It’s not just Trump. Immigrants are the global right’s main scapegoat.

Western populist parties are stoking fear to gain support. France’s National Front is the latest example

A torn poster of French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen is seen in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michel Spingler
A torn poster of French far-right party leader Marine Le Pen is seen in Henin-Beaumont, northern France, Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Michel Spingler

France’s 2017 elections could pit a radical right winger against an even more radical right winger. Republican nominee Francois Fillon has called France’s colonial history an attempt to share French culture while Marine Le Pen’s archaic views on immigration are picking up support across the country.

But what’s happening in France isn’t unique. Nativism and populism emerged as major political drivers around the world in 2016, and few subjects have garnered as much vitriolic sentiment as immigration — specifically from the developing world. Immigration (as well as the reception of refugees from the developing world, particularly Muslims) will surely be a major factor when the French visit the polls next year, as it was in the UK’s Brexit vote, the U.S. election, Italy’s constitutional referendum, and Germany’s local elections.

Politicians have long manipulated public perceptions of immigration, turning immigrants into a scapegoat for issues like unemployment and economic troubles. In recent months, immigrants and refugees have also been tacked with the blame for terrorism by populist leaders like Donald Trump.

Immigrants, however, are not to blame for terrorism or a litany of other legitimate grievances. Populists simply use them because they’re an easy target.


“One problem is that politicians keep talking about immigration as a threat or a burden when numbers don’t support that proposition,” Timothy Kaldas, a nonresident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy who has extensively researched discrimination against Muslims in Europe, told ThinkProgress. “The population is hearing discourse and conservative economic measures taken and they see more people and less resources. It allows politicians who are mismanaging the economy to blame immigrants and allows them to evade responsibility for their actions and gives space for tensions from the far right or establishment parties to exploit that.”

CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

Politicians have always blamed an “other” for internal problems. In Europe particularly, religious or ethnic minorities are often accused of failing to integrate into mainstream society.

“The role immigration plays is quite interesting because it is not responsible for the legitimate grievances many people likely have about loss of jobs, austerity, and the fact political parties rarely listen to them have taken xenophobic form,” Kenan Malik, an author and lecturer on race, diversity, and political philosophy, told ThinkProgress. “It’s become symbolic of economic marginalization, political voicelessness, loss of social status, and an explanation for nonacceptance of social change and a symbol of fear.”

Today populist parties rail against refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries, accusing them of not only ruining the local economy, but practicing a religion that they claim isn’t incompatible with the culture and lifestyle in Europe. These assumptions, however, are often misplaced.

“The first Muslims that immigrated to Britain from South Asia were religious but wore their faith lightly, ” Malik said. “Many would go down to the pub, few women wore the hijab — let alone the burka or niqab—and they would visit the mosque only occasionally.”


Malik added that the majority of North Africans who immigrated to France and Turks to Germany were mostly secular. Today, the vast majority of French Muslims believe in France’s secular law. Most of those who believe their religion takes precedence over French law (something that is relatively uncontroversial when said by a Christian candidate for vice president or president of the United States) are under 25 years old. Even though many of these Muslims are no longer immigrants, but second or third generation European citizens, many are still criticized for failing to integrate into homogeneous societies that have largely rejected their integration attempts.

The first Muslims that immigrated to Britain from South Asia were religious but wore their faith lightly

And in Europe, as in the United States, there are certainly racial elements at play when discussing immigration and integration.

“In France specifically, the people we are talking about are not immigrants,” Kaldas said. “ When we talk about integration of Muslim youth, who were born and raised in France, there is a rejection of the idea that they are French nationals. They have legal citizenship but are not seen as members of a French imagined community. The political leadership speaks as though they are not true nationals.”

A lot of this rhetoric has been mainstreamed by radical and nativist nationalist parties like France’s Front National (FN). The FN’s long team leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was pushed out of the party by his daughter Marine, who disavowed her father’s anti-Semitism, but has carried on his Islamophobic and xenophobic immigration legacy.

For years, centrist politicians condemned the FN’s views as contradictory to French values. Today though, the legacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s xenophobia is commonplace.


“He’s ruled France in terms of immigration,” Kaldas told ThinkProgress. “His ideas have been adopted by the (French) Republican Party to win voters away from the FN.”

There is also a misconception that only the poorest, most conservative, or most radical of a certain group is considered authentic. This is a fault the left is also guilty of.

Take for example Danish MP Nasser Khader’s conversation with a left-wing journalist about cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that were published in Denmark and caused international protests and led to attacks on the cartoonists. The journalist told Khader that all Muslims in Denmark are hostile to the cartoon, to which Khader replied that he, a Danish Muslim of Syrian descent, was not.

The journalist replied, “But you are not a real Muslim”. Those who don’t want censorship or have liberal tendencies are seen as not authentic Muslims.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Martin Meissner
CREDIT: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

These preconceived notions of what a Muslim is often leaves Muslims stranded, facing a reflection of themselves characterized by violent and aggressive stereotypes. This is particularly troubling for the non-immigrant Muslims who feel the country of their birth has rejected them for reasons out of their control: religion, skin color, and where their ancestors were born.

“Once you have that image, both society views Muslims and Muslims view themselves in particular ways,” Malik said. “Identities are always created out of relationship or dialogue. It shapes the way you see yourself too if people see you that way. The notion of authenticity and what it is to be a Muslim is often very reactionary and only looks at reactionaries as real Muslims.”

There is no initiative to integrate white people

This has been the case with many of the Europeans who have joined ISIS, including those who perpetrated attacks in Paris and Belgium. People who turn to terrorism are often radicalized not by a religion, but by alienation from society. And so they fall back on an imagined identity created by that society.

“They are hostile to western societies and the traditional Islam of their parents and traditional Islamic institutions,” Malik said. “They find their Islam not in a mosque, through hate preachers. They find Islam largely on the internet.”

Malik says that popular misconceptions about Muslims and other immigrants often stems from multiculturalism. But his critique of multiculturalism differs from the one often levied by the right. According to Malik, the world is a messy place full of “clashes and conflicts,” and political and cultural engagement emerges from these conflicts.

“Diversity takes place and expands our horizons,” he said. “We compare and contrast values and lifestyles, and make judgments on them — and create a universal language of citizenship.”

Under multiculturalism, dialogue and debate is suppressed in the name of tolerance and respect, removing the value of diversity, Malik said. Instead, people are placed in boxes according to their race, religion, or ethnic group. Malik’s belief is that this form of multiculturalism, which polices belief and minimizes friction, is the “other side of the nativist sentiment, which says immigration is undermining cohesion, national identity.”

One side encourages fear, while the multicultural approach encourages indifference, Malik said.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Fear can be a powerful tool for populist movements. Making immigrants into the source of a population’s animus and anxiety is only effective because immigrants rarely have a prominent voice in politics. As a result, they’ve been blamed for everything from violent crime to forest fires.

“It doesn’t matter if their insecurities are real or not, the perception matters,” Sheldon Solomon, a professor of Psychology at Skidmore College in New York who researches Terror Management Theory, told ThinkProgress. According to Solomon, “research shows that when our cherished beliefs or cultural worldview is threatened or our self-esteem is challenged it brings unconscious death thoughts to mind.”

Terror Management Theory essentially says that human beings are “painfully aware that death is inevitable and can happen at any time,” Solomon said. Humans, the theory says, often try and manage their impending death by seeking immortality — or by connecting themselves to something that will live on after their own death.

“What we do quite unconsciously but with great enthusiasm is embrace culturally constructed views of reality so that we have value,” said Solomon. “We spend a lot of energy unconsciously clinging to a cultural world view in service of giving us an adequate level of self esteem.”

Solomon argues that Terror Management Theory at least partially explains why populist movements can play on negative perceptions of immigration and immigrants to draw support. Solomon and his colleagues have undertaken studies to find that when people were reminded of their mortality, their enthusiasm for politicians like Donald Trump increased.

“When Americans are in a benign state of mind, they like Hillary Clinton more than Donald Trump,” Solomon told ThinkProgress. “But when reminded of their mortality first, enthusiasm for Trump increased.”

Solomon said similar results were found in studies where Americans were told to think about a mosque being built in their neighborhood or an immigrant moving in next door. Both situations brought unconscious thoughts of death to mind.

It doesn’t matter if their insecurities are real or not, the perception matters

“Just mentioning terrorists, Muslims, and immigrants gives death thoughts unconsciously, and when death is on your mind it makes people more prone to supporting charismatic leaders,” Solomon said. “I wouldn’t suggest that is the only reason why Trump won the election, there were other factors, but in our estimation, Trump was the happy beneficiary of the same kinds of psychodynamic processes that got Hitler and Berlusconi elected and the Brexit vote through, and will probably affect the upcoming elections in France and Germany.”

CREDIT: AP Photo/Frank Jordans
CREDIT: AP Photo/Frank Jordans

Trying to counter the euphoria and fearmongering of populist parties won’t be an easy task. Certain strategies have shown positive results.

“You can point out to people what they are actually doing and if you can say to people, ‘look this may sound outrageous but your unconscious concerns about mortality may be influencing a whole lot of things including who you are voting for,’” Solmon said. He cited Freud, saying the purpose of his work, and all psychoanalysis, is to make the unconscious conscious, and that could make people more aware of how they are influenced or, at times, manipulated by politicians.

When looking for solutions to immigration and integration, citizens often look to the state. But that outlook is rarely productive.

“Real integration is rarely brought about by the state,” Malik, the author and lecturer, told ThinkProgress. “It’s primarily brought about by civil society and individual bonds people form with each other and organizations we create to share our political and social interests.”

Political parties, trade unions, church groups; these are what unifies and breaks down social and cultural barriers, Malik said. And many of these type of initiatives are currently taking place in Europe and the United States.

In Germany, a pick-up artist who teaches “wealthy but uptight German men how to approach women” is now volunteering his time with Syrian refugees to help them learn a bit more about German culture, AP reported. Refugees are also giving cooking classes to Berlin residents in attempts to bridge the divide.

Interactions like these break down social and cultural barriers, according to the contact hypothesis, which says a greater understanding between two people of different cultures develops when they come in contact with each other. In this way, civil society may be the key to achieving integration and diversity in a society.

“Your stereotypes about the other group don’t necessarily change,” according to Thomas Pettigrew, a research psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “but you grow to like them anyway.”