An Unlikable Ike

One of the more interesting moments in last week’s Fox Business debate was Donald Trump’s claim that an Eisenhower administration initiative to remove undocumented Mexican immigrants across the southern border showed that his own bright idea of deporting 11 million undocumented folks was feasible and would probably be popular:

Let me just tell you that Dwight Eisenhower, good president, great president, people liked him. “I like Ike,” right? The expression. “I like Ike.” Moved a 1.5 million illegal immigrants out of this country, moved them just beyond the border. They came back. Moved them again beyond the border, they came back. Didn’t like it. Moved them way south. They never came back.

Trump left out a few details, of course. His numbers are funny; according to a well-documented report by the LA Times‘ Kate Linthicum, the number deported under Ike was closer to 300,000 than 1.5 million. For another thing, the deportations were part of a broader effort to encourage enrollment in the Bracero program, a a short-term guest worker system that confined immigrants to locations near the border where jobs were available.

But the real howler in Trump’s analogy is the belief that anything Americans accepted in 1954 would clearly be kosher today. The very name of the deportation initiative, Operation Wetback, tells you otherwise. Jim Crow was reaching its apex in 1954, with the beginning of the end represented by that year’s Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court. For that matter, the Chief Justice of that Court, Earl Warren, subsequently known as a great civil libertarian, had pretty recently supervised the internment of Japanese-Americans and the theft of their property as Governor of California.

For all the venom cast by conservatives at “progressives,” it is kind of important to recognize that actual progress has occurred and does occur, and that you cannot end arguments by citing precedents for policies towards minority groups tolerated or even encouraged in the past. Subsequent historians have been kind to Dwight D. Eisenhower’s administration, particularly with respect to his civil rights record. But some things his administration did are simply unlikable.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.