Blaming immigrants: Western populists reach for their playbook

As elections approach, racist rhetoric is being dialled up to play on the fear of the electorate. This often comes at the expense of those seeking shelter and safety.

Supporters of 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hold a sign about the border wall with Mexico before Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Club 47 USA in West Palm Beach, Florida, on October 11, 2023.
Supporters of 2024 Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump hold a sign about the border wall with Mexico before Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Club 47 USA in West Palm Beach, Florida, on October 11, 2023.

Blaming immigrants: Western populists reach for their playbook

Immigrants pose a threat. They threaten our economies and our security. Hordes of incoming Africans, Arabs, Asians, and such look to replace us, the native population. The faces on the streets are every colour except white.

Where once there were churches, now there are mosques. Is it any wonder that crime and drug-related incidents are up? They flood in on small boats and across porous borders to strip away our civilisation and safety. It won’t be long before their candidates win elections and make them our masters.

These imagined, exaggerated, and distilled musings aim to encapsulate the Western worry about immigration. ‘They’ are coming, ‘they’ will take our jobs and replace us.

Such rhetoric and narratives increasingly find prominence in today’s Western media, especially in channels and spaces aligned with right-wing and populist movements, of which there are a growing number.

It resonates and is amplified across social media. In its later stages, it can manifest as protest and violence.

As elections approach, immigration is usually one of the top two or three issues voters raise. Often, it is their principal concern. When a political party or candidate champions restrictions on immigration, it is no surprise that they do well at the ballot box.

Donald Trump’s ‘build a wall’ promise to Make America Great Again is a prime example.

Trump appeared in court in Miami for an arraignment regarding 37 federal charges, including violations of the Espionage Act, making false statements, and mishandling of classified material after leaving office.

True, Western societies do need to have a mature conversation about immigration, not least for a nation’s policies around resource allocation. But too often, these are neither mature nor conversations but increasingly shrill shouts online.

Playing with fire

At its worst, the fear-mongering of populists at the expense of immigrants amounts to incitement to violence. In several Western countries, people have been murdered by those who fear that “non-natives” will “replace” the white majority.

What makes immigration so toxic is the ease with which a society’s ills can be blamed on arrivals and incomers.

Blame can be employed in multiple economic, social, cultural, and demographic areas. Unemployed? Blame the immigrants. Crime? Ditto.

Such simplistic and misleading arguments ignore the reality of modern societies, characterised by the fluctuating middle ground between stability and prosperity at one end and crisis and collapse at the other.

Vote-winning alarmism pays no heed to the nature of a society straining to maintain its equilibrium and avert future crises.

Recent statements by senior politicians in Britain's ruling Conservative Party would seem a case in point.

One said (without a shred of evidence) that Islamists "had control" of London's mayor, who is Muslim. The complainant was suspended.

Others, including two recent candidates for the Party leadership, railed against "Islamist extremists", apparently perturbed by the UK's large pro-Palestine marches. Even the British prime minister referred to "mob rule".

Simplistic and misleading arguments twist reality. Unemployed? Blame the immigrants. Crime? Ditto.

Such comments are increasingly becoming the norm.

Similar remarks frequently aired on French and American media offer deeper insights into Western societies and the ongoing "culture war" that is driving division.

Add some other key ingredients—such as high inflation, a cost-of-living crisis, farmer protests, electioneering, and a feeling of lost prestige—and the mix quickly becomes noxious.

Invoking history

When analysing periods in which a slice of society has been blamed for a nation's woes, histories often invoke Germany in the years following World War I.

Here, a far-right populist (Hitler) rose to power in a Western democracy by telling a bankrupted and humiliated people (Germans) who he felt were to blame (Jews, Roma, Communists, and other "undesirables").

It illustrated how the prolonged tension between democracy and economic downturn frequently lays the groundwork for authoritarian tendencies and rhetoric. A similar dynamic is unfolding today.

Far-right demonstrators in Hungary on July 7 declare their support for the French government's measures to suppress the demonstrations that followed the killing of a young man by police shooting.

For many a Western populist, immigrants are now the primary scapegoat, apparently responsible for all manner of national ailments, just as Jews were for the Nazis. In Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, genocide began with words.

Read more: Never again is now: How Germany's antisemitic past has shaped its present

Given that most Western countries have large immigrant populations, the situation is more perilous than many realise, and not just for the countries themselves.

Human rights protections were put in place after World War II. When anti-immigrant populists take power, one of their first decisions is usually to rescind these protections. Anti-immigrant populists who seek power often promise to do so.

Today, human rights are universal and transcend national borders. If populist right-wing governments run tomorrow's world, that may not be true.

Yet ballot box results suggest that they are in the ascendency and that tolerance is on the wane.

Optimists suggest that when such populists take power, they often eschew the more severe anti-immigrant actions pondered aloud on the campaign trail and instead seek to derive economic benefits from immigration.

If that is the best hope, it will give little comfort to those who remember Europe's genocide, its camps, and what it showed that man could do to fellow man.

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