September 11, 2017

Xenophobia Is as Xenophobia Does



Over on our blog, my colleagues Will Wilkinson and Jeffrey Friedman have been having out over the question of whether Trump supporters are motivated by xenophobia.

The short-short is this: Jeffrey thinks Trump voters are unfairly labeled as xenophobic when in fact they’re nationalistic. In contrast, Trumpists, Will argues, are clearly motivated by a distaste, if not fear of foreigners and foreign culture. In response, Jeffrey worries that Will’s argument could wind up scapegoating xenophobes in the same way Will accuses Trump supports of scapegoating foreigners.

There is a lot going on here, but at heart, I think what’s missing in this debate is a shared context. Jeffrey helpfully distills the key point when he writes:

If xenophobic opponents of immigration can be turned into supporters of it by telling them that immigrants will integrate non-disruptively into American society, then they were never xenophobes to begin with.

I think that’s right. Moreover, I think what animates Will’s, and indeed my own, thinking about Trump voters his how deeply ineffective this message has been. Contemporary neoliberals are fond of the following video because it provides a foil for our angst.

Here are two former Republican Presidents and legends of the American right, George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan, in their 1980 primary campaign responding to a questioner, who was worried about the effects of illegal immigration. Both men attempt not only to calm the questioner’s fears, but go on to push how beneficial immigration could be for America. Reagan arguing that it was economically and geopolitically smart, Bush that it contributed to the family values culture that the right cherishes.

Indeed, leading figures on the right have been trying to do this for decades, and the effort has utterly and completely failed. The right-wing commentariat both on cable and talk radio define themselves in opposition to the Republican establishment as much as do with liberals.

Lou Dobbs, one of the early alarmists on illegal immigration, went out of his way to slam the current GOP Speaker of the House, a Republican in Name Only, because he was less willing than Democrats in Congress to work with Trump.

All of this is to say that Trumpism is the outgrowth of a steady movement against the conservative intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians who support things like immigration and free trade. It is not that communicating the benefits of immigration has not been attempted. It’s that this communication has been roundly and fiercely rejected.

That’s the world in which Will and I are firmly rooted, and it undergirds our sense that this isn’t simply a matter of a lack of information.


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