The Atlantic’s David Frum has a new feature out today with the rather subtle headline, “If Liberals Won’t Enforce Borders, Fascists Will.”
It’s an extension of something the former Bush speechwriter has been tweeting about for months, an idea that’s becoming increasingly popular on the center-right: that we should accept the premise of right-wing populists that immigration in Europe and the U.S. is out of control, and that the movement’s opponents need to move right on the issue if they stand any chance of beating the rising tide of fascism. In advocating for this supposed middle ground, Frum not only gets the causes of the far-right’s rise wrong, he essentially adopts their reasoning as his own, albeit with a less overtly racist tone.
After dropping some immigration statistics meant to make your jaw drop (11 million immigrants in the country without legal authorization?? More immigrants came here in the 1990s than much of the 20th century, when immigration policy was premised on a fear of communism? You don’t say), Frum praises Hillary Clinton for saying last November that European liberals have to curb immigration if they want to stay in power. Then, he predictably attacks the left for not having an immigration strategy based in hysterical fear-mongering:
But the political rise of Donald Trump has radicalized many of his opponents on immigration. Some mainstream liberal commentators, such as Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times, have called for completely open borders. While not many Democrats have gone that far publicly, some—including most prominently the 2020 presidential hopefuls—have expressed ever greater unease about removing people who cross borders unauthorized.
In the fall of 2018, an unprecedentedly large caravan of would-be border crossers—peaking at 7,000 people—headed toward the United States from Central America. Trump demagogically seized on the caravan as a voting issue before the November midterm elections—and goaded many of his critics to equally inflammatory responses. “This whole caravan in the last week of the election is a giant lie. This is Trump’s Reichstag fire. It is a lie,” said a guest on MSNBC’s All In With Chris Hayes. But however manipulatively oversold, the caravan existed; it was not a lie. Thousands of people were indeed approaching the U.S. border, many hoping to force their way across by weight of numbers.
Frum’s leaving a rather obvious fact out about this: Trump lost the midterms. The Democrats took back the House by winning a net total of nearly 40 seats, and although they lost a few seats in the Senate (partially due to a deeply unfavorable map), Democrats received nearly 20 million more votes in U.S. Senate races last year than Republicans did.
Those numbers weren’t driven by a tidal wave of coastal elites coming out of the woodwork; arguably, the Democrats did best in states situated along the border with Mexico. Aside from the GOP’s near annihilation in deep-blue California, this cycle marked the best showing for Democrats in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas in decades. When the new Congress was sworn in this year, every single member representing a district on the border opposed funding Trump’s border wall. On the flip side, those states with the lowest levels of immigration tend to be the most anti-immigrant. It’s not just here, either: Brexit’s strongest support came from places with low levels of immigration.
Undeterred, Frum later cites immigration as the defining reason behind the far-right’s takeover in Europe:
The extremism and authoritarianism that have surged within the developed world since 2005 draw strength from many social and economic causes. Immigration is only one of them—but it is typically the spark that ignites the larger conflagration. Immigration has done particular damage to political parties of the moderate left. From the 1970s until the 2010s, social-democratic parties dominated the politics of the European Union member states. As of last spring, among the 28 governments of the EU, only Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden were led by social democrats. The German Social Democrats have suffered a staggering series of defeats at the national and state levels. In the October 2018 state elections in Bavaria, they lost half their seats, finishing in fifth place behind the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party.
The 40-year “dominance” of social democrats in Europe—which is quite a bit overstated, not least because many of the social democratic parties (such as British Labour and the French Socialist Party) largely moved to the right during the neoliberal reform period of the 1990s and 2000s—did not come to an end in the early 2010s as a matter of coincidence. Dismissing a crushing, worldwide recession which governing center-left and center-right parties all over then tried to solve with crushing budget cuts as just one of “many social and economic causes” behind the rise of the right is overlooking quite a bit. Yes, it’s true that the far-right capitalized on austerity by pitting native-born Europeans and Americans against immigrants from the Middle East and Central America; in Frum’s thousands of words here, however, the word “austerity” does not appear once.
What is Frum’s solution to all of this? Essentially, it boils down to a big middle finger to poor immigrants from Central America, some of whom are attempting to flee their home countries after U.S. foreign policy helped make those places unlivable. Frum, for example, sounds positively Sessionsesque when describing people seeking asylum: “The asylum seekers are advancing their interests and those of their families as best they can. Americans have the same responsibility to do what is best for Americans.”
Instead, Frum proposes that we reduce immigration overall while limiting the immigrants we do allow in to those that are “highly skilled” and “high-earning.” Essentially, reducing people to the value they add to the economy:
And shifting that intake sharply away from family reunification (by, for example, ending preferences for adult siblings) would enable the U.S. to emphasize acceptance of highly skilled, high-earning immigrants—more doctors from Nigeria, say, or software engineers from India.
(Or—hear me out—columnists from Toronto.)
The fact is that America has never gained anything positive from ceding ground to the nativist movement. With the exception of racists and fascists, no one looks back with fondness on previous efforts to shut down immigration, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Immigration Act of 1924. These were dark, small-minded times in American history based on fears of immigrants and the politics they might bring to the United States, even though the vast majority of those immigrants (certainly no less than the American-born population) were productive members of society.
It’s not necessary to tell the far-right that it has a point in order to beat it. One alternative is by putting together a bold economic program to improve the lives of working people, for whom the recession never really went away, without throwing the most vulnerable people in society under the bus. But for a lot of people in the center-right like Frum—and hell, even some in the center-left—that’s a solution that looks much, much scarier than adopting a Trump-lite immigration strategy.