The 45th President of the United States: Donald Trump.
Picture that for a second.
Similarly in Europe, a plethora of far-right, nationalist and populist (some even neo-fascist) parties have propelled to new heights of power in their respective countries. In Sweden (Bernie’s education-and-healthcare-for-all socialist paradise), the third biggest party in parliament currently is one that has roots in white supremacy and neo-Nazism. Across Europe, several Trump-like politicians have gained as much support in their countries as Trump has in his: Marine Le Pen in France, Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland, Viktor Orban in Hungary.
I want to argue that the root causes of far-right resurgence in both the US and in Europe has been misdiagnosed – or rather, incomprehensively so. Even though the supporters of demagogues like Trump are the ones voting them into office, their supporters are not entirely to blame for what is happening on both sides of the Atlantic.
Growing support for Trump and for politicians like him is as much a product of those who aren’t voting for them as those who are. Here’s why.
Immigration, Terrorism and Refugees
The far-right has built its support amongst their electorates by capitalising on three issues which they have bound together: immigration, terrorism and more recently, refugees.
In Europe, so-called “losers” of globalisation and laissez-faire economics are lashing out at the status quo. Smack in the centre of their crosshairs has been the EU and its central policy of free movement of people.
Across the pond, Trump astutely summarises the prevalent sentiment amongst his core working-class voters when he proclaims in rallies: “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo.”
Though I am sure that Trump himself has no idea what he is talking about (or what “credo” even means), it is indisputable that Trump is tapping into a culmination of frustration pent-up over the years – a well of frustration his European equivalents are bathing in as well.
Now consider terrorism. The quickening pace by which attacks are occurring in Europe and the US has exacerbated an already polarised political landscape. The debate over terrorism and its causes has been intertwined with the immigration debate to further deepen the schism that divides opposing sides in public discourse.
On top of all this, the emotionally-fraught matter of refugees has emerged and intensified over the last few years, like a shell exploding smack in between opposing trenches already deeply divided over immigration and terrorism. Virtually any common-ground that existed in the first place has been obliterated, the trenches further apart than ever before, and the few brave souls with olive branches in hand who venture into no man’s land are shot at from both sides.
The chief reason why many who hate Trump are themselves culpable for his rise is their contribution to creating the trench warfare that is our public discourse today – they’re digging trenches as ferociously as their enemies.
They’re not culpable because of the policies they prescribe. Rather, it is their approach in tackling those who disagree with them, especially when it comes to the three aforementioned issues, which leaves a lot to be desired.
Racist, Bigoted, Xenophobic etc.
In a democracy, there’s no guarantee that the best policy will prevail amongst a set of alternatives. Brexit reflects this fact. The best policy will most likely come about when a significant part of the electorate wants it, and rarely if that isn’t the case. The implementation of your ideal policies is contingent on the approval of your fellow voters.
Bearing this fact about our democratic politics in mind, the question must be raised: why have so many people developed a propensity to demonise those who hold different views to theirs? Surely they know that calling someone a racist makes that person less likely to agree with them.
Ad hominem attacks is the preferred strategy of many people today when confronting those who disagree, especially on the three aforementioned issues. Labels such as racist, bigot and xenophobe are thrown around callously at those who dare to have a different opinion.
Is someone who opposes illegal immigration undoubtedly a racist? Is someone who has concerns about the security of letting refugees into Europe invariably a xenophobe? Is someone who asks whether Islam played a role in motivating a terrorist automatically an Islamophobe? Many people today seem to have a certain answer to such questions: Yes.
The incessant demonisation is hugely consequential because it hasn’t just been inflicted on the far-right, where the genuine bigots, racists and xenophobes reside. The moderate-right has not been spared by tactics of demonisation, which have been indiscriminate, to say the least. It has become increasingly clear that the only condition that must be met for a flurry of insults and personal attacks to be deployed is that the target simply disagrees.
Think back to the days before Trump’s campaign (how far away those days seem now). Were the labels of racist, bigot and xenophobe used much more sparingly, rarely ever heard in public discourse? The answer is no. Long before Trump emerged, moderate establishment Republicans were already being targeted, examples such as John McCain and Paul Ryan being called “racists”, Mitt Romney being labelled a “homophobe”.
Of course, tactics targeting the character and integrity of a rival politician pays dividends. No one wants to be called a “racist” or a “bigot”, especially in the deeply race-sensitive United States. By presenting the political divisions between the left and the right as one steeped in a moral disparity between the two sides, the left benefited politically from the superior position they placed themselves in, whilst portraying their opponents as morally inferior, bigoted beings.
Many on the left, instead of devising the best arguments to persuade the dissenters of their erroneous conclusions, focussed its efforts on questioning the dissenter’s intentions and integrity. Rarely was the goal to convert the dissenter to their side of the argument – more often, the rhetoric employed had the aim of rendering the dissenting grievance illegitimate and present it as being borne out of racism and bigotry.
But years of demonisation has completed the proverbial cycle of coming back and biting the left in its ass. When the grievances of a large group of voters in a democracy are not even afforded the respect of being perceived as legitimate by fellow voters and politicians, what will inevitably occur is the unsavoury process of these disillusioned, marginalised and ostracised voters latching on to demagogues who will at least provide them the luxury of certifying the legitimacy of their grievances, and that is what we’ve seen.
One of the reasons Trump commands the support he has is that his campaign legitimises grievances previously delegitimised by political correctness, ad hominem rebukes and establishment politics. Tired of years of politicians and the media moralising about how their opinions reveal them to be bigots and racists, voters with aberrant views have secured a champion for their cause – a man who observed an overly politically correct public sphere and proceeded then to blow it apart through a campaign strategy of saying outrageous things and then, infuriatingly for many, not apologising for saying them.
Before Trump, voters could not voice their legitimate opposition to illegal immigration without their opinion being straw-manned as being anti-immigration. They could not voice legitimate concerns about the influx of refugees without being called anti-refugee. They could not raise legitimate questions about the role Islam plays in the radicalising of young Muslim men without being called islamophobic or racist. Actually, they still can’t today without these labels being hurled at them, but the difference is that today they have a major presidential candidate who will say and ask the same things.
Until people banish their habit of demonising those who merely disagree with them, the far-right will continue its growing influence in both European and American politics. This is because there will continue to be marginalised voters who would rather support genuinely bigoted demagogues who will at least allow their grievances to be aired, than politicians who refuse to even acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.