Migration and the rise of racial populism in international politics

Brexit and the election of Donald J. Trump in the United States have energized some extreme European parties that are seeking to overturn the established political order.[1] Carl Bildt wrote in a Washington Post article that Trump’s victory could mark “the end of the West as we know it.”[2] Was he talking about the end of the West, or the end of Western diversity and inclusion? The continuous liberalization of world trade, the movement of goods and capital by which this is measured, the devastating effects of war, terrorism, unemployment and abject poverty on humanity in Africa, the Middle East and South America, coupled with the decline in the control power of the nation-state over population movement, has been matched by a spectacular increase in the movement of persons in a defiant search for success and security. This has been equally met with what some scholars arguing that there has been a rise in the populist nationalistic resistance to migration that may appear authoritarian or fascist in nature[3]. This is due to the condemnation and blame game on “others” that are not “us” employed by various populist movements in their anti-immigration and anti-Islam discourse, creating a seedbed for fascism. How is migration influencing the rise of racist populism in the relationships among people of different nation-states? This work discusses how the current populist arguments about immigration are framed and justified, and how this framing and justification can lead to experiences of racism and “apart-hate”[4] when different civilizations meet.

Whilst all populist ideas are not necessarily linked to racism, racist rhetoric almost always draws on populism. The problem with contemporary increase in populist trends is that it claims to represent the voice of ‘the people’, simplifying the debate to either-or choices and ignoring the variety of views and experiences. In the case of immigration in Europe and America this over-simplification of populism easily lends its support to racist arguments.

This growing tide of populist politics could be in line to take a hold in many European countries and North America, especially as opinion polls show an increase in support for populist nationalist using racial slurs to gain popularity. A New York Times article by Ashkenas and Aisch presents the growth of populism in Europe. But of particular interest to this article, it presents the growth of populism in relation to anti-immigration and Islamophobia[5] (the inability understand and tolerate or accept others because of their religion, culture, color or the fear that they are taking away your birth right). It describes the populist trends of eight countries in Europe; Spain, Greece, Italy, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany and Austria of which all eight are anti-establishment. Five countries out of the eight sampled countries in Europe are anti-immigration, and four countries are Islamophobic[6], just as Trump made some American voters believe Islam and the Mexicans were dangerous and had to be kept out of America by building an imaginary wall.

Outside these eight countries is Sweden, known for its history of diversity and inclusion. But there has been a recent change in perspectives on immigration, influenced by Akesson’s populist ideals. In the last election in September 2014, populist nationalistic support gained a 12.9 percent share of the overall vote but the results of a poll at the start of this month had the party on 17.5 per cent.[7] Over the past three years 250,000 migrants have moved to the Scandinavian country, which Akesson says has put pressure on government resources and has increased unemployment. Due to the country’s liberal immigration policies Akesson contends that the indigenous population has suffered. Making the indigenous population vulnerable sets the pace for the framing of hatred and nationalistic resistance against migrants, even though there are ideals like Nelson Mandela’s political philosophy that have embodied unity and championed human rights and tolerance. Humanity has indeed not gone anywhere farther since Mandela’s time because we still face a challenge of the fear of our wellbeing in the midst of others who are not us.

The increases in popular anti-immigration campaigns in Europe and America may have civilizational levels of reason, but the presence of extreme right and left populist parties are causing an increase in xenophobia because it has an influence on political actors and on the mindsets of the people. Although some extreme political parties pursue xenophobic platforms and used anti-immigration smears, the emergence of the National Front in France has seen a dramatic increase in politicized dislike of foreigners, whereas the emergence of the new populist democracy has little of such effects in Spain, Greece and Italy for so far.


[1] Jeremy Ashkenas and Gregor Aisch, European Populism in the Age of Donald Trump, New York Times, Dec. 5, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/05/world/europe/populism-in-age-of-trump.html?_r=0
[2] Jon Rogers,  Swexit? Now Sweden is in the grip of a growing wave of populism. The Daily Express
[3] Peter Fritzsche (1990). Rehearsals for fascism: populism and political mobilization in Weimar Germany. Oxford University Press
[4] Marie-Ora de Villier writes that in Afrikaans you pronounce it a:PART:hate, and you should follow this in English, deferring to your accent, of course. The last syllable is pronounced like ‘hate’ but of course this is not the meaning of the word. ‘heid’ translates to “-ness” in English, so Apartheid means ‘apartness’ or ‘separateness’ roughly translated.
[5] Jeremy Ashkenas and Gregor Aisch,; op cit
[6] Ibid
[7] Jon Rogers,  Swexit? Op cit.

By Ayenka Franklin