“In the United States,” Mudde wrote at the time, “nativist actors have had indirect effects on policy at best, as the nativist voices within the Republican Party, for example, have not made it into prominent positions in government.” The closest America had come to having a viable nativist party, Mudde noted, was with Pat Buchanan’s Reform Party in the 2000 presidential election. (Buchanan’s slogan? “America First!”)
Now nativism, conceived in the United States and revived in Europe, has returned with force to its native land.
“Nativism is the core feature of the radical right today,” Mudde told me, and the other ideological dimensions of contemporary radical-right politicians—like populism and authoritarianism—tend to pass through a nativist filter. In terms of populism, he said, “the elite is considered to be corrupt because it works in the interest of the non-natives or it undermines the native group.” In terms of authoritarianism, which emphasizes the enforcement of law and order, “crime is almost always linked” to outsiders. While nativist movements have long argued that immigrants pose a multifaceted threat to the culture, security, and economic well-being of natives, Mudde writes in his 2012 paper, in the post-9/11 era the cultural and security threats have become intertwined with religion. “Increasingly the immigrant is seen as a Muslim, not a Turk or Moroccan,” he notes.
Some studies indicate that as levels of immigration to a country rise, so does support for nativist, radical-right politicians. But Mudde contends that the connection is more complicated than that: It’s not sufficient for the ranks of the foreign-born in a nation to swell; immigration also has to be turned into a political issue. It has to be made visible to a large part of the population. He pointed out that labor-migration flows to Western Europe increased in the years before the 1973 oil crisis, but that immigration wasn’t politicized there until the 1980s and ’90s, when asylum-seekers flocked to the region, efforts to integrate immigrants and their children into society and the labor market sputtered, and radical-right parties like the National Front in France began achieving political success.
Trump, for his part, rose to power at a time when more Mexican immigrants were leaving than arriving in the United States, and when the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. was flatlining. “This doesn’t mean that Trump [made] people xenophobic or nativist,” Mudde said. “A large portion of the population everywhere in the world is nativist.” But those people might have based their vote in previous elections on other issues. When a politician manages to shift the debate to matters of security and immigration, it can change how people vote.
Nativists, like populists, “raise some important questions,” Mudde said. “The argument that borders should be controlled” shouldn’t be controversial, “and it’s definitely not undemocratic. It’s the democratic right of a state and its population to decide who can come in [to the country] and under which conditions.”