The rise of Donald J. Trump’s support among a certain segment of American voters is somewhat similar to the surge of support for al-Qaeda and the Islamic State among Muslims worldwide.
In both cases, we can identify tribalists and globalists aligned against each other. As political theorist Benjamin Barber argues, the past half-century has seen the collision between two forces: one, an integrative modernization and aggressive economic and cultural globalization, and the other, a kind of tribalism and reactionary fundamentalism.
Jihadists and Globalization
For their part, Jihadists fear and hate globalization, blaming it for eroding cultural traditions and norms in the Muslim world. They hearken with reverence to a time when religious leaders of an Islamic caliphate were the political rulers of a huge swath of territory, and the traditional dominance of men in the home was unquestioned. They fear and loathe the increasing influence of Western pop culture and commercial markets fueled by the forces of globalization.
As Barber describes, they detest modernity – the secular, scientific, rational, and commercial civilization created by the Enlightenment as it is defined by both its virtues (freedom, democracy, tolerance, diversity) and its vices (inequality, hegemony, cultural imperialism, materialism).
Overall, the jihadists’ goal of establishing an Islamist caliphate is characterized as an imagined utopia, one in which the forces of globalism no longer threaten the sanctity of their tribe (whom they describe as the devout, the truly pious and faithful who eschew man-made laws and adhere only to God’s will).
Meanwhile, the white nationalists in America who applaud Trump with such fervor today also fear and hate globalism. Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and others have exhorted their ideologically-aligned comrades to use the label “globalist” as an epithet, meant to degrade and discredit anyone who was not suitably on board with the white nationalist agenda.
Like the Jihadists, these people also prefer an imagined utopia, one in which the forces of globalism no longer threaten the sanctity of their (white supremacist) tribe. They believe that America was founded by white men (many of whom owned black slaves), and therefore, the power of white men over all others must be maintained and defended at all costs. Further, in their eyes, anyone who rejects this narrative is not truly American.
Thus, when the U.S. president refers to the right-wing extremists as “good people” in August 2017 following a violent attack by one of their members in Charlottesville; refuses to condemn white supremacist attacks against minorities; dehumanizes immigrants from Mexico and other countries; and uses his official Twitter account to say things like:
So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run. Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. (July 14, 2019)
(even though three of the four women his message targeted were born in the U.S.), he is essentially providing much-needed oxygen to the fire of tribalism.
From a comparative perspective, there is little difference between this and the ways in which Abu al-Baghdadi, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, and many other jihadists have stoked the fires of tribalism among disenchanted Muslims around the world.
Tribalism and Violence
When we see this sort of comparative similarity, it is difficult not to acknowledge the security implications of both. Tribalism – the collection of values, beliefs, and longings described above – has fueled a significant rise in violent attacks by true jihadist believers over the past four decades.
Whether or not this wave of terrorism is declining is still up for debate. But it is likely that the increase of white nationalist-motivated violence in America over the past several years may foreshadow a new wave of terrorism building, again linked to tribalist sentiments, but of a different kind.
The violence is in both cases reactionary in nature, as the perpetrators are reacting to what they feel threatened by: globalization. This is not to excuse it, of course, only to point out that when we feel threatened by forces beyond our control, negative emotions of frustration, fear, and anger are natural and to be expected.
And, as revealed by decades of research on the psychology of terrorism, these kinds of emotions lead directly to the kind of violent extremism that we should anticipate in the years ahead – particularly if Trump loses his re-election bid in 2020.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.