“We need to get our birth rates up,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) warned Monday on CNN, “or Europe will be entirely transformed within a half a century or a little more.” Rarely has the first-person plural revealed so much confusion.
At the heart of America’s new nationalist politics — of which King, an eight-term congressman and Iowa Caucus influencer, has played John the Baptist to Donald Trump’s Jesus — lies a contradiction that in less fraught times would be pretty funny: Our populist right cannot stop yammering about European immigration problems, even while advancing ideas that threaten to Europeanize our heretofore enviable assimilation machine.
King’s fecundity comments came in defense of his controversial declaration the previous day that “We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies,” a statement that contains almost as many questions as words. (When/how did “our” civilization recede? What, precisely, is conservative about drafting babies into grand political projects?)
But tellingly, King’s tweet was a shout-out to shock-haired Dutch nationalist politician Geert Wilders, who wants to halt Muslim immigration and ban the Koran, and who faces a crucial election this week. The ascendant America First brigade just can’t get enough of their nationalist brethren across the pond, from the U.K.’s Nigel Farage to France’s Marine Le Pen to Hungary’s Viktor Orban. Wilders, King enthused, understands "that culture and demographics are our destiny.”
“Culture” here means the European-derived, Judeo-Christian variety; “demographics” refers not only to baby-making rates but the percentage of people deriving from the aforementioned founts of culture. King’s apocalyptic interpretation, broadly shared by the president, his key advisor and his attorney general, is that too many culturally suspect transplants will transform the very nature of their host soil, like how eucalyptus trees came to dominate California’s ecosystem.
Such pessimistic cultural determinism is the polar opposite of the creed-based optimism made famous by Ronald Reagan. “You can go to live in France, but you can’t become a Frenchman,” the Gipper said in a 1990 speech, paraphrasing a correspondent. “But … anyone, from any corner of the world, can come to live in the United States and become an American.”
King’s not having any of that. “Individuals will contribute differently, not equally, to this civilization and society,” he complained to CNN. “Certain groups of people will do more from a productive side than other groups of people will. That's just a statistical fact.” Or as he said on MSNBC last year, "I'd ask you to go back through history and figure out where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of [nonwhite] people that you are talking about. Where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?"
These views, harsh as they may sound to our 21st century ears, are hardly confined to the margins of modern conservatism. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which ended a four-decade chokepoint on migration flows, has long been denounced on both right and occasionally the left for too drastically changing the ethnic composition of America. (“Half a Century of Barely Controlled Immigration,” went one such National Review headline a couple of years back.) Perennial best-selling author Ann Coulter scored both a commercial hit and tangible influence on a future president with her 2015 book “Adios, America: The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country into a Third World Hellhole.”
As the hyperbole of that last title suggests, the nationalists’ doom-and-gloom is felt more than proven. Americans have been complaining about immigrant non-assimilation for as long as there have been immigrants, yet even supposedly indigestible Muslims are following the same pattern of adaptation. Third-generation immigrants are indistinguishable from the rest of us. New U.S. citizens from the culturally, religiously and politically dissimilar country of India, to pull one large country of origin out of a hat, are doing just fine as Americans, no matter how much Coulter tries to dismiss the Nikki Haleys of the world.
That rosy picture isn’t inevitable, however. America assimilates in large part because the ultimate question here isn’t “Where are you from?” It’s “What are you going to do? European nation-states, by contrast, with their largely homogenous populations, relentlessly emphasize the otherness of newcomers. Couple that with highly regulated business and labor markets at the lower margins, and social mobility can get stuck in the mud. France and Belgium may not be third-world hellholes, but they do have real problems with Muslim ghettos and home-grown terrorism.
And yet King and other populists want to treat our newcomers more like Europeans treat theirs: as a threat to be contained, a culture to be made self-conscious about its deservedly marginal status. Who knew that the only way to avoid being Europe was to adopt its worst habits?
Matt Welch is editor at large of Reason, a magazine published by the libertarian Reason Foundation, and a contributing writer to Opinion.
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