Commentary Magazine


Topic: Know Nothings

The Voice of the Know-Nothing Caucus

Rep. Steve King’s predilection for saying foolish things is well known. The latest shot from the Iowa Republican’s hip was his denunciation of those who might be beneficiaries of a bill that might legalize those illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Rather than accept the fact that most of these youngsters are going to college, working, serving in the armed forces, and generally being a credit to their adopted country, King chose to smear them as predators and threats to society in a Newsmax interview:

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got hands the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King tells Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.”

For this outbreak of hoof-in-mouth disease in which he stereotyped Latinos as drug smugglers, Republicans such as Speaker John Boehner as well as Rep. Raul Labrador, who has joined King in opposing the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill, spanked King. But the outspoken Iowan was unfazed and doubled down on his slander. King’s loose prejudicial talk will become a major headache for Republicans if he is able to rally enough Tea Partiers to help him get the GOP nomination for the Senate next year. Tom Harkin’s retirement creates an open seat in Iowa and it is a winnable race for Republicans if they can avoid nominating a loose cannon like King. But the real problem for the GOP isn’t so much that a loud mouth like King will be next year’s version of Todd Akin as it is the way he is giving voice to a nasty element of the party’s grass roots on immigration that threatens to hijack both the debate on the issue as well as the party.

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Rep. Steve King’s predilection for saying foolish things is well known. The latest shot from the Iowa Republican’s hip was his denunciation of those who might be beneficiaries of a bill that might legalize those illegal immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Rather than accept the fact that most of these youngsters are going to college, working, serving in the armed forces, and generally being a credit to their adopted country, King chose to smear them as predators and threats to society in a Newsmax interview:

“For everyone who’s a valedictorian, there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds — and they’ve got hands the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” King tells Newsmax. “Those people would be legalized with the same act.”

For this outbreak of hoof-in-mouth disease in which he stereotyped Latinos as drug smugglers, Republicans such as Speaker John Boehner as well as Rep. Raul Labrador, who has joined King in opposing the Senate’s bipartisan immigration reform bill, spanked King. But the outspoken Iowan was unfazed and doubled down on his slander. King’s loose prejudicial talk will become a major headache for Republicans if he is able to rally enough Tea Partiers to help him get the GOP nomination for the Senate next year. Tom Harkin’s retirement creates an open seat in Iowa and it is a winnable race for Republicans if they can avoid nominating a loose cannon like King. But the real problem for the GOP isn’t so much that a loud mouth like King will be next year’s version of Todd Akin as it is the way he is giving voice to a nasty element of the party’s grass roots on immigration that threatens to hijack both the debate on the issue as well as the party.

Conservatives may agree to disagree on the virtues of various immigration reform proposals, but the dilemma for Republicans isn’t so much the question of who is right about the details of the gang of eight’s bill, or any possible alternatives that are probably going to be killed in the House by recalcitrant conservatives. The problem is that the driving force behind this debate isn’t whether it will help or hurt the economy or whether it will uphold the rule of law or undermine it. The unfortunate truth is that as much as the adults in the House GOP would like to shush King, his stupid remarks are a fair representation of what many of those baying about “amnesty” and calling conservatives like Marco Rubio and others who support reform “traitors” are thinking.

Lest you think I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, Ramesh Ponnuru, who writes in National Review against immigration reform, agrees with my conclusion when he conceded in response to something I wrote that, “much of the opposition to the legislation is cultural rather than economic.” Ponnuru disagrees with my belief that “cultural concerns about immigration are necessarily disreputable or suspect” since he believes America’s social cohesion is undermined by having too many immigrants. But such arguments seem to be primarily about putting an intellectual gloss on hostility to newcomers that is a prejudice that is as old as the republic. 

There are legitimate worries about whether liberal policies have undermined the natural assimilation process that every generation of immigrants has undergone. But when Ponnuru speculates that polls that show hostility to immigrants are based on the “cultural” concerns he is championing, what he is doing is exposing the ugly underside of a movement that has more in common with 19th century Know Nothings than modern conservatism.

What those who try to defend this point of view fail to understand or acknowledge is that their belief that this generation of immigrants is somehow different from every previous wave of newcomers to this nation is far from original. The same arguments about the unsavory impact on American society that will result from importing a large number of low-skilled immigrant workers were made in the 19th century about the Irish, Germans, Italians, and Jews. Like today’s Hispanic migrants, those immigrants didn’t speak English, tended to isolate themselves in their own communities and didn’t have much in common with the WASPs that had preceded them on American shores. They also filled a need for low-skilled labor.

The Know Nothings and their successors didn’t believe in the power of American society to assimilate new arrivals. Neither do those who oppose immigration today. While contemporary conditions are different, that basic truth is not. Immigrants always change America, but there is no reason to believe that the impact of this influx will be any less salubrious than the tide of Eastern and Southern Europeans that previous generations of nativists so feared.

That brings us back to King. Though he is less cagey about his articulation of this cultural opposition to the bill than many other opponents, his insults probably are a better representation of the core beliefs of the anti-immigrant crowd than the more presentable views of Ponnuru.

What Speaker Boehner and other responsible Republican leaders must understand is that by allowing King and other knee-jerk anti-reform members to intimidate the GOP caucus into spiking any chance for reform, he is letting the House be governed by the basest instincts in our political firmament. The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol and National Review’s Rich Lowry wrote earlier this month that, unlike the case in 2006, opposition to the gang of eight’s bill had been “responsible” rather than being based in hostility to immigrants. King’s outburst is just the latest evidence to show that the “cultural” basis for opposing the legislation (as opposed to the reasoned approach taken by Kristol and Lowry) that is drenched in prejudice is the real driving force behind this debate.

The biggest long-term problem for Republicans isn’t the alienation of Hispanic voters. It’s that letting people like King call the tune in the House will turn off moderates and conservatives that don’t wish to be associated with bigots and their fellow-travelers. No amount of “missing white voters” or other possible solutions to the GOP’s dilemma can overcome that sort of image.

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