It Seems We Aren’t So “Exceptional” After All

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.


  1. Civic illiteracy goes well beyond carrying a Constitution booklet. Running a democratic country is well beyond the capability of most citizens and now that lying has been given free rein I’m not sure democracy is viable anymore.

    When neoliberalism was launched by Reagan with his government is the problem speech a virus was created that is all but unstoppable now.

  2. David F – your comments today were spot on. Thank you for sharing them so eloquently. I lived in Tucson before we moved to Europe.

    JoAnn Those negative things about Bernie were on right wing sites…I’ve seen them before. Basic hit pieces about his history.

  3. It occurs to me that some percentage of the Trump voters voted for him only in protest thinking that Hillary would win. The polls everywhere were telling all of us that she would win, and win big. So it became safe to vote their bigotry and anger thinking that it would go nowhere but be a protest just like the Green Party voters who voted only on one issue. Thus, there are now many regretful Trump supporters and I suspect Green party voters too. Very much like the Brexit mess in England.

    Be careful how you vote.

  4. Pete,

    “When neoliberalism was launched by Reagan with his government is the problem speech a virus was created that is all but unstoppable now.”

    I don’t know if we have the answer to Trump/Pence, but we can’t give up until we have exhausted all possible remedies. If not, we will all be guilty of aiding and abetting the worst crime imaginable: FUTURCIDE.

    The platform for the release of the virus was made by humans. It is a virus of the mind. It is still treatable if an antidote of counter-memes can be developed in time.

    an-ti-dote (an’ta dot’) n.[< Gr. anti-, against + dotos, given] l. a remedy to counteract a poison 2. anything that works against an evil or unwanted condition

    The following is from "Conflict and Defense: A General Theory" by Kenneth E. Boulding (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962) Chapter 7, The Group as a Party to Conflict: The Epidemiological Model pp. 143-144.

    "Richardson's account of the war cycle has obvious limitations, though it is illuminating and suggestive. The distinction between overt and covert attitudes is important and undoubtedly accounts for the explosive nature of many conflict situations, not only in international relations but in industrial life, in family affairs, and in DOMESTIC POLITICS. The Richardson process of mutually increasing hostility may go on, for instance at the covert level, while, superficially, an appearance of harmony is maintained, until suddenly the pressure of covert hostility becomes to great, and the situation flares up—into a strike, or a family quarrel, or even a civil war [ or even the election of a President like Donald Trump]."

    "A factor that Richardson neglected is the impact of the mass media of communication on the spread of attitudes of hostility or friendliness. Epidemics of ideas, attitudes, and fashions are not only carried by the simple contagion of face-to-face communications but are air-borne by the swift dissemination of messages in newspapers, radio, television, [internet, mobile phones] and so on. The rapid spread of hostile attitudes, for instance, at the outbreak of a war may be attributed not to simple contagion but to the fact that almost everyone is in the same state of mind of a precarious balance between overt friendliness (or neutrality) and covert hostility and almost everyone receives the same information at the same time through the press and the radio, which tips the balance and causes a large scale reversal of attitudes. At this point, simple epidemiological models are not particularly helpful, for what are involved are the symbolic aspects of the NATIONAL IMAGE."

    "Richardson's covert-overt model may throw light on a good many dramatic phenomena in history–mass conversions, mass defections, and revolutions. Sometimes, the existing social group retains the overt loyalty and support of the people at the same time that, covertly, this support is being eroded away [hopefully very soon with Trump/Pence]. This is particularly likely to the case where the FEAR OF VIOLENT CONSEQUENCES is an important element in the support of the existing group or regime. It is hardly to much to say that every group that attracts support by violence of terror will suffer an erosion of its covert support and that, if this goes on long enough, the group will be suddenly overthrown by a mass transfer of allegiance to another group. The relative impermanence of particular tyrannies is clear testimony to this principle, even thought the problem of replacing a tyranny by a better system rather than by another tyranny involves a deeper level of social dynamics that is not always achieved."

    See The Political Epidemiology Institute at

  5. I di not think education was a big enough factor for Democrat publicists to have grouped with “rural.” Donald Trump and Michael Pence both are well educated, and many citizens prefer to commute to the densely populated capitals — not live there, or enroll their children there. Most of our representatives are “non-college” historically in the Arts & Sciences sense, not the State vocations and trades. We have in common public school memories much deeper and fuller for 82 % of us in all walks of life, annual classes. As Marshal McLuhan and all the others since have cautioned, you cannot “foresee” events, consequences, looking in the rearview mirror while forging ahead. Most research academically is done by those paying to understudy staff members, and within daily distance of the sites, using what libraries are at hand, or what citizens typed on line AFTER 1960 only. Those of us who received scholarships to read at universities, awarded cash for housing, books, meals, from the founders and those who wanted to forward studies in their areas of interest, were not those “Young Republicans” or “Young Democrats” with career interests. It takes 100 Humans to elect that 10 % for college awards because 90% have sponsors in other disciplines — including the K-12 schools only.

  6. Marv: Thank you for the history lesson. Some months ago, I commented on FB that events were strongly running parallel to the rise of Hitler, but commenters dismissed it as hyperbole. Considering the behaviors the Trump supporters have been willing to overlook and the warnings they’ve ignored, I shouldn’t have been surprised. And I don’t think history is their strong point.

  7. Wallflower,

    “Considering the behaviors the Trump supporters have been willing to overlook and the warnings they’ve ignored, I shouldn’t have been surprised. And I don’t think history is their strong point.”

    I agree. We need to them a favor by arousing their interest.

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