Trump and the International Rise of the Politics of Scapegoating

Scapegoating happens when countries displace their own weaknesses, frailties, limitations, disappointments, confusions, and failures onto a substitute victim. Unfortunately, the politics of scapegoating is gaining momentum across North Atlantic societies today—with leaders like Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom rising in prominence, even as they continue to blame loss of national identity on Muslims, refugees, and immigrants.

All three of these leaders also cheered Donald Trump’s electoral victory in the United States last November. Le Pen hailed the news as “the emergence of a new world,” while Wilders gushed that Trump’s election was “a revolution.” But what is it that excites Europe’s most visible ethno-nationalists about Trump’s election? The key lies in understanding the phenomenon of scapegoating.

Social theorist René Girard gives a particularly rich definition of scapegoating as “the tendency, universal among human beings, to take out their anger on a substitute, on an alternative victim.” According to Girard, the politics of scapegoating violence comes from the inability to properly articulate and resolve struggles and conflicts tearing a community apart. The tension and crisis is resolved by selecting a victim to blame, thereby regenerating communal unity.

This very scapegoating dynamic is very much at play within the global ultranationalist right. Trump’s campaign rhetoric targeting Mexican immigrants, and Le Pen’s or Wilders’ criticisms of Muslims, all draw on an unusual climate of economic and cultural insecurity among whites. This insecurity then leads them to blame poorer and more vulnerable immigrant and minority groups.

“The worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government,” Trump wrote in July. “The country of Mexico is making billions of dollars in doing so … the relationship is totally one sided in their favor on both illegal immigration and trade.” The Netherlands’ Wilders used a similar rhetoric, claiming that his country has “a huge problem with Moroccans.” Wilders associates Moroccans with a whole host of social ills from crime to loss of national identity to a state overloaded with welfare payouts and underfunded with taxes.

When scapegoating occurs, a problem endemic to a community is often displaced onto another. For example, although it is a well-known fact that there is a growing drug problem among American whites, Trump alleges that illegal Mexican immigrants are responsible for heightened drug crimes: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime.”

Similarly, Trump sent the message to poorer whites, many of whom are on welfare, that an overloaded welfare state is in fact the responsibility of illegal Mexican residents. Thus, according to Trump, not only is America’s economic decline in part at the hands of the Mexican immigrant, but also the crime in its streets, the drugs in its communities, the corruption in its government, and the misuse of its taxes. In this, he is little different from Wilders, Farage, or Le Pen. Indeed, Le Pen infamously compared Islamic immigration to the national defeat of France during the Nazi occupation of World War II: “There are no tanks, no soldiers, but it is still an occupation.”

The basic problem with these scapegoating narratives is that they inevitably distort, if not outright fabricate, reality. Trump’s claims about Mexican immigrants, for example, are factually wrong on virtually every count. Illegal immigrants are not disproportionately responsible for crimes in the United States; in fact, they actually have dramatically lower average crime rates than native-born Americans. Nor are illegals in America a drain on the system and taxpayer. To the contrary, in 2010 illegals paid approximately $10.6 billion in state and local taxes, while not reaping the benefits of such state-funded programs as welfare, food stamps, and Medicaid.

The reality is that the economic situation of illegal Mexican immigrants is far more complex than Trump’s scapegoating narrative allows. In fact, there are difficult tradeoffs—both in America and in Europe—between limiting cheap labor and giving the agricultural and other business sectors the ability to expand. In Europe, these problems are dramatically compounded by questions of declining population rates and educational dynamics, in which working-class immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East are often having children at higher rates than native-born professional classes.

Ultimately, the purpose of scapegoating narratives is performative and political: they are violent myths meant to purge the political community of a source of decline and to generate a renewed, purified sense of self. They are meant to make a nation great again.

Trump’s electoral victory certainly fits this pattern. After propagating fictitious accounts of the effects of illegal Mexican immigration on the United States, Trump brought together a surprising coalition of white voters, including one-time unionists, from the Midwest’s industrial core, Southern rural dwellers, and middle-class suburbanites. The success of rightwing populists like Le Pen requires a similarly unprecedented formation of alliances in order to disrupt the so-called “Republican Front” in France, where parties spanning the Left and Right have informally joined in the past to block the National Front.

Trump’s rise as related to scapegoating also allowed for fringe, white supremacist groups to zealously embrace the Republican Party. For the first time in decades, the American Nazi Party, KKK, and Robert Spencer’s ridiculous attempt to repackage discredited 19th century racial theories as the “alt-Right” all claimed to have a major party candidate. Trump later told The New York Times that racists were not a group he wished to “energize.” But if Trump truly wishes to distance himself from ethno-nationalism at home and in Europe, he needs to stop spreading scapegoating myths.

Scapegoating as a shortcut to national unity and popularity comes at an enormous moral cost—it blames people of crimes they did not commit, reduces the sense of kindness within civil society, and turns violence onto the groups that are least able to protect themselves. Thus far, Europe’s ultranationalist right wing has only been emboldened by Trump’s example and victory. For her part, Le Pen successfully pulled the mainstream national discourse in France in an anti-Islamic direction. In Germany, cosmopolitan stalwart Angela Merkel, feeling pressure from the populist right wing, has suddenly veered toward an ethno-nationalist call to ban Muslim face veils. Recent terror attacks in Germany, which spread the fear of immigrants and refugees from the Middle East, could further compound the desire to scapegoat.

The greatest antidote to scapegoating is dialogue and solidarity across different sectors of society. Ordinary citizens must combat fear and isolation by opening new channels of communication and exchange. Václav Havel’s famous call for a culture of solidarity is important again today. As he said: “The issue is the rehabilitation of values like trust, openness, responsibility, solidarity, love.” In other words, citizens must take up the ordinary, unglamorous work of relating to one’s neighbors again.

The resurgence of a mass politics of scapegoating in North Atlantic democracies shows that defenders of these societies must not only find ways to unmask crude stereotyping, but must also provide a better narrative for the very real malaise experienced by many citizens. Drug addiction, crime, economic insecurity, and loss of cultural worth are real problems facing working and middle-class whites across these countries. But the only way to defeat a bad story is to tell a better one. The very survival of the world’s longest standing democracies may depend on it.