The election is over, but the racial and cultural resentments that led to the election of Donald Trump are not over, and the incalculable damage he will do to America and the world is just beginning. Unfortunately, when the largely rural and less-educated population that voted for him realizes that he cannot deliver on his fanciful and frequently unconstitutional promises, they are likely to blame it on all the “others” they already resent–immigrants, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans. Uppity women.
Several people have compared this election to England’s Brexit, and there are obvious parallels (including, I’ll predict, significant levels of “buyer’s remorse.”)Nativism and white nationalism, not economics, motivated both votes.
A recent essay by Zach Beauchamp in Vox makes a pretty convincing case that–much as we like to believe America is somehow different from other Western democracies, as much as we pride ourselves on our “exceptionalism”–what we are seeing here is not that different from the nativist movements currently challenging European democracies.
It’s tempting to think of Trump as something uniquely American, but the truth is that his rise is being repeated throughout the Western world, where far-right populists are rising in the polls.
In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.
These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.
Beauchamp dismisses the notion that this wave of anti-immigrant activism is rooted in economics or even rejection of globalization. In his analysis, what is driving this is something far more primal: fear of difference and social change.
A vast universe of academic research suggests the real sources of the far-right’s appeal are anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance.
Beauchamp cites research done by Roger Peterson, who wanted to understand why social change led to attacks on minorities in some situations, but not others. Peterson argued that in order to understand what triggers ethnic violence, we need to understand and appreciate the role of resentment, which he defined as “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.”
Peterson concluded that a major cause of ethnic violence was change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups, change that is met with a sense of injustice, because members of dominant groups believe they deserve to be dominant, and deeply resent it when members of other groups advance their status or pose a challenge to their pre-eminent positions.
During the 2016 campaign, that resentment–against minorities, against immigrants, and especially against women–was repeatedly found to be a more reliable predictor of support for Donald Trump than any other personal or economic characteristic.
It is that fury over social change that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today — and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come — we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.
People of good will have our work cut out for us.