Would Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan recognize today's Republican party? No. They would be astonished and dismayed at the timid claque of propagandists peddling hysterical fantasies about The Other.
In tough times, these leaders were optimistic, inclusive and self-confident. Abe, Ike and Ron would not fear an Islamic center in Manhattan. They would not have nightmares about a former Burlington Coat Factory housing sleeper cells eager to impose Sharia on American courts.
The giants of Republican history believed in the strength of America. They did not mimic the fanaticism of its enemies. Among today's would-be presidents are several with a Wahabi-sect view of the Constitution, which they would transform into a tabernacle of intolerance.
Previous GOP leaders did not fear immigrants, legal or otherwise. Even if they did, they did not suggest repealing the 14th Amendment. For more than 100 years, Republicans boasted of the party's role in codifying due process. Now, partisan tough talk isn't tough enough without changing the Constitution, a pursuit as unlikely as it is unworthy.
The first president who enforced the 14th amendment said "It is my earnest wish that peace and cheerful obedience to law may prevail throughout the land." He certainly sounds like a sissy. Who was that? Ulysses S. Grant. Oh.
To call the bizarre proposals emanating from today's zealots "extremist" would insult the shade of Barry Goldwater. The party's 1964 presidential nominee acquired his political beliefs from experience and philosophy, not from pollster printouts.
The extremism of today's GOP mullahs derives from a calculated search for a new slogan. The old bumpersticker, "Tax Cuts and Deregulation" has been an automatic response, in season and out. TCAD would cure recessions, swine flu and teen-age acne. But too many voters recall that the near-collapse of capitalism occurred under this motto not long ago, in September of 2008.
Hence, "No Muslims, No Mexicans," a marketing tool for twin fantasies of fearful domination by The Other: not only will terrorists proselytize the Five Boroughs and the Tri-State Area, but a Spanish-only caliphate will soon rise in the desert of the great Southwest -- unless you vote for us.
Fear of The Other helped establish the GOP's rival in the 1850s. Amid economic anxiety, the Know-Nothing Party peddled bias against immigrants, mostly German and Irish Catholics. By the 1930s, Jews became The Other, thanks to the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin. His conspiracy theories about Jews attracted a third of the radio audience, far more than those who hear his spiritual descendants, the talkshow troubadours who guide the Republican party.
Opponents of illegal immigration look forward to deporting more than 11 million people. Like amending the Constitution, this is no easy task. Until then, what boils their patriotic blood is the notion of "amnesty." Whose idea was that, anyhow? His voice sounds familiar.
"I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally," Ronald Reagan said in a presidential debate in 1984. The Gipper was a sissy, too? A socialist sissy!
In 1856, the Grand Old Party was new. It promoted freedom, which it defined as "the maintenance of the principles promulgated in the Declaration of Independence, and embodied in the Federal Constitution." Today, the party is old, no longer grand and promotes fear.
Its Coughlinite instincts, its intolerant, jingoistic ravings would have disappointed Abraham Lincoln. In 1855, he wrote:
"As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it, 'all men are created equal except Negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read, 'all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."