A specter is haunting America—the specter of change. Hispanics make up 17 percent of the nation’s population. The largest share of recent immigrants to the United States is Asian. Fifteen percent of all newlyweds are interracial couples. Same-sex marriage has become legal in all 50 states. Eight years ago, the country elected its first black president. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is now cochaired by a Muslim and a Latino.
Change is never easy; it is the result of years of toil and patience and sacrifice. But as inspiring as change can be for many, it can be terrifying for some.
So it is not a coincidence that a reality-TV star and real-estate billionaire—who questions the validity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate, promises to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, retweets neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, thinks women who get abortions should be punished, wants to ban Muslims from entering the country, threatens journalists, and throws out protesters from his rallies—has become the presumptive nominee of a major political party.
A similar fear has gripped Europe. France’s National Front earned a record 6 million votes in the first round of regional elections held last December. The far-right nationalist party Sweden Democrats now holds 14 percent of the seats in the Swedish Parliament; this clout recently helped it force a budget crisis. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, once an atheist, now asserts that “Europe and European identity have Christian roots.”
We are told that this xenophobic trend, this anguish about national identity, this insistence on Christianity in societies that are supposed to be secular and democratic, is really a response to economic grievances, including the effect of the global recession on jobs and opportunities; falling incomes for workers, even as corporations enjoy tax breaks; and the corruption of political elites. But economic grievances alone do not explain the trend even in places that have been spared the worst of the recession. After German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed to provide safe haven for refugees in her country, the far-right Alternative for Germany party has climbed in the polls. One of its leaders is Frauke Petry, who says that “the singularity of German guilt [over its Nazi past] has stood too often in the forefront.” In Denmark, new laws were passed to allow police to confiscate jewelry and cash from refugees and to prosecute anyone giving them a ride.