Far&Near column published in the Hindustan Times (29 August, 2016)
Last week saw a poignant trans-Atlantic union. At a rally in the southern state of Mississippi, the Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shared the stage with Nigel Farage, the “Brexit” campaigner whose long quest to remove the United Kingdom from the European Union succeeded in June. Both men style themselves as populist outsiders telling cold truths to the ruling elites. With Trump flagging in the polls against Hillary Clinton, Farage reminded the Mississippi crowd of the unlikely triumph of the “Leave” vote in Britain’s EU referendum. “Anything is possible if enough decent people are prepared to stand up against the establishment,” he crowed.
Trump and Farage have much in common. Both use their background in business and finance to distinguish themselves from “establishment” politicians. Though not taken seriously from the outset, they courted media attention and steered their political careers into the limelight. In claiming to represent “little people, real people, ordinary, decent people” against “modern global corporatism,” they peddle a mixture of chest-thumping patriotism and macho anti-elitism.
Most importantly, and to their everlasting shame, Trump and Farage have fanned racist, anti-immigrant passions for their own short-term gain. The hateful currents coursing through their politics are part of the wider rise of white nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic.
It has been widely documented — including in this column — how Trump has lashed out at Latinos and advocated a ban on all Muslims. His rallies can be feverish, vulgar affairs, attended by mostly white supporters. With an obstinate dedication to myth, his campaign repeats the lies that the US border with Mexico is “open” (no president has deported more people than Barack Obama) and that hordes of Syrian refugees stand poised to swarm, “unvetted,” into American communities (the US is already far behind on its paltry goal of resettling 10,000 thoroughly screened refugees by the end of the year).
Similarly, campaigners for Brexit demonised immigrants. Farage framed hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers in the UK (many of whom have been toiling in the country for nearly two decades) as enemies of the people and the source of economic and social woe. In an infamous bit of agitprop, Farage also unveiled a billboard that showed a snaking line of brown-skinned Syrian refugees, suggesting that membership in the EU would cause the UK to be overwhelmed by Muslim migrants. The “Leave” campaign won on the back of this crude messaging.
Tellingly, it was areas of England with little experience of immigration that embraced Farage’s xenophobic message and voted to leave the EU. Parts of England with more sustained experiences of immigration — like London and Manchester — voted to remain.
We see something similar happening regarding likely Trump voters. A recent Gallup study by economist Jonathan Rothwell aggregated interviews with 87,000 Americans. The survey’s results undermined Trump’s claims to represent the impoverished working classes and those hurt by globalisation.
First, it showed that relative to those within their demographic group (in terms of religion, education, and geography), Trump supporters are fairly affluent. Second, post-industrial districts (that have seen declines in manufacturing jobs since 1990) aren’t inclined to vote for Trump. Finally, Trump supporters (like Brexit voters) live in some of the most racially isolated parts of the country least affected by immigration.
Whether in the American south and Midwest or in the post-industrial English northeast, this isolation breeds ideas of foreign threat. Look, for example, at the results of an Ipsos Mori poll about perceived Muslim populations. British citizens think that Muslims make up 21% of their country (actual figure: 5%). Americans think Muslims are 15% of their country (actual figure: 0.6%).
All these findings are modern evidence of a very old kind of populism. Though they clothe their politics in the homespun rhetoric of anti-elitism, Trump and Farage are tapping the hatreds latent in their societies. They invoke the false spectre of tidal waves of immigrants. They repeat the desire “to take our country back”, to return to an imagined state of grace before significant immigration (in the case of the UK) and when whites disproportionately enjoyed the benefits of robust economic growth and the social safety net (in the case of the United States).
There are many legitimate reasons to be aggrieved with the status quo in Western societies. Both Brexit voters and Trump voters are right to fret about wage stagnation and staggering levels of economic inequality. What is disquieting, however, is how swiftly these material concerns are sublimated into the phantasmagoria of race and ethnicity. With the rise of far-Right, anti-immigrant, and anti-multicultural parties across continental Europe, a white nationalism or nativism has returned with snarling force on the global stage. Trump is only one of its heralds; even if he fails, it will remain a shaping force in Western politics for the foreseeable future.