Pundits have written about how different this presidential year is, what with party establishments' decline of influence. The key issue, however, is immigration, and history provides some perspective on what is not or in fact is actually unique about 2016.
As far back as 1884, the race for the White House was impacted by an ethnic slur. In the final week of the campaign Reverend Samuel Burchard, a supporter of the Republican James G. Blaine, branded Democrats as the party of "rum, Romanism, and rebellion." This was a clear insult against the Irish in particular, and Catholics in general. Yet these remarks were made by a supporter, not the candidate; Blaine in fact disavowed them, but not fast enough; he lost badly in New York City and State, and with that, the election.
Immigration was also an issue during the 1920s, for several reasons. With the First World War over and sea lanes open, long bottled up immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe exploded;1919 featured the second highest number of immigrants of the great wave from 1890-1920. In addition, the 1920 Census revealed that for the first time in American history, more than 50% of the country lived in cities, the home of foreigners. Congress approved and the president signed measures to keep out the new immigrants.
Even so, this did not enter presidential politics directly. The 1924 Republican platform, approved after the party's Congressional majority had passed the most restrictive immigration laws in American history (1921, 1923) still downplayed this issue. Of 24 specific planks, "Immigration" was the very last (#24), and only 137 words. "The Negro" was #22; "The Tariff" appeared near the top, at #6.
In 1928, however, immigration burst like a punctured balloon full of hate. The Democratic candidate was Alfred E. Smith, representative of all that was new and seemed foreign: the Irish, new immigrants, city folk. As a result, his background became the central focus of politics that year. One opponent declared, "This fight is not only a battle against Rome, but against the evil forces in America, cutthroats, slugs, the scum from the cesspools of Europe." In Atlanta ministers issued a statement, "You cannot nail us to a Roman cross and submerge us in a sea of rum." The president of the Kiwanis Club of Clarkesville, Tennessee explained that "in the last thirty years the tide of immigration has undergone a decided and alarming change. Prior to that time the overwhelming majority of entrants were of a racial stock akin to our own and therefore easily assimilable." But now, "the inflow has been of a distinctly different and decidedly inferior character, Italians, southern Slovenes, Magyars....the very antithesis of the Anglo-Saxons."
Vile as this was, the Republican candidate never touched it, nor did the party. While there was clearly quiet sanction, Herbert Hoover publicly stated over and over he would have nothing to do with attacks on Governor Smith's Catholic religion. Hubert Work, his campaign manager announced, "All such activities are vicious and beyond the pale of decent political campaigning."
What is different this year is that for the first time, national candidates are giving this issue primacy. While in the past surrogates raised the issue, often in harsh tones, post Civil War, no major candidate for the presidency has ever made opposition to immigration his leading platform. This year, however, Donald Trump's ascension to frontrunner stemmed more than anything from his claims to stop illegal immigration from Mexico and to bar Muslims from entering this country. With that line of attack, his campaign entered a new realm of presidential politics.