It’s always been far too easy for Americans to strut around the world’s living room praising our own inclusiveness … acting very much as revisionist historians who, once past the obvious ugly, move along quickly to “welcome” the world’s hungry, tired and poor.
The folly of attempting to rest the progress of a religious creed by persecutions and civil disabilities has been so often demonstrated that it is surprising to see it survived in this age and country. A distinguished advocate of religious liberty decreed, nearly a half-century ago, that even in Great Britain nearly all of its opponents had been silenced - some have been taught sense, others inspired with shame, until none were left upon the field except those that could neither learn nor blush.
We are, in fact, quite accomplished in repackaging a dark, ugly history with fancy wrapping paper tied together with red, white and blue ribbons that seem to surface with predictable dramatic flair as Americans walk into voting booths.
There’s not a whole lot of rewrite that can be done to sanitise the genocide of Native people or to recast slavery or reduce misogyny to anything but. These are, after all, the cornerstones upon which the United States was built. And the march from Asia to railroad peonage is littered with the bodies of indentured servants who typically found relief only in the opium that came with their forced labour as they built the passageway of the US from one coast to another.
It’s a trail of tears that began long before the American Revolution and which continues on today as very much an open, oozing infection … one described not all that long ago by our Supreme Court as “badges and incidents of slavery“ in a case which held that Congress had the authority to prohibit even private acts of ongoing discrimination.
Likewise, the smug sermon of religious freedom and diversity that seems to find its way into every politician’s pulpit is belied by periods of religious persecution that not only predate the American Revolution but periodically stop to revisit us as so much a dark reminder of the wide chasm between blind faith and political reality.
The “non-violent” part of the story is easy. It has its genesis, not long after the Revolutionary war, when varied states abolished some churches while supporting others, issued preaching licences and collected tax money to fund and establish official state churches. Were it just about “peaceful” institutional discrimination, it would be far easier to sell the tale of evolving cultural and religious diversity and freedom. But it’s not.
Indeed, beginning in the 17th century, anti-Quaker laws imposed penalties upon “heretics” ranging from expulsion to capital punishment. In the 18th century, physical assaults and near-drowning of Baptists often became the cost of their beliefs.
The 19th century brought us torched convents, pitched gun battles between “nativist” Americans and mostly Irish Catholic immigrants, and a Mormon town burned to the ground with its leaders executed.
In the 20th century, Jews became increasing targets of anti-religious fervour which ranged from imposition of immigration quotas based upon national origin to exclusion from colleges, to being banned from holding political office, and to violent attacks typically carried out by special societies such as the Silver Shirts or the Ku Klux Klan.
In the early days of the 21st century, reported anti-Muslim hate crimes soared nationwide from 28 to 481 and ran the gamut from racial and religious slurs to attacks on mosques and to physical assaults and murder.
Ours is a political experience long rooted in theological and social animosity and domination; one where majority religious groups have long controlled domestic political power and opportunities that derive from its reach. Indeed, historically, theocratic rule has been quick to punish dissent within our midst and viewed immigrants with “competing” religious beliefs and values with suspicion as very much outsiders and undemocratic.
So, one might ask, what is there, then, about the most recent Trump attack upon Muslims, all Muslims, that stands in dramatic contrast from a long and sordid American history of targeted persecutions of minorities based upon nothing more than religious and immigrant status?
The easy part of the equation is it’s 2017 … a long way removed from the time and place where we feared witches and hanged women. Indeed, one would like to think that in an “enlightened”, educated, and culturally diverse “advanced” society, no president would dare to target men, women and children for exclusion or deportation from our shores on the basis of their place of birth, or belief, and nothing more.
But Trump is not your run-of-the-mill president. He has made a career out of exploiting the fears of others to his personal benefit and, like the brash bully that he is, has perfected the art of the contemporary coliseum where today’s Roman elite decide the fate of the relatively powerless … not with a thumbs-up or down but through immigration policies that play to the roar of the crowd … a crowd long manipulated by ignorance and political greed which reduces 25 percent of the world’s population to presumptive enemy status by little more than the number of times that they pray each day.
Is Donald Trump’s rhetoric, now executive policy, aberrant, or unique? Of course not. Tragically, nothing could be further from the truth. As noted, it is but another in a long history of legislative and political efforts to control the borders and street ways that, on the one hand, hold out the promise of freedom as an opportunity but, on the other, reduce it to little more than a tease based upon colour, class and religious belief.
If the past is indeed a prelude, a passing look at just several of these failed attempts to homogenise the American experience offers much a glimpse of, ultimately, where and how Trump will fail in his effort to convert the US into a mirror image of his own insular and supremacist views and “values”.
The Alien and Sedition Acts
In 1798 the Alien and Sedition Acts were a series of four laws proposed by the Federalist Party purportedly to increase “national security”. In relevant part, these laws changed residency requirements for obtaining citizenship and gave the president power to imprison or deport aliens. The Acts themselves came about in response to American “fears” that unrest in Europe was starting to haemorrhage over into the US.
The Federalists felt this turmoil was caused by immigrants who sympathised with the French Revolution and led people to believe that the Acts were necessary to eliminate foreign enemies residing in the US and to make America a safer place. Sound familiar?
After the laws went into effect, the government began compiling a list of aliens that were to be deported. Many who were not incarcerated fled the country on their own to avoid deportation or imprisonment.
Following the implementation of the Act in 1798, future Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison secretly drafted the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions which not only denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts as unconstitutional but prompted the first serious defence of the principles of states’ rights.
Not long thereafter, with the rise of public revulsion over the Acts, Jefferson was elected president. He immediately pardoned individuals who were still incarcerated for violating the Sedition Act and repaid the individuals’ fines with government funds.
More than 200 years later, some 15 states including Washington, Minnesota, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York, the District of Columbia along with more than 150 former US attorneys and assistant US attorneys from California, New York and Florida and some 100 US-based international companies now seek to strike down the Trump executive order which targets Muslims for exclusion or deportation from the US.
These challenges derive their impetus from the very claims raised by Jefferson and Adams against the Alien and Sedition Acts, namely that states need not sit silent in the presence of unconstitutional federal attacks upon their citizens, visitors and refugees but can, in fact, seek relief in federal courts even against policies of the president normally found within the unique province of his power.
The internment of Japanese Americans
One hundred and forty years later, the Alien and Sedition Acts laid the foundation for imprisoning so-called enemy aliens, namely Japanese Americans, and confiscating their property during World War II.
As a result of Executive Order 9066 issued in 1942 by President Franklin Roosevelt, military commanders were empowered to designate “military areas” from which “any and all persons [could] be excluded.” More than 120,000 mostly second and third-generation Japanese Americans – many, Buddhists – were forcibly relocated from their homes mostly on the West Coast of the US and incarcerated in “camps” in the interior of the country.
Although ordered not long after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, there is little doubt that the forced relocation was triggered by political frenzy stirred by hate groups such as the Asiatic Exclusion League, the California Joint Immigration Committee and Native Sons of the Golden West which, along with various earlier Immigration Acts, had long targeted Japanese Americans and immigrants from other “undesirable” Asian countries as part of the “yellow peril”.
Although Roosevelt’s exclusion order was upheld by the Supreme Court on limited grounds, some 40 years later Congress passed the Civil Liberties Act which apologised for the internment and authorised reparations to each individual camp survivor. The legislation, which specifically acknowledged that government actions were based on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership”, resulted in payments of more than $1.6bn to some 80,000 Japanese Americans who had been interned and their heirs.
These are just two of the most extreme examples of race and religious-based hate by the executive and legislative branches of the federal government that cover a 200-year period of US history. They are, however, by no means alien to the American experience which, throughout its run, has targeted immigrants and American citizens alike for no reason other than heritage, race or religion. From the Know-Nothing Movement of the 1850s, to the Palmer Raids of the 1920s, to the McCarthy era some three decades later, there are countless examples of when, like now, political animus has driven petty politicians and hate groups alike to target the most vulnerable among us.
Hate is always senseless and, ultimately, self-defeating. It starts out with hating religious beliefs … be they of Catholics, Jews, or Muslims … and along the way sweeps within its dreadful destructive reach refugees from countries as diverse as Ireland, Italy, China, Palestine and Syria, to name a few.
Hate unites the bonds of fear and ignorance for those who find perverse relief in the pain of others to make more palatable their own personal and political discomfort.
Hate is a virulent malady indeed, one that seems to travel with the passage of time.
Donald Trump is one such traveller.
Stanley L Cohen is a lawyer and human rights activist who has done extensive work in the Middle East and Africa.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.