There is a common thread running through the rise of the right wing across the world and that thread is xenophobia. The fear of the outsider, laced with a cocktail of racism and religious bigotry, have been skilfully used by right-wingers in various places to manipulate varying political systems in order to take and consolidate power.
This has happened through democratic means in many places. Consider Donald Trump with his “wall” and his broad categorisation of Latin Americans, Muslims and all non-whites as criminals. Mr Trump still has roughly 40 per cent approval, despite children being forcibly separated from their parents, and dying in government custody.
Consider Brexit, with its “Leaver” campaign founded on fears of Britain being overrun by foreigners. It is only now that the average Briton is realising the enormity of the cost of leaving the European Union. Similarly in Hungary, where Viktor Orban won an election by orchestrating a campaign against the “invasion” of asylum seekers. Or France, where Marine Le Pen took over her father’s mantle as the dark angel of the far right. Or India, where the BJP’s re-election campaign mixes majoritarian rhetoric, with bigotry and dog-whistling.
It’s all about the fear of the outsider. It is easy to rationally dismiss xenophobic rhetoric. Immigrants tend to work harder than the locals. They take the dirty, low-paid jobs. They tend to generate more in taxes than they cost in terms of social welfare.
In the US, an immigrant is far less likely to commit a random mass-shooting than a citizen born and bred. In Britain, the National Health Service will likely collapse if Brexit results in all the foreigners leaving. France would never have won either of its World Cups without the footballing skills of immigrants from its former colonies.
But the fear of the foreigner is atavistic and widespread. The campaigns referred to above were all based on large dollops of fake news and fake premises, and each was manipulative in the extreme. But each of these campaigns was successful because it tapped into an extant wellspring of bigotry and xenophobia that affected a substantial chunk of the local electorate.
In every case, there were historical causes for the fears. Those fears may no longer be rational but there was a time when they were. Modern India is a country created by waves of large-scale migrations and invasions, and it endured two hundred years of colonialism. That makes it easy to trigger majoritarian sentiments and xenophobia.
Britain was a relatively small country that suffered the threat of catastrophic invasions by Napoleon and Hitler. The White Anglo Saxon Protestant (WASP) settlers who are the single-largest American demographic achieved their pre-eminent position via the genocide of the original settlers, alongside the import of slaves. Some WASPs are terrified of possible payback if they cease to be a majority.
Xenophobia was actually rational back in the colonial era. The Native Americans and the Africans of the Slave Coast were absolutely right to fear the Europeans. The technological superiority of Europeans enabled them to brutally subjugate populations that outnumbered them by orders of magnitude.
Xenophobia is less rational in the 21st century because easy global information flows make it hard to create and maintain the technological asymmetry required to keep populations in subjugation. But getting a plurality of the world’s voters to recognise that xenophobia is irrational, may admittedly, be difficult.
Oddly, xenophobia might become entirely rational again if homo sapiens do become space faring animals. Suppose that we encounter an alien civilisation vastly superior to us, technologically. Those aliens may enslave us, or exterminate us, for much the same reasons that humans have enslaved, or exterminated other humans. The aliens may even eliminate humans purely because we represent a potential threat. And if we encounter an alien race technologically inferior to us, we may decide to exterminate them before they do it to us! That’s the “Dark Forest” theory, which sees the Universe as a dark forest, where predators lurk everywhere. It is a horrible thought.