White riot: how racism and immigration gave us Trump, Brexit, and a whole new kind of politics
Donald Trump is not an accident.
It’s tempting to see Trump’s rise as something sui generis: something so bizarre, so linked to his own celebrity, that it could never be repeated. Yet it is being repeated: Throughout the Western world, far-right populists are rising in the polls.
In Hungary, the increasingly authoritarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has started building a wall to keep out immigrants and holding migrants in detention camps where guards have been filmed flinging food at them as if they were zoo animals. In Italy, the anti-immigrant Northern League, led by a politician who has attacked the pope for calling for dialogue with Muslims, is polling at more than three times its 2013 level, making it the country’s third most popular party. And in Finland, the Finns Party — which wants to dramatically slash immigration numbers and keep out many non-Europeans — is part of the government. Its leader, Timo Soini, is the country’s foreign minister.
These politicians share Trump’s populist contempt for the traditional political elite. They share his authoritarian views on crime and justice. But most importantly, they share his xenophobia: They despise immigrants, vowing to close the borders to refugees and economic migrants alike, and are open in their belief that Muslims are inherently dangerous.
These parties’ values are too similar, and their victories coming too quickly, for their success to be coincidental. Their platforms, a right-wing radicalism somewhere between traditional conservatism and the naked racism of the Nazis and Ku Klux Klan, have attracted widespread support in countries with wildly different cultures and histories.
The conventional wisdom is that the economic losses suffered by working-class people throughout the developed world explain the rise of this new right. Hundreds of thousands of jobs are estimated to have been lost due to free trade pacts in recent decades, with industries like manufacturing absorbing much of the pain.
That’s created an ocean of angry and frustrated people — primarily blue-collar and primarily white — who are susceptible to the appeal of a nationalist leader promising to bring back what they feel has been taken away.
This anger plays some small part, but it doesn't tell most of the story. A vast universe of academic research suggests the real drivers are something very different: anger over immigration and a toxic mix of racial and religious intolerance. That conclusion is supported by an extraordinary amount of social science, from statistical analyses that examine data on how hundreds of thousands of Europeans look at immigrants to ground-level looks at how Muslim immigration affects municipal voting, and on to books on how, when, and why ethnic conflicts erupt.
This research finds that, contrary to what you’d expect, the "losers of globalization" aren’t the ones voting for these parties. What unites far-right politicians and their supporters, on both sides of the Atlantic, is a set of regressive attitudes toward difference. Racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia — and not economic anxiety — are their calling cards.
The ongoing surge of immigrants — especially those who venerate a different prophet or have a darker skin tone — is triggering a fierce right-wing backlash around the West. In the US, the anger about Latino immigration has linked up to another racial anxiety: Many white Americans believe their privileged status is being eroded by the past half-century of moves toward treating African American as truly equal citizens.
Donald Trump is a manifestation of this backlash, as are Brexit and the surge of support for far-right European parties. They show the extent of white Christian anger — the privileged who are furious that their privileges are being stripped away by those they view as outside interlopers.
It is that fury over immigrants that offers the best explanation we have for why the forces of intolerance are currently on the rise in the West. If we want to understand the world we live in today — and the one we’ll be inhabiting for years to come — we need to understand how immigration and intolerance are transforming the way white Christians vote. We need to understand that the battle between racist nationalism and liberal cosmopolitanism will be one of the defining ideological struggles of the 21st century. And we need to understand that Donald Trump is not an accident. He’s a harbinger.
I. How the resentment of the privileged can change politics
At the beginning of World War II, the small Baltic country of Lithuania saw two major shocks. First, in 1940, it was invaded and conquered by the Soviet Union. Just the next year, in June 1941, it was invaded and conquered by the Nazis.
In the city of Kaunas, the Nazi invasion triggered a spontaneous wave of attacks against Jewish residents, who had gained an unusual amount of power under the Soviets. The perpetrators weren’t the Nazis, who hadn’t had time to set up yet. It was the people of Kaunas themselves.
Prior to the Nazi invasion, Kaunas had a reputation for tolerance; one Jewish resident called it a "paradise." Yet afterward, the "tolerant" citizens of Kaunas tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. Roughly 3,800 Jews were murdered in just four days.
Just 65 miles away, in the capital of Vilnius, things were different. The city had seen pogroms in the past, so you would have expected something like the horrors of Kaunas. Yet the citizens of Vilnius mostly left the Jews alone. Why?
Jews studying in Vilnius, Lithuania, c. 1900.
As recently as the early 2000s, scholars didn't have a good answer to the question of why ethnic violence tore through one city without hitting the other.
Roger Petersen, a political scientist at MIT, decided to try to find one. A year after arriving at MIT he published a book, 2002’s Understanding Ethnic Violence, that contained the first truly solid framework for understanding the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius — and, as it turns out, the right-wing backlash we’re seeing across the world today.
Prior to Petersen, scholars often thought of ethnic violence in terms of threat (one group turns to violence when it feels threatened by another) or in terms of "ancient hatreds" (long-simmering resentments that have left the groups wanting to kill each other). Petersen argued that while these explanations were correct in some cases, they were incomplete. Clearly, neither theory can explain the difference between Kaunas and Vilnius. Nor did they fit several other case studies in Petersen’s book.
In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, he argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it. Drawing on social psychology, he theorized that one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political statusof majority and minority ethnic groups.
According to Petersen, that change in status comes from a sense of injustice. Members of dominant groups simply believe they deserve to be the dominant force in their societies, and resent those challenging their positions at the top of the pyramid.
"Any group that’s been dominant — well, it’s not that easy for them not to be dominant anymore," Petersen tells me.
This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them.
In his book, Petersen argues that his theory helps explain the causes of other cases of ethnic violence in Eastern Europe, including the carnage in the Balkans in the 1990s. Other scholars have since found that it could be used to understand communal violence elsewhere in the world.
A 2010 paper published in the journal World Politics tested Petersen’s theory, looking at 157 cases of ethnic violence in nations ranging from Chad to Lebanon. It found strong statistical correlations between a group’s decline in status and the likelihood that it turns to violence against another group.
What does any of this have to do with Donald Trump?
Petersen predicts that ethnic struggle should play out differently when governments are weak, as in the wake of a Nazi invasion, and when they’re strong, as in modern France. In nations with strong and legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group is extremely unlikely to produce large-scale ethnic slaughter.
But "resentment" on the part of the previously dominant group doesn’t just dissipate; it is simply channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies.
"Dominance," Petersen writes, "is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence."
Several case studies support his theory. Later in the book, he examines post–Cold War politics in Lithuania and the other two Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia (which had been retaken and annexed by the Soviet Union later in World War II). In Latvia and Estonia, the ethnic Russian minority was large and had been politically elevated above local ethnic majorities; in Lithuania, the Russian minority was small.
Violence, for a number of reasons, was not a feasible option. So after attaining independence, democratic governments in Latvia and Estonia passed a raft of discriminatory measures against Russians. This included stripping ethnic Russian citizenship, booting Russians out of the police force, and changing language policies to reduce the use of Russian in official government transactions.
Notably, you saw little of this in Lithuania. That’s because there was a much stronger sense of resentment toward ethnic Russians in the other two Baltic states. The status reversal under the Soviets — empowering the Russian minority at the expense of the previously dominant majority — led the ethnic majority to crack down on Russian rights as soon as they could.
While Petersen’s book focuses on Eastern Europe, his framework applies to all different kinds of countries. So when post–World War II Europe experienced a massive wave of immigration, in large part from nonwhite countries, Petersen’s work would predict a major backlash.
What you saw in many of these countries was a nonwhite, heavily Muslim population moving in and occupying social roles that had previously been reserved for white Christians.
This was the ultimate change in social hierarchy. Nonwhites, who had historically been Europe’s colonial subjects and slaves, were now becoming its citizens. They weren’t just moving into Europe; they were changing its society.
The question wasn’t whether there would be a massive electoral backlash. It was when.