Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with supporters following a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump meets with supporters following a campaign stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2015. AP PHOTO/NATI HARNIK

Opposing Political Views Emerge in Face of Real, Imagined Threats

In the U.S. and Europe, two factions duel on immigration, Muslims, and nation-building.

At home and abroad, polit­ics is in­creas­ingly re­volving around one fun­da­ment­al ques­tion: are na­tions more likely to achieve prosper­ity and se­cur­ity by build­ing bridges to the out­side world—or by erect­ing walls against it?

The di­lemma is play­ing out in the U.S. with the rise of Don­ald Trump. In Europe, it’s em­bod­ied by the gains of nat­iv­ist parties across the con­tin­ent (head­lined by the growth of the Na­tion­al Front led by Mar­ine Le Pen in France); and by the ref­er­en­dum ex­pec­ted next sum­mer in Great Bri­tain on with­draw­ing from the European Uni­on.  

Across these fronts, con­ser­vat­ive pop­u­lists ar­gue that they can re­store eco­nom­ic growth and pro­tect their home­lands by build­ing walls (both lit­er­al and meta­phor­ic) against a dan­ger­ous and du­pli­cit­ous world through policies to slash im­mig­ra­tion, more tightly mon­it­or do­mest­ic Muslim pop­u­la­tions, min­im­ize mil­it­ary en­gage­ment abroad, and re­verse the eco­nom­ic in­teg­ra­tion ad­vanced by free trade re­gimes like the European Uni­on and the re­cently com­pleted Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship.

These pop­u­lists prom­ise to re­store the primacy of voters, largely in the white work­ing class, who feel eco­nom­ic­ally mar­gin­al­ized and cul­tur­ally ec­lipsed—what Trump calls “the si­lent ma­jor­ity” and Le Pen terms “the for­got­ten people of the Re­pub­lic.” With ap­peals that range from the coded to the ex­pli­cit, they stoke those voters’ fears of be­ing ra­cially sub­merged in di­ver­si­fy­ing so­ci­et­ies. And they rage against “glob­al­ist” elites (in Le Pen’s phrase) who they ac­cuse of un­der­min­ing their na­tion’s eco­nom­ic and se­cur­ity in­terests.

On the oth­er side are the bridge-build­ers, from Pres­id­ent Obama and Hil­lary Clin­ton (on most days), to Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel and French Pres­id­ent Fran­coise Hol­land. With rare ex­cep­tions (such as Clin­ton’s likely tem­por­ary re­treat from the Pa­cific trade deal) the bridge-build­ers de­fend the free move­ment of products, ideas and people that has dom­in­ated for­eign policy across the At­lantic since World War II. They be­lieve trade ex­pands op­por­tun­ity, al­li­ances for­ti­fy de­fense, and im­mig­ra­tion re­ju­ven­ates oth­er­wise aging so­ci­et­ies.

The bridge-build­ers con­sider the eco­nom­ic and so­cial forces driv­ing great­er in­teg­ra­tion abroad and di­versity at home to be as ir­re­vers­ible as ocean tides. No so­ci­ety, they ar­gue, can wall off these in­teg­rat­ing forces. The only way to mas­ter them is for na­tions to join to­geth­er—to build bridges—to shape them. “We can’t stand on the beaches and stop the glob­al eco­nomy at our shores,” Obama said last spring. “We’ve got to har­ness it on our terms.”

These di­ver­gent per­spect­ives sep­ar­ate the two groups across a wide range of is­sues. While the wall-build­ers look to close do­mest­ic mar­kets against im­ports, the bridge-build­ers work to open for­eign mar­kets for ex­ports. Like­wise, while the wall-build­ers prom­ise great­er se­cur­ity through re­strict­ive sur­veil­lance of Muslims or ban­ning their im­mig­ra­tion, the bridge-build­ers seek great­er part­ner­ships with them to fight IS­IS in its Mideast strong­holds and up­root rad­ic­al­iz­a­tion at home. “We need every com­munity in­ves­ted in this fight, not ali­en­ated and sit­ting on the side­lines,” Clin­ton in­sisted earli­er this month.

The wall-build­ers have ob­tained power in only a few European coun­tries (most clearly in Po­land and Hun­gary). But from Trump to Le Pen, to Bri­tain’s “euro­skep­tics” and na­tion­al­ist parties from Sweden to the Neth­er­lands, they are vis­ibly gain­ing. Every­where their mix of nativ­ism, pro­tec­tion­ism and isol­a­tion­ism—the three in­gredi­ents that merge in­to a power­ful de­fens­ive na­tion­al­ism—draws the most sup­port from the same dis­af­fected voters. As­sess­ing opin­ion polls across Europe, the Eco­nom­ist re­cently con­cluded, “Sup­port for xeno­phobic pop­u­lism is strongest among those who are older, non-uni­versity-edu­cated, work­ing-class, white and male.”

Sim­il­arly, a re­cent sur­vey by Demo­crat­ic poll­ster Stan­ley Green­berg found that while Trump trailed Clin­ton over­all in a hy­po­thet­ic­al 2016 match­up, he drew 69 per­cent sup­port among white men without a col­lege edu­ca­tion—match­ing Ron­ald Re­agan’s tower­ing share in his 1984 land­slide. Re­cent sur­veys by the in­de­pend­ent Brit­ish polling firm YouGov have like­wise found that work­ing-class voters there are more likely than their middle-class coun­ter­parts to sup­port with­draw­ing from the European Uni­on and to op­pose ad­mit­ting more Syr­i­an refugees.

Three big factors are boost­ing the de­fens­ive na­tion­al­ists. One is stag­nat­ing liv­ing stand­ards, par­tic­u­larly for work­ers without ad­vanced edu­ca­tion: the U.S. me­di­an in­come is lower today than in 2000, and in most West­ern coun­tries, the rise in in­comes for av­er­age fam­il­ies has trailed na­tion­al eco­nom­ic growth since the 1990s. “Mil­lions of people feel worse off and less se­cure,” says YouGov Pres­id­ent Peter Kell­ner. Second is demo­graph­ic change: since 2000, in­creases in the for­eign-born pop­u­la­tion have ac­coun­ted for one-third of all pop­u­la­tion growth in the 34 in­dus­tri­al­ized na­tions be­long­ing to the Or­gan­iz­a­tion for Eco­nom­ic Co­oper­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment. The third is the fear of ter­ror­ism sparked first by the 9/11 at­tacks in the U.S. and now by IS­IS and the Syr­i­an refugee crisis.

Those trends all raise le­git­im­ate con­cerns. Dav­id Miliband, the former Brit­ish For­eign Sec­ret­ary and now pres­id­ent of the In­ter­na­tion­al Res­cue Com­mit­tee, which sup­ports refugees, says it’s not enough for the bridge-build­ers to show that the wall-build­ers’ in­su­lar solu­tions are typ­ic­ally im­prac­tic­al or coun­ter­pro­duct­ive. “The glob­al­ists need to be as angry about the in­equal­it­ies and in­sec­ur­it­ies of glob­al­iz­a­tion as the pop­u­lists, but more able to do something about the prob­lems, rather than just rail about them [as the pop­u­lists do],” Miliband says.

Miliband is right. On both sides of the At­lantic, the lead­ers de­fend­ing an open in­ter­na­tion­al or­der and in­clus­ive do­mest­ic so­ci­et­ies face grow­ing pres­sure to show their ap­proach can im­prove life for the frus­trated, of­ten fear­ful voters flock­ing to the de­fens­ive na­tion­al­ists. The in­su­lar pop­u­lists who would build walls are now banging on the gates.