Crisis is an anti-democratic leader’s best friend. Populists in particular will often use the pretext of crisis—an ongoing and imminent threat to culture, security, or stability—in order to win support for undemocratic actions. For Donald Trump, this central conflict is the “invasion” of foreigners: terrorism, immigration, and the growth of foreign economic powers. But what happens when the citizens who believe in this crisis most are not the ones most vulnerable to it? What leads supporters with less experience of a change to be most afraid of it? Rather than knowledge and experience, paranoia and perceptions guide those who believe in Trump’s narrative of crisis—and to problematic ends.
Trump’s idea of the American crisis—the “American carnage,” to use his own term—is dismally straightforward. Foreigners are threatening our country’s wellbeing. Mass immigration is bringing rising crime and destroying our values. Refugees are threatening our security and growing economic forces like China are destroying the livelihoods of our workers. The liberal elite is letting it happen, while the establishment has lost touch with the people bearing the brunt of this emergency. If you do not allow Trump to supersede the establishment, then this crisis will only get worse—our economy, security, and livelihoods will crumble. Democracy might not always be suited to stopping the real threats to American society. For a better summary than mine, look no further than Trump’s inauguration speech.
Trump’s supporters buy it. Pew Research reports that 66% of registered voters who support Trump call immigration a “very big problem,” whereas only 17% of Clinton supporters say the same. Roughly 7 in 10 say that immigrants are burdensome since they “take our jobs, housing and health care,” a significantly higher rate than non-Trump supporting Republicans. Similarly, 67% of supporters call terrorism a “very big problem.” Trump’s rallies are flooded with cries like “build a wall” and “keep them out,” while voters expect him to deliver on these promises. They deride the “establishment” and embrace the “people,” the homogenous and neglected group that really understands the horrors of immigration, crime, and terrorism.
Trump is not alone. Pippa Norris situates him within a larger threat to global democracy. According to Norris, Europe and America have experienced a recent wave of “populist-authoritarians,” who have latched on to anxiety over terrorism and immigration like “parasites.” “Trump’s angry nativist rhetoric and dark fear-mongering echoes xenophobic political discourse among populist leaders in several hybrid regimes worldwide,” argues Norris. These leaders include Erdoğan, Orbán, Duterte, and Maduro among others. Marine Le Pen is another clear example. In many of these cases, leaders will inflate xenophobic anxiety over a foreigner “crisis,” thereby threatening democratic ideals of pluralism, tolerance, concern for human rights, and the rule of law.
One might say that Trump supporters are merely voicing their experiences. Support for Trump is a reaction to changes that have displaced and endangered them; that is why they latch onto Trump’s crisis narrative. But to believe in a crisis, do you need to be experiencing it?
In the case of Trump supporters, this is not so. Start with immigration. A 2016 UCLA study found that Trump supporters are less likely to live in districts or commuter areas with higher numbers of immigrants. Voters in areas with high levels of immigration are more likely to support a democrat or a non-Trump republican. The same is true of economic competition with foreign countries. People in areas most affected by trade competition with Mexico and China are less likely to support Trump and vice versa. The evidence shows us that those who believe in these crises more are generally the ones that experience it less.
This trend extends to the issue of terrorism, a key component of Trump’s crisis-mongering. Terrorism is significantly more rare than immigration, job loss, and economic decline. But the areas most at risk of and experienced with terrorism are not the areas with higher concentrations of Trump voters. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why New Yorkers or Bostonians have not rushed to Trump in the wake of traumatic terror attacks. When you realize that the chance of being killed by a refugee terrorist is 1 in 46,192,893, the intensity of Trump’s rhetoric seems all the more puzzling. These chances are significantly lower than dying from a police shooting, a heat wave, and accidental gunshot, or a legal execution. And yet, so many of Trump supporters viewed it as a top issue. Believing in a crisis seems to have almost nothing to do with knowledge or experience.
Rather, it is not the existence of a threat but the perception of a threat that strengthens populist leaders like Trump, Le Pen, and the like. As Jan-Werner Müller explains, “a ‘crisis’ is not an objective state of affairs but a matter of interpretation . . . put differently, a ‘crisis’ can be a performance, and politics can be presented as a continuous state of siege.” A crisis might be related to an ongoing change. But ultimately, perception guides how people understand their country’s “emergency.” In light of this, what does explain why Trump supporters latch on to Trump’s narratives of immigration, globalization, and terrorism?
Paranoia explains the way that many adherents the “crisis” narrative understand what is going on. Judith Butler explains this psychology in the context of the Rodney King trial. The deep-seeded and racist paranoia of white onlookers led them to believe that King was inherently dangerous, so when they watched the horrific video of the police beating King, they took it as proof that King was threatening and therefore deserving of it. It was a way of filling in the blanks based on prior racist attitudes—a “feels as if” interpretation. And it drove a seemingly inexplicable wedge between sympathizers of King and sympathizers of the police, even when they were watching the same exact video.
Butler’s example helps us understand the reception of the Trumpist “crisis.” The fear of danger and invasion taints the way that people look at similar events. Even when Trump supporters lack experience with immigration and terrorism, they still fill in the blanks out of fear that danger will happen to them—or is happening to them. It “feels as if” it is the case. They watch the news, hear reports of attacks and crimes, and eagerly listen when Trump brings America’s latest white victim to the stage. In this case, statistics, facts, and experiences would not make much of a dent in Trump’s support, not when they never quite motivated supporters in the first place.
The success of Trump’s crisis narrative is not accidental. Nor is it mainly motivated by higher immigration rates, higher threats of terrorism, or more diffused experiences with either trend. Rather, Trump latched on to xenophobic, paranoid attitudes that make America fertile ground for populism.
Image Source: Mike Knieck, “The Wall.” August 23, 2014. Flickr. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). https://www.flickr.com/photos/112923805@N05/15130281856