With the activity surrounding last Friday’s immigration directive from President Trump, one thing has become clear: he is hell-bent on using constructed fear as a tool to guide policy choices. Framing refugees as threats is a political choice not based in reality. No one denies that there are violent extremists, but even the smallest amount of research shows that this threat is overblown. When it becomes clear that more people in the U.S. are killed by armed toddlers than religious extremists, it’s impossible to look at this ban’s targets as anything other than arbitrary, people that are easy to paint in a negative light by pointing to a handful of cases. Scapegoat politics has a tremendously negative effect on the people or idea chosen to be the enemy, but the larger and more consistent danger are the continued effects of scapegoat politics on our political priorities and discourse.
Trump isn’t the first to create an enemy and then use his agenda as a purported response to these enemies, but these are some of the worst times the United States has experienced. Fear has worked to mobilize people for decades, from the anti-anarchist and anti-socialism movements in the early 1900’s to McCarthyism and opposition to the Civil Rights Movements in the 1950’s, onto anti-LGBT rhetoric in more recent times. The most obvious use of this tactic was the Holocaust, but the size and scope of that event is so large and impactful that it may not serve to compare smaller scapegoating events to it, lest we get accused of calling anyone Nazis (even though logical people can and have been connecting the dots between current happenings here and the rise of Nazi ideology in Germany). Closing our borders is the most recent in a long list of blaming others for our problems, and rather than looking at history or facts our leaders continue to insist that all of our ills come from people that are different than us. Blaming refugees and Muslims as a whole for terrorists discounts immensely what actually gave rise to extremism, and allows us to wash our hands clean of our history in the Middle East. Just as terrorism was a perfect reason for invading Iraq despite our previous monetary support for them in the Iran-Iraq war, insisting that Islam itself is the reason for extremism doesn’t force us to look at how colonialism and U.S. interference created reason for disliking the United States. This also fails to assert the obvious- extremists represent a mere blip in the population of Muslims.
Choosing who and what to blame is the equivalent of saying your lung cancer came from a few times handling asbestos when you’ve been a pack-a-day smoker your whole life. This country continues to use this logic when dealing with issues, and there’s no clear sign that things are changing. When it comes to the economy, we have no small number of scapegoats: China takes our jobs, immigrants take our jobs, and environmentalism stifles business. Your tax dollars are being wasted away frivolously by people on social safety-net programs, not by providing corporate welfare. Drug problems? Build a wall, because this is clearly the fault of Mexicans, rather than outdated drug policy and doctors turning into opiate mills. Crime is rising? Again, it must be those “bad hombres” coming across the border, rather than a lack of economic opportunity for our citizens. Black communities are blamed for police brutality, by insisting that they harbor the most crime and violence as if it were a choice, and by framing it as if the police have no other way to react. All discussion on abortion centers on women, when someone with even a basic knowledge of the human body knows that behind every pregnant woman is a man who helped get her into that mess. But do we ever push for men to be safer and more responsible? Do we ever blame men for getting these women pregnant? Of course we don’t. That isn’t how scapegoat politics work.
If you take any disenfranchised group, anyone with limited political, economic, and social power, and look at their history, they’ve certainly been used as a scapegoat at some point. Because these groups have a difficult time finding allies and power, their lack of clout leaves them defenseless as they’re used as excuses to usher in exceedingly Draconian policy. As long as we continue to allow ourselves to react to fear, we will continue to further marginalize people we can lay blame on, and the longer we will abstain from creating policies that work by addressing real issues. The longer we aren’t proactive in our policymaking, and the longer we take to serve as allies, the worse this situation is going to become. We need to prioritize what we want to respond to, and these priorities need to be based in actual threats, not imagined scapegoats.
As the White House blames media for exposing their own rhetoric, as the Affordable Care Act gets blamed for rising healthcare costs, and as anyone without lily-white skin gets blamed for economic downturns and violence, there must be truth spoken to power. We cannot continue to accept the enemies that we are given. Our response to these attacks on marginalized people needs to be about more than protecting these groups, however, as that isn’t enough to keep it from happening again to the next chosen scapegoat. We need to go full steam ahead to make sure this stops happening. We need a cultural shift away from knee-jerk reactions out of fear. No one is coming for your family, your guns, your religion, or your job. What has been made exceedingly clear is that people are coming for your civil rights, your healthcare, your freedom of the press, and your fact-based reality, and they aren’t coming from Syria to take them. The threat isn’t on a boat crossing the Mediterranean or detained at JFK. The threat is already here.