An American identity of fear-mongering

JUSTIN KERR SHECKLER [(CC BY 2.0)] / FLICKR

Our political environment is ripe with fear and laziness

At a recent rally in Texas, Trump declared himself a “nationalist,” embracing the title while ridiculing globalism, much to the pleasure of his supporters.

“You know what I am; I’m a nationalist. Use that word.”

Being an American and being a nationalist are not the same thing, and this rhetoric implies division beyond politics. The scope of polarization has reached the word “American,” muddling its meaning. Now we can add one more divisive issue onto the list: what it means to be an American.

American identity has varying interpretations. A survey conducted by The Associated Press – NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that Republicans are far more likely to cite a culture grounded in Christian beliefs and the traditions of early European immigrants as essential to American identity. Democrats, on the other hand, are more likely to cite the United States’ history of diversity and tradition of offering refuge as central to that idea. Regardless of party affiliation, 70 percent of respondents said the country is losing that identity. Although we can’t agree on what makes us American, most would seemingly say that we’re losing the essence of our American identity.

These definitions of “American” are directly traceable to the answers cited when respondents were asked what they considered to be the greatest threat to the American way of life. Democrats cited the country’s political leaders, political polarization and economic inequality. Republicans cited illegal immigration. By fearing the impact of certain immigrant populations, Republicans seem to value the more traditional European concepts of culture –– like Christianity –– as central to the American identity.

The fears of Democrats and Republicans are geared toward fulfilling and maintaining that identity, which is why Trump’s rhetoric, and the subsequent violence we’ve observed in the past weeks, is cause for concern.

Both sides’ fears and distinct American identities only seem to be aggravating polarization. You cannot have a diverse nation if half the population views immigrants as posing the greatest threat to American life. Similarly, you cannot have a homogenous nation if the other half sees diversity as being quintessential to American identity.

These differences aren’t derived from the current political climate –– rather, they are exacerbated by it. While Republican fears and subsequent support for anti-immigration policies are misplaced, we should not discount how our transitioning economy has resulted in millions feeling left behind. The decline of the American coal industry, for example, has severely impacted the working class, especially increasing unemployment within this industry. At a surface level view, it’s not difficult to determine why Republicans fear the result of immigration — they fear its capacity to diminish their means of livelihood. However, these fears would be quelled with the conduction of basic research. For example, studies show that immigrants don’t take Americans’ jobs. Fear-mongering politicians are intent on winning as opposed to being factually correct. Fear is an easily exploited emotion.

The most recent example of this exploitation can be seen in Trump’s reaction to the caravan of Central American migrants heading towards the U.S.-Mexico border. The caravan is thousands of miles away, and migrants are traveling on foot. They are fleeing their homelands due to the threat of violence, and false claims by the president regarding the size and ethnic makeup of the caravan is intended to instigate fears based in bigotry.

Which group of people poses more of a threat: those seeking refuge from violence or those who, upon being riled-up by a hatred of immigrants, kill 11 Jewish worshippers in a synagogue?  

Allowing politicians to control our fears affords them absolute power over policy once they’ve become acquainted with our qualms and desires; they can then exploit our emotions to the advantage of their political agenda. Perhaps our biggest issue, and the greatest threat to the American way of life, is mental laziness. We accept what is said as fact. We are drifting away from independent thought. We passively let our fears be exploited, and our country be divided, and then come to wonder why our identity feels as though it’s slipping away.

America has always been more than a people within a nation’s borders; America is a set of ideals, based principally in equality. We don’t have to search far for our identity. It’s in the second paragraph of the Constitution.  

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

 

Written by: Hanadi Jordan — hajordan@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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