Republican Xenophobia

The attacks in Paris and terrorism abroad have led many Republicans to make bigoted comments and continue to push for xenophobic policies. Trump is not alone; many people share his prejudice. If Republicans believe that they can convince the American electorate of the “merits” of their xenophobic policies, they will be quick to learn: They can’t and they won’t.
With regard to the ISIS attack on Paris, Donald Trump spoke out in fury against President Obama’s decision to allow Syrian refugees to immigrate to the United States over the next few years. Trump said, “We have no idea who these people are … this could be one of the great Trojan horses” (implying that the Syrian refugees are potential terrorists in disguise). Trump didn’t stop there.He went on to say, “Our country has tremendous problems. We can’t have another problem.”

This isn’t Trump’s first outrageous comment on immigration. As we all know, he proclaimed Mexican immigrants to be “murderers” and “rapists.” One would expect that after such remarks Trump’s poll numbers would immediately dive and any hope of a presidential run would be history. Instead, Trump has become the political phenomenon of the decade. His xenophobic remarks have propelled his poll numbers through the roof. What this highlights is a shockingly clear ethnocentric sentiment within the Republican Party.

Some will say that Trump (one of the leading Republican presidential candidates), does not represent the Republican dogma, that his remarks reflect only his own agenda and not his party’s. His popularity, however, seems to say otherwise. Whenever Trump makes a hideously outrageous or insensitive comment his poll numbers shoot sky-high. You need not look further than recent statements he has made to confirm this correlation: He has argued that mosques should be placed under surveillance or that Obama is (still?) a closeted Muslim, and that Black Lives Matter protesters deserve to be “roughed up.” Yet none of these outrageous statements has made a dent in his poll numbers.

Trump’s immigration comments struck a Republican nerve, a sentiment shared by a large proportion of the Republican base that is outright tired of what they see as “political correctness.” Perhaps this helps explain Trump’s unlikely success. Instead of implicitly expressing his prejudice (as many candidates have), he makes no attempt to hide it — and somehow is celebrated for doing this.

Ben Carson, the same man who stated that being gay is a choice because “a lot of people … go into prison straight — and when they come out, they’re gay,” also later argued that the U.S. should never elect a Muslim president. Jeb Bush stated that “anchor babies” is an appropriate term for children born in the U.S. to undocumented mothers. Chris Christie advocated having individuals on visas monitored using a “Fed-Ex style tracking device,” suggesting immigrants are more akin to packages than human beings.

While it’s true that Democrats are not immune from making ethnocentric remarks — let’s not forget how Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O’Malley once responded to a crowd chanting “Black lives matter” by saying, “All lives matter” — the xenophobia is overwhelmingly displayed on the Republican side of the aisle. Currently, 31 U.S. governors have stated that they will refuse any Syrian refugees. Not surprisingly, 30 out of 31 of those governors are Republicans. In this respect, I believe the GOP is on the wrong side of history. 

How do you explain to the party that attempts to treat the LGBTQ community as second-class citizens, that gay or transgender individuals are an integral part of our nation’s prosperity? How do you explain to the party of anti-immigrant sentiment and of fervent opposition to the Fourteenth Amendment that America was founded by immigrants and continues to be positively molded by them? How do you explain to a party that considers the Muslim faith as equal to terrorism, that a Muslim citizen is equivalent, in the eyes of the United States Constitution, and in all other relevant aspects, to a Christian citizen? Hiding behind ideology does not excuse bigotry. To state that Syrian refugees, many of whom are widows and orphans, are potential terrorist threats is the epitome of xenophobia and, ultimately, of misplaced fear. But from where does this xenophobia stem?

There are, as it turns out, scientific explanations behind such irrational human behavior. Carlos David Navarettte of the Association of Psychological Science explains xenophobia as having evolutionary roots. Evolutionarily speaking, we grew to form “in-groups” and “out-groups” in order to increase the likelihood of survival. In a news release written for Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Barbara Isanski wrote: “It’s known that people are more fearful of ‘out-groups’ — that is, people who are different from them, and this fear of ‘the other’ has been clearly demonstrated with race.” In fact, there has been increasing attention in psychological research given to unconscious racism.

One of the more shocking studies on the matter, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, was titled “The Police Officer’s Dilemma: Using Ethnicity to Disambiguate Potentially Threatening Individuals” (Correll et. al. 2002). In the study, Denver police officers were shown several images of white and black college-aged males, some holding a deadly weapon (like a gun), others holding a non-deadly weapon (like a wallet) and were given less than a second to press a “shoot” button or a “don’t shoot” button. The study found that more often than not, the black male holding a wallet was “shot” in the study while the white male holding a gun was not. The study was a reminder that racism comes in many forms: conscious AND unconscious. This is undoubtedly an uncomfortable truth.

These findings, however, are no justification for bigotry. Quite the opposite. They should motivate us to work towards achieving awareness of these internal prejudices and on educating ourselves against our more primal inclinations. Awareness and education are the keys to eradicating systemic xenophobia, and they can be the cure to the Republican malaise as well.

This is as relevant here at Amherst, where awareness and education of minority sentiment are gradually progressing, as they are in the political world. There is no longer room for ethnocentrism. To the Republican presidential candidates: We should come to expect more from those who seek the highest office in the land. If you wish to become the most powerful person in the world, you must first prove that you are worthy of that power and worthy of emulation as a role model. Thus far, your explicit xenophobia has stood in the way. The American people are watching. The time to change is now.