Opinion – The Bugbear of Immigration

by Richard McMaster

Immigration provided the wedge issue that right-wing parties in Europe and the United States had been seeking to win over older voters and poorer voters, neatly combining the desire for cultural continuity with anxieties about competition in the labor market.  This coalition of affluent old people and poorer white voters contributed significantly to the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and to the majority Leave vote in the Brexit referendum in Great Britain the same year.  It has also been a potent force in electing right-wing governments in France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, and Turkey.

Nostalgia and employment insecurity can be a winning combination but voters have short attention spans. Unfamiliar black and brown faces in the neighborhood or among job applicants won’t be enough to keep them focused from election to election. Immigration has to be seen as the constant threat of barbarians raping and pillaging their way across our green and pleasant land.  We need to secure our borders, build impenetrable walls, post military units to support border patrols.  Viktor Orban was the first, militarizing the borders of Hungary to save “Christian civilization” from the Syrian war refugees passing through the country on their way to Germany and Sweden. Donald Trump followed his lead branding caravans of women and children a national security threat and dispatching troops to face the invading rapists, murderers and drug traffickers. Threats to national security justify extreme measures, like deliberately separating children from their asylum-seeking parents or making it a crime to rescue African migrants from drowning as Italy’s Mateo Salvini has done.

Since these national leaders all claim to be speaking for the true people of their country and acting on their behalf, the immigration threat provides an easy way to identify “the real Americans,” “the real French people,” or “the real Poles.”  Depending on the country, if you are not Muslim or Jewish, North African or Black or Brown, you can breathe easily, you’re probably one of us.  Besides ethnicity or religion, as we’ve seen with Trump people who disagree with us, socialists, social democrats, left-wingers all, can no longer be considered as part of “the real people” of our nation.

Immigration policy is the wedge issue on which right-wing governments from Washington to Warsaw consolidate their hold on power.  What they do with it follows a common pattern.  They all share a drive towards one-man rule.  Just as Trump discovers a national emergency to justify every executive order, so do other right-wing prime ministers and presidents who prefer governing by decree rather than deal with their elected parliament.  The corollary, of course, is a positive effort to reduce the role of the US Congress or European parliaments in governance to a rubber stamp.  We see Congressional prerogatives from trade to war powers ignored every day.  In France Emmanuel Macron was elected as a centrist, but by suppressing parliamentary debate on major reforms in favor of passing laws by decree he diminished the power of the legislature. Other countries follow the same pattern.  Even in Britain, the Mother of Parliaments, Prime Minister in waiting Boris Johnson is prepared to prorogue Parliament to allow for a No-deal Brexit no one wants.

The authority of the judiciary is deliberately eroded.  Even a decision by the US Supreme Court about a citizenship question on the 2020 census is brushed aside as a scrap of paper as the administration moves forward with plans to include it.  Here, as in France and Italy, the independence of the lower courts is steadily undermined.

The preeminence of the nation’s leader has invariably meant that the cabinet is reduced to a set of yes-men, hired and fired according to their level of sycophancy. At the same time family members and business partners are given responsibility in important, frequently lucrative, policy areas.  National policy frequently depends on the leader’s whim. Orban’s vendetta against George Soros led to continuing efforts to destroy Central European University in Budapest and identify academics at other Hungarian universities as agents of a foreign power.

What do these right-wing governments actually want to achieve?  The answer is simple.  From one capital to another they all agree on massive tax cuts for the wealthy, a flat tax on income from capital, eliminating legal restrictions on corporate power and subsidizing favored industries such as coal and oil, doing away with any form of tax-supported health care, reducing old-age pensions.  Thanks to the bugbear of immigration older and poorer voters will support them.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Gainesville Sun on July 2019

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