Sunday, July 22, 2018

Contextualizing Trump and Tom Buchanan's anti-immigrant sentiments

During an interview with British newspaper The Sun while visiting England in July, Donald Trump made the following comments about immigration:
“Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame,” Trump said. “I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way.
“So I think allowing millions and millions of people to come into Europe is very, very sad,” he continued. “I think you are losing your culture. Look around. You go through certain areas that didn’t exist ten or 15 years ago.”
Once again, Donald Trump is rehearsing the idea that white civilization is about to collapse and that “millions and millions” are coming to Europe (and the United States) to take over (and destroy) the culture. These are the ideas that Lothrop Stoddard offered in 1920, warning of the threat to the white world and white world supremacy. In his The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, Stoddard warns of the “influx of undesirable elements” and the damage to “our race-heritage” because America has not been “reserved for the descendants of the picked Nordics of colonial times.” (Stoddard’s text is in public domain and accessible online, but critical, relevant excerpts are available in a classroom-ready format, accompanied by discussion and writing prompts and other teaching materials, in our recent volume, Using Informational Text to Teach The Great Gatsby.)

Tom Buchanan is the mouthpiece in The Great Gatsby of these white nationalist sentiments. He spouts Stoddard’s nativist racist ideas (although he calls Stoddard by the name Goddard).

But it’s worth noting, as part of a study of Fitzgerald’s novel and of Trump’s recent remarks, that the identity of the undesirables is not and has never been wholly stable. Stoddard’s comment about Nordics is worth unpacking along with the complex racial identities of the characters within Gatsby. Many of the characters in Fitzgerald’s novel appear to students today as white, but whiteness in 1920 did not mean what it means today. Fitzgerald populates the characters at the margins of Gatsby with a range of non-Nordics, who would not have been considered white or desirable in this period.

The “gray, scrawny Italian child setting torpedoes in a row along the railroad track” and the “young Greek, Michaelis, who ran the coffee joint beside the ashheaps,” for example, stand at a distance from Daisy and her beautiful “white girlhood.” So too does the Jewish Wolfsheim, whose undesirability is marked both by his profession in the novel as a gangster but also by his racialization – his big nose and his hairiness marking his Otherness.

And of course, a central moment in the text, when Nick meditates on the idea that “Anything can happen … anything at all …. Even Gatsby could happen” is undercut by its juxtaposition with Nick’s ghoulishly racialized description of “a limousine … driven by a white chauffeur, in which sat three modish negroes, two bucks and a girl … the yolks of their eyeballs rolled toward us in haughty rivalry.”

Even Gatsby, who changes his name, is racially nebulous. Tom’s accusations against Gatsby are not about the affair per se but about Gatsby’s undesirability. Gatsby is “Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.” In the next breath, Tom compares the affair to “intermarriage between black and white.” And while Jordan assures Tom (and the reader?) that “We’re all white here,” the unnamed epithet, the “obscene word,” left on a piece of brick at Gatsby’s house hints that perhaps Jordan was wrong.

Gatsby, after all, is a novel that meditates on exactly Trump’s fears. White culture, a culture of outsized wealth, privilege, entitlement, and abuse, seems under siege to Tom. And perhaps he is right. Gatsby is able to infiltrate Tom’s world, however briefly, and capture Daisy, the icon of white womanhood.

It’s worth reminding ourselves and our students, however, that few of us are the descendants of the picked Nordics of colonial times. Many of us would not have been considered by Jordan and her peers to be white in 1920.

The Greek Michaelis and the Italian child, alongside the African-American men and woman in the limousine, are part of the long history of immigrants and slaves who have come to the United States and shaped and reshaped the changing culture of our nation -- and in a positive way!

Given that the vast majority of our students are not descendants of the picked Nordics of colonial times and instead are a part of the millions and millions who have moved around our globe and reshaped and reinvigorated our cultures both in Europe and the United States, we owe it to our students to help them contextualize Trump’s and Tom’s rhetoric, to understand its implications for the past and the present, and to speak out.

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