What Right-Wing Populist Movements Share: Blaming Immigrants

Fareed Zakaria argues that the core of Donald Trump’s message in 2016 was, “your life sucks—it's because of Mexicans, Chinese people, and Muslims.”

James Lawler Duggan / Reuters

What’s behind the surge of populism that brought Donald Trump to power? For Fareed Zakaria, trends in technology and globalization are one important factor, insofar as they have created a disconnect between economic growth and jobs in the United States.

That isn’t, however, the whole story.

“There's an interesting puzzle,” he declared in a Wednesday lecture at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by The Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “This is a wave of populism taking place around the world. This is not just the United States. We have to unpack that for a minute and ask ourselves where it is happening.”

The heart of populism used to be Latin America.

“If you went back 30 or 40 years and asked yourself where would you see the great populist regimes, they were all in Argentina and Bolivia and Brazil––that's really what defined modern populism,” he said. “Today, Latin America has almost no populism. Latin America is a place filled with pragmatic, reform-minded, Hillary Clinton-like policy wonks who are trying to integrate their economies into the globe.”

Nor is there much populism in Asia’s developed economies.

“So where do you see it? Well you see it in the Western world, in Europe and the United States,” he said. And the puzzle is that within the Western world,  “you actually see it in places that are very different economically. I just gave you the story of the loss of manufacturing in the United States. Well guess what country has not lost much manufacturing? Germany. And guess what, Germany has right wing populism growing as well. You talk about economic inequality in the United States, which is a huge problem. Well guess what, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, they have not had much rising inequality in the last 20 years. And they have fiery right-wing populists.”

What do Western countries with surging populism have in common?

As he sees it, the answer is immigrants:

This is the one common feature of all countries that have populism. I want to be clear, that's not the only thing. This is too complex a phenomenon to have one cause. The way I would put it is the economic stagnation and difficulty has given rise to a kind of cultural anxiety about people's place in he world. There's very good data now after the election that tries to figure out, what is the single biggest predictor of a Trump voter in terms of the survey data that they answered? And it turns out that the single best predictor is cultural anxiety that my country is changing, he second is a desire to keep immigrants out. When you ask people if their economic circumstances have changed, people who felt they had gotten worse actually slightly preferred Hillary Clinton. The engine, the motor that was propelling people toward Donald Trump had much more to do with issues of culture. And Trump understood this very well.

For all the talk of Trump’s erratic behavior on the campaign trail, Zakaria continued, he was remarkably consistent in his core message:

His core message was actually, fundamentally, not about economics. His core message to people was, your life sucks, it's because of Mexicans, Chinese people, and Muslims The Mexicans take your jobs. The Chinese people take your factories. And the Muslims threaten your lives.

I'm going to beat them all up. You'll be great again.

Other Republicans were promising to cut entitlement spending. Trump understood that the Republican Party’s base was not particularly interested in reforms that cut Medicare or Social Security. “What they wanted to hear,” Zakaria said, “was this raw message of cultural anxiety, cultural affirmation, and a sense that he connected with them.”

Zakaria, an immigrant from India, has himself experienced some of the costs. Trolls tweeted out his home address. Bigots called his house and talked to his adolescent daughters. “I've been stunned by the outpouring of hate over the last year,” he said. “My Twitter feed was probably 2 percent racist or bigoted: go back to India, or they don't know where I'm from, so India, Egypt, Indonesia, whatever. And often very colorful language. In the last year it's gone up to 20 percent, 25 percent.”

As he sees it, even groups that Trump did not target have suffered from his approach:

If you talk to Jewish community centers around the United States they'll tell you that they have gotten more threats, more phone calls. There's no question in my mind that Donald Trump is not an ani-Semite. I think he would be perplexed by this, and in no way intended it. But it shows that if you encourage a certain kind of language and behavior, if you encourage a certain kind of intolerance, then you're giving permission to all the crazies. And their particular intolerances may not be yours. But what you've done is opened a Pandora's box and given a green light to people. Anti-Semitism in America is something you always thought was on a steady decline.

Some earnest young Republicans may one day wonder why older immigrants and the children of those immigrants vote against their party by such a wide margin. It is likely that Trumpism will be to blame.

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