The deep story of anti-immigrant xenophobia

Right-wing populist anger stems from a sense of a betrayed promise in the midst of a new gilded age
Photo: Sonoran Desert. By Sean.
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It takes just seconds for the U.S. Border Patrol agent to commit an atrocity.

She has almost certainly done this before. There is no pause of hesitancy or doubt, not even a break in stride when she kicks over the jugs of water and then smiles as they spill over parched stone. The water (along with a hidden camera to capture it all) had been left behind by humanitarian aid group No More Deaths so that migrants crossing the Arizona desert might find it and live.

Imagine yourself — desperate enough to have chanced a journey through a perilous, arid expanse, fortunate enough to have survived it so far — coming upon the calculated wreckage of the kindness that could have saved you. One migrant who has seen such things notes how he felt “helplessness, rage.” The U.S. Border Patrol “must hate us,” he concluded. “It’s hate is what it is. They break the bottles out of hate.”

Given America’s obstinate advance towards dystopia, it should come as no surprise that the Border Patrol agents who stomp and slash water jugs, confiscate caches of blankets and food, and perfect the desert’s lethality do not go on trial for these acts of hate. Instead, those who offer aid to migrants narrowly escape upwards of two decades in prison for their acts of compassion.

The violence of borders

What’s been happening in the southern U.S. reminds us that the global border regime is now increasingly marked by callousness and contempt of a deadly sort.

According to the International Organization for Migration, 2014–2018 saw 30,958 recorded migrant deaths at state borders or along common migration routes worldwide (17,918, or almost 60 per cent, of them in the Mediterranean). At the time of writing, 1,055 had been added this year. Numbers like these are why borders are seen as a form of structural violence, a violence inherent in the way a system is set up to work.

Much of its basis is factually incorrect, but facts don’t sustain deep stories.

Increases in surveillance, militarization, walls, fences, tolerance of vigilantism, and other technologies of border governance work, like physics, a sure and inevitable reaction: they redirect migrants away from the easiest and safest routes towards the more treacherous and fatal. This is because borders do nothing to ease the forces that impel migration from deadly warzones, authoritarian regimes, destitute slums, and dying ecosystems.

At the end of 2018, 70.8 million people were displaced by conflict, violence, persecution, or human rights violations — 1 in every 108 people on earth. It is the highest figure ever recorded. And this century has still to see climate change driving migration at full force.

We stand at a moment when we need to promote more humane and just systems of mobility, what sociologist Mimi Sheller calls “mobility justice.” But before that can happen, we will need to answer a question. What is the underlying source of the contempt sustaining the politics behind today’s violent borders?

Betrayal and the deep story

The last few years have seen a number of works zero in on an explanation for right-wing populist anger: the generalized sense of a betrayed promise in the midst of a new gilded age.

The political ramifications of this perceived betrayal are most clearly seen in sociologist Arlie Hochschild’s modern classic Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. Completing her half-decade study of Tea Party Republicans in Louisiana just as Trump began his ascent, Hochschild comes to understand that a powerful story animates the right’s anger towards the shibboleths of political correctness, wealth redistribution, environmental regulation, and immigration.

It’s why, angry enough at the perceived line cutters, you might even take delight in destroying jugs of water or find purpose in joining border vigilante groups.

In this story, related by Hochschild via analogy, they feel like they are standing under a hot sun in the middle of a long line that extends up a hill, somewhere beyond which is the promise of the American Dream. They may wish well for those behind them but have no desire to offer them their place in line. After all, they’ve done (and, being mostly straight, white, patriotic Christians, are) all the right things according to the traditions they believe made their country great. They’ve worked long hours over long years, sacrificed much, and worshipped devoutly. They deserve their place in line. Except, that line appears to be moving backwards. People are cutting in up ahead: minorities, women, the poor, the indolent, immigrants, refugees — even animals. And Democrats with their preferential hiring, welfare, environmental, and naturalization programs are helping them to do it, while liberals silence, oppress, or denigrate anyone who speaks out against it.

Hochschild calls this the contemporary American right’s “deep story.” Much of its basis is factually incorrect, but facts don’t sustain deep stories. Emotions do. According to Hochschild, these are “feels as if” stories, and in this case it is one that tries to make sense, however misguided, of the lived, emotional experience of arrested life prospects under neoliberalism.

That deep story has globalized and even infiltrated Canadian politics. Consider how one member of a group monitoring Yellow Vest Canada online activity describes people in the xenophobic movement:

They feel ignored. They feel put upon. They feel oppressed. Not only for being westerners, but they feel oppressed because they're white. [...] They feel like, ‘Well, you know, my right to free speech was taken away because of M-103 [Parliament’s anti-Islamophobia motion]. And the refugees just walk across the border, and they make more money than I do.’ So, they have all of these ideas that are completely not based in reality, but they really believe in it. And they find these [news] sources and these echo-chambers that will reinforce their belief to the point where they actually become radicalized.

Other stories

That radicalization, whether into western chauvinism or white nationalism, too frequently culminating in brutal paroxysms of racist violence, is the most prominent, if warped, manifestation of this deep story.

But its most powerful is something paradoxically more mundane: the simple eagerness of millions to tolerate demagoguery in order to get the line moving again and throw the line cutters back to the end where they belong. After all, if your deep story is like the one above, it’s little wonder that Fox News, the Tea Party, and eventually Donald Trump and Yellow Vests Canada would begin to speak to you. It’s why, angry enough at the perceived line cutters, you might even take delight in destroying jugs of water or find purpose in joining border vigilante groups.

As long as that story permeates a significant part of the ideological spectrum, as long as it feels like a valid explanation for frustrated life chances, there will remain a mass large enough to vote for parties that resist a more borderless world.

As one leftist said to Hochschild after reading her book, “These should be people we’re fighting for, not fighting against.” It’s a reminder that winning progressive programs, such as a Green New Deal, not only restore good work to an abandoned and angry working class but also dissolve the anger that has been turned against migrants.

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