Friday, November 20, 2015

What would Opa Trump say?


Immigration was the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s campaign kickoff, and it was again at center stage at the recent GOP Fox Business debate. 

At his kickoff, Trump famously said of Mexican immigrants, “...they’re sending (immigrants) that have lots of problems. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”

And there’s the supreme irony of Donald Trump’s crusade against immigrants:

He is one of them.

That’s right. Trump is the grandson of Friedrich Drumpf, a German immigrant.

So are over one-third of all Iowans.

That German heritage makes Trump’s scapegoating of Mexican immigrants especially ironic, since Iowans’ German forebears were similarly scapegoated for much of Iowa’s history.

Researching our documentary “Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing True Story of the Templeton Bootleggers,” we discovered that the German-American ethnic identity was an essential part of the bootlegging story in western Iowa.  It helped explain the socio-ethnic cohesion — especially in the face of the anti-German xenophobia — that created an environment where bootlegging was not only tolerated, but a pathway to express ethnic pride.

What does that have to do with Donald Trump and immigration? 


German immigrants settled Iowa from territorial days.  But in the years immediately following the 1848 German Revolution, when the United States had a population of 23 million, 1.5 million Germans emigrated to America, increasing the population by 6.5 percent.  In 1880, there were 261,650 foreign-born immigrants living in Iowa — fully 16 percent of the population.  Today’s immigrants in Iowa are a blip by comparison — just 97,000, or 3.2 percent.

Iowa’s German immigrants had a reputation for hard work.  They were also stereotyped and resented for speaking German, drinking too much beer, fighting too much, and their religion. 

In the 1850s, the anti-immigrant “Know Nothing” Party accused newly arrived Germans of stealing elections by buying the votes of their fellow immigrants with steins of beer or bottles of whiskey — the 19th century version of today’s ballot-security controversies.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union attributed much of the nation’s social ills to immigrants and their peculiar addiction — alcoholism.  The WCTU even set up a pavilion on Ellis Island to educate immigrants on the error of their ways before they set foot on the American mainland.
When World War I came, all hell broke loose.

Thousands of Iowans marched against the German Kaiser — including the German-American boys whose families had just emigrated from Germany.

Yet on the home front, another war was being waged — against many of those same German immigrants families.  In Denison, German-language books were burned.  In Manning, the offices of the German-language newspaper, Das Manning Herold, were vandalized.  In Audubon, a German-immigrant farmer was dragged around the square by a noose until he agreed to buy Liberty Bonds.  In Gray, a minister was nearly lynched for preaching in German. 

Throughout the state, and the nation, extra-judicial Citizen Defense Councils held kangaroo courts to determine if citizens were being sufficiently patriotic — with German-Americans frequently targeted. 

Iowa Gov. William Harding issued an executive order — the infamous Babel Proclamation — forbidding citizens from communicating in any language except English in any public place — including churches. 

Nor did World War I’s conclusion end the anti-German hatred and discrimination in Iowa.
In the 1920s, Iowa’s German immigrants faced discrimination and hate from a group new to the Hawkeye state: the Ku Klux Klan.  The 1920s Klan was very active in the Midwest, and chose new targets: bootleggers, immigrants and Catholics — three groups they saw, not without reason, as overlapping.  The 1920s Klan in Iowa  burned crosses to intimidate immigrants, and trafficked in hysterical anti-Catholicism, circulating pamphlets claiming that the Catholic Knights of Columbus required their members to take an oath to, upon orders from Rome, murder their Protestant neighbors.
Western Iowa’s German-Catholics circled the wagons, organizing new Knights of Columbus chapters — a group founded on outreach to immigrants.  They continued to hold their German Saints Day feast, but added a new secular character: Uncle Sam.

And Opa Trump?

A recent book, “The Trumps: Three Generations That Built an Empire,” lays out the fascinating immigrant history — and paradoxes — of the Trump family.

Friedrich Drumpf arrived in the U.S. in 1885 — ironically, three years after passage of America’s first anti-immigrant law, the Chinese Exclusion Act — and promptly Americanized his name to Frederick Trump.  Trump came from Kallstadt in northern Bavaria, the same exact region from which many western Iowans emigrated. 

Once in America, Trump headed west, settling in Seattle and then the Yukon, where he ran saloons that rented “private rooms” — the sort of activity that sparked deep protest from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.

One parallel between grandfather and grandson: they both prefer European brides.  Frederick Trump returned to the Old Country to court the “fräulein” next door — Donald Trump’s grandmother.
But like the immigrants of today, Opa Trump was incredibly hardworking, laying the foundation for the family dynasty that created the success that is Donald Trump.

Some may protest that Frederick Trump and his fellow German immigrants can’t be compared to today’s immigrants — while they were technically “undocumented” immigrants with no visa, they weren’t illegal immigrants. True.  But they were accused of being impossibly un-American, and incapable of being assimilated into America’s mainstream.  Political cartoons of the era portray German immigrants as subhuman and backward drunkards, unable to speak English and stealing ballot boxes at election time.

Given the Trump family history, and given the history of German-American Iowans being on the receiving end of anti-immigrant hatred, prejudice and violence, the anti-immigrant chords being struck in Iowa by Trump and others show shocking ignorance of our shared history.
It also shows a shameful insensitivity not just to today’s immigrants, but to the memory of Iowa’s own German immigrant grandparents and great-grandparents — and to Opa Trump.

Now, anyone who Googles my name could counter argue that (1) I’m not an Iowan; and (2) I’m a former Democrat political consultant.  Guilty as charged.  That said (1) my family came to Iowa in 1848, and I maintain deep ties to the state. (2) My great-grandfather John Klinkefus from Shelby County used to get bullied for speaking German; so this issue is personal for me. (3) As to partisanship, while I am former Democratic consultant, my bipartisan bona fides are equally strong — I have worked for several Republicans, including men who worked for Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger and George H.W. Bush. 

I can absolutely see why voters are drawn to Donald Trump.  I just want them to be honest about Iowa’s own immigrant past.

For the grandchildren of Iowa’s German immigrants to ignore our common immigrant history and to feel no empathy when dealing with today’s Latino immigrants is unconscionable. 

The starting point for Iowans when debating immigration surely has to be to acknowledge that we are the grandchildren of immigrants — and that our families have also suffered discrimination. 

Iowans should remember their own immigrant heritage, and their own immigrant history, and in so doing act with a bit more empathy on immigration.

(Editor’s Note: Dan Manatt is director of Democracy Films and of the documentary “Whiskey Cookers: The Amazing True Story of Templeton’s Bootleggers.”)

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