I’m not alone in ascribing the seemingly recent eruption of far-right nativism to economic insecurity. After all, the Great Recession wreaked havoc on the global economy, which would seem to underpin hostility toward those perceived to be responsible for a decline in one’s fortunes.
The conventional wisdom is that the economic losses suffered by working-class people throughout the developed world explain the rise of this new right. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to free trade pacts in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.
That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people — primarily blue-collar and primarily white — who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.
But, the rise of Trump and populist parties in Europe cannot be explained by economics. The explanation, according to this very important Vox piece, from which the above quote is taken, lies with white, mostly Christian, men feeling displaced by “others,” especially those with darker skins.
Zack Beauchamp, the author of the linked essay, references dozens of research papers that demonstrate the politics of resentment. A very large segment of the American population, essentially most Republicans and nearly every Trump supporter, fears immigrants, blacks, and government “elites” who, they believe, enabled the demographic changes.
This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the “losers of globalization” aren’t the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards.
These attitudes, while learned, are deep-seated. They go back generations, and dwell within each of us in varying degrees.
I consider myself a tolerant individual. I would never deliberately offend those who are different from me. Yet, I must admit, based on past experiences, that I have feared “others.”
I’ll retreat to my high-school days at Mt. Diablo, in Concord, Calif. Of 2,000 students over four grades, there was a single black student, one or two of mixed raced, and a small population of Hispanics, some of whose families preceded the arrival of Western caucasians, the dominant segment of both the school and city’s residents.
During the summer of my junior year, while pitching for the local American Legion baseball team, I was chosen by the manager to start a divisional playoff game against Richmond. We were the visitors.
Now, despite having spent my first five years in that city, I was not prepared for the experience. The home crowd for that game was comprised of mostly African Americans. And they were vocal. This 17-year-old pitcher succumbed to playoff pressure. I walked the first five or six batters I faced, before finally calming myself down. Upon reflection, I suspect that much of my anxiety stemmed from fear of those who were different, namely black people. As I said above, my own experience was overwhelming white. It was somewhat of a shock, then, to face a hostile crowd who happened to be mostly dark-skinned.
There was another incident. I travelled on a school bus with a contingent of Mt. Diablo students to attend a football game against rival Pittsburg. That city had, and probably still has, a significant percentage of African Americans. The high school’s student body reflected the wider demographics.
Now, I don’t recall whether or not there were any incidents, but I do remember feeling afraid, an attitude shared by most everyone on the bus, all very white. I regret that fear now, certainly.
I concede that the reaction of far-right groups and individuals may be instinctual, as it likely was in me 50 years ago. However, I cannot condone xenophobia or racism or Trumpism.
Such attitudes, however, must be overcome, not embraced and fueled by political leaders and their associates. Trump is not healthy. He poses a very real danger. As the New York Times‘s editors wrote in their endorsement of Hillary Clinton: “[We believe] Mr. Trump to be the worst nominee put forward by a major party in modern American history.”
Mr. Beauchamp, the Vox writer, offers some hope:
The forces of reaction, of ethno-racial supremacy, have been defeated in the past, and can be defeated again. The key to doing it is to refrain from surrendering on core values — to reaffirm Western societies’ basic commitment to tolerance and to craft policies that promote that commitment rather than back away from it.
The future shouldn’t belong to the Front National and its ilk [including Donald Trump]. It should belong to the people they’re afraid of.