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Indignant anti-Trump liberals are both bold and scared. On the one hand, they make exaggerated and unpopular demands. On the other, they know that liberal extremism is leaving them exposed, and they attempt to solve this problem by using the politics of personal destruction to cut off debate. The way to deal with these liberals is to be both calm and unyielding. Senator Tom Cotton has demonstrated the necessary virtues so far, but if he is going to live up to his potential, he will have to continue to do so for years to come under conditions of escalating pressure and defamation.

First, the extremism. Last week, the Trump administration unveiled a plan that would grant amnesty and a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants who were brought to America as children. This plan would also end the so-called “visa lottery” (the lunatic policy whereby immigrants are randomly selected to come to America). Under the proposed new system, immigrant selection would be determined not by whether one has a relative in the United States, but by a points system based on professional skills and expertise.

The reaction on the left was unhinged. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called it a “hateful anti-immigrant scheme” to “make America white again.” This is an odd objection, since most immigrants from some countries in sub-Saharan Africa are actually high-skilled, but let that pass. Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer called it an attempt to “tear apart our legal immigration system and adopt the wish list that anti-immigration hardliners have advocated for years.”

This is also odd. Though one might quibble on the details, President Trump’s immigration compromise was solidly moderate. How moderate was it? According to the Harvard Harris poll, Americans were asked:

Would you favor or oppose a congressional deal that gives undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents work permits and a path to citizenship in exchange for increasing merit preference over preference for relatives, eliminating the diversity visa lottery, and funding barrier security on the U.S.-Mexico border?

Sixty-five percent of Americans agreed with that compromise. So did 64 percent of Democrats. So did 68 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of African-Americans. Perhaps America’s African-American voters want an immigration policy that makes America white again, but that seems rather unlikely, doesn’t it?

Far more likely is the possibility that Americans have good reason to want to reorient immigration in the direction of skills and education. In earlier periods of mass migration, the vast majority of immigrants (like the vast majority of natives) had less than a college or even high school education. This wasn’t necessarily a problem in an industrializing society and—perhaps more to the point—it wasn’t much of a problem in a society where social capital was widely distributed. As recently as 1960, if a child had two parents with high school diplomas or less who worked at wage-earning jobs, there was a 95 percent chance that child lived with both of his parents. But in 2010, a child with two parents who were wage-earners with high school diplomas only had a 30 percent chance of living with both parents. 

This is the sickening irony of the liberal position that “family reunification” should be the basis of immigration policy. Given America’s broken institutions, bringing in low-skill immigrants means bringing people into that segment of the population where families are most likely to fall apart. Perhaps this is why, according to opinion polls, Americans of all parties have long favored transitioning to a skills-based system. In the most recent Harvard Harris poll, that number includes 72 percent of Hispanics and 85 percent of African-Americans.

In short, the institutional Democratic party, progressive journalists, and elites of the articulate center-left have staked out a position far more radical than that of Democratic voters—and much more radical than that of the nonwhite demographic segments they claim to champion.

In response to this gaping disparity, Democrats have tried to drown out debate by flooding it with outrageous and childish lies. Richard Durbin, the Senate’s no. 2 Democrat, pretended that the term “chain migration” should not be used because it caused flashbacks to the horrors of the Middle Passage. Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy claimed the term chain migration was a “made up term by the hardline anti-immigration crowd.”

As it happens, demographers have long used the term chain migration to refer to a process by which a migrant can sponsor his siblings and his siblings’ spouses. Then the spouses of their siblings can sponsor their siblings and spouses and so on.

But the point isn’t that Durbin and Murphy are liars. The point is that they are trying to use bad faith accusations of racism (accusations that would be embarrassing if made by a middle schooler) in order to shut down debate. The point is to tell anyone who disagrees with them (especially the overwhelming majority of the American people) that any dissent will be branded as racist and that careers will be at risk.

This tactic was used (ineffectually) during the recent government shutdown. Senator Charles Schumer demanded that the relatively restrictionist Senator Tom Cotton be removed from immigration negotiations. The goal was to have a “compromise” in which that majority of Americans who wanted to ban the visa lottery and shift to a skills-based immigration system were unrepresented. A couple of days later, Schumer and the congressional Democrats surrendered and voted to allow the government shutdown to end.

But that wasn’t the end of the tactic. Earlier in the week, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote that someone like Stephen Miller (an immigration restrictionist and adviser to President Trump) would have to be part of any immigration deal. For the past dozen years, proposed immigration “compromises” have always included unpopular increases in legal immigration—which is part of the reason they have collapsed. Any secure immigration deal would have to include Americans who are skeptical of immigration (and especially low-skill immigration).

The response from liberals was outrage that Douthat believed the 35 percent of Americans who favor reduced immigration should have any representation at all. Of course, the 24 percent who favor increased immigration should have a monopoly on representation. That is only “democratic.”

Douthat was also criticized for voicing this sentiment on Holocaust Remembrance Day. This is an odd complaint, since Douthat was arguing that a Jewish-American presidential adviser should have a place in immigration negotiations, but truth or logic isn’t the point. The point was that anyone who dissents from the liberal line must be a Nazi Klansman—even if, or perhaps especially if, he’s Jewish. It’s a nice little career you have there, Mr. Douthat. It would be a shame if something happened to it. Maybe you would feel safer writing about old episodes of The Sopranos.

Senator Tom Cotton acquitted himself well during the government shutdown. He is probably the best positioned among senators to be the voice of post-Trump, center-right populism. But he will have to avoid a couple of pitfalls.

First, he will have to have a very thick skin. That doesn’t just mean standing up to political intimidation maneuvers. What Cotton will have to get used to is having horrible things said about him without responding in kind. He will be called a Nazi and a Klansman and white supremacist and anything else the self-proclaimed responsible and humane center-left can imagine, and it will be a terrible temptation to respond to outrageous attacks with outrageous counterattacks—which is a good way to earn (or make, anyway) a living as a conservative media star, but it won’t fulfill his potential and it isn’t what the country needs. Fortunately, he seems like a pretty tough guy. Cotton was on the path to a secure place in the conservative legal establishment when he volunteered to be an Army infantry officer and serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The more angry, irrational, and hate-filled his opponents, the calmer and more reasonable Cotton’s responses need to be. That doesn’t mean meeting his opponents’ absurd charges halfway. It means being emotionally steady as he makes his best arguments without apology. One of Ronald Reagan’s great strengths was that he was so unlike his opponents’ caricature of him as an ignorant maniac. People saw Reagan and decided that it was Reagan’s hysterical critics who must be unbalanced. Cotton has to be similarly ready to take advantage of his opponents’ rhetorical overreach. The more dignified, measured, and composed he is, the more his opponents will hate him, slander him, and seek to goad him into responding in kind. Not giving in to them is the first victory, and makes other victories possible.

Second, Cotton is going to need a broad and inclusive story about what has gone wrong with America and a program for what the government can do to repair the damage. The decline of labor force participation and family stability among our lowest-skilled workers of all races and ethnicities is a multifaceted problem. 

A lasting center-right populism cannot be built merely around immigration restriction and protectionist fantasies of bringing back the industrial economy of the mid-1960s. There will have to be family and health care agendas that address the anxieties of wage-earners of all races, and they must be coupled with a humane analysis of our situation that takes into account how the struggle of America’s lowest-earning families represents a failure of the America of the postwar era, under both major parties. Does Tom Cotton have the discipline to face the tantrums of the elite left’s raging infants? Does he have the wisdom to help craft a populist agenda that is worthy of our country, and addresses the needs of our people?

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things.

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Photo by Michael Vadon via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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