Reaction against globalization often takes a visceral nationalist turn in many parts of the globe, no less in the US where the impacts of globalization are increasingly registered as an increased “Third Worldization” of large parts of the society and economy. The nationalist reaction to peripheralization within the centre takes shape in ideas of “taking back America,” “American greatness,” blocking refugees and/or sending them back, and building walls against illegal immigrants. In these regards, Donald Trump is not being terribly “innovative,” nor are the media being honest when they direct attention to Trump and “credit” him for such ideas. If commentators were candid, they would say that the “outrage” against Trump’s “hate” is quite contrived and insincere. More importantly, the orchestration of mass outrage produces a mask: it is meant to misdirect and mystify, to stall for more time for the status quo, and to distract voters from what the currently ruling elite sections really oppose about Trump. All of the sides in this domestic US conflict use simple ideas to incite followers, and no side is either innocent or angelic.
However, for a moment, let’s follow the distraction.
While Donald Trump is not likely to ever be canonized as a saint, his biggest sin seems to be that of repetition. Trump walks through doors that were first opened by others, and through which many have passed already.1 His accusers lead attention away from the essence of his act, which is that of synthesis and regurgitation, of essentially digesting some of the dominant ideas of his society and presenting them back to that society in a simplified form. Trump’s second move is that of taking already established ideas to their logical, final conclusion, and then branding them. Water can thus be transformed into “Trump Water”.
That the “us vs. them” tension always resonates in times of economic crisis that challenge all sorts of identifications, up to an including national identification, is neither something Trump invented nor initiated—“stopping Trump” will stop none of that. Neither racism nor sexism were ever created by, stopped by, or even significantly altered by an election. If there are US voters ready to “vote against racism,” they are ready to toss their ballots into the rubbish.
In US and international politics, there is no deficit of hypocrisy. For example, if liberals in the US were really so offended by what Trump allegedly represents, they have had ample opportunity to condemn and perhaps stop prior instantiations of ideas now ascribed to Trump, well before Trump had a chance to rise. Mass deportations have already occurred, under Obama, in record-breaking numbers:
“Since coming to office in 2009, Obama’s government has deported more than 2.5 million people—up 23% from the George W. Bush years. More shockingly, Obama is now on pace to deport more people than the sum of all 19 presidents who governed the United States from 1892-2000, according to government data”. (Rogers, 2016).
Construction of “the wall” has already started, adding to the continuing construction of a massive border fence. Mexican leaders liken Trump to Hitler and Mussolini, while fencing off Mexico’s own southern border. The EU has completely shut its borders to refugees, expelling many, and some EU member states constructed militarized border fences. Denmark confiscates jewellery and other assets from refugees, making them pay for their own refuge—a move widely popular across Europe, where even harsher policies on refugees can be found. Even EU military intervention in Libya has been planned under the pretext of stemming the flow of refugees and migrants—an extreme move that Trump has proposed taking against no nation. Yet none of that made EU leaders pause before washing their mouths about Trump’s “absurd,” “ignorant and racist” ideas—again, opportunistic deflection posing as moral criticism. US politicians back Israel, with its own massive wall against Palestinians. Meanwhile “progressive” and “liberal” Canada and the US refused to disavow the glorification of Nazi ideas and symbols. The US Congress went as far as allowing the funding of neo-Nazi groups in Ukraine. This happened just before the US media demanded that Trump re-disavow the KKK once more, when the KKK never even endorsed Trump to begin with.
Personalizing the issues, let alone demonization, explains nothing—and that is probably why these two methods have been chosen by elite politicians, corporate media, and by a slew of followers that span the political spectrum. Trump may be a surfer, but he certainly is no wave.
The anti-immigrant and anti-refugee charge travels far wider in US electoral politics than some may care to admit, where virtually every leading candidate is guilty of one or both of these, at some level. It’s even difficult for a “democratic socialist” to make a case for increasing workers’ wages, while simultaneously defending openness to immigrants and refugees, that is, flooding the labour market with new entrants who necessarily depress wage levels and inevitably compete for available jobs. Doing math is not xenophobia. Naomi Klein (below) understood this, and no one accused her of “hate speech” in saying so. In addition, the US has already passed reams of legislation that restrict or bar various immigrants and refugees, and the building of fences and walls along the US-Mexico border began several years before Donald Trump ever launched his candidacy.
Donald Trump’s major “sin” again appears to be that of arguing for completion, of bringing to fruition what others promised but allegedly did not deliver, or not fully, or not consistently. The “Trump is a fascist!” theme can serve the purposes of misdirection and mystification, effectively whitewashing an entire polity by draining its “sins” into one person. This also involves an abuse of the term “fascist” which, when applied to Trump and/or his supporters, has secured the agreement of exactly none of the leading historical scholars of fascism who have spoken on this issue (see references at the end). An essay cataloguing the many ways that the Trump movement is not “fascist” would be several times longer than one finding traits in common—and even this assumes that fascism is definable by traits, an approach questioned by some of the leading scholars.
Again, the accusations function to obscure deeper politico-economic contradictions, so as to evade them.
Asking the Right Questions
A very basic contradiction at the core of globalization that is now coming out into the open in the US election campaign, is the contradiction between the propaganda of globalism and the reality of neoliberalism. In this context, what is the deepest significance of the border? What interests and values are vested in “open” versus “closed”? What does the proposed border wall really mean? Is it just a barrier, or should it be understood as a monument? Finally, in an environment swirling with gratuitous labelling meant to defame and accuse, and with no shortage of hyperbole and panic, what are some of the better concepts anthropologists can bring to bear on public debate?
Globalitarist Myth and Neoliberal Reality
On one side we have globalist visions proclaiming “we are one world”, heralding a world without borders. This is part of what Trouillot (2001, p. 130) called “globalitarism,” where the state was supposedly declining in relevance. The “daily presence of the Other,” whether on the screen or on the street, is one of the major tools of globalitarist ideology because it functions to highlight to local populations the fact of “the national state’s increasing difficulty in functioning as a container, even in the North Atlantic” (Trouillot, 2001, p. 131). Much of the early hype of globalization that emanated from social and cultural theorists in US and British universities declared that we were all now witnessing the growing interdependence of the world, the global stretch of social relations, and the rise of a global cultural consciousness (see for example Giddens, 1990; Robertson, 1992; Waters, 1995).
Some will have believed the “one world” image, loudly championed by Coca-Cola in the 1970s with its (in)famously cult-like commercials featuring youths from around the world singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony,” or in the 1980s USA for Africa’s “We are the world”. Youthful enthusiasm would wish for the completion of the globalitarist dream, of a world without borders where “no one is illegal,” where migrating to the US is treated as if it were a basic, universal human right. From this quarter, few were those who challenged the cultural imperialism that promoted the USA as the premiere brand of international desire, as the migrants’ destination of choice, or the economic and military imperialism that wreaked havoc on other societies and created “mobile” populations of desperate people who otherwise would have preferred to stay home (like 97% of humanity has chosen to do). These were the people who took the celebratory and liberating promises of globalization seriously. From this point of view, calls for walls and national protectionism are denounced as exclusive and divisive expressions of “hate”. It is then easy to imagine Trump as a “racist” who is now believed to have said that “all Mexicans are rapists,” and just as easily many have falsely accused “all Trump supporters” of being racists. This has become a contest between various liberal and leftist hues of Globalist USA versus right-wing populist and nativist hues of a Nationalist USA (Forte, 2015, p. 42). Never mind that some of the prime beneficiaries of the “open society” have been Silicon Valley, hedge funds, arms traders, drug barons, and human traffickers.
Born into and socialized in the neoliberalized culture of the “open society” regime nurtured by billionaire investors such as George Soros among others, most youths practically know of no alternative. (Thus “millennials” are the ones most likely to think that immigrants strengthen the country). After the bankruptcy of New York City in 1975, David Harvey found that the city’s elites institutions mobilized “to sell the image of the city as a cultural centre and tourist destination”:
“The ruling elites moved, often fractiously, to support the opening up of the cultural field to all manner of diverse cosmopolitan currents. The narcissistic exploration of self, sexuality, and identity became the leitmotif of bourgeois urban culture. Artistic freedom and artistic licence, promoted by the city’s powerful cultural institutions, led, in effect, to the neoliberalization of culture….The city’s elites acceded, though not without a struggle, to the demand for lifestyle diversification (including those attached to sexual preference and gender) and increasing consumer niche choices (in areas such as cultural production)”. (Harvey, 2005, p. 47)
It makes sense then that those who have been most privileged and benefited from the neoliberal human rights regime that has championed US cultural imperialism, are so truculent about Trump and his supporters. One, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, recently felt the need to intervene in the US election by haranguing the Trump campaign for its “bigotry” in the name of universal values—of the kind which were deployed against Libya in 2011, when Libya was also denied the right to represent itself at the UN Human Rights Council.
On the other side, the spatial realities of neoliberalism prevail, where freedom of movement applies only to the freedom of movement of capital, of speculative hot money, of corporations and unchecked offshoring. This capitalist mode has also excelled at displacing populations, and forcing them to be on the move: on the move from once secure jobs to tenuous positions in the service sector or the informal economy; on the move from neighbourhoods where they could afford rents, only to be squeezed out by gentrification; or, on the move as a result of successive land grabs by transnational agro-industrial corporations. As Harvey put it, “neoliberalization has transformed the positionality of labour,” creating a “disposable workforce” (2005, p. 171). Yet, while capital has been liberated by neoliberalism, workers have been dislocated—both are forms of mobility, not equally desired.
In the case of the US, the damaging impacts of free trade, and in particular trade with China, has produced not only job losses and falling wages, it has also registered a significant impact on health. Working-class whites in the US, unlike in Europe, are now seeing an increase in their mortality rate and a fall in life expectancy.
The free mobility of capital has meant that “all barriers to that free movement (such as tariffs, punitive taxation arrangements, planning and environmental controls, or other locational impediments) have to be removed,” with the resulting surrender of state sovereignty to global markets (Harvey, 2005, p. 66). Why should capital be free to move, while labour is not? The nationalist-populist answer to that question is that neither should be totally free to move—thus the wall complements immigration reform, tax reform, and undoing current free-trade schemes.
That nationalism should be the basis for opposition to neoliberalism is not surprising:
“Nationalism has, of course, been a long-standing feature of the global economy and it would have been strange indeed if had sunk without trace as a result of neoliberal reforms; in fact it has revived to some degree in opposition to what neoliberalization has been about. The rise of right-wing fascist parties expressive of strong anti-immigrant sentiments in Europe is a case in point”. (Harvey, 2005, p. 80)
What grates against the globalists and their cosmopolitan values, is the nationalists’ insistence on practicing self-determination in part through population policy. When open doors are slammed shut by those who resent forced associations, suddenly choices narrow. At present, in the US and to some degree even in Canada, I do not see the globalists offering persuasive arguments to those who feel they are being crowded in and squeezed out by ever expanding immigrant populations. Far from convincing arguments, what is usually offered is a series of insults and accusations, a strategy that is perfectly suited to achieving failure and handing victory to nationalists.
Rather than insulting the denizens of the “heroin-addicted ghost towns,” while demanding their votes, perhaps some in the US would better spend their time by reflecting on how far their society has fallen, where so many are willing to trust even “the devil” they don’t know.
“If the legitimacy of the nation-state is dependent on maintaining control of ideology and action within clearly defined physical borders, then transnationalism threatens such control”. (Lewellen, 2003, p. 220)
“The territorial inviolability of nation-states,” anthropologists Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta observed a decade ago, “is being contested by border-transgressing circulations of people, images, money, and goods,” and they noted that such forces were rendering “national borders porous and states’ control over territories tenuous”. In addition, state sovereignty was also increasingly challenged by “the rise of quasi-‘state-like’ institutions, like the World Trade Organization (WTO), that operate and regulate the conduct of states, economies, and people at a supranational level” (Sharma & Gupta, 2006, p. 6). In the face of such transformations and challenges, the border becomes a site for reaffirming nationhood. If emphasizing border control seems “divisive” and “exclusive,” then it means that the border is doing what borders were always meant to do: divide jurisdictions, include some, exclude most others.
It’s not just right-wing nationalists who condemn the erosion of borders and the influx of undocumented migrants working at lower wages—it’s also left-wing anti-globalization activists such as Naomi Klein.2 Naomi Klein argued that “rooted people” are “the biggest threat” to neoliberal capitalism because they have “roots and stories,” so the global capitalists prefer to “hire mobile people”. Klein also recognized that this “economic model creates armies of surplus labour,” and migrant labourers are useful in “keeping wages very, very low”. Naomi Klein also spoke of the rebuilding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where those who lost their homes, mostly African-Americans, did not get the jobs—instead, “a migrant workforce” was used.
The border has achieved heightened value in the current US electoral campaign. Donald Trump’s way of thinking is very much closer to that of Max Weber than it is to Benito Mussolini. The binding agent in his nationalist perspective is an understanding of the state that is defined as a political apparatus that governs a defined geographic territory with clear borders and a fixed population of citizens. As others have noted,
“the Weberian notion of the state defines it as: (1) exercising monopoly over violence in a given territory; (2) securing the territorial border and sovereignty; and (3) governing a particular population in a specific territory. The state here is theorized as a unitary actor who regulates the territory of the nation-state and the people who inhabit that territory”. (Sharma & Gupta, 2006, p. 22)
Without a functioning border, there really can be no state. Virtually none of the published analysis has characterized Trump’s thinking on the matter as Weberian—which is an interesting omission.
Weber’s works are routinely taught in sociology, anthropology, political science, and other disciplines, as one of the pillars of modern social theory. None have demanded that his work be banished, even as we know of his high contempt for Poles, and his political efforts to reduce Polish persons in Germany to second-class citizens (see Zimmerman, 2013, p. 172). Weber also called for the “absolute exclusion of the Russian-Polish workers from the German East” (quoted in Zimmerman, 2013, p. 173). Weber consistently campaigned against allowing Polish seasonal workers to enter the country and work in the agricultural sector. Weber’s nationalism, and the social theory of culture, race, and class that sprung from it, was explicitly racist toward Poles who were routinely depicted as members of a lower race, with entirely different bodily constitutions, who represented a threat of contamination. (Here Weber went far past Trump, the latter never making such extreme statements.) Perhaps it suits some in US colleges to redirect attention away from the library shelves and courses, and toward a distant and non-academic Mussolini—otherwise, like panic-stricken students fed on media hyperbole who scream at the sight of “Trump 2016” in chalk on their doorstep, they would be driven to purge texts by Weber and Weberians and have a giant bonfire on campus. Such consistency would be inconvenient however.
Not only Weberians understand the importance of borders to the maintenance of a viable statehood—Marxist analysts also understand that notions of citizenship and rights are derivative of a state with a defined territorial jurisdiction (necessitating borders):
“However much we might wish rights to be universal, it is the state that has to enforce them. If political power is not willing, then notions of rights remain empty. Rights are, therefore, derivative of and conditional upon citizenship. The territoriality of jurisdiction then becomes an issue”. (Harvey, 2005, p. 180)
The emphasis on nationality, territoriality, and state control has gained ground, as noted by anthropologists who observed the US nationalist backlash forming over the past two or more decades:
“In California, Proposition 187, which required educators, physicians, and other service providers to identify and report suspected illegal aliens, was overwhelmingly approved by the California electorate. In 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which stiffened border enforcement and made it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to legalize their presence. Other restrictive immigration measures, such as denying citizenship to the US-born children of undocumented immigrants, were also considered”. (Coutin, 2006, p. 310)
Borders also sort out values of another kind, when they act as mechanisms that regulate the flow of capital. For example, the US currently deports people born in the Caribbean, who have lived in the US since they were babies in some cases, if they have been convicted of a serious crime—these are typically working-class individuals, lacking any real capital. On the other hand, the US recently sought the extradition from Trinidad of a government minister who served as FIFA vice-president—Jack Warner—who committed no crime in the US, and is not residing in the US. His money, however, alleged to have been paid as part of a bribe from South Africa, transited US banks, and on that basis the US claims jurisdiction, and seeks to “import” Warner. (No US bankers are being prosecuted or fined for profiting from fees charged on the transactions.) In this case: low value is deported, high value is imported. Another example: Mexico profits from the social and economic safety valve offered by a porous US border. Mexico exports surplus labour, and imports remittances; it also imports US investment capital and exports manufactured goods. Meanwhile, on its southern border with Central America, Mexico exercises hawkish vigilance, and maintains its own border fence. What Trump proposes to do with the US border is nothing novel, nor should it be astonishing: it is about reworking how it functions in order to maximize capital accumulation at home to favour the current “out” groups (domestic businesses, unemployed workers). The allure of a “wall” is that of an object that can reverse the flows generated by the current border, turning the out group into the in group. But even that is far too functional a view of the deeper meaning of the wall.
Donald Trump’s Nativistic Movement
The assertion of “fascism” with reference to Donald Trump leads to multiple dead ends, with historians enumerating one reason after another to show how the designation fails, where comparisons fall apart, where few traits are shared in common, where there is no consensus on a definition of fascism, and where in any event there is no manifesto, no universal scripture of fascism. It would make as such sense to call Quebecois nationalists “Irish Republicans”.
Since the fascism accusation only serves to raise questions, for which there are mostly negative answers, it is not analytically useful and can therefore be dropped. Much more productive, in both descriptive and explanatory terms, is the conceptual framework of “nativism”.
In his article on “Nativistic Movements,” Ralph Linton included analysis of nativism among dominant groups in a society, in societies with class divisions. He explained that “in societies which have a well developed class organization,” which would include the US, “nativistic tendencies will be strongest in those classes or individuals who occupy a favored position and who feel this position threatened by culture change” (Linton, 1943, p. 239). This factor, he argued, may produce a split in the society, with “the favored individuals or groups indulging in a rational nativism, either revivalistic or perpetuative, while those in less favored positions are eager for assimilation”—and by that he means assimilating to the culture of the dominant group (Linton, 1943, p. 239). Linton is partly describing what he calls the Americanization process.
Linton argued above that the nativism of the dominant is usually “rational” and either revivalistic or perpetuative. He explains this further:
“Rational revivalistic nativistic movements are, almost without exception, associated with frustrating situations and are primarily attempts to compensate for the frustrations of the society’s members. The elements revived become symbols of a period when the society was free or, in retrospect, happy or great”. (Linton, 1943, p. 233)
In the case of perpetuative movements that are forms of rational nativism, Linton highlighted the following features:
“Rational perpetuative nativistic movements, on the other hand, find their main function in the maintenance of social solidarity. The elements selected for perpetuation become symbols of the society’s existence as a unique entity. They provide the society’s members with a fund of common knowledge and experience which is exclusively their own and which sets them off from the members of other societies”. (Linton, 1943, p. 233)
In both cases, Linton argues, “the culture elements selected for symbolic use are chosen realistically and with regard to the possibility of perpetuating them under current conditions” (Linton, 1943, p. 233).
It would therefore seem that Donald Trump’s “movement,” as he calls it, is a combination of both cases above, rational and both revivalistic and perpetuative nativism. On the revivalistic side, clearly Trump gives vent to feelings of “frustration” and he invokes symbols of a period when “America was great,” as implied in his repeated “Make America great again” slogan. On the perpetuative side, Trump emphasizes the uniqueness of America, and a desire to see it exclude members of other societies.
And what did Ralph Linton think of such movements? Did he condemn them? No, in fact. He argued that where the possibility of mutual assimilation conquers feelings of inferiority, and superiority fails for being unrealistic, then only one option remains. He wrote,
“Rational revivalistic or perpetuative nativistic movements are the best mechanism which has so far been developed for establishing these attitudes [of superiority, or self-confidence] in groups whose members suffer from feelings of inferiority. It would appear, therefore, that they should be encouraged rather than discouraged”. (Linton, 1943, p. 240)
The concluding note by Hallowell, at the end of Linton’s article, even defends US nativism as anti-fascist and anti-Nazi.
Are You from Mexico?
At one of his rallies, Trump mocked a protester who was being escorted from the arena by shouting: “Are you from Mexico? Are you from Mexico?” The shifting emphases in his speech carry an implication that his supporters would not have missed: Donald Trump is not running to become the President of Mexico. He does not aim to be a great president for Mexicans. If you’re not Mexican, you therefore have no reason to complain about his speech—I think this is the intended message, and it is undeniably reasonable.
Likewise, from Trump’s perspective there is no reasonable way one can argue that his speech is “divisive”. If Mexicans are, by definition, Mexican and not American, then there is no division that results for US citizens. If anything, he would argue, he is unifying Americans—indeed, he does assert just that. He does so by reminding them that they are first and foremost “American citizens,” not undefined citizens of the world. And if “America” is to exist, it can only exist within clearly defined borders. An “open” United States is no United States at all.
The best way to understand the wall then is not to reduce it to its instrumental functionality, the way critics do when they say the wall “won’t work,” or even more preposterously, that the wall cannot be built. The wall should be understood as a monument to the state, a monument to US nationality, a last-ditch effort to re-impose commonality.
The Wall and the End
The wall, if we are to be honest, is not what is at the heart of the opposition to Trump, nor are his views on immigration, on Muslims, or Mexicans. One cannot argue that these are in fact the central concerns, without colliding with the reality of all the many measures already in place and enforced, all the views already stated and repeated by others. So it’s not about “otherness” and it’s not about “racism” or “bigotry”. The real threat of the wall is to free trade, and primarily to NAFTA in this case. That is why Trump is the target—because unlike his many predecessors who have already started building border enclosures, turning away refugees, and deporting the undocumented—none of them have done so in a way that promises to tear up NAFTA, and then all other free trade agreements.
From the very start of Trump’s campaign, it was extremely perplexing that the initial media saturation coverage failed to spell out the logical conclusions of what Trump was advocating: Mexico, forced to pay for the wall, through tariffs and other measures, would mean violating free trade. That is a direct violation of the free flow of goods and capital at the centre of NAFTA. One cannot take such action, and keep NAFTA—and it could mean a head-on collision with the WTO. Why did the media not immediately seize on this and explain matters to readers? One reason is that those who control the media wanted media consumers to swallow the story about race, divisiveness, and hatred—even if it meant putting words into Trump’s mouth, such that many now believe that he called all Mexicans rapists. Had the media instead started by underlining that Trump would end NAFTA, perhaps mass opinion would have been quite different. Fortunately, his most fervent supporters care little for the media to begin with.
As I have tried to argue elsewhere, there is no law that says that the end of the neoliberal “new world order” proclaimed by George H.W. Bush will come about peacefully, smoothly, and without disruption. Nor is it reasonable to expect that a much desired end will be brought about by “our better angels”. On January 20, 2017, racism will not have been stopped, nor started—no matter who wins the US election. What could change, however, is the political support for neoliberalism and global free trade, on the part of the leading power in the world system. Those who wish for that conclusion, would be foolish to wait for the perfect messenger.
Let’s also be clear-eyed: what we are talking about at this moment in the US is an election. That is rather peaceful and orderly when compared to the alternatives—and this may be the last chance for US citizens to bring about peaceful change. Let’s watch and see if the dominant elites, driven by their fervent greed, don’t continue to escalate the media propaganda and dirty tricks to thwart the popular will. If they do, they may come to miss Trump soon, because what comes after could be truly mean, bloody, unforgiving, and utterly merciless.
- On Building Walls, from Khalek (2016): “If foreign policy separates Clinton and Trump, there are a number of domestic issues that unite them. Clinton’s newfound enthusiasm for ‘tearing down barriers,’ a direct reference to Trump’s anti-immigrant proposal to build a wall at the US-Mexico border, completely contradicts her own support for the border wall that already exists, much of it constructed on Obama’s watch. Just five months ago, Clinton was bragging about her support for that wall. ‘I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,’ Clinton boasted at a New Hampshire town hall in November. Asked at a debate last month to distinguish her wall from Trump’s, Clinton pointed to size. ‘As I understand him, [Trump’s] talking about a very tall wall,’ she said. Clinton is a huge fan of Israel’s separation wall that effectively annexes Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank and has suggested using it as a model for the US border with Mexico. And she continues to cite her support for Israel’s wall, deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice, as a selling point on her campaign website. Her hypocrisy has not gone unnoticed by Trump, who tweeted back in January, ‘Hillary Clinton said that it is OK to ban Muslims from Israel by building a WALL, but not OK to do so in the US. We must be vigilant!’”.
- Thanks to a Twitter follower for directing my attention to these comments.
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