republicans to follow King’s example and trespass into territory where open racists promoting “white nationalism” have set up shop. Even if every illegal immigrant were deported tomorrow, and if every would-be illegal immigrant were barred entry, the shift toward a less-white America is already baked into the country’s demographic cake. If conservatives wish to continue governing in the future, they must reject talk about “other people’s babies” and promote their ideas with enough confidence that Hispanics and other minorities will eventually embrace them.
Modern American conservatism was founded by the willingness of some to “stand athwart history yelling stop,” but William F. Buckley and his colleagues were not seeking to yell stop to Americans who were not white. That is why it is incumbent upon conservatives to reject any connection between their beliefs or their political party with the ideas that animated Steve King’s tweet. A failure to do so will not merely hurt conservatives politically; it will hasten the decline of the values they cherish.