When New York billionaire and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump launched into his anti-immigrant tirade against Mexicans crossing the border, he was using a long-known political technique of plugging into the live wire of American resentment of “the other.”
Today, it’s Latinos, of course; more precisely, those from the southern borders: Mexicans, Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans and the like.
But, since the 19th century, politicians have used these currents of fear to fuel movements against those who came from abroad. In those days, though, the targets of nativists’ ire were the Irish, Russian Jews, Italians and other Europeans.
These forces gave birth to the American Party, a fierce anti-immigrant group that became known popularly as the “Know Nothings.” They formed a third party during the 1850s and ran former U.S. President Millard Fillmore as their unsuccessful candidate.
U.S. historian Richard Hofstadter (1910-1970), in his classic work, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” argued that much of the energy of the anti-immigrant forces stemmed from what might be called “status anxiety,” or the intense insecurities of people unsure of their place in U.S. society, but who could point to others — immigrants — who held weaker positions in society.
Furthermore, these anxiety-ridden groups often have mixed feelings of fear and admiration of social elites, and who is more elite than the superrich?
Witness the spectacle of Donald Trump, who, without question, is perhaps the richest man ever to run for president — and is a billionaire populist, no less!
I wouldn’t get too excited about his place in the polls right now. In 2012, the toast of both press and polls was a pizza executive named Herman Cain. We know how that worked out.
But most candidates, especially of the GOP, worship at the throne of the wealthy, for they are the ones they serve.
The thousands and millions who rage at Latino immigrants also worship the rich.
In Donald Trump they have found their voice. And he has found, in the energies of resentment, undeniable fuel for failure.