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Is American Xenophobia Finally Being Tempered?

There’s still a hint of isolationism running through the general populace, but these anxieties aren’t salient enough to translate into outright governmental xenophobia.

By Jared Keller


Anti-Donald Trump protesters stamped on Make America Great Again caps after a rally for the Republican presidential candidate on May 25, 2016, in Anaheim, California. (Photo Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

In the West, anxiety over foreign terrorism is on the rise — and not because of recent acts of terror.

According to a survey of 2,607 adults conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution, concern over terrorism jumped from 33 percent in November 2014 to 51 percent in April 2016. (This before the massacre at an LGBT nightclub in Orlando, Florida, left 49 dead in the worst mass shooting in modern United States history.) The rise in anxiety found in the survey was most pronounced among supporters of Donald Trump (65 percent), suggesting a strong correlation between the presumptive GOP nominee’s rhetoric and fear over foreign terrorism. Taken in the context of the dual rejection of globalization and multiculturalism embodied by both the rise of Trump in the U.S. and the right-wing ideology underpinning Brexit, it’s safe to assume that the politics of fear are as effective as ever in Western democracies.

But will this fear translate into policy solutions? According to PRRI’s own data, it’s increasingly unlikely. While 77 percent of Trump supporters (and 64 percent of Republicans in general) favor measures like the nominee’s ban on Muslim immigrants, barely 40 percent of overall Americans do. Similarly, some 78 percent of Trump supporters (and 66 percent of Republicans) favor a ban on Syrian refugees; only 44 percent of the general public does. And while 82 percent of Trump supporters (and 66 percent of Republicans) like the idea of building a massive wall on the southern border of the U.S. to keep out Mexican migrants, only 41 percent of American voters do. A majority of Americans, despite being equally divided over whether the national culture has changed for the better, reject the policy manifestations of their latent fears.

Fear, it seems, isn’t as widespread as we might assume from the longevity of Trump’s insurgent campaign. Despite the fact that 57 percent of Americans agree that the values of Islam “are at odds with American values and way of life,” anxieties over terrorism “have not translated into public support for drastic policy measures,” as Dan Cox, PRRI’s research director, said in a statement accompanying the survey’s release. “Most Americans reject the idea that the U.S. should build a wall along the southern border or institute a ban on Muslim immigrants or Syrian refugees.”

A majority of Americans, despite being equally divided over whether the national culture has changed for the better, reject the policy manifestations of their latent fears.

That Trump’s proposals are unrepresentative of the general will isn’t surprising: According to PRRI’s data, most of the resentment regarding multiculturalism and demographic changes comes from white working-class Americans (62 percent) and white evangelical Protestants (70 percent), groups that have lost significant social and political power since the hegemony of post-war normalcy that was the 1950s, and groups that have largely flocked to Trump as a savior. There’s still a hint of isolationism running through the general populace — a majority of Americans (55 percent) believe “the American way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence,” according to PRRI — but these anxieties aren’t salient enough to translate into outright governmental xenophobia.

At the same time, this rejection of xenophobic policy jives with an overall global decline in religious restrictions despite the increasing prevalence of Islamic terrorism in the West. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, government restrictions on religion on both the national and local level declined between 2013 and 2014; high levels of restrictions were present in 34 percent of countries in 2014, down from 43 percent in 2012. This came despite a jump in the number of countries experiencing religion-related terrorism, from 73 incidents in 2013 to 82 in 2014, many of them involving groups such as Boko Haram or the Islamic State.

Similarly, “social hostilities” involving religion — hate crimes, mob violence, and the like — all declined during the same period. While it’s worth noting that this data precedes the dual ISIS attacks in Paris and ISIS-inspired massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando, it points to a general trend: Despite the rise in terrorism, many countries are declining to isolate themselves from the rest of our global society.

This doesn’t mean we’ve entered an age of openness when it comes to the average citizen. According to PRRI, Americans are evenly split on whether “reverse discrimination” against whites by ethnic minorities is a big problem; they’re also split over “how comfortable they feel around immigrants who do not speak English.”

These feelings are particularly pronounced, naturally, among white Americans, who remain convinced that discrimination against whites is a huge problem (57 percent, with 66 percent of working-class whites), and that America “is no longer a Christian nation” (59 percent among white evangelical Protestants, up from 48 percent in 2012), as if it ever truly was.

But the saddest element of this is that white Americans are still frustratingly prejudiced — and, even worse, they remain blind to their own prejudices, a trend especially pronounced in changing views on race in inequality. In a recent Pew survey of 3,769 American adults, only 53 percent of whites said the country has “work to do” in establishing equal rights for African Americans, far below the overwhelming majority of blacks (88 percent). Similarly, some 43 percent of blacks are skeptical these changes will ever actually happen, compared to just 11 percent of whites.

While widespread protests over the police shootings of unarmed African-American men in 2015 helped change the views of whites regarding the treatment of blacks by law enforcement, the white view of structural racism remains exhaustingly naive. That Americans are articulating an innate rejection of xenophobic policy at the ballot box is a good thing, but the refusal to do so in their personal lives remains an obstacle to eradicating fear and prejudice.

As Owen Matthews writes for Newsweek, last week’s historic Brexit vote is “just the latest and clearest manifestation of the populism and nativism that’s uniting the have-nots of Europe and America against the political establishment,” the United Kingdom being the “first victim of this political primal scream from the disenfranchised.”

But while Trump and his cohorts may raise concerns about right-wing extremism spreading to the U.S., the PRRI and Pew data suggests that the entire electorate isn’t totally defenseless against the paranoia and fear of authoritarian politicians.