America’s worst congressman, Tom Tancredo, caused quite a stir recently when he aired a television ad for his presidential campaign. The ad features a man in a hooded sweatshirt detonating a backpack bomb in a shopping mall, then cuts to scenes of carnage from terrorist attacks in Europe.
“There are consequences to open borders beyond the 20 million aliens who have come to take our jobs,” a voice intones. “Islamic terrorists now freely roam U.S. soil, jihadists who froth with hate, here to do as they have in London, Spain, Russia. The price we pay for spineless politicians who refuse to defend our borders against those who come to kill.”
“I approve this message because someone needs to say it,” Tancredo announces.
You’ll get no politically correct mealymouthed prevaricating from Tom Tancredo. If you’re looking for some good old-fashioned nativist fearmongering, he’s your man, or, more precisely, your GOP presidential candidate.
It’s worth emphasizing that Tancredo is not a racist nut exposing his paranoid delusions on some fringe Web site. He’s a racist nut who has made his paranoid delusions the centerpiece of a bonafide Republican Party presidential campaign. (Actually, I have no idea if Tancredo himself is a racist, and the question holds no interest for me. Regarding immigration, he talks and acts exactly like a racist would, and when judging a politician that’s the only thing that matters.)
And, with the exception of Mike Huckabee, all the first-tier Republican candidates are competing to sound just as “tough” on immigration as the decidedly second-tier Colorado member of Congress (Don’t be surprised if whoever wins the nomination runs ads very similar to Tancredo’s next fall.)
A couple of ironies will leap out to anyone who isn’t trembling at the thought of backpack-wielding jihadists disguised as hooded Mexican gangbangers blowing up Santa and his reindeer at the local mall during this busy holiday season.
The first is that by far the most successful terrorist movement in American political history was inspired by the same nativist and racist ideology that underlies Tancredo’s radical immigration views.
I refer to the history of the post-Reconstruction South, where a decades-long terrorist campaign carried out by private citizens, often with the tacit support or active participation of local government and law enforcement, managed to undo much of what was accomplished during the Civil War and the years immediately afterward.
The post-Goldwater Republican Party, of course, has drawn much of its electoral strength from the resentment and rage the modern civil-rights movement engendered when it conducted its own War on Terror, and rolled back the legal apartheid the Southern terrorists and their sympathizers had imposed on blacks for nearly a century.
The second irony is captured nicely in a quote from a 1939 Life magazine story on Joe DiMaggio, brought to my attention by Matt Yglesias: “Although he learned Italian first, Joe, now twenty-four, speaks English without an accent and is otherwise well-adapted to most U.S. mores. Instead of olive oil or smelly bear grease he keeps his hair slick with water. He never reeks of garlic and prefers chicken chow mein to spaghetti.” The article includes a photo, captioned “Like Heavyweight Champion (Joe) Louis, DiMaggio is lazy, shy, and inarticulate.”
Tancredo, whose grandparents were Italian immigrants, doesn’t need to be reminded that, until fairly recently, Italian-Americans were considered only imperfectly “white,” and indeed were credited with the same virtues (musicality, athleticism, passion) and vices (laziness, promiscuity, criminality) attributed traditionally to black people.
Now we’ve come so far that a philandering blowhard with lots of corrupt friends and a taste for authoritarianism can be the leading contender for the Republican nomination, despite his unambiguously Italian name.
That, I suppose, is a kind of progress.
(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)