Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Feb 12, 2016
Tr[i]ump[hant] nativism and the US election campaign

Elections are essentially about winning the hearts and minds of the electorate and in the United States, election campaigns sometimes revolve around separating the White Anglo Saxon Protestants (WASP) from other immigrants. The fear of new immigrants into the United States tend to be directly proportional, often, to rise in perceived threats to the “American way of life” owing to migrant influx from different parts of the world at different periods in American history. Rising and ebbing waves of patriotism narrowly identified with the protestant “natives”, and concentrated hatred of the other immigrants, has often created an “us vs them” scenario, highly magnified during election seasons.

Politicians have often played on hyperbolic fears of an imminent demise of White America, and the dilution of what is perceived American culture. As early as 1850s, nativism emerged in the political scene of America with the emergence of the ‘Know Nothing Movement’ (also later referred to as the American Party) that primarily saw surge of anti-immigrant feelings directed against Roman Catholics. The movement has been reflected in popular culture as well, seen in the Hollywood production Gangs of New York, with Daniel Day Lewis essaying the role of a real life Know Nothing movement leader William Poole aka Bill the Butcher.

During his campaign, President John F Kennedy (the only Catholic elected US president) had to passionately emphasise his American-ness to a group of protestant ministers at the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on 12 September 1960. Kennedy emphatically said, “…contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic.” Jewish immigrants have also been the subject of much ridicule and prejudice in the United States. Fear mongering saw them as swarming America’s elite institutions or undermining America’s small town simplicity. Threats have also been perceived from influx of immigrants from East Asia as well. The internment of Japanese Americans in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks continues to be questionable measure of the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration.

In more recent times, such politics of fear have been directed against illegal immigrants from Mexico, Muslims in general and Syrian refugees in particular in the midst of the rising threats of the Islamic State (IS). Besides the fear of cultural dilution, the fear of immigrants and the associated political rhetoric is often seen to be directly proportional to rising concerns of national security, as seen through rising incidences of crime and terrorist violence. Election campaigns often reflect this politics of fear trumpeted and project oneself as that candidate who could more than anyone else, preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness at the face of all odds.

The Republican candidate Donald Trump’s nativist views has been the subject of much debate in the campaign season and his no holds barred comments on immigrants has fueled concerns around the world. Trump has often talked of erecting a wall to stop Mexicans crossing over, who according to him, bring drugs, crime and are rapists. A Washington Post/ABC News poll pointed out that Trump’s supporters were largely voters with no college degree and voters who say that immigrants weaken America. Trump’s campaign has been serving a politics of alienation, fed on the threats perceived to the White Americans, both in the cultural and economic sense. There has been a prevailing sense of decreasing economic opportunities among the blue-collar and rural Americans who have also been moving towards the Republican Party. In addition, recent terrorist attacks as seen in Paris and San Bernandino have accentuated the threat to national and personal security.

Many white nationalist groups who tend to see immigrants in a negative light, robbing the WASP identity of it essence, are coming out in support of the Trump campaign. They see him as someone who has the guts and bravado to speak their minds and stand up for the “natives” as opposed to those politicians who appease immigrants for political mileage. They support an uncompromising stand against any form of illegal immigration and vouch for their deportation. The Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed Trump for President. Jared Taylor, the editor of American Renaissance, a white-nationalist magazine and Web site based in Oakton, Virginia, said in regard to Trump: “I’m sure he would repudiate any association with people like me, but his support comes from people who are more like me than he might like to admit.”

Trump’s campaign has liberally employed ethnocentric views, looking at issues from the prism of whether it favors one group over others. Moreover, he has not stopped from using abusive languages in propagating his racially biased arguments. More than any other, he has used the issue of immigration to emphasize this fear of the others to the “American dream”. There is a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction among the American people that both the parties are not providing economic solutions. Trump has been filling this gap with vitriolic comments against immigrants, trade, Wall Street and Washington elites. In the wake of terrorist threats, his proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from entering the United States has generated much distaste within the United States and abroad. However, it was not surprising that he found takers among his supporters.

It might indeed be hard to strike the balance between national security measures and maintaining the liberty of all Americans regardless of their ethnicity. However, any crude attempt to find populist solutions and the sort of anti-immigrant rhetoric that Trump has employed during the campaign hardly does justice to complex socio-economic and cultural issues that a diverse country like the United States has to grapple with. Moreover, the xenophobic language that is being played in Trump’s campaign goes against the foundations of an American state and nation; prospering on the backs of hardworking immigrants whose success stories are the fabric of the American dream.

(The author is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal University, Karnataka)

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