The spirit of Donald Trump was alive 100 years ago and more, when his spiritual forebears also were demonizing people from countries they described in pejorative terms.
Trump’s recent targets include immigrants from Africa and Haiti. A century-plus ago, nativist crosshairs were trained on the great waves of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, China.
Many lacked formal education. Most were poor. Their intellects were questioned, they were deemed fit only for manual labor, and they were scorned.
Now, of course, they’re relatively OK. Why? Because they’ve proved themselves to be as worthy as the Norwegians that Trump wishes would emigrate here?
No, they’re OK because time showed that all they wanted was a better life for themselves and their families, and that they were willing to work hard and study hard to achieve that, and that they passed that dream on to their children. They knew what their critics eventually learned, that it’s always about what beats within the hearts and courses through the minds of the people who come here, not what someone imagines to be the conditions in the countries from which they came or the signification of the color of their skin.
And now, Trump. And how much has changed? The president then, Woodrow Wilson, was presiding over the segregation of the federal government. The president now has a history of divisiveness.
His remarks Thursday questioning why he should accept immigrants from “[expletive] countries” instead of nations like Norway were appalling. That he uttered them on the birthday of Alexander Hamilton — the founding father who emigrated from a life of impoverishment on the Caribbean island of Nevis to help birth this country — is deeply ironic.
Trump ultimately denied using that language, and some defenders and apologists have contorted themselves while explaining that his comments must be considered in the context of his desire to reform a broken immigration system.
No, his comments must be considered in the context of his lifelong attitudes toward people of color. There, too, nothing has changed.
A lawsuit filed in 1973 by the federal government included voluminous evidence that the real estate firm run by Trump and his father, Fred, discriminated against blacks seeking rental units. Three years after a settlement viewed as a government win, the feds sued again when nothing changed.
In 1989, Trump took out full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty during the Central Park jogger case, when five black and Latino teens were arrested in the rape and beating of a white woman. Years after DNA evidence exonerated them, Trump still insisted on their guilt.
He was the grand wizard of birtherism, falsely claiming that President Barack Obama was born in Africa. He says white supremacists include some “very fine people” while criticizing black athletes for what he says is a lack of both patriotism and gratitude.
He said Mexican immigrants are rapists who bring crime and drugs though some, he assumes, are good. He reportedly said all Haitians have AIDS (it’s around 2 percent and dropping) after promising during the campaign he would be their biggest champion, and that Nigerians in this country would never “go back to their huts.” Inconvenient fact: More than 60 percent of Nigerian-born adults in America have college degrees, compared to 33 percent of all U.S. adults.
A century ago, generations of newly arrived strivers were greeted with hostility by those already here. Now our nation’s president fuels the same flames.
In questioning the fitness of others to live in the United States, Trump invites questions about his fitness to lead it.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.