If you can’t believe that Donald Trump is still the GOP front-runner, then consider this: America has elected the likes of The Donald before. There are, deep in our history, plenty of men who brazenly exploited nativist sentiments to win the White House or strengthen their grip on the office. Here are five US presidents who, if they lived today, might, in Trump’s words, “make America great again.”
Adams was no Trump. America’s “big deal” 18th century legal scholar and Founding Father would have been worth, in today’s dollars, only $19 million. And he never even mastered the comb-over. But when it comes to making BOLD political moves while socking it to our enemies abroad, the second president puts Trump to shame. Determined to quash the immigrant vote, which mainly benefited Jeffersonian Republicans, Adams and his Federalist allies in Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798. The bills lengthened the period of residency required for citizenship from 5 to 14 years and authorized the president to deport foreigners considered dangerous. One bill, the Alien Enemies Act, would later serve as the legal basis for detaining Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Nativists weren’t always the kind of people who attended tea party rallies and watched Fox News. In the early 1900s, some of the strongest opposition to immigration came from the labor unions that helped usher Theodore Roosevelt into the White House. In his first Congressional address, Roosevelt called for requiring immigrants to meet a “certain standard of economic fitness” and pass a literacy test—a measure that would effectively exclude many Southern and Eastern Europeans. After meeting stiff congressional resistance, Roosevelt brokered a compromise that established an immigrant head tax of $4 and created the Dillingham Commission, an investigative panel stacked with nativist legislators. Its reports accused Southern and Eastern European immigrants of displacing native workers, living in crowded and unclean housing, and performing poorly in school. Unlike Trump, however, Roosevelt never signed a GOP loyalty pledge. Instead, he left the Republican Party in 1912 and formed his own.
Woodrow Wilson never had the guts to accuse immigrants of being rapists, but he did call them low energy. His History of the American People, published in 1901, complained that most immigrants to the United States no longer came from “the sturdy stocks of the North of Europe,” but rather from places like southern Italy, Hungary, and Poland, where “there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence.” But when those comments became an issue during his 1912 presidential race, Wilson backpedaled and earnestly courted immigrant groups—or the European ones, anyway. Like most other national candidates at the time, he remained staunchly opposed to immigration from Japan and China. “We cannot make a homogenous population out of a people who do not blend with the Caucasian race,” he said. “Oriental coolieism will give us another race problem to solve and surely we have had our lesson.”
Before “Make America Great Again,” there was “America First!”—the slogan that in 1920 swept Harding and his fellow Republicans to power on a platform of curtailing a tide of immigrants from politically unstable parts of Europe. Harding signed the Emergency Immigration Act of 1921, effectively cutting in half the number of immigrants admitted into the United States. The act also favored immigrant groups from Northern European countries while steeply limiting immigration from other parts of the world. “I don’t know much about Americanism,” Harding later said, “but it’s a damn good word with which to carry an election.”
Hoover proved that rich guys with no experience in elected office can become president and that America can be for Americans. At the dawn of the Great Depression, he issued an executive order calling for the “strict enforcement” of a clause of the Immigration Act that barred the admission of immigrants who were “likely to become a public charge.” Turning away virtually all working-class immigrants, his administration slashed legal immigration from 242,000 people in 1931 to 36,000 the following year. And Hoover stepped up raids on the homes and workplaces of undocumented immigrants, causing more than 121,000 people, most of them from Mexico, to leave the United States. Hoover touted his record on immigration during the 1932 election, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to keep him from getting thrown out of office by a bunch of LOSERS who had been FIRED.