Trump Intent on Repeating the Horrors of History

With threats to deport illegal aliens and bar Muslims from entering the nation, Donald Trump appears intent on repeating some of the worst horrors in American history.

After the discovery of gold in Georgia in 1830, Andrew Jackson climaxed his first term as America's seventh president by ramming the Indian Removal Act through Congress, expelling Native Americans from the deep South and leaving the gold for white men to recover. After Chief Justice John Marshall's Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional, Jackson scoffed, responding as Trump might, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!"

Outraged by Jackson's contempt for the high court and constitutional law, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay called Jackson's Indian Removal Act a "most flagitious measure, which threatens to bring a foul and lasting stain upon the...nation." While the press caricatured Jackson as "King Andrew," Clay accused the President of assuming "authority and power not conferred by the Constitution," and moved to censure the President in the Senate--the only such censure in American history. After the Jacksonian majority in the House of Representatives rebuffed the censure, Clay responded by trying to unseat Jackson in the 1832 presidential elections--only to be swept away by a wave of xenophobic sentiment that Jackson's irresponsible rhetoric had implanted in American minds.

When Jackson returned to the White House, he ordered troops into the South, where they forced more than 60,000 Native American men, women, and children, whom Jackson deemed "illegal aliens," from their centuries-old ancestral homes and the gilded land on which they stood. Forced at bayonet point onto a deadly 2,200-mile "Trail of Tears"--without enough food or water to sustain them--more than 16,000 women, children, and old men collapsed and died before reaching their destination across the Mississippi River in Oklahoma.

Although Henry Clay had gained renown as "The Great Compromiser" for negotiating the famed Missouri Compromise that prevented civil war between North and South, he was unable to sway Andrew Jackson. As thousands of Jackson's supporters swarmed across 25 million acres of gold-flecked Indian lands, survivors of the Trail of Tears languished in Oklahoma, condemned to poverty on barren reservations, isolated to this day from normal American life.

Fifty years later, Congress went a step farther, passing the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. law barring a specific ethnic group from entering the United States. As with Jackson's Indian Removal Act, greed was the motivation--this time, the California Gold Rush. White prospectors had already slaughtered hundreds of Chinese miners, confiscating their gold and claims. To survive, many became indentured servants, laundering miners' clothes and cooking their food--inadvertently laying the foundations of the ubiquitous Chinese Laundry and Chinese Restaurant in America.

In 1924, a xenophobic Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act to Asians of all nationalities--until China, a critical American ally in the war against Japan, demanded and won repeal in 1943.

Trump has pledged to outdo Andrew Jackson and other American xenophobes by deporting more than 11 million illegal aliens from the United States--many of them U.S.-born, many knowing no language but English, many children not knowing they are "illegal aliens," and many married to American citizens with children born and raised as American citizens in this country.

"They came in illegally," Trump bellowed last November, pledging to assemble a "massive deportation force" to put his plan into action. He did not say how he would round them up or where he would send them. Where can 11 million people go? Who will transport them? How? Who will resolve lawsuits over property confiscation?

Trump tried justifying his plan: "Dwight Eisenhower...moved 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country...beyond the [Mexican] border."

Unfortunately, Trump had a point. President Eisenhower did indeed deport more than 2 million illegal Latino immigrants, and his predecessor Harry Truman deported 3.4 million--ostensibly to protect vacant jobs for returning veterans of World War II. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered displacement of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans to internment camps during World War II. More than 60 percent were American citizens.

So if Donald Trump wins the election, he would not be the first American President to order mass deportations and resettlements or ban entry of specific ethnic groups. Some of his predecessors in the White House have done worse. In 1939, with the Asian Exclusion Act still in effect, President Roosevelt condemned 937 Jews to death in Hitler's gas chambers by preventing the transatlantic liner St. Louis to put into American ports. Shortly thereafter, Roosevelt concurred with Congress by refusing to allow 20,000 Jewish refugee children to enter the United States.

When the German Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller emerged from a Nazi concentration camp, he described how Germany had dealt with similar problems:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

Pastor Niemöller's words will echo around the world if Mr. Trump goes after the 11 million he claims are illegal aliens.


Historian Harlow Giles Unger is the author of more than twenty-five books, including a dozen biographies of the Founding Fathers and other early American statesmen. His most recent books are Henry Clay: America's Greatest Statesman and John Marshall: The Chief Justice Who Saved the Nation, both published by Da Capo Press.