This is the third in a multi-part series, of indefinite length and schedule, examining the building of Trump’s Wall, a metaphorical wall between ideology and reality. Parts One and Two can be read here and here.
Recently, I discussed the difference between terror and fear and why the distinction between the two is important, especially in our modern political times. From this discussion, I will move forward to the roles of xenophobia and religious intolerance, and how those have played in to America’s increasing acceptance of a movement built on isolation. This isolation, both at the national level as an isolationist movement and at the individual level as increasing isolation between individuals, has moved America closer towards acceptance of authoritarianism.
It is tempting for many to blame the sometimes shocking rhetoric of the campaign last year for the mounting xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants, whether they come from “the south or the east,” as Trump recently put it in his speech to Poland. However, a cursory reading of American history shows that the United States has never been particularly welcoming of immigrants. Much of this has been built on the ideas and notions of race and racial superiority, such as hostility to the Native Americans and African slaves; or disdain for other immigrants, such as the Chinese or those from India. But, it hasn’t always been about race. Indeed, at times in America’s past the country has been openly hostile to other white Europeans. The Irish, the Germans, the Italians, and so forth have all, at one time or another felt the brunt of xenophobia in America.
Some of this hostility to immigrants, legal or otherwise, has been based on fears and misunderstandings, at best, of differences in religions. Catholics, Jews, and Hindus have also been treated with aggression and oppression throughout the history of the country. Until the election of President Kennedy, it was not thought that a Catholic could or should hold the office of president as there were concerns that the allegiance would be to the Pope rather than the Constitution. This is itself ironic almost to the point of hilarity given the text of the First Amendment. But, nevertheless, Catholics were viewed as “unfit” for a good deal of America’s history. To date, not a single Jew has been elected to the White House, and this is the religion that most closely resembles all the various brands of Christianity that have been been exalted at one point or another.
While this could easily become an essay detailing the religious and ethnic persecution of “others” throughout the history of the United States, going as far back as the landing of the Mayflower, let us turn our attention specifically to more modern times. Let us keep in mind America’s checkered past, but we should use that as something to inform our current understanding of America today. This is not to excuse these actions of the past, but rather to allow us to remember that we still have a long way to come. It also helpful in understanding how we have arrived here, with the political weaponization of xenophobia and religious intolerance. To truly understand how we have arrived at the point of blaming Hispanics and Muslims for our current ills, we must recognize that the roots of such attitudes lie in the waning days of the Cold War.
Prior to the early 1990s, America’s enemies were clear and simple. They were easy to spot and easy to understand. They were Communists. Communists could come from anywhere, though most certainly from Russia, China, and Eastern Europe. Some of them came from the South, such as Castro. Communists were also godless. It was understood that Communism, though not necessarily the writings of Marx and Engels, was an atheist system (though, I would argue that it is actually anti-theism, which is a topic for another time). Much of this has its roots in the totalitarian ideology of Stalin and those that he influenced, which sought to put the leader ahead of all else. To put faith in God, rather than the leader, was to be working against the leader and therefore the Communist way. This is also true of the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes. Chinese Communism, itself a sort of totalitarianism, has until recently enforced similar policies.
This was something that was understood and latched on to by American politicians during the Cold War. It is why our money began to feature the phrase, “In God We Trust,” and why the words, “Under God,” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. Prior to the 1950s these words were not found in either. If you are lucky enough to find a Silver Certificate or war era coins you will notice this absence. While it is true that, for a secular nation, America has always flirted with God and destiny, it was not until America found its enemy in Godless totalitarianism that America began to bring up its children as believing that we are a Christian (or sometimes, in going for the Orthodox vote, a Judeo-Christian) nation. Lincoln’s drive to save the Union, the Protestant Ethic, Manifest Destiny – these were all political appeals to God, and the religious in the electorate. But, countering Godless Communism had to be done by promoting Godly Capitalism.
Towards the end of the last century, Communism mostly failed. The U.S.S.R. collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down, smaller Communist or Socialist countries began to have problems with sustainability, and so forth. Cuba and China remained, and remained the big players. But, the West won. From here, America needed a new existential enemy. We were about to find it in some of our old allies, just as we did with the beginning of the Cold War after the fall of the Third Reich.
During the Cold War, American did not engage in a so-called hot war with the U.S.S.R. but, both sides engaged in many proxy wars. Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and so forth are all examples. The goal was to stop the spread of Communism. While Korea ended in a cease-fire and an indefinite armistice, and Vietnam was a clear failure; the wars in the Middle East would set the stage for the next several decades and counting of American foreign policy hell. In Afghanistan, the United States trained and armed, as well as supported, the Mujahideen. This particular group was led by none other than Osama bin Laden. In Iraq and Iran, the United States propped up a young Iraqi leader and helped to solidify his power in an attempt to beat back Communist friendly Iran. That person was Saddam Hussein. In true Orwellian fashion, these particular leaders and their regimes were “never our friends,” but they certainly fit the bill under the doctrine of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
In Iraq, Hussein felt emboldened by our support enough to think that he could invade Kuwait in 1990, thinking that the United States would not intervene. In Afghanistan, the United States pulled out after the fighting ended, and left the country in ruins – poor and destroyed – with no further support. It is no accident that these two, and their successors, would become the enemies of the United States shortly thereafter. Bin Laden often spoke that it was this that lead him to organize and begin to plan his retaliation. Hussein planned an assassination attempt, that never came to fruition, against President H.W. Bush.
Besides the global politics, the seeds of popular opinion were already beginning to be sewn in the U.S., that would frame these former allies as potential enemies; even before the first acts of violence occurred. This was done in the popular media and culture. Think back to Rocky – he fights the boxer from the U.S.S.R. to show just how great America is. Bond villains were often Russian. Red Dawn, and a million movies like it showed us the virtues of America versus the Godless Communists in easy to swallow pieces of mindless entertainment.
And then, villains became Not-The-Russians. In movies, they often became some sort of generic Middle Eastern stereotype. Even in comic books, which have a history of war hawkish idealism before any hostility began, Batman fought the KGBeast, who was sent to assassinate President Reagan, in 1988. The following year, Batman was fighting the criminals and heads of state of the fictional country of Kahndaq (subtle). At one point, the Joker became the UN ambassador from Iran. This was actually published (it’s also worth noting, that this was the controversial story where the second Robin was killed – the press at the time was making a field day about the death of a sidekick, totally ignoring the death of Captain America’s Bucky, himself a child character who died in WWII at the hands of the Nazis). While it could, and probably should, be argued that Batman comic books have no bearing on U.S. foreign policy, the reality is that the existential enemy of America had, as far as popular culture was concerned, shifted from the Russkies to those wearing a hijab. America had found their new existential enemy, and lucky for America, this enemy was not only foreign, but also of a different religion.
No longer was the American fight spread over two fronts, one of the foreigner and one of the Godless. Now, the enemy was represented by a foreigner who worshiped differently. Over the next three decades, and with help from terrorists and extremists, this image was solidified.
Around the same time, technology took a giant step forward and the American economy changed. Just as advancements in technology and industry helped to shift public opinion away from slavery as a justifiable institution in the late 19th Century, which triggered hostility and a war, new advancements in technology and industry made a whole new industry obsolete. The major, glaring difference of course being the question of slavery. Nonetheless, the advancement of automation and the acceptance of free (or at least a reduced cost) trade had major economic impacts. NAFTA, negotiations of which first began under President Reagan, was finalized, signed, and ratified under President Clinton. In the ensuing two decades, many manufacturers found themselves out of work.
Because it would not serve business owners (and to a great extent, consumers), the largest of the political donors, to have the electorate up in arms aimed at their employers, a scapegoat was created. With free trade came “open borders.” Of course, these borders were only open as far as trade was concerned, but that didn’t matter to the politicians. Rather than telling voters to blame the robots for taking their jobs, which also allowed them to afford the new tech gear, it was much easier and politically expedient to tell them to blame the foreigner. The foreigner, often from the south, was doing their job for less money. And, rather than blame the capitalist structures that allowed for labor to be outsourced at a fraction of the cost, profits above all else, the voters would blame the other workers, especially if there was a feeling that they didn’t belong here in the first place.
And so it was. The scapegoats were created. The Mexicans were taking our jobs and the Muslims hated us for our God (or our freedom, depending on who you ask). Of course, the reality of the situation couldn’t be farther from that explanation. Nonetheless, this was the line peddled by those in power. The curious thing about all this is that it did not result in a unified electorate against … this or that. Rather, it resulted in a wide and growing distrust of “others” entering the country. If it was an Hispanic, it was not because they were hoping for America’s promise, but because they were trying to steal your job. If it was a Muslim, it was not because they were hoping for America’s promise, it was because they secretly hated America.
This distrust has lead us to this point. Americans no longer trust others, or even other Americans. This distrust has created that which totalitarian regimes value most – isolation of the individual. Americans are, by and large, isolated individually. Neighbors and coworkers do not spend leisure time together. They go home and lock the doors. They watch their windows. They stock arms. They look at each and every other person as a potential threat to their security and their livelihood. They arm themselves to go to the grocery store, and they do so with pride. This isolation among countrymen breeds further distrust. It leads to people willing to spy on, and report, each other for so-called suspicious behavior. It leads them to vote for people who stoke those fears. It leads to a tribalism, that like all other forms of tribalism, is not sustainable in a civilized integrated society.
Further, it leads to an isolationist movement at the national level. Wary and fearful of other nations, it causes nations to withdraw from the world stage and the global community. It causes nations to close their doors and lock them. After the Second World War the West, and much of the global community, said never again. And they formed alliances and trade agreements. They allowed for easy travel and allowed for people who have the best to offer to be able to come to their shores. They created, in some sense, a capitalist dream; competition, friendly though it may be, to spur innovation and advancement of humanity. But with terror, terror of others, comes isolation. With isolation comes decay and decline.
Whereas before, America took the opportunity to lead the brave new world, and to be the locale of innovation and advancement, America has said no more. America has decided, after decades of conditioning to, at best, distrust other people and other peoples, tied itself to dying industries. We have turned our backs on our ideals, and our promises. We have traded uncertainty tempered with resolve, for short-term comfort tainted with terror and a lack of security. We have ceded innovative leadership in renewable energy technology to Germany. We have disallowed an all-female robotics team of students to even enter the country, where their invention will compete, due to their nation of origin due to the majority religion in that nation. We have defiantly allowed ourselves to become isolated from one another and from the rest of the world; all because we have succumbed to terror. That terror, of course, is fed from xenophobia and religious intolerance.
And with that, the next few bricks in Trump’s Wall, the wall between ideology and reality, have been laid and cemented in place.