John Tanton isn’t a household name; for much of his life, he lived a relatively unassuming existence as an ophthalmologist in Northern Michigan. Yet even if you don’t recognize his name, you’re probably familiar with his anti-immigrant ideas and their trajectory from fringe to federal public policy over the past few years. Tanton and his wealthy benefactors spent decades founding various groups, all for the sake of building up a machine to generate new nativist policy ideas that would serve as a kind of administrative state in waiting for a future right-wing president. As he wrote in a memo to a fellow member of an informal gathering of like-minded xenophobes: “All we lack is a king to advise!” He would live long enough to see this dream realized in Donald Trump.
As journalist Brendan O’Connor documents in his new book, Blood Red Lines: How Nativism Fuels the Right, the retired ophthalmologist—who took an interest in environmentalism in the 1970s before turning to population control and anti-immigrant fanaticism—found common cause with wealthy conservative oligarchs, among them Cordelia Scaife May of the Pittsburgh-based Mellon family and former Gulf Oil chairman Sidney Swensrud, to create a veritable pipeline for nativist thinking and organizing. They bankrolled legal groups like the Immigration Reform Law Institute that waged battles in the courts; think tanks like the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) that released white papers on the supposed harm immigration causes to the labor market and public safety, written with a veneer of scientific impartiality; and organizing outfits like NumbersUSA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) that lobbied these policies at state houses around the country.
It was this careful groundwork that allowed the Trump administration to move with relentless precision on immigration, rolling out new policies almost weekly. The ideas had already been developed by the Tanton network, and its members seeded the government. For example, former Center for Immigration Studies policy analyst Jon Feere was made senior adviser at ICE, where, O’Connor writes, he could “operate with a broad mandate and without any real oversight, acting as [White House adviser Stephen] Miller’s man at ICE.”
Tanton’s network, through the Trump administration, has become more than just the intellectual backbone of the modern nativist movement; it is now the crucial connective tissue through which mainstream policy-makers and open white nationalists can move and engage with each other. While politicians like Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and the staid wonkish types of CIS and FAIR might publicly distance themselves from the actions of white supremacist and border militias, reactionary street gangs, and terrorists who have targeted Jews, Muslims, and Latinos, O’Connor argues that they’re essentially enforcers of the same worldview, with a common ideology—which he terms border fascism—binding them together.
While incorporating standard border restrictionism, this ideology is about not just physical borders between countries but also the belief in an interlocking series of demarcations between people, which distinguish those who deserve free movement and other rights and those who don’t. This is the crux of O’Connor’s framework: Ethno-nationalism has been weaponized as part of a broader effort to convince people that the only way they will prosper or even survive is to police borders created by economic and social elites, boundaries “dividing citizen from noncitizen, the Global North from the Global South, white from nonwhite, rich from poor, men from women.” The postwar neoliberal order—of globalized markets and unrestrained flows of capital that are propped up by exploited workers who are pitted against each other and whose labor is tightly controlled—depends on the enforcement of these borders, and so it has utilized the latent racism and intolerance of large segments of the workforce to serve its economic purpose.
O’Connor doesn’t step into the messy debate about what exactly constitutes fascism, in part because his definition of border fascism is something different from the fascism we saw in the past. It still centers around a jingoistic and racialized understanding of cultural and national identity, but the primary villains here aren’t foreign governments and armies or scheming domestic elites but rather other workers, be it ones abroad or those who have immigrated—people who, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively powerless and often desperate, but who are painted as threats to domestic workers. To an extent, it’s an ideology that carries whiffs of colonialism, where the out-group exists for the in-group’s economic benefit, with global corporations and investors, not national governments, leading the charge.
Many of these border fascists may deeply and genuinely feel hatred for and threatened by outsiders and immigrants, but as a whole, O’Connor believes the nativism is almost incidental—a tool to bind together disparate groups: new, Internet-organized reactionaries like the Proud Boys, racist skinheads, extreme libertarians, all participating in a joint fantasy of heroism and struggle against foreign and domestic enemies who would dilute their cultural power. As he puts it, “This convergence proved fertile ideological ground: the radical libertarianism of the astroturfed Tea Partiers intermingling with the chauvinism of the militias and their white nationalist allies, bonded together with Alex Jones conspiracy theories.”
The process works cyclically. A network like Tanton’s can shape, refine, and inject into the mainstream dialogue the raw demographic and racial panic that animates fringe groups, while the network’s veneer of respectability and pseudoscientific output can draw more people into this fringe thinking. Mainstream institutions and political figures and far-right reactionaries alike can point to this refined, institutional ethno-nationalism as backing for their ideas. The winners, in the end, are market interests, who are able to funnel vulnerable workers into artificial hierarchies in which one group will gladly strip the other of their rights based on the promise of capitalism’s scraps. Our modern anti-immigrant movement is both an outgrowth of and fuel for the postwar economic system that requires clear distinctions between countries and between people to function properly.
O’Connor made his name as a writer and journalist for publications like Gawker, Splinter, and, more recently, The Baffler, with a mix of reporting and editorial writing on immigration, labor, and the far right, all of which meld into a cohesive whole in Blood Red Lines. It’s his first book, and it’s clear that he isn’t drawing from a solely journalistic tradition but an academic and historical one as well. He references his own reportorial work and the work of fellow journalists like Anna Merlan, a prolific cataloguer of the far right, as well as critical theorists and scholars. This runs the gamut from contemporary academics like Kathleen Belew, author of Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America, to frequent citations of early German Marxist theorist Clara Zetkin, who wrote about the origins of fascism in the decline of national institutions in the early 20th century and outlined a response rooted in class consciousness and worker struggle.
O’Connor’s border fascists emerge from a similar failure: To him, neoliberalism has proven to be an antidemocratic ideal, and the 2008 market failure—which could well have dealt a death blow to a political system that had failed in its assumptions of stability and self-regulation and tanked the global economy—ended up further entrenching economic elites who realized that the system they cherished wouldn’t be able to sustain itself without active antidemocratic intervention. Between popular movements like Occupy Wall Street and renewed interest in regulation, the knives were out, and nativism proved a convenient tool with a dual role: convincing people that they, too, might get the spoils of the system if they committed to a world with clear borders and controlled movement, and making a profit.
As he notes, “one set of capitalists—those in the agriculture, construction, and service industries, for example—makes money directly exploiting the labor of undocumented workers, whose surveillance detention, and deportation is profitable for a whole other set of capitalists—those in the defense, security, and technology industries.” The bosses want the workforce enabled by international migration, but prefer this migration to be irregular, such that it can be both exploitable and disposable, and never attain cultural or political power.
Domestic populations of workers are sold the notion that they are distinct from and superior to workers abroad in a way that both redirects blame for neoliberalism’s failure to actually improve their material conditions and keeps them from building any sort of worker movement. The strategy works well for the investor class regardless of their nominal political leanings; rich liberals, while ambivalent about the right’s approach and perturbed by images of the immigration system’s outcomes, fundamentally buy into the premise that immigration is a problem to be solved and an opportunity to avoid more fundamental changes to the economic structure.
These bright-line distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving, workers in one country versus another, will only be accelerated by the looming threat of climate change, which will push waves of refugees out of the Global South and toward the Global North. O’Connor describes Tanton’s and his contemporaries’ fascination with the idea of immigrants’ introducing not only racial but ideological diversity to the country, and in the process diluting the dominant domestic sociopolitical thinking and bringing communism and fanciful ideas of collective action. A mass influx of workers is a dangerous proposition: Have them compare notes with your own, and the locals might start wondering why everyone’s getting screwed the same way and looking to build solidarity.
Ultimately, O’Connor’s proposition is to do exactly that—to reject racialized borders and build a global labor movement to combat border fascism. He laments that labor unions largely settled into maintaining existing member benefits and renegotiating contracts and stepped away from the militant organization that characterized an earlier era. This worker solidarity can provide an alternative worldview to some of the would-be fascists, and a brawl with those who go down that route anyway. O’Connor frames it as equally a moral imperative and an act of self-preservation. “Without a mass working-class movement, anti-fascist organizing is doomed to failure, but without anti-fascist organizing, so, too, is a mass working-class movement,” he writes.
This is perhaps where O’Connor and his contemporaries might have room to build on his theories. Global trends like the gig economy, remote work, and automation reveal the limits of 20th-century-style unions and popular worker movements. While organizing campaigns at companies like Amazon and Google illustrate a growing move toward solidarity even among white-collar technical workers, whose industry is mostly aligned with libertarian ideas of worker individualism and atomization, tensions around police and immigration enforcement unions protecting abhorrent practices also show how worker solidarity can backfire into protecting the very structures of power that O’Connor seeks to combat. The ideology of border fascism capitalizes on racism, sexism, and xenophobia among the working classes in order to further economic objectives, but that doesn’t mean that those underlying ideologies aren’t real or can be easily excised.
The ability for unions and worker movements to exist and act effectively also depends largely on policy and cooperation from the government and the public sector. Policy-making efforts like California’s recently passed Proposition 22, which keeps gig workers classified as contractors, hamstrings collective action. The Biden administration has taken a number of decidedly pro-union steps, including the creation of a task force to increase union membership and the nomination of high-level union officials to the National Labor Relations Board. At the congressional level, the House has passed the PRO Act, which would strike down some of the damaging impact of “right to work” laws and provide for easier bargaining and worker organization. Its path in the Senate is uncertain.
Still, the full extent of the path forward remains to be seen, as the administration continues to develop infrastructure spending and economic recovery plans and shapes its response to corporate malfeasance and union-busting. O’Connor’s argument about worker power is a persuasive one, but perhaps the solidarity we need to build in order to combat border fascists has to happen not just in our workplaces but in our homes and in our minds as well. Until we live in a society and an economy that doesn’t view free movement as a threat, the border will continue to haunt our imaginations.