Tom Coburn's lunacy and the real meaning of the immigration fight

The GOPer's prediction of doom may sound silly, but he's speaking to what really motivates the anti-immigrant right

Published November 20, 2014 9:09PM (EST)

Tom Coburn   (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Tom Coburn (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

At around 8 o’clock on Thursday night, President Barack Obama will formally announce his intention to alter U.S. immigration policy through a series of executive orders. According to multiple reports, the president’s directives will protect as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation. After failing to pass immigration reform in 2009 and 2010, when Democrats had large majorities in the Senate and the House, the executive orders will be the closest Obama gets to fulfilling a broken promise — and make up for his administration having spent much of the past six years deporting people at a brisk pace.

While Obama has once again flip-flopped on the constitutionality of using executive orders in this regard, he’s been consistent in saying that he’d prefer to achieve reform through legislation, which has a political legitimacy and permanence that executive orders lack. But because Speaker Boehner has precious little control over his own caucus, and because a critical group of nativist House Republicans sees anything short of deportation as amnesty, the comprehensive bill passed by the Senate in 2013 has not (and will not) come up for a vote. Since the proposed moves are definitely legal, this obstruction from the House has left Obama with little choice.

That’s just some of the context you need to understand what’s happening right now and to cut through the blizzard of hyperbole — Lawlessness! Caesarism! Tyranny! — being unleashed by Republicans. As Brian Beutler lays out here, those accusations are exaggerated. And I suspect some GOPers who secretly agree with Obama’s goals are screaming to the heavens to compensate. Not all of them are insincere, however, and one in particular, from Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn (a.k.a., Obama’s best bipartisan friend) is especially noteworthy for both its honesty and its hysteria. What he says is crazy, of course; but it provides a better understanding of why conservatives are so angry than all this nonsense about Obama pining for a throne.

So what did Coburn say? When asked to respond to the executive orders news, he first answered by reciting the GOP’s talking points on the issue and how it shows Obama wants to govern without congressional constraint: “The country's going to go nuts,” he predicted, “because they're going to see it as a move outside the authority of the president and it's going to be a very serious situation.” These warnings were pretty vague (a “very serious situation,” after all, could mean any number of things) but Coburn’s next comment didn’t need interpreting. “You're going to see — hopefully not — but you could see instances of anarchy … You could see violence." 

Outside of the far-right bubble, the idea that a few reversible executive orders about deportations threaten civilization itself sounds, well, insane. It’s admittedly quite possible that some unhinged racist will use Obama’s move as an pretext to externally manifest their own spiritual corrosion. Anarchy, on the other hand, isn’t something that happens on an individual level. In American politics, it’s a word that tends to be used to describe nightmare scenarios, like Libya after Gadhafi or New Orleans after Katrina — not merely one or two or three xenophobic days of rage and protests. Coburn’s language was apocalyptic, in other words, and indicative of how the most die-hard opponents of reform see themselves as locked in a struggle with existential stakes.

Coburn’s statement raised a few eyebrows, but for a couple of reasons — the GOP’s superior message discipline, the fear of sounding partisan, the reluctance to view politics through a zero-sum lens, etc. —  the media has mostly bought Republicans’ framing, that this was about executive overreach. That’s a shame, because it means many Americans who aren’t part of the anti-immigrant right won’t understand its motivations, which don’t have much to do with the separation of powers but have everything to do with the “culture” and “identity” of the United States. A debate about who we are lets every American have her say; a debate about constitutionalism renders the conversation accessible mostly to the elite.

If we were to strip the euphemism and minutiae from the conversation, here’s what it would look like: Instead of engaging in academic discussions of “norms” or wasting time with tit-for-tat examples of partisan hypocrisy, we’d listen to Coburn. Not because his premonitions of disaster are serious and in themselves worthy of attention, but because they’re so clearly in-tune with the rhetoric about immigration that actually exists within the GOP base. If you talk to Tea Party people about immigration, as Harvard’s Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson did in a definitive study of the movement, you won’t hear about the imperial presidency or prosecutorial discretion. You’ll hear about liberals bringing good-for-nothing immigrants into the country so they can make them citizens, have them vote for Democrats and establish a new America where the government exists to redistribute from those who "make" to those who "take."

Put differently, an honest estimation of the anti-reform bloc’s views here would spend a lot more time looking to Pat Buchanan, author of “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” and many other anti-immigration tracts, than James Madison. And it would devote more energy to teasing out the links between Mitt Romney, who blamed his 2012 loss on Obama’s willingness to dole out “gifts,” and Michele Bachmann, who described the president’s executive orders as an attempt to make “illiterate” immigrants the “new voters” for the Democrats in 2016. That’s where you have to look to understand immigration politics; forget about checks and balances and start listening to conservatives when they say they’re fighting to “take our country back.”

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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