The Exploitation of Xenophobia by Politicians: How Can We Avoid It?

-Lucrezia Povero-

“A safe, sane, and separate society…which will keep whites safe from racial genocide and the ongoing…bastardization of the white race, racial integration…[and] inter-breeding.” This is not an excerpt from an Adolf Hitler speech, but the mission of the Aryan Renaissance Society (ARS). A Texas-based, neo-Nazi organization, which aims to create an “Aryan oligarchy based on genetic aristocracy” to “enhance the [white] Race.” It may be surprising that these ideas still exist in 2016, particularly in a country that offers itself as a symbol of democracy and freedom, where people study the atrocities of the Holocaust and slavery in school, where there is no limitation on access to information, and where an African-American has been elected President.

However, the Aryan Renaissance Society is only one of the 892 hate groups which are currently operating within the United States. These organizations “have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and have increased considerably since 2009, the year President Obama took office.

You may wonder: “why do people decide to join  organizations whose members are unified by hate towards others?” Interestingly, the common framework that unifies hate groups was built in the 19th century; the positivist theories of race at the time would give rise to totalitarianism in the 20th century, culminating in the deaths of an estimated 6 million Jews in the Holocaust. Racism is “the aversion towards a certain race of humans, assuming that race determines the traits of humans and their capacity.”

Nowadays, the aim of governments should be to safeguard the well-being of their people. Accordingly, politicians should help citizens to overcome xenophobia. Nevertheless, both in America and abroad there are politicians who do the opposite: by profiting from this phobia for their electoral campaigns they exploit people’s concerns with immigration to gain votes and continue to spread racism throughout society, which they are supposed to safeguard. In fact, many of these politicians encourage the growth of xenophobic discourse and even the growth of hate groups.

At this point many may have in mind the image of businessman and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, which would be appropriate. In fact, Trump has put the limitation of Mexican immigration at the forefront of his campaign, since in 2014 Mexican immigrants numbered more than 11.7 million, and in his opinion, “the worst elements in Mexico are being pushed into the United States by the Mexican government.” However, maybe he has not paid a lot of attention to the reasons which lead Mexican people to leave their motherland. Indeed, Mexicans come to America first in order to flee drug crimes, hoping to find a safer and more stable place to live; in Mexico “in the past five years, 47,500 people have been killed in crimes relating to drugs.” In addition, they wish to find better job opportunities because, even if unemployment in Mexico is actually recorded at 4.15 percent, 47% of the Mexican population currently lives under the poverty line. Moreover, “Mexico is a very arid area which suffers from water shortages even in the more developed areas.” Besides, Mexican people have to face natural disasters like “volcanoes, earthquakes, hurricanes & tsunamis,” which force them to migrate, after their houses have been destroyed or their lives have been put at risk. Despite all this, Trump seems not to have empathized with the problems of these people, as he continues to support the idea of the building of a wall which will separate Mexico from United States. He recently tried to persuade people to support his plan with the following words: “The cost of building a permanent border wall pales mightily in comparison to what American taxpayers spend every single year on dealing with the fallout of illegal immigration on their communities, schools and unemployment offices.”  To top it all, Trump retweeted the account @WhiteGenocideTM. The main Ideology of this movement is the same as that of the Aryan Renaissance Society: “White people, far from ruling most of the developed world, are actually being subjected to a genocide that will ultimately wipe out their race.”

Trump attempts to seduce people scared by diversity and those concerned with social problems such as criminality or unemployment, who feel reassured by the presence of scapegoats— especially immigrants. Arguably, the scapegoat strategy is the same one used by fear-mongering leaders such as Adolf Hitler, when the Jews became scapegoats for the problems faced by post World War I Germany. This strategy of scapegoating is also the same used by the Italian party Northern League, whose objective is the independence of Northern Italy on the basis of the stereotype that Northern-Italians are hard-working, serious and respectable, while Southern-Italians are lazy, criminal and disorganized. In order to spread their ideology, the Northern League aimed to increase xenophobia among fellow countrymen: they identified people who live some kilometers more South as cause of criminality and unemployment and, as a consequence, these became victim of collective hate. The Northern League went on to include immigrants in their criticisms, particularly those immigrants from Islamic countries. More specifically, the party cunningly took advantage of the extremely serious problem of African refugees from Libya, Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan, who were fleeing hunger, war, and persecution,. In fact, although these people risked their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea with old inflatable rafts, the former president of the Northern League Roberto Maroni said that he would have sunk the boats with cannons.

Tump and Salvini photo credit to Andres Solaro,Scott Olseon,AFP

Tump and Salvini
Photo credit to Andres Solaro, Scott Olseon, AFP

Recently, the current president of the Northern League Matteo Salvini, who has expressed his support of Trump by calling him “heroic” in a gathering last December, continues this campaign by stating, for example, that immigration should be banned because “Africans bring into Italy diseases such as scabies, tuberculosis, and Ebola.”  A great trump card for Salvini were the Terrorist attacks of Paris on November, 13, 2013, and those in Belgium on March, 22, 2016. As a result, Salvini was able to capitalize off of a particular kind of xenophobia: islamophobia, the hate of all Islamic people. Salvini made generalizations about the Islamic world’s tendency toward terrorism and, in the process, arguably helped ISIS to realize its goal: making Western and Islamic people hate each other.

Interestingly, the relatively secular world of politics might look toward the Catholic Pope as an example of a leader who has adopted rhetoric that runs counter to those on the extreme right. Pope Francis has assumed a political role by trying to encourage governments to give shelter to refugees and immigrants from undeveloped countries, putting the issue of immigration at the center of his papacy. In fact, in July 2013 he chose to make his first trip outside of Rome in Lampedusa, declaring that “the world can no longer ignore the human rights and human lives of those seeking a better life and safety in a foreign land.” In addition, in August 2015 he reacted to the refusal of the Northern League to give shelter to refugees, by saying: “This is an unresolved conflict, and this is war, this is violence, it’s called murder.” Additionally, on February 17 Pope Francis stopped at the border between Mexico and United States “to pray for migrants who have lost their lives making the perilous journey north,” giving dignity to all these people who fight for a better future.

In contrast to the above-mentioned politicians, the Pope reminded people how it is unethical to leave others alone in desperate situations just because of their origins. Indeed, on this occasion he affirmed, “We cannot deny the humanitarian crisis which in recent years has meant the migration of thousands of people, whether by train or highway or on foot, crossing hundreds of kilometers through mountains, deserts and inhospitable zones…they are our brothers and sisters, who are being expelled by poverty and violence, drug trafficking and organized crime. ” Using words like “brothers and sisters,” the Pope highlighted that a society cannot present itself as civilized if it does not support equality, and helps people to overcome xenophobia.

Notwithstanding, the efforts made by Pope Francis to help people to defeat their fear and hostility towards strangers has not been appreciated by politicians who base their platforms on more xenophobic attitudes. Indeed, Trump commented on the visit of the Pope in Mexico with these words: “I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has. I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico…Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is.”  And yet, when the Pope stated: “I invite all of you to ask forgiveness for those who close the door on these people who are looking for life, for a family, and to be cared for,” Salvini replied with disdain that they did not need anyone’s forgiveness.

For the sake of the argument, it is worth temporarily assuming that Trump and Salvini are right and Pope Francis is wrong. Let us suppose that we do not have to help people from other countries who are less fortunate if we live in a country with a decent standards of life, where people do not starve to death and explosions are not a part of daily life. The rationale would be that the problems faced by the less fortunate do not affect us as members of more prosperous countries, and we should not have to compromise our wellness by wasting resources to help them. If we agreed with this belief, could we still consider ourselves to be human beings, with empathy, rationality and knowledge? Maybe, the above-mentioned xenophobic ideas made us cancel our ability to think and to understand others’ feelings.

In a nutshell, citizens should be careful not to be seduced by politicians who distract from qualities like altruism and good judgment by increasing xenophobia. In fact, we must not forget the mistakes that people have made in the past, which let dictators like Mussolini and Hitler take power and commit dreadful acts. The problem is that people often do not have enough information to vote wisely; indeed, the above-mentioned politicians, particularly those of the Northern League, attempt above all to persuade uneducated voters. Thus, we should do our best to provide more opportunities for education, lest we be manipulated by power. Outside of academia, a good solution could be remembrance groups whose mission is to inform citizens about historical tragedies so that citizens can vote more wisely. For example, in Italy there is a project called Deina, which spreads awareness about tragic periods of human history, like Fascism, Nazism or the War in Bosnia. This organization deals with these topics through movies, informal lectures and shows and lets people make cheap trips to places significant to our history, such as to the concentration camp Auschwitz, in Poland.

Ultimately, projects like this should be more common and governments should do their best to insure a sufficient education to all citizens. The imperative nature of education is best summed up by the Italian anti-fascist politician Antonio Gramsci, who recommended to young people: “Educate yourselves because we’ll need all your intelligence. Stir yourselves because we’ll need all your enthusiasm.”