You’re sitting in a suburban Starbucks, sipping a flat white, as you look at photos of refugees from Honduras fleeing from the teargas American forces fired over the Mexican border. A nearby conversation starts to interest you. Someone is declaring that we need to “stop defaming immigrants, stop insulting them and blaming them for our mistakes”. Is he talking about the same news story you’ve been following? It would be nice to think that other people share your views on immigration. Maybe the hostility demagogues have been fuelling doesn’t run as deep as you had feared.
This is the sort of scenario progressives who don’t live in particularly progressive places experience regularly. The desire is strong to discern potential allies amid a population that largely disagrees with you. No one likes to feel alone. But the pursuit of solidarity can lead progressives to trust too easily. The bits and pieces you might overhear of a conversation like the one I’ve described can be deceptive. Goodness knows I’ve encountered this scenario myself in the two decades I’ve lived in one of liberal Tucson’s most conservative suburbs. While the exact wording above comes from a written text, I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed many times.
Long before Donald Trump and his supporters at Fox News began to make alarming statements about the caravans of migrants making its way north from Central America, the inhabitants of borderlands like Southern Arizona were thinking long and hard about the plight of migrants and the challenges they might pose for American society. Mexico is just over an hour way from where I live and many of the vehicles on area highways bear Mexican license plates, making it understandable that people would have passionate conversations about immigration policy, national security, and the desperate individuals who risk deportation and even death in pursuit of a better life.
Sometimes the people who stand up for immigrants in this outwardly humanitarian manner are moderates, the sort that might have voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign, even if they have reservations about the Democratic Party’s perceived softness on crime. More often, they fall into the demographic category the late Arizona Senator John McCain appealed to most, conservatives with a conscience who repudiate the president’s race-baiting tactics. However they identify politically, though, they share the belief that the United States bears responsibility for the problem of illegal immigration and cannot hope to fix it by simply blaming the victim.
But that common ground tends to disappear when the conversation turns from defining the problem to proposing a solution. As hard as it may be for progressives to admit, there are plenty of conservatives out there who feel genuine compassion for political and economic refugees and would like to reduce the suffering they experience. The desire for stronger borders does not necessarily coincide with heartlessness. At the same time, however, it is possible for caring to be expressed in vastly different ways.
I made up the scenario described at the beginning of this piece to underscore how misleading it can be to take seemingly moderate political statements out of context. Consider the passage I quoted, which comes from a book-length manifesto that invites readers to identify with its first-person plural:
We reject this fake confrontation between you and the populist Right-wing parties. We neither want a multicultural society, nor do we want to force members of other cultures to take our identity. We therefore affirm the following:
‘68ers! Stop preaching a social model that can’t work, and immediately plunges societies into chaos whenever it is attempted.
Right-wingers! Stop defaming immigrants, stop insulting them and blaming them for our mistakes.
Stop accusing them for wanting to hold on to their identities. There is nothing crueller than to demand that one give up his very self (88).
On first impression, the author seems keen to stake out middle ground, advocating a reasonable approach to immigration between the extremes represented by “’68ers” and “right-wingers”. The clear implication is that a “fake confrontation” between these two political categories has made it difficult to perceive that there is a more reasonable alternative to their respective positions, one the author will now to proceed to articulate.
But if we step back a little further and look at the solution this author proposes, it becomes clear that what looked like middle ground is actually on the extreme edge of mainstream political discourse:
Muslims and Africans! Take down your tents and leave this continent. Entire regions of the world already belong to you. We’ll gladly help you make your homelands better places, help you to build and shape them. Even more so than European help, African and the global East need you and your strength.
Return to your home countries, for they belong to you.
Europe, however, will never belong to you. Europe belongs to us.
The apparent reasonableness of the statement I quoted at the beginning of this piece is a ruse, intended to lower readers’ resistance to this call for mass relocation of populations that have played an integral part in European life for decades.
That’s because the book it comes from, Markus Willinger’s 2014 manifesto Generation Identity: A Declaration of War Against the ‘68ers, is one of the foundational texts of the millennial far right. Willinger employs this basic rhetorical approach again and again, constructing a false equivalence and then positioning himself between the extremes it delineates. For example, the ‘68ers he directs such vitriol towards – a demographic category more precise than, but still functionally equivalent to Baby Boomers – do not comprise the sort of political unity he suggests.
Although some of them, the ones who have stayed true to their countercultural ideals, may still be true counterparts to the “right-wingers” he admonishes in the paragraph, the majority have become far more moderate since the 1970s. Willinger wants his readers to believe that their generation still constitutes a coherent movement, though, because his argument requires a worldview in which society is divided into polarized political blocs.
This is especially clear in his chapter on National Socialism, in which he manages to make it seem as though the ‘68ers’ response to the legacy of the Third Reich was as extreme as the Third Reich itself:
National Socialism determined your entire thinking. No one shaped your worldview more than Adolf Hitler.
Nazism was racist, so you wanted to be ‘anti-racist’. Nazism was nationalist? Naturally, you became internationalist. It was militaristic, fascistic, and imperialistic, and so you became anti-military, anti-fascist and anti-imperalist. If Nazism promoted a belief in the traditional family, you had to damn that as well.
In this way, Adolf Hitler became your greatest role model.
Your efforts to reject the extremist ideology of National Socialism led you to create your own extremist ideology. Fanatically believing that you were doing the right thing, you set out to lay waste to Europe.
Throughout the postwar decades in which Germany and, to a lesser extent, Austria – Willinger is Austrian – were trying to come to terms with National Socialism, variants on that last sentence would be spoken by conservatives who, while acknowledging that the Third Reich had gone too far, wanted to make it clear that not everyone who worked on its behalf was motivated by madness and hatred. But anyone who tried to turn it around into an indictment of the democratic Left would have been expelled from polite society.
The deceptive extremism of Willinger and other leaders of Europe’s new far right, which took shape in the wake of 2008’s global panic, helps to illuminate parallel trends in the United States. Already during Bill Clinton’s years in the White House, the idea that neo-liberal Baby Boomers to the right of the previous generation’s Democratic Party leadership were somehow extremists bent on the destruction of American society was regularly voiced by talk radio hosts and darkly hinted at by mainstream politicians who supported Republican Congressman Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.
During those years, as Europe rushed headlong towards ever-greater integration, the equivalent demonization of its Baby Boomer generation was not as forcefully articulated. But as resistance to the euro mounted after a series of EU member states such as Greece, Portugal, and Italy were forced to swallow the bitter medicine of austerity by Brussels and its allies in banking and the continuing conflicts in the Middle East led more and more of its residents to emigrate, this mode of thinking began to spread rapidly. Now it is Europe that is leading the way in the promotion of far-right ideologies, as the time former Trump adviser Steve Bannon is spending there suggests.
Americans have historically been less receptive to radical anti-immigration arguments than their counterparts in Europe, encouraged to celebrate the idea that the United States is a nation of immigrants. To be sure, anti-immigrant sentiments have periodically reached critical mass here, as demonstrated by the hostility to people of Irish descent following their mass emigration during the Great Potato Famine of the late 1840s; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. As in Australia and New Zealand, though, awareness that the nation’s white ruling class was itself derived from immigrants has helped to limit the impact of exclusionary ideologies. In other words, even though immigration by supposedly undesirable populations has periodically been restricted, the conviction that this nation should remain a refuge for those fleeing religious and political oppression has persisted.
That may be changing, however. Most of the people from Africa and Asia who have emigrated to the United States since the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which did away with discriminatory quotas, have been able to integrate into American society well enough to reinforce positive attitudes towards immigration. But the millions of so-called illegals from Mexico and Central America who have entered the country during the past fifty years and the increasingly visible preference of refugee communities in many American cities have provided demagogues with the material needed to stir up anxiety and resentment and redirect it for political ends. Certainly, that is how Donald Trump was able to find traction for his insurgent presidential campaign in the summer of 2015 and remains one of the main ways in which he mobilizes his white, rural, and ideologically working-class supporters.
While is hard to imagine the sort of argument I quoted above receiving mainstream acceptance in the United States – there are simply too many Americans who take pride in their immigrant heritage – that doesn’t mean that it will fall on deaf ears. If white Europeans are susceptible to nostalgia for a monoculture that preceded the waves of postwar immigration from Africa and Asia – conveniently forgetting the presence of Jews, Roma, and other peoples who made prewar societies diverse – white Americans are equally susceptible to nostalgia for the segregationist policies and practices that kept people of colour from being fully incorporated into the political and economic mainstream.
When far-right groups try work to construct political alliances between Europe and the United States – or Australia and New Zealand – they must reinforce this parallel, while being mindful of its limitations. Although the vast majority of Americans are unlikely to take the idea of sending the descendants of immigrants “back where they came from”, a good number of them might still be persuaded that the nation was better off before the ideology of multiculturalism reigned supreme. Particularly in the states of the Confederacy and other places where “Southern” ways of thinking have increasingly taken root – basically, wherever the population density is small enough to approximate Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian ideal – the belief that traditional American values are under attack and must be vigorously defended is already so deeply entrenched that attitudes towards race and ethnicity that were marginalized in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement are once again receiving mainstream approval.
As we contemplate the speed and tenacity with which far-right arguments like Markus Willinger’s in Generation Identity are taking hold around the developed world, we must pay close attention to the points where people who grew up in different places, with different attitudes and experiences, might be most readily coupled together in order to produce an international political movement. Although the new far-right prioritizes national integrity and therefore rails against globalists, its leaders are keen to establish and reinforce connections between like-minded individuals regardless of their country of origin. And anxiety about immigration is one of the most adaptable and sturdy ligatures in their political tool box. It might assume different forms in Arizona than it does in Leipzig, Toulouse, or Leeds, but there is enough common ground to fashion residents of those areas into an international bloc.
It is surely no accident that the unprecedented potential for international exchange and collaboration made possible by the internet should have led to a nostalgia for traditional nation-states, retroactively imagined to have been more homogenous than they really were. In recent years, the far right has managed to weaponize this nostalgia to devastating effect, promoting the viral spread of authoritarian populist politicians that function more like franchises of a transnational conglomerate than the product of true grassroots movements. More and more, we confront a world in which local colour is conjured from a mixture of second and third-hand nostalgia and the business-school lessons in branding. It’s not particularly authentic, but that might make it even more dangerous.
Photograph courtesy of Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.