Immigrants are like ISIS!: The myth and reality of libertarian populist Dave Brat

The man who defeated Eric Cantor is supposed to be a libertarian populist. Here's what that really means

Published May 20, 2015 4:59PM (EDT)

David Brat                 (AP/Steve Helber)
David Brat (AP/Steve Helber)

A little less than a year ago, Republican congressman and then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated in his district’s GOP primary. His vanquisher was a little-funded and even lesser-known college professor by the name of Dave Brat, who won in part by portraying Cantor as a consummate Washington insider and a fake conservative.  And because the description was at least half-true, most people said something along the lines of Huh, how about that and continued on with their lives. (Eric Cantor’s allegedly being an awful person no doubt influenced the response, too.)

What most (not all) observers failed to appreciate at the time, though, was that another key element of Brat’s pitch was to slam Cantor for his views on the country’s immigration system — namely, his willingness to place comprehensive reform of it on the negotiating table. To Brat and many others on the far right, anything short of all-out opposition to comprehensive reform was tantamount to endorsing amnesty. And amnesty, like the kind Ronald Reagan supported and signed into law, was simply unacceptable. "It’s the most symbolic issue that captures the differences between me and Eric Cantor,” a victorious Brat said of immigration reform during an appearance on Fox News.

Brat’s defeat of Cantor was joyously received by many Tea Party-type Republicans, of course; but some left-leaning self-proclaimed populists — like Ralph Nader, for example — were fired up, too. However, these lefties were more excited by what Brat could be made to represent than by who he actually was or what he actually believed. They tended to ignore his pronouncements on immigration, seeing the libertarian-minded opponent of the 2008 bailouts as a fellow foe of Wall Street instead. But now that he’s been in Congress long enough to get his sea legs (and to start worrying about getting ousted himself) we’re starting to see what really makes this “libertarian populist” tick.

I hope you’re sitting down and are ready for a shock — because it turns out that it’s not fighting Wall Street; it’s fighting immigration. Actually, it’s not even that (though there’s little doubt about what Brat would do if a comprehensive reform bill were brought up for a vote). Because it turns out that Brat isn’t simply worried about comprehensive reform. He’s worried about immigrants, period. And he makes no exception for Dreamers (those who were brought into the country as children),  even if they love America so much that they want to serve in its armed forces. These folks, he says, might as well be agents of ISIS.

No, really, that’s what he said. During an appearance on a Virginia right-wing radio show last week, Brat shared the story of how he helped defeat an amendment to allow Dreamers to enlist. “I wanted to stand up and shout,” Brat said, referring to how he felt when the amendment’s supporters talked about the Dreamers’ patriotism. “I mean, ISIS is willing to serve in our military as well,” he added. According to Professor Brat, the proposal was reminiscent of nothing so much as the downfall of the Roman Empire: “[P]art of the reason Rome fell,” he explained, “is because they started hiring the barbarians … to be troops in their own army.”

I’ll cop to being temperamentally suspicious, but I’d like to think that when conservatives and liberals were chirping about Brat and his libertarian populism, this is not what they had in mind. Maybe they’d grant that, like many self-described libertarians, Brat’s views on immigration are contrary to what the guardians of the faith say they should be (which is extremely positive). And maybe they’d grant that Brat would have to make some compromises along the way and appeal to some of the GOP base’s worser angels. But for the supposed libertarian populist to reject not only immigration but willing, even eager assimilation? Oof.

Yet that’s exactly what Brat did — and in the most incendiary way he could imagine. In the real world, the real-life Dave Brat took an 18-year-old straight-A student who wants to enlist, but whose parents brought him into the country illegally when he was a toddler, and lumped him together with a murderous ISIS militant. In the real world, the real-life Dave Brat implied that Dreamers, like ISIS, are only interested in the military insofar as it’s their ticket in (which isn’t even true of ISIS, but whatever). In the real world, real-life Dave Brat has reduced a complex political issue into simple ethno-nationalist tribalism about as clearly and cleanly as you’re ever likely to see.

If you didn’t know any better, it’d be enough to make you wonder about whether Dave Brat is the populist libertarian we were promised. And if you’re of a more cynical persuasion, you might even go so far as to wonder whether this whole libertarian populism thing actually exists.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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