Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is rarely subtle but there was an important subtext to his recent comments about the Mosque scheduled for construction in lower Manhattan on Fox & Friends. Gingrich said the following: “You know, Nazis don’t have the right to put up a sign next to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We would never accept the Japanese putting up a site next to Pearl Harbor. There’s no reason for us to accept a mosque next to the World Trade Center.” The false parallel hidden in plain sight is between ‘Nazi’ and ‘Japanese.’ Gingrich was a history professor so he knows that how the enemy is identified is crucial in determining how countries fight their wars. Where ‘Nazi’ identifies a political ideology and movement rather than all Germans as the enemy during the Second World War in Europe, ‘Japanese’ identifies an entire people as the enemy during the Second World War in Asia. That is consistent with the how the United States waged that war. German industry rather than the German population was the primary target for the American aerial bombardment of Germany. The Japanese population, however, was the primary target for the American aerial bombardment of Japan. Very few German Americans were interned in United States during the Second World War while most Japanese Americans in the continental United States were interned.

This is more than just old history because Gingrich drew the historical parallel between “radical Islamists” and both the ‘Nazis’ and the ‘Japanese.’ The slipperiness in his comments is that if he had just intended to designate just the political ideology and movement rather than all one billion plus Muslims on the planet he picked an especially poor target. After all, no Islamist terrorist group is attempting to build a house of worship in lower Manhattan. They are just Muslims. Gingrich seems to want to have it both ways.

Similarly convenient ambiguities characterize other contemporary expressions of xenophobia in America. Are the politicians demanding state and local enforcement of immigration laws or arguing for chopping up the 14th Amendment worried by undocumented immigrants or are they appealing to anti-Hispanic sentiment? Is the conspiracism of the Birthers an expression of actual concern about Barack Obama’s nationality or hysteria at having lost control of the White House to someone who is not white?

American history is punctuated by eruptions of xenophobic nationalism.  Religious bigotry and economic insecurity made Roman Catholic Irish and German immigrants the targets in the decades before the American Civil War. Racism and economic insecurity made Chinese immigrants and African Americans targets in the decades that followed. The historical eruption of xenophobia that most resembles what we see today occurred during the First World War and the immediate postwar years.

Although forgotten by most Americans, including most of the descendants of the victims, German immigrants and ethnic German-Americans were subjected to official repression and populist hate when the administration of Woodrow Wilson marched the United States into the First World War, a decision that was deeply unpopular with many Americans. Members of the 100,000 strong American Protective League monitored their German American neighbors for signs of antiwar sympathy. German American community leaders were publicly humiliated by mobs. One poor German immigrant was lynched by in mob in Colinsville, Illinois. State and local governments spent a surprising amount of effort targeting German language and culture for repression. German language newspapers and schools were closed. Public libraries purged their shelves of books published in German. Some 27 states passed laws prohibiting teaching German language or teaching other subjects in German. In April 1919, some five months after the end of the war, Nebraska authorities went so far as to enforce a state statute forbidding instruction in German by arresting and fining a Missouri Synod Lutheran Sunday School teacher for telling his class Bible stories in the forbidden tongue. Even the U.S. Supreme Court of the period, so bitterly conservative that it affirmed the constitutionality of long prison sentences by state courts for membership in a communist party or the distribution of antiwar leaflets by anarchists, found that Nebraska had gone a little too far.

Imperial Germany was not the existential threat to the United States that it was portrayed in the press at the time. Neither are radical Islamism and the Mexican drug cartels today. Despite the tendency toward instant panic the United States remains remarkably secure from anything other than a nuclear attack carried out by another nuclear weapons state and that has become very unlikely since the end of the Cold War. German Americans were not a major domestic threat to national security during the First World War as they were portrayed in the press at the time. Neither are American Muslims or Hispanic Americans today. Populists exploited fear, ignorance and selfishness about minorities then, just as they do today.

What is different between now and the period when German Americans were subjected to a xenophobic frenzy is that the White House is not complicit. Where the Wilson administration was irresponsible, the Obama administration has not encouraged xenophobia to divert public attention from the rotten economy and two seemingly endless wars, although it could be doing more to discourage the viciousness.

However the potential of Islamophobia and Hispanophobia for mobilizing voters has been recognized by several of the Republican 2012 presidential hopefuls. As the 1988 campaign of George H.W. Bush showed with the Willie Horton television advertisements putatively about violent crime but actually about race, the fear and hate that drive bigotry can get you elected president in America. That matters because successful campaign themes are often reflected in subsequent policy making.

That the temptation to exchange patriotism for nationalism is most intense when Americans confront an economic crisis or an unpopular war is no surprise. Where patriotism is hard, nationalism is easy. Loyalty to a state based upon commitment to ideals like liberty, equality and democracy demands more from people than claiming membership in a nation that is defined by exclusive identity markers like language, religion and race. Where patriots are responsible for drawing boundaries around a political community to include everyone who lives and works in society, nationalists are free to insist on arbitrary boundaries drawn around a narrow political community based on privileged belief or descent. The primitive in-group/out-group impulse is never far beneath the surface of human motivation and nationalist demagogues are always ready to take advantage of it. With Americans anxious about the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and two of the longest and least conclusive wars in our history, it is unsurprising that some Americans have succumbed to the temptation. The irony is that so many of them are the descendants of people who were themselves subjected to same behavior in the 19th and 20th centuries.

John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.

  1. What I think is that people need to be told, in a way they’ll understand, that some people being worse off than they are is not going to keep them from being deprived. This should be hammered home now that we have statistical evidence that the general population is less affluent than it was in the seventies. “Look at those sorry immigrants” is a distraction to keep people from noticing that somebody’s stealing them blind. And it’s not the immigrants.
    The teabaggers haven’t realized that yet. They’ve got a valid gripe. What they don’t know is that the corporate moneybaggers who are funding their transport hither and yon are the very people who have brought the economy to this state.
    Nationalism, btw, is the antithesis of people being valued for themselves. Nationalism holds that that figment of the imagination, the nation, is more important than any person and justifies the deprivation of human rights. The “national security” agenda is more of the same. It’s not a question of trading liberty for security; it’s a matter of subordinating the natural person to an artificial entity, whether it be the nation state or the international corporation. There’s a reason why conservatives are anti-humanists. They really hate humanity.

  2. Cliff Green

    Yeah, Nootie’s not that stupid. “Nazis” (or Nazism) is not a religion and neither is “Japanese.” They are not protected by the First Amendment. Islam, however, is a different story.
    Now, scroll back up and look at Newt’s photograph. That’s a Nazi salute if I’ve ever seen one.

  3. Give me a flappin’ break! Newt is not saluting anything in that photo! He is gesturing with his hands to make a point. Who among us hasn’t done that? He is a fine, upstanding citizen who truly cares about the future of this troubled country. He is more honest and trustworthy than most politicians, and everyone would do well to listen to what he has to say. He is genuinely concerned about America, and has good ideas and much experience being a leader. Our time could be much better spent than making false accusations toward such a caring, smart man who is so good for America.

    1. Lee Leslie

      For the record, the author of this post had nothing to do with the photo selection. The decision was mine and I take full responsibility for casting him this way – this “fine, upstanding man” who is so intimately responsible with the dismantling of our financial system, the polarization of our nation and its politics, and the college of Republican spin which promotes hypocrisy, intolerance and falsehood. It was Newt who compared a neighborhood community center (a Muslim version of a YMCA) two-long blocks from ground zero to Nazis putting a sign next to the Holocaust Museum, I felt the photo selection was as at least as fair.

    2. Jim Fitzgerald


      I would like to think that Newt was honest and had good ideas but you would have to really make a stretch to think so. For someone to espouse family values while divorcing and remarrying several times, to prosecute Clinton for private sexual behavior while cheating on his current wife, to understand we have a military breaking down over the strain of two wars and still say we should have followed the invasion of Iraq with invasions of Iran and North Korea, and the list goes on, says that he neither is honest nor has the best interest of this country in mind. He has a significant down side that outweighs any concerns and good he might accomplish.

  4. I also wholeheartedly support Billy’s comment and would like to suggest that the last portion that explains and examines the difference between nationalism and patriotism be printed in every paper and broadcast on every news channel. True patriotism is a lost concept.

    1. The comparative history explained simply in this article makes clear sense to me.
      I an finishing Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and similar points are made about patriotism and the broad brush of what being an American can mean.
      Thanks for the thinking that went into writing the article.

      1. Frank Povah

        Thanks for reminding me, Janice. It must be going on 40 years since I last read “Travels With Charley” and one exchange between Steinbeck and a farmer over homemade booze has stuck with me – and please correct me if I’ve got the President wrong:

        Steinbeck asked the farmer what he thought of the Communists and he replied, as best as I remember it: “You gotta have someone to blame. My neighbor’s chickens got a disease and they all died. He blamed Franklin D Roosevelt. You’ve gotta have someone to blame.”

  5. Alex Kearns

    More thought-provoking tid-bits from Mr Steinbeck:

    “If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed. Americans are much more American than they are Northerners, Southerners, Westerners, or Easterners…. It is astonishing that this has happened in less than two hundred years and most of it in the last fifty. The American identity is an exact and provable thing.” (Apparently much has changed in the intervening years).

    “He said bitterly, “If anywhere in your travels you come on a man with guts, mark the place. I want to go to see him. I haven’t seen anything but cowardice and expediency. This used to be a nation of giants. Where have they gone? You can’t defend a nation with a board of directors. That takes men. Where are they?””

    “…I knew I was not wanted in the South. When people are engaged in something they are not proud of, they do not welcome witnesses. In fact, they come to believe the witness causes the trouble.”

    1. Frank Povah

      He was also not wanted in California, especially in the places where he’d lived. A statue erected to him was destroyed (or was it toppled?) and a proposed museum was rejected.

      I think he was the USA’s greatest -ever author. He certainly did more to shape my opinions of the US and Americans (come to think of it, humanity also) without ever having lived here, than anyone else since I first read him at about age 15.

  6. Jon Sinton

    Professor Hickman has taken a logical, historical look at our national episodes of xenophobia, and we are better informed for it. Unfortunately, many of our fellow citizens are content–comfortable, even–being played by the conservative media and cynical politicians who gain strength from our divisions and prejudices.

    It’s another sorry episode where rights, logic and dignity are trampled for a few votes and a particular jingoism where we feel better when we make others feel worse.

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