The Immigration Question as a Complex
What was it about the immigration issue that had so energized the voting public? Not only the bulk of the rural and right-leaning South, but also a significant bloc of the typically Democrat-voting electorate in the industrialized, battleground states of the Rust Belt and the Eastern seaboard were sufficiently motivated to elect Trump in spite of his negatives? Wherein lay its appeal?
Well, it turns out that the entire question of immigration forms a complex (or a catch-all of sorts) – a complex not only from a conceptual, ideas-laden standpoint, but more importantly perhaps, on some primordial, emotion-driven level. And as such, it was therefore nothing short of a masterstroke, whether on Trump’s part or on the part of his handlers, to have made immigration the centerpiece of his election campaign.
As I indicated in Part I, the anti-immigration sentiment was never far off center of the conservative, nativist mindset. It was true in the past (as, for example, with respect to every single prior immigration wave, be it Italian, Irish, Polish or German); and it’s no less true today, when the effects of globalization permeate nearly every aspect of our lives, and apprehension about the specter of international or domestic terrorism, whether at the hands of jihadists or Mexican drug cartels, has become for many of us a permanent reality.
In either case, the predominantly white nativists perceive themselves as victims in what is purportedly their country of origin – clearly an intolerable condition made all the worse by the fact that there’s nothing in the offing to suggest that this trend is about to end. But whereas we may readily acknowledge both the underlying nature and the prima facie content of the nativist’s complaint, the question remains: Why here and why now?
Let me suggest that it was Mr. Trump’s bombastic and brazen campaign style, a style which is but a reflection of his personality, that unleashed and made overt that which for a great many lay beneath the surface. And furthermore, that in having done away thus with the concept of political correctness – actually only a veneer, but a veneer which, nonetheless, was still being observed – Trump had succeeded in transforming what was originally but a dog whistle into a screeching siren. At last, our nativists were liberated from the shackles imposed by the norms of a civil society: now they could wear their prejudices on their sleeves with great pride, as though a badge of honor.
Given the exquisite richness of the emotion-ridden subtext of the immigration question, we can see why a great many of what may have been regarded in the past as legitimate concerns (such as the integrity of our borders or some of the detrimental effects of unchecked immigration) may well have to be taken with a grain of salt. Which isn’t to say that some of those concerns (e.g., those related to the effects of globalization and, as its immediate by-product, a significant diminution of our manufacturing base) weren’t heartfelt, especially by the already-impoverished and, for the most part, forgotten working class. It’s only to say that the voices of genuine discontent have now been joined, as though in harmony, by a great host of inauthentic voices which, although humming the same tune, have used the immigration question only as an overriding pretext to express what was truly in the heart.
Needless to say, the range of duplicity that was at work here may well have varied from person to person; but surely, the clearest expression of the indubitable connection between the immigration question and its deep-seated emotional underpinnings must be none other than the recent re-emergence of the white supremacy movement. And here, all efforts at disguising the emotional under the pretext of immigration-related concerns, genuine as they may have been for some, are as good as abandoned. Duplicity is all but gone also, having been replaced instead by an unmistakable expression of hatred towards “the other.” Indeed, it wouldn’t be far off the mark to say that it has almost become fashionable nowadays to be authentic – authentic in one’s overt and unabashed hatred of “the otherness.”
This then is the dubious legacy of the Trump era. What may have started as a rather innocuous-sounding campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” – hinting, whether subtly or not, at illegal immigration as one of the major obstacles to that goal – soon assumed its proper (if not intended) dimensions: “Make White America Great Again.”
True to form, the white-supremacist folk, quite correctly perhaps, disregarded the dog whistle; instead, they took Mr. Trump as earnest and responded in kind. As to their less vocal and less courageous sympathizers – well, let’s just say that they seized the moment and latched on to the opportunity to make the White Man’s Last Stand. But this difference is only of degree.
There is a twist, however, which may evade the less attentive reader: even this re-articulation of Trump’s original battle cry is still a dog whistle of sorts. For one thing, it leaves as elliptical the quintessential modifier appertaining to “White Man.” “Privileged White Man” is the critical reading, a reading which somehow escapes the consciousness of a white supremacist sui generis. Interestingly, this very fact, and for the exact same reason, suits the truly privileged white man just fine!
If there is a quantum of solace to be derived from this analysis, it’s the truism that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Another is a corollary on the ways of power, in that true power is no respecter of persons – that it’s indiscriminate when it comes to skin color, sex, gender or ethnic background.
In Parts III and IV, I’ll examine some of the implications of the populist movement at hand on the business of governance and the state of the union. As we shall see, it’s not a pretty picture.