The new Know Nothings: Trump’s vile brew of nativism and conspiracy theory

November 2, 2018 6:05 am

President Donald J. Trump waves as he boards Air Force One at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Ariz. Saturday, October 20, 2018, en route to Elko Regional Airport in Elko, Nev. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

I have heard it a million times and the story still makes my sides split.

My grandmother, an aspiring Boston nurse of Irish and English ancestry, who grew up in the nearby seaside town of Quincy, had started dating a Harvard medical student with a funny last name and was at last convinced to meet his family in New Jersey.

She was promptly taken to a homecoming party in honor of Uncle Tony.

Where had Tony been and why were they having a party to celebrate?

No one would give her a straight answer, so she went up to the man himself and asked.

“I guess you could say I’ve been away at college,” said Tony, then in his 40s.

My grandmother, impressed, declared how “wonderful” it was that a man his age was still trying to better himself through higher education.

The assembled Zullos fell out in laughter.

Tony, of course, had been in an institution, but it wasn’t one of the Garden State’s leafy college campuses.

Family lore is that an attempt to bribe a judge had landed him behind bars that particular time.

But Tony’s criminal history included less risible episodes, chief among them a gunfight between him and an uncle, John, after an argument over money that killed an innocent bystander.

The victim, Rocco Perrino, was among a crowd gathered outside a store in October of 1935 in Port Reading, N.J., a beacon for immigrants because of the railroad work, to hear translations of the news of the day (Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had just invaded Ethiopia).

The Oct. 25, 1935 edition of the Woodbridge (N.J.) Independent, which chronicles the investigation into a shooting involving the author’s great-great uncle.

“Perrino died as an indirect result of Mussolini’s Ethiopian adventure,” the Woodbridge Independent reported. “Every since Il Duce called his nation to arms, knots of Italian-Americans have gathered every morning at John Zullo’s little store to listen to translations of the daily paper’s war news. Perrino purchased cigars Saturday, lingered to hear the talk and happened to be in the line of fire on the first discharge.”

Until I was 13, I lived far from New Jersey.

And while I sometimes longed for a more Anglo last name that wasn’t constantly butchered by teachers, bullies and coaches, I held a degree of fascination for the tales of Tony and other relatives’ less savory exploits as they attempted to navigate a society that didn’t fully embrace them: bootlegging liquor, hauling Stewart’s root beer stands off their moorings because of unpaid debts and goodwill deliveries of cases of whiskey to police headquarters, among others.

Now, as a father of two, what strikes me most is a sentence fragment buried deep in another account of the shooting: “Perrino, a bystander and father of a small child.”

Tony and his brother, Carmen Zullo, my great-grandfather, were part of a large southern Italian immigrant family that came from Pietrastornina, a small village just north of Avellino, and settled in New Jersey near the end of the 19th century, around the time 11 Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans by a mob furious over the murder of the city police chief.

The author’s great-great-grandfather, Aniello “Neil” Zullo, born in 1864 in Pietrastornina, Italy.

“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation,” The New York Times opined.

Tony, despite his many good qualities (my grandmother still remembers him fondly) did nothing to dispel the stereotypes about Italian-American criminality that “The Godfather,” “Goodfellas” and “The Sopranos” have cemented in our culture, though the same attitudes go back much further.

The 1911 Dillingham Commission, for example, tasked with a massive study of U.S. immigration, concluded that “certain kinds of criminality are inherent in the Italian race.”

Carmen helped defy those stereotypes before he died of cancer at 43, setting his three sons, including my grandfather, on paths that led from the military to college to long careers as medical professionals (dentistry, surgery and oncology).

As an Army surgeon, my great-uncle Joseph Zullo operated on Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who wrote him a thank-you note that hung on his office wall for decades.

Nothing involving mass movements of people is all one thing or another. The story of immigration is really just the story of humanity writ smaller, with all of its attendant tragedies, triumphs, mistakes, beauty and ugliness.

We need a fair, functional immigration system. Part of that is secure borders, but that’s just one aspect of a complex debate replete with thorny issues.

However, it’s impossible to have that conversation amid the rabid nativist backlash — long ascendant in conservative circles — that is utterly consuming the far right at the moment. And our president, evidently with his eye on driving the base out in next week’s midterms, is dumping gasoline on the flames.

American nativism, of course, perhaps best exemplified by the Know Nothing party of the 1850s, is as old as the United States.

Their modern day descendants are also keen on conspiracies: Multiple mainstream conservative commentators openly speculated that the bombs mailed to President Donald Trump’s critics last week were a “false flag” operation orchestrated by liberals.

That toxic mix of nativism and conspiracy theory seems to have been at work in last weekend’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue, which the accused shooter appears to have targeted because of his hatred of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The group’s Pittsburgh affiliate, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, which helps settle refugees, counted a congregation at Tree of Life as a participant.

“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people,” the alleged gunman apparently posted just before the shooting. “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

Syndicated columnist Cal Thomas had this especially loathsome take on people fleeing violence, poverty and oppression, positing that the caravan of thousands of migrants from Central America dominating the news cycle might actually be  “a ploy by Democrats to win sympathy from Hispanic voters so they’ll reverse their growing approval of Trump administration policies and vote against their interests.”

A woman at Trump’s rally in far southern Illinois, an area that depends to a considerable degree on immigrant and guest worker labor, called the caravan “a ploy to destroy America and to bring us to our knees.”

None, of course, can hold a candle to our conspiracist-in-chief, the president himself.

“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border,” Trump tweeted.  “Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”

Applying for asylum at the border is, in fact, part of the legal process.

Trump, as always though, refuses to be bound by facts or tone it down.

Rather, he’s claimed he’ll do away with birthright citizenship by executive order, which he evidently cannot do, shared a truly vile ad blaming Democrats for immigrant violence, and, just Thursday, pledged to erect tent cities to hold asylum seekers at the border, among other moves cynically and revoltingly aimed at rousing the GOP base’s basest instincts before the midterms.

For those of us who are living the dream our ancestors clung to when they took off for foreign shores, this is a crucial time to speak out against mass vilification based on race, ethnicity, religion or national origin and to remember when people like us were demonized as the “other.”

And while we might like to think our forebears did things the right way, many of them didn’t go by the book or came before there were immigration laws to break. And not all of them were model citizens once they got here.

You won’t find too many times that I’ll hold up Fox News contributor Andrew Napolitano as a lodestar of moderation and sanity.

And yet:

“Nationalism and its cousin nativism are dangerous attitudes that have come and gone almost cyclically throughout American history,” Napolitano wrote last week in a critique of Trump.  “They foster an arrogant aura about Americans who embrace them — we are more deserving than you because our ancestors got here before you or yours did — and they cause fear and hatred of foreign-born people.”

He took particular aim at Trump’s move to dispatch thousands of U.S. troops  to the border.

“The blanket rejection by force of everyone in the caravan violates the spirit and the intentions of the laws the president has sworn to uphold. Those laws mandate a careful examination of all who want to come here — on a neutral case-by-case basis — not a blanket prohibition,” the judge wrote. “We who call ourselves Americans are nearly all descended from immigrants. Yet when our forebears arrived here, they were met simply by prejudice and government indifference. The poor folks in the caravan are likely to be met by prejudice and government force.”

Bravo, paesan.

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Robert Zullo
Robert Zullo

Robert spent 13 years as a reporter and editor at weekly and daily newspapers before becoming editor of the Virginia Mercury in 2018. He was a staff writer and managing editor at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., before spending five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]