The Immigration History Peddled by Karl Rove and "Face the Nation" is Bunk

Alan Tonelson |

It’s a pretty safe bet that most Americans aware of who Karl Rove is would not consider him a terribly reliable authority on their country’s history. And that would make them smarter than “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson. He just made clear in last Sunday’s edition that he believes that the knowledge of the past boasted by this former George W. Bush campaign mastermind, White House aide, and Republican political operative qualifies him to “help us inform our thoughts today.”

As a result, the CBS News talk show gave Rove a national forum to push an interpretation of the presidential election of 1898, and the campaign of Republican victor William McKinley, that’s a model of tendentiousness, not scholarship.

According to Rove, author of a new book about McKinley, the then-Governor of Ohio won the White House because he ran a campaign against a divisive populist demagogue (Democrat William Jennings Bryan) that focused on “uniting the country” and in particular on “allowing the people who are up for grabs in this election, working class laborers, to vote for me.” The McKinley solution in Rove’s words: He “takes on the biggest pressure group in the country and confronts the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic sentiment and thereby modernizes his party and creates a new governing coalition that lasts for nearly four decades after him.”

That is, Republicans in 1896 triumphed because they pursued the strategy being advocated today by Republican establishmentarians like Rove ostensibly in order to save the party from a November, 2016 disaster if the GOP standard-bearer is the divisive, anti-immigrant Donald Trump.

Although Rove acknowledges that many forces were in play in 1896, his “Face the Nation” remarks left no doubt as to those he considers most powerful. He continued:

“the largest pressure group in America in the 1980s [sic] is the American Protective Association, which has nothing to do with protective tariffs. It is a virulently anti- Catholic, an anti-immigrant group founded in Clinton, Iowa. It has millions of members, plays a huge role in voter guides to tell people how to vote. And they declare in the 1896 that one candidate alone is unacceptable on the Republican side and that’s William McKinley because he’s thought to be too close to the Catholics. McKinley is smart enough to know that the country’s changing rapidly demographically and that many of the new immigrants, industrial workers, are Catholics and not from the normal sources of immigration. They’re not from the British Isles and from Germany. They’re from eastern Europe and southern Europe and central Europe.

“And so he wants to modernize his party. He wants to win. And in order to win, he wants to get the vote of catholic voters and of urban ethnics. And he goes out to do so by Literally taking on the APA frontally, but in a very smart way. He doesn’t call them names. He doesn’t excoriate them. He mocks them….And this coalition that he creates for 40 years is large — has a significant number of Catholics and urban workers, and he’s the first Republican ever endorsed by a member of the catholic hierarchy.”

The clear lesson: The next Republican presidential nominee needs to embrace the kind of Open Borders/amnesty-friendly immigration policies that promise to generate even more important demographic and political changes than they already have.

It all sounds so convincing – until you remember what Rove left out of the history he recounted on this national broadcast. First and foremost, McKinley’s appeal to American workers of all ethnic and religious stripes didn’t rest solely, or even mainly, on his outreach to new immigrants – even though they were widely blamed for many of that era’s economic woes. McKinley also resonated with workers because his national reputation was made by his longstanding support of tariffs on imports that he insisted threatened American jobs.

Not only did one of American history’s best known and stiffest tariff acts bear his name. But according to his leading biographer (who unlike Rove was a genuine scholar) from the time he set his eyes on the White House, McKinley emphasized ‘both the economic merits of tariff protection and its role in harmonizing interests. It would restore prosperity, and continue national development.” This message was especially powerful in the 1896 campaign because once the Panic of 1893 struck and produced a major economic downturn , he was able to argue convincingly that “The Cleveland administration’s insistence on tariff reform had intensified the depression. The Democrats could not govern. Only a Republican victory in 1894 and then in 1896 would restore good times with tariff protection.”

McKinley did contend with the American Protective Association, and reject its platform. But the organization was scarcely the titan Rove portrays. According to another genuine scholar – John Higham – and his authoritative history of American nativism, the Association’s influence had peaked by 1894, at which time it “may have enrolled a cumulative total of half a million members.” Moreover, its message was primarily anti-Catholic, not anti-immigrant – a distinction that was hardly trivial in those days since its membership included many foreign-born Protestants. And McKinley’s decision to brush off the APA was much easier to make than Rove pretends (though no less praiseworthy) since, as Higham writes, by 1896 the organization had weakened considerably, with one of its biggest internal splits precisely over the question of endorsing him.

Moreover, McKinley wound up running on a Republican platform that declared, “For the protection of the equality of our American citizenship and of the wages of our workingmen, against the fatal competition of low priced labor, we demand that the immigration laws be thoroughly enforced, and so extended as to exclude from entrance to the United States those who can neither read nor write.”

So the most accurate way to explain McKinley’s unmistakable working class appeal is to note that, although he definitely downplayed immigration curbs as a cure for what ailed it, he also offered these voters strengthened protection from foreign competition. That’s a major contrast with the Rove recipe, which consists of hammering American labor both with job- and wage-killing offshoring-friendly trade policies and job- and wage-killing mass immigration policies of the type the second President Bush ardently championed.

Similarly, there’s no better way to explain the failure of both the Republican establishment and the Mainstream Media epitomized by Rove and Dickerson to discredit Trump than recognizing that they regard this policy mix as embodying both political wisdom and the lessons of history.

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