How Ethno-Nationalism Explains Trump's Early Presidency

I study societies where their politics are defined by ethnic conflict—and more and more, the US is coming to resemble those places.

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Feb 27 2017, 6:03am

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

The two most striking initiatives of the new Trump administration are policies that many people assumed Donald Trump would never go through with, despite his campaign rhetoric: the wall on the southern border and the travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries. Both have been advanced by executive order, both have been widely opposed, and both are unlikely to work.

Expert after expert has concluded that neither the wall nor the Muslim ban are likely to achieve their stated purposes. A wall is simply not the most effective form of border security. Even Trump's own Homeland Security secretary has said a "physical barrier will not do the job." Likewise, banning people from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States is unlikely to prevent terrorism and could actually backfire by feeding the jihadi narrative that the United States is an enemy of Islam.

So why spend so much time and energy on promoting policies that will probably fail? The answer is that Trump's White House seems less concerned with the results of initiatives than the image those initiatives project.

To unpack that, we have to talk about group status. Psychologists have shown that humans have a deep desire for esteem and respect, and it's a desire that carries over to the group level. We all seek the social recognition that comes with being part of high-status groups, be it a well-regarded profession, the fan base of a champion sports team, or a country's dominant ethnicity. Groups, therefore, are always seeking to increase their position in the status hierarchy.

Trump, on the campaign trail and as president, has made clear that he does not speak for all Americans. Rather, he speaks for one group, the group that put him in the White House: whites, to put it bluntly. And now he is acting on behalf of his base to raise the status of white Americans relative to other groups. The wall and the travel ban may not, by themselves, thwart terrorist attacks or block illegal immigration—but Trump's executive orders have already succeeded as symbols of status. They clearly identify who belongs in America and who America belongs to.

As such, they have less in common with well-calculated national security policy than they do with policy making in countries split by deep ethnic, national, or religious divisions. In these societies, which I have studied for many years, politics often amounts to the continual jockeying between groups for higher status. As a result, heated political battles emerge over symbols, markers of which group is more legitimate, dominant, and worthy.

Take Northern Ireland, a society defined by the rivalry between Protestants and Catholics, where two of the toughest, most emotional current political issues are flags and parades. The debate over flags boils down to which flags can be flown where and when. The issue crescendoed in December 2012 over a vote by the Belfast City Council to no longer fly the Union Jack over city hall 365 days a year. The decision to only hoist the flag on designated holidays—which is the standard policy in Britain—enraged many Protestants, who feel an allegiance to the United Kingdom. Many Catholics, who feel no such allegiance, would have preferred the flag didn't fly at all. Lowering the flag sparked months of protests, some violent, as thousands of Protestants took to the streets in anger.

The second intractable issue in Northern Ireland is over where certain parades are allowed to march, and in particular, whether Protestant parades are allowed to march near Catholic neighborhoods. Many Catholics find the parades, which celebrate Protestant culture and history, aggressive and deeply offensive, and do not want to see or hear them near their homes and churches. Protestants insist that their rights to free speech and free assembly outweigh the complaints of Catholic residents, and no one has yet found a solution that satisfies both groups.

In Quebec, the Canadian province divided on linguistic lines, the contest between Francophones and Anglophones plays out in places like businesses' outdoor signage and restaurant menus. According to the Charter of the French Language, the 1977 law that made French the official language of Quebec, French is accorded certain rights and privileges, including the requirement that all signs for a business must be in French. Businesses are allowed to have English on their façade too, but if they do, the French must be more prominent. In late 2016, new rules went into effect that even require businesses with non-French trademarked names, such as Walmart and Burger King, to add French signage. 

Finally, South Africa, a country deeply divided by race, was disrupted by protests for a month in 2015 over a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a colonial leader and supporter of white supremacy and British imperialism. Black South Africans successfully demanded that the University of Cape Town remove the statue. While some white South Africans supported the statue's removal, others responded by defending monuments of other white colonial leaders.

From the outside, these disputes can seem petty or even ridiculous. But the arguments are about what those things symbolize: who is on top and who on bottom, who deserves honor and who does not, who is a citizen and who is a subject. (Issues that are of course also central to the arguments over the US's own disputed symbols, especially Confederate flags and monuments.) At their heart, these political debates are about which group gets to express itself in shared public spaces, which, in turn, is about who "owns" the state.

The same is true of the border wall and the Muslim ban: They are about status, legitimacy, and ownership. Debates over their effectiveness are beside the point because, fundamentally, it's not about safety or security. These polices are meant to address whites' perceived decline in relative group esteem and worth. Of course, white Americans as a whole continue to have an advantage in nearly every aspect of society, but many of them still feel that their rightful position of respect has been usurped by others. The wall and the ban are the Trump administration's way of stating that white Americans are back where they belong, atop the country's ethnic status hierarchy, and that Muslims and migrants from Latin America—and more generally all non-whites—are subordinate and unwelcome.

Whatever Trump's personal beliefs, he is governing so far as an ethno-nationalist president, meaning he's crafting policy not intended to benefit the country as a whole, but only "his" segment. When he says he is going to "take our country back," that is what he means.  

Follow Jonathan S. Blake on Twitter.

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