The White House opened its doors to the leader of the original “shithole” country this week. The irony was that a president who wants only the smartest and best-looking immigrants was embracing a nation once known for sending famine-stricken, disease-laden, crime-breeding foreigners to our shores.
For that matter, how did Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, the gay son of a Hindu father of Indian descent, merit time from a president who has stirred up a thousand little hatreds from the darkest corners of America?
The Taoiseach got his moment because on St. Patrick’s Day everybody wants to be Irish. But no one in power has betrayed the Irish-American story more than President Donald Trump. He’s been joined by a handful of Hibernian toadies who have made a mockery of their heritage.
Earlier in the week, the prime minister of a tiny nation tried to nudge the mighty United States back to the moral high ground.
“It’s really tough to see a country that is built on freedom not being a world leader in that space anymore,” he told an audience in Austin, Texas.
Varadkar also visited the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma, thanking them for sending donations during a famine in which 1 million Irish died. His gesture was in the tradition of Irish who never forget where they came from – a narrative of struggle can help the United States in its dark hour under Trump.
St. Patrick’s Day has long been a festival of memory – that is, before the peddlers of paddywackery got ahold of it. The burden of bad years includes not just the Great Hunger but also coffin ships that left for America filled with intact families and arrived with many orphans.
The president who is afraid that Haitians “all have AIDS” would likely have turned back ships packed with Irish dying from typhus, a particularly odious and painful way to go, spread by lice in tight quarters.
But that’s the memory, along with the triumph of the Irish in America – overcoming those odds, and a Know-Nothing movement that tried to strip them of their humanity.
Nineteenth-century America was blessed with Abraham Lincoln to counter the haters. If the Know-Nothings had their way, said Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence would have read, “all men are created equal except Negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.”
We’re stuck with Trump, the most un-American of presidents, who never misses a chance to stoke xenophobic fears. In trying to erase our history, his administration recently removed the phrase “America’s promise as a nation of immigrants” from the federal agency dealing with immigrants.
Trump has had help from a handful of Celtic cowards. Steve Bannon leads that rogues’ gallery. Who is he afraid of? Well, everybody. He would have hated his ancestors, who arrived in the United States in the 1850s. After stuffing white nationalist, America-first nonsense into the malleable brain of Trump, he’s now doing the same with French anti-Semites and immigrant bashers.
“Let them call you racists,” he told the far-right National Front Party last week. “Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”
Vice President Mike Pence, whose grandmother came from County Clare, once invoked the struggles of his family to support immigrants living in the shadows. He now sits passive and mute while his administration strands the Dreamers and moves to cut legal immigration by half. Among the undocumented immigrants in this country, by the way, are an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 Irish.
Pence, an evangelical Christian, has learned to strike a pious pose whenever anyone brings up his boss’ alleged romp with a porn star or his boasting about sexual assault. What gets his Irish up are gays; he has a history of opposing full citizen rights for Americans who aren’t heterosexual.
Amnesia about your past is nothing new in this country. We’ve all reinvented ourselves to some degree. But it’s one thing to forget where you came from. It’s another to betray that history with backward public policy.
“The hottest place in Hell should be reserved this St. Patrick’s Day for the Irish who want to pull up the ladder, shut the doors of Ellis Island and turn off the lamp at the Statue of Liberty,” Niall O’Dowd, a founder of the IrishCentral media empire, wrote last week.
The way forward is to look to the teachable past, as Conor Lamb, the recently elected Democrat to Congress from Trump Country, has done. In his campaign, he embraced his Irish Catholic heritage, noting that immigrants are good for America by almost every measurement.
Lamb often mentioned John F. Kennedy, who spoke of America as “the great experiment” – a country trying to form a common bond without a common ancestry. It was an audacious idea then, and still is, but it hangs in the balance.