Xenophobia and the American Identity
“Xenophobia,” which, according to, Dictionary.com is a “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers” was Dictionary.com’s 2016 word of the year. The word can also refer to fear or dislike of customs, dress, and cultures of people with backgrounds different from our own. Put more simply, xenophobia is a fear of the “other.”
This word was likely so widespread this past year due in no small part to the United States’ presidential election, as well as the UK’s vote to leave the European Union (widely known as "Brexit"). This fear of the other has been made abundantly clear in the United States through the rhetoric put forth by the Trump campaign. Xenophobic campaign promises to build a wall along the US-Mexico border and start a Muslim registry may have sounded far-fetched and ridiculous to many, but they resonated with Trump’s voter base. Our president-elect actively drove away female and minority voters, but white nationalists heard hope for their particular way of life and belief system in his anti-immigration, anti-institution rhetoric. This group seemed particularly drawn to Trump’s stance on nationalism, nativism, and rejection of the so-called shadowy elites.
Ultimately, many members of the white working class found a leader, voice, and beacon of hope in billionaire Donald Trump. Deemed “the populist revolt” by New Yorker staff writer George Packer, millions of Americans who have felt unheard, unorganized, and unrepresented swore allegiance to a man who tosses out empty platitudes promising change and gives “institutions and elites the middle finger.” Many political pundits have concluded that the “classic” Trump voter was white, lives in a rural community, and does not have a college education. Trump’s voters also tended to skew male (though exit polls showed that 42% of female voters still voted for him despite his history of sexism). Another characteristic that Trump voters shared was a fear of the dissolution of their way of life: specifically, they fear the dissolution of white supremacy.
Yet while it’s easy (and comforting) to confine xenophobia to the unsettled, angry group of voters that constituted Donald Trump’s base, others have argued that liberal disdain for conservatives has become its own brand of xenophobia. Liberals are just as full of contempt for conservatives as conservatives are for immigrants and foreigners. This kind of xenophobia is undeniably different from the brand that conservatives have displayed: Liberals are trying to distinguish themselves from a party that propagates blatant hatred and discrimination, rather than trying to actually act against others by, say, removing people from this nation based on the color of their skin. But, still, this type of intentional distancing is also important to recognize as it undeniably contributed to our election's outcome.
Liberal xenophobia drove liberal isolation and, thus, was at the root of the shock, disorientation, and confusion that resulted after election night. Rather than trying to reach out to conservatives, or even truly understand them, liberals feared conservative voters and sought to distinguish themselves from them. This trend was not confined to the 2016 election season, either. In 2008, Obama called small town voters “bitter”, saying that they clung too tightly to guns and religion. This year, Hillary Clinton famously defined Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times even “interviewed” an imaginary Trump voter rather than a real one. Journalists, politicians, and regular voters around the country refused to truly recognize or try to understand the conservative voter.
Our current understanding and enactment of xenophobia therefore seems to beat its core about the American identity — or rather, a fear of the dissolution of the American identity. Whether you’re a white nationalist who believes that the “American identity” means white supremacy or a liberal who believes that the “American identity” excludes the resentful, forgotten working class, each particular brand of xenophobia is undeniably divisive. Xenophobia has characterized the 2016 American political arena for liberals and conservatives alike.
The Oxford English Dictionary recently selected “post-truth” as its 2016 word of the year, which they defined as an adjective that relates to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It’s interesting to contemplate how these two ideas — living in a post-truth society and the rise of xenophobia — are interrelated. Like “xenophobia,” the term “post-truth” has undeniably risen to prominence in 2016 because of the presidential election. Both terms reflect the reality that not only has this year been dominated by intensely polarized political and social discourse, but that we live in an increasingly distrustful nation. As a country, we are increasingly losing faith in our institutions, in the news media, in those with political views that oppose ours, and in anybody who appears to be an outsider.
Our new president-elect has already taken advantage of this xenophobic, post-truth society. He capitalized on Americans’ fear of the dissolution of their nationalist identity and the American dream still widely idolized in rural communities across the United States to run a campaign that secured him the presidency. Over the next four years, it will be interesting to see how the Trump administration will handle issues of foreign policy—issues on which they have promised to take hard, conservative stances. It will be especially interesting to observe the reactions to the reality that Trump can’t actually fulfill some of his loftier campaign promises, such as the deportation of an estimated two to three million undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes or the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, without the support of Congress. Congress is currently split 52-48, with a Republican majority. However, with Democrats likely united, only a small number of Republican senators would need to defect to make passing legislation very difficult.
Ultimately, Trump can still continue to do considerable damage by perpetuating the kind of racist, xenophobic rhetoric he has already been so successful at popularizing. It seems then that it's up to us to fight what is increasingly becoming a xenophobic norm — in our own lives, in our communities, and as a nation.
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