Fear of migrants unites right-wing populists in US, Europe

On both sides of the Atlantic, right-wing populist movements have identified immigrants and refugees as a cause of their frustration.

Liberal democracy in Europe and the United States is being shaken by populist right-wing movements variously described as nativist, ethnic supremacist and even fascist. Populist left-wing movements — such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the supporters of Bernie Sanders in the United States — have grown in popularity but not to the same degree.

How can the term populist apply to both right- and left-wing groups? Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia in the United States and the co-author of “Populism: A Very Short Introduction,” said populism simply refers to a movement that is opposed to the existing governing class, which it believes is morally bankrupt and works against the interests of the common people.

Whether ideologically leftist or right-wing, populist movements thrive when people are frustrated with their lives and prospects. They tend to pinpoint a particular group or concept as the source of their frustration: For left-wing populists, the enemy is global capitalism and the institutions that bolster it; for right-wing populism, it often is minority groups in a country and immigrants or refugees who wish to enter.

Since the June 2016 Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump as US president, right-wing populism has been on the ascendance. Populist right-wing parties have won office in Austria, Hungary, Poland and Italy and waged serious challenges in France, Germany and the Netherlands. Left-wing populism has been less successful at the polls: Syriza holds power in Greece and Mexico just elected a populist left-wing presidential candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

US and European versions of right-wing populism have much in common: A call for a return to tradition (however that is defined); hostility to globalisation, multilateralism and multiculturalism; charismatic (some would say demagogic) leadership; and a curious fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

On both sides of the Atlantic, right-wing populist movements have identified immigrants and refugees as a cause of their frustration and a direct danger to the nation. In Europe, this has taken the form of hostility towards migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers from the Arab world and Africa. In the United States, the hostility is towards those trying to enter the country from Central America and Mexico, as well as those from Muslim-majority countries.

Right-wing populism in Europe is more overtly linked to ethnic chauvinism than it is in the United States. European right-wing populists openly express fear that immigration will change their cultures and traditions and even threaten their languages. In the United States, immigration is framed as a security issue — Central American drug gangs, Islamic terrorists — and a threat to jobs, even though most immigrants take jobs few Americans want and the national unemployment rate is at its lowest level in many years.

Ethno-racist chauvinism plays a huge role in American right-wing populism, although it is rarely talked about except in dark corners of the internet. The US population is projected to become majority non-white by the middle of this century and many white Americans view this prospect as an existential threat. It is no coincidence that the anti-immigrant forces in the United States focus on the Mexican border, where the people crossing into the country are mostly brown-skinned.

The Irish Embassy in Washington has estimated that there are as many as 50,000 undocumented Irish citizens living in the United States but there have been no calls for their expulsion.

This shared concern over ethnic dilution is thus a common concern in US and European right-wing populist movements. In both cases, the feared immigrants hail from regions that were once either official colonies (North Africa and the Middle East) or de facto colonies (Central America), regions that also face widespread economic, social and political challenges.

For some reason, neither Europe nor the United States is devoting significant resources to improving conditions in these regions to reduce migration. Trump and his supporters demand a wall along the US-Mexico border that will cost more than $25 billion to construct. The same amount spent on economic and social development in Central America could do wonders but Trump has proposed cutting US aid to the region.

There is a myth embedded deep in the Western psyche: The fall of Rome, which claims a great civilisation was overrun by barbarians who sacked the great city on the Tiber and slaughtered its people. Rome, indeed, did fall but not like that. It was a slow process that was caused more by internal social decay than by hordes of conquering barbarians.

In any event, migrants and refugees seeking to enter the United States and Europe are not barbarians; they are human beings often fleeing unbearable conditions in search of better lives. As the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes: “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark… no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.