ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The president's racist tweets tapped into one of the oldest strains in American politics - the fear and vilification of people perceived as other. That could be people of color, immigrants or, really, anyone unlike the speaker.
NPR editor and correspondent Ron Elving is here to talk with us about this history. Hi, Ron.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: You wrote on NPR.org that President Trump with his comments to the Democratic congresswomen was, quote, "taking America back to where it came from." What do you mean by that?
ELVING: I'm playing on the words of the president saying that these members of Congress should go back where they came from.
ELVING: Nativism is as American as apple pie, Ari. It has been with us back to the early days of the republic. There was feeling against foreign-born citizens even then. They put it in the Constitution that a foreign-born person couldn't ever be president of the United States. And it took on a different form as more and more people did arrive from other countries, and people became fearful of those waves of immigration.
SHAPIRO: And that extends beyond people who were born in other countries to people who are perceived as other. Three of the four congresswomen here are born in the U.S.
SHAPIRO: What were the peak periods of American nativism throughout U.S. history?
ELVING: There were surges at several points in our history, beginning in the 1830s and 1940s, when famine and political upheaval in Ireland and Germany sent a huge influx of people into the country. And these people were Catholic, whereas most of the Americans at that time were Protestant, overwhelmingly. And also, they were arriving in such numbers that they disturbed people. So we go from fewer than 2 million foreign-born people at one point in the 1840s to, suddenly, within the decade, twice that many. And that was seen as fearful. It was seen as taking away jobs. But it was also seen as a threat to people's social order.
And then, of course, you get another wave toward the end of the 1800s, early 1900s that came from all other parts of Europe - Eastern Europe, southern Europe. And in the 1920s, nativist feeling was so strong they passed a very restrictive immigration act in 1924, and they ignored the results of a census that showed these big influxes of immigrants had made the cities more populous than the countryside.
SHAPIRO: And during these periods that there were all of these attacks on immigrants, did you also see attacks on people like the congresswomen today who are not immigrants, but are perceived as being different, just in the same way that President Trump in one breath attacks people crossing the border from Mexico and in another breath attacks people born in the U.S. who are brown or black?
ELVING: The identification here of people who are different from whatever the perception of the old American, the true American - that's really what's crucial here. It really doesn't depend where you came from if you are perceived as being the other - for example, people who moved north in the Great Migration of African Americans in the 20th century, leaving behind the Southern states, moving to the north. And they were marginalized, and they were put in ghettos. And they were denied many of the opportunities of society and perceived as the other, even though they had been in the United States, at that point, for generations and generations.
SHAPIRO: We've seen so many prominent figures use this kind of demonizing rhetoric. How unusual is it for a president?
ELVING: Well, Calvin Coolidge, back in the 1920s, spoke of America becoming a dumping ground for undesirable people from other countries. So you have that kind of ugliness that far back. Richard Nixon had a very strong appeal to what he called the silent majority. He was clearly trying to speak to the sentiments of the white working class of his time, as opposed to both immigrant groups and also people of color in general.
And then you have Ronald Reagan's approach, which was rather different. And in the immigration bill of 1986 - that reform bill actually granted amnesty to millions of people who were in the country without proper documents.
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RONALD REAGAN: I'm going to do everything I can - and all of us in the administration are - to join in again when Congress is back at it to get an immigration bill that will give us, once again, control of our borders.
ELVING: And he thought it would finally give the United States full control of its borders. The amnesty worked, but it didn't really create the sort of border control that President Reagan thought it would. And it didn't do that much to discourage employers from bringing in and exploiting immigrant workers.
SHAPIRO: So what stands out to you about President Trump's tapping this vein of American sentiment as being different from his predecessors?
ELVING: Couple of things - one thing is that he personalizes it so much to individual people who are such high-identification citizens themselves - people who have actually been elected to Congress. That is highly unusual for a president of the United States. And also, it seems that even in Trump's own personal history as a politician - that he's gone from the birtherism when he was strongly suggesting that President Obama had not been born in the United States. That was, if you will, relatively subtle compared to where he was over this past weekend where he was highly personalizing and - if you will, the mask on his not only nativist sentiments, but racist.
SHAPIRO: NPR's Ron Elving. Thanks a lot, Ron.
ELVING: Thank you, Ari.
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