Donald Trump’s populism preys upon collective anxieties

A Honduran migrant lies on a riverbank as Mexican police move away from tear gas fired by U.S. agents at the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana, Mexico, on Nov. 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Donald Trump’s populism preys upon collective anxieties

President Donald Trump and his allies have long deployed inflammatory rhetoric about immigration. Recently, it’s been aimed at exploiting anxieties about border security related to the so-called “caravan” of migrants from Central America heading towards the United States-Mexico border.

That rhetoric erupted into awful action when migrants, some of them children, were tear-gassed by U.S. federal agents as they approached the U.S.-Mexico border over the American Thanksgiving weekend.

Several weeks before this incident, during the midterm campaign, Trump sent troops to the border while stating he would tighten up asylum rules and terminate birthright citizenship for children born on American soil to illegal immigrants and, more generally, non-citizens.

Doubling down on his anti-immigration rhetoric, Trump also tweeted a controversial and misleading web video explicitly linking refugee claimants with cop-killer Luis Bracamontes.

Accusing Democrats of letting “him into our country,” the video then features images of alleged migrants involved in violent acts before asking: “Who else would Democrats let in?”

Trump is also threatening to close the entire U.S.-Mexico border to prevent migrants from the “caravan” to “invade” the United States.

One way to understand Trump’s rhetoric and actions is populism and its tendency to accuse corrupt elites (in this case, the Democrats) of betraying “the people” by empowering their enemies: in this case, migrants allegedly involved in criminal activities against law-abiding American citizens.


Read more: What is populism – and why is it so hard to define?


As author Jan-Werner Müller suggests in his excellent 2016 book What is Populism?, a key aspect of populism is the claim that “only the populist authentically identities and represents … real or true people.”

‘Enemies’ of the American people

Clearly, Trump draws on a right-wing version of this populism to label Democrats and those who disagree with him on immigration as enemies of a narrowly defined “American people.”

Trump used this populist and nationalist rhetoric to motivate his base to vote for Republican candidates in the recent midterm elections, urging them to defeat Democrats and the threat to the American people he claims they represent.

Another complementary way to understand Trump’s anti-immigration bent is the politics of insecurity, by which elected officials can downplay, inflate, or even fabricate perceived threats to increase their electoral and political support.

This is consistent with U.S. sociologist Charles Tilly’s seminal paper War Making and State Making as Organized Crime, which suggests early-modern state-making is analogous to organized crime because it involves political actors creating or exacerbating threats they seek to protect ordinary people against.

This logic remains present in contemporary U.S. politics, as we clearly saw after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. President George W. Bush and his allies stoked collective insecurity by defining the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein as an existential threat to the United States and the conspirator behind these attacks. He wasn’t.

Simultaneously, in addition to justifying the war in Iraq, the exacerbation of the perceived terrorist threat through the creation of a terror warning system helped Republicans in the polls, as each increase in the threat level rewarded them with greater popular support.

Creating a sense of urgency

In the specific case of Trump, preying upon the collective anxieties of his majority white base is a way to create a sense of urgency.

His goal, prior to the midterms, was to mobilize his supporters to show up at the polls to thwart an purported assault on the United States engineered by allegedly unpatriotic Democrats who let migrants in and don’t stand up for America.

What we’re witnessing is a convergence of nationalism, populism, and the politics of insecurity. The exacerbation of collective insecurity stemming from seemingly uncontrolled immigration is coupled with nationalist claims about the existence of an enemy within (the Democratic Party) depicted as being soft on crime and on immigration.

Beyond populism, the meshing of nationalism and the politics of insecurity is hardly new in U.S. politics. Post-9/11 politics illustrates how this works.

‘Weak’ Democrats

During the 2004 presidential campaign, the Republican Party ran a television ad featuring menacing wolves wandering a shady forest:

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After claiming that “John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence budget by $6 billion,” a female voice cautioned viewers that “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.”

During the presidential campaign centred on terrorism, the Republican message was clear: Only President Bush and his Republican allies could protect the nation against terrorism, in contrast to seemingly weak Democrats who were failing to take the appropriate measures to do so.

Facing this type of rhetoric, Democrats usually try to shift the attention away from areas Republicans traditionally “own,” such as national security and border control, to socio-economic issues like health care, which are typically associated with their party.

Yet in the end, collective insecurity remains a central aspect of the politics of both parties. They try to use such insecurities to their advantage while articulating an understanding of national identity.

Trump’s focus on a narrow and closed version of the nation while he incites paranoia against vulnerable migrants should be a major source of concern for those who seek to reduce partisan division and build a more inclusive society.

Canadians should also be concerned about this rhetoric, as far-right news and social media outlets like The Rebel Media spread a similar populist rhetoric north of the border.


Read more: The ominous third-place finish of a white supremacist in Toronto


Ironically, right-wing populism, which is largely about denouncing immigration and globalization, uses global networks to spread hateful and paranoiac rhetoric all over the world.

Considering this and Canada’s proximity to the United States, Trump’s rhetoric should be taken seriously, especially because it has already convinced large numbers of U.S.-based migrants to seek asylum in Canada, a situation some politicians have been accused of exploiting to fuel anxieties about refugee claimants.

As seen in both Europe and the United States, these anxieties create fertile ground for populism as it intersects with the politics of insecurity.

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