The “Enemy” Complex of Populism in American Ethnic Politics and Its Implications to Trump’s Foreign Policy
Chin. Polit. Sci. Rev.
The ''Enemy'' Complex of Populism in American Ethnic Politics and Its Implications to Trump's Foreign Policy
Chuanxing Wang 0 1
0 School of Political Science and International Relations, Tongji University , Shanghai 200092 , China
1 & Chuanxing Wang
In the two types of American nationalism, while the culture-based nationalism finds its origins in the American settlerism tradition, the belief-based nationalism finds its roots in the American liberal tradition; while the former type of American nationalism can result in a closed and exclusive society, the later one an open and inclusive society. Hence, there is the ''enemy'' complex of American populism out of the culture-based American nationalism, which is especially embodied in the ethnic politics in the United States. Accordingly, the ''enemy'' complex embodied in the ethnic politics and beyond does have long lasting effects on Trump's policy in general and on his foreign policy in particular.
''Enemy'' complex of American populism; Ethnic Politics; Trump's Policy; American
Because of the return of populism after the financial crisis in 2008, the fact that
Donald Trump became their unwanted 45th president gave a shock to many
Americans, which brings populism in the lime light on America’s political stage. In
addition, it is necessary and worthwhile to find out the sources of American
populism as well as the link between the ‘‘enemy’’ complex of American populism
obviously embodied in the US ethnic politics and its effects on Trump’s policy.
2 Culture-Based Nationalism as the Origin of the ‘‘Enemy’’ Complex in American Populism
While it is not proper to exaggerate the influence of populism in American history, it
is not true that its influence is nothing to speak of. In addition, while the rise of the
left-wing American populism is because of the over-emphasis about individual
rights, the rise of the right-wing American populism is a response to the liberal
ascendance in history in the long time
. If talking about the origins of
American populism, it is better to start from the American democratic tradition and
its election system established after America became a newly independent nation
In this paper, the argument is that the recurrence of American populism actually
finds its root in the culture-based American nationalism; furthermore, America’s
culture-based nationalism is also responsible for the ‘‘enemy’’ complex of American
A broadly accepted view is that the foundation on which the American people’s
identity as well as the American nationalism is established because of American
people’s identifying with the liberal tradition
, known as the
beliefbased American nationalism. In addition, an alternative view is the culture-based
American nationalism with its root in the settlerism tradition.
It seems that people widely but wrongly presuppose that there is only one type of
nationalism, the belief-based nationalism, in the United States. This can be partially
attributed to the fact that America is such a nation, because Alexis de Tocqueville
ever argued that the United States presented a wholly novel experiment in modern
politics due to the lack of a landed aristocracy and the fact ‘‘ever since the birth of
the colonies’’ Americans enjoyed a condition of democratic equality
because Charles Edward Merriam noted that nobody wanted to challenge the
democratic objectives when American people are working with great efforts to
make the ideals of liberty, democracy, and equality realized
because Louis Hartz, the most unswerving defender of the American belief-based
nationalism in the 20th century, maintained that the United States has been gripped
by a ‘‘Lockean consensus’’ that deemphasized the importance of social questions of
class and focused instead on the protection of negative individual liberties such as
property rights and freedom of speech
; because scholars like Pei
Minxin, a Chinese American, once pointed out that the foundation of American
nationalism is its political ideal, rather than its superiority in culture or ethnicity (Pei
However, the whole story about American nationalism is that there is the other
side, just like the coin: the United States is also known of its culture-based
nationalism with its settlerism as its core content. From this perspective of
settlerism, Americans view the basic engine of Republican freedom to be conquest
and republican principles at root as not universally inclusive
Americans regard that the nation as an Anglo-Protestant settler society which has,
more than anything else, profoundly and lastingly shaped American culture,
institutions, historical development, and identity; and Americans regard that settlers
and immigrants differ fundamentally as while settlers leave an existing society,
usually in a group, to create a new community, a city on a hill, in a new and often
distant territory, immigrants, in contrast, do not create a new society
. Some Chinese scholars, including Shen Zongmei, Gao Jianguo, and Wang
Xi, also touch upon the topic of the culture-based American nationalism to an extent
(Shen 1992; Gao 1994; Wang 2000)
The culture-based American nationalism with its nature of exclusiveness can
easily find resonance in the ‘‘enemy’’ complex of American populism. To put it
bluntly, the need of an ‘‘enemy’’ in American populism satisfies with the
culturebased American nationalism owing to its emphasis on establishing the United States
as a closed and exclusive society. As Mark D. Brewer notes that if there is one thing
that appears to connect all of the elements
1 of American populism, it
is an enemy
. In other words, it is absolutely essential for American
populism to have something and/or someone to be against, often viscerally against
3 The Populist ‘‘Enemy’’ Complex in American Ethnic Politics
It is true that the history of ethnic politics is even longer than the history of the
United States as a nation. Hence, ‘‘(R)ace has been present at every critical moment
in American political development, shaping political institutions, political
discourse, public policy, and its denizens’ political identities’’
(Lowndes et al. 2008)
In addition, Race’s ‘‘reality’’, its deep-seated importance in American society in
structuring inequality and difference, is the product of political, economic, and
social forces, rather than biology or genetics
It is in this regard that the issue of ethnicity has always been with great
significances in American politics thanks to the fact of the United States as an
immigration nation. Americans have, in varying degrees, defined the substance of
their identity in terms of race, ethnicity, ideology, and culture; and Anglo-Protestant
culture has been central to American identity for three centuries
Therefore, the core issue in America’s ethnic politics is the national identification
1 First, populism paints a picture of ordinary Americans in conflict with societal elites. Whether the
ordinary people are truly ordinary or the elites are really elites matters little; perception is the crucial
matter here. This element also does not hold that average Americans have to rally themselves into a
populist fervor. Indeed one often finds that a member or members of the targeted elites are most
successful at activating and generating populist sentiment. Economic grievance is also critical to
American populism, although it seems that economic downturns in and of themselves are not enough to
spark an outpouring of populism. The economic complaints that lead to populism have to be seen as
having been purposely caused by a clearly identifiable group or groups. The economic harms in question
are seen as intentional. American populism fears large, centralized authority, particularly (but not
exclusively) the federal government. This element of American populism appears to have become much
more pronounced in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Populism in the American context is often of a
conspiratorial mind, tending to see nefarious intent and camouflaged threats around every corner.
Populists see themselves as uniquely able to discern these threats and centrally (if not solely) positioned
to defeat them. Intellectuals are often viewed negatively by American populists, as is change, especially
change presented as ‘‘progress.’’ Tradition and the status quo are valued and honored, in the overall goal
of maintaining a proper order of things.
which depends on the extent to which the Anglo-Protestant culture is identified
with, even though there is a pluralistic approach in America’s models of politics
. Identification is really of essence regarding its connection with each
individual’s interest in the society. Accordingly, the ethnic politics, even if differing
in contents with time going, has always been playing a very important in the studies
of American politics as the United States is a nation with huge immigrants of
diverse backgrounds in history.
Before WWII, immigrants into the United States always faced great pressure to
be Americanized, because their situation to be improved or not overwhelmingly
depended on whether they were reluctant regarding assimilation and integration in
the American society. However, with the realization in the improvement of the
ethnic minorities in their economic conditions, in their election rights, in their
employment, and loan owing to the post-WWII civil rights movement, such
pressure gradually kept decreasing. Meanwhile, the ethnic minorities were more
actively involved in local communities including political activities thanks to the
advancement in their economy, hence laying the foundation of the sub-culture
identification in the ethnic minorities. Simultaneously, it became a consensus
regarding the respect of multi-culture based on the American society, which helped
to promote the interaction and unity among different ethnic groups. The result is that
people within an ethnic group with the same sub-identity were more inclined to
unite as a force in political participation so as to achieve and maintain their ethnic
rights in the American society. The ethnic minorities began to gain significances in
elections with the increase of their share in the American population.
The ‘‘ghost’’ regarding the ‘‘enemy’’ complex of American populism thus has
been found wandering through American history, which has a close relevance to the
culture-based American nationalism, as mentioned above. This is why whenever
there is a challenge or a crisis in the American society, there is the most striking
embodiment of such ‘‘enemy’’ complex in ethnic politics in America.
In the settlerism tradition, both the ‘‘internal inclusiveness’’ and the ‘‘external
exclusiveness’’ indicate that, in essence, the borders of the United States simply
serve as the entrance into the country for the European immigrants in most time in
American history; accordingly, they were easier to be incorporated into the
American political community:
To sustain a project of Republican freedom and territorial conquest, the settlers
would necessarily need new migrants from the initial flow of English colonists. As a
result, they created remarkably open immigration policies for Europeans deemed
co-ethnics and thus co-participants in the Republican project. This meant that for
most of the American experience, the US border was essentially a port of entry for
European immigrants who were often quickly incorporated into the political
community, on one hand. ……. On the other hand, the territorial need for
immigrants checked the most xenophobic tendencies within settler society over the
course of the nineteenth society, by expanding the ethnic and religious categories
for who could count as American. On the other hand, it also hardened the divide
between social insiders and subordinated outsiders. Thus, while many new
European immigrants may have had immediate access to the conditions necessary
for free citizenship and equal political participation, Indians, blacks, or Mexicans
who had lived on the land were denied these basic rights
This is a political tradition established since the settlers’ age long before the
foundation of the United States as a nation; a tradition with various such cases in
history: separating the settlers enjoying the subjects’ rights equaling to the English
subjugates from the ‘‘uncivilized’’ aborigines, excluding the blacks to have the
rights listed in the first Ten Amendments in the US Constitution, differing the ‘‘first
comers’’ from the ‘‘later comers’’ regarding the political rights based on the
properties they owned, approving the Chinese Exclusion Act on May 6, 1882 in the
47th US Congress.
Specifically, historians argued that, in the case known as the additional Electoral
College votes for the South based on the ‘‘slave power’’, both Thomas Jefferson as
well as his Virginian compatriots James Madison and James Monroe actually
benefited in such ‘‘slave power’’ regarding their gaining the job in the White House
. Another case is Andrew Jackson’s requiring the Congress for
legislation, known as the ‘‘Indian Migration Act’’, which was applauded by the
majority of those with ethnically European background; such legislation would
empower the federal government to remove all eastern Indians to a ‘‘district West of
the Mississippi, and without the limits of any State or Territory, now formed, to be
guaranteed to the Indian tribes as long as they shall occupy it’’
(Young and Meiserr
, which resulted in the horrible price for the Indians to pay for the ‘‘Long,
Bitter Trail’’ in decades. The anti-democratic racist elements could also be found in
the cases from the Grange Movement to the Populist Movement in the late 19th
century, because the populists in both the two Movements did attribute their
economic difficulties to those with money influence plotting against them, and did
repel the Jews as well as the non-Anglo-Saxons (Zujie 2009). Furthermore, as most
people in the Populist Movement were from the Midwest and the South in America,
they hold the view of bottom-up reform on one hand, but on the other hand, there
was no room for certain ethnic groups in the ‘‘low classes’’ in their mind, for
example, they strongly opposed the idea that ‘‘the blacks were entitled to the equal
social and political rights’’
. A similar case happened in the late 19th
century when the Catholics from South Europe and the Jews from Central Europe,
though in different ways, fiercely resisted the ‘‘racialization’’; they were prevented
from joining into mainstream communities
. In the 20th century, the
first influential populist movement was known as ‘‘Share Our Wealth’’ led by Huey
Pierce Long in the 1930s
. Long seemed inclined to give a hand
to the blacks out of their economic woes, but his calculation to ally with the blacks
was tactically to gain their votes; hence, his condemned the supremacy only when
Ku Klux Klan was on the waning (Jingyi 2011). The right-wing populist George
Wallace in the 1960s even posited that the Congress make more laws targeting at
the ‘‘black idlers’’ to get rid of their social welfares; and as a leader in the South, he
was a stubborn supporter of the Segregation policy which was against the Civil
Movement in the Republic; Wallace even denounced blacks, student radicals, and
‘‘permissive, pointy-headed intellectuals’’ by arguing that the Vietnam war could be
won if the military were given a free hand
. In addition, Ross
Perot, a third party populist candidate in 1992, substantially drew a clear line
between ‘‘we’’ the white and ‘‘you’’ the black on one hand, and he had strong
scruples about the flooding Hispanics into America on the other hand, just like what
Pat J. Buchanan worried
. Similarly, Samuel P. Huntington also
had such worries concerning the identity of the American people. He wrote, ‘‘ethnic,
racial, and gender identities came to the fore. In contrast to their predecessors, many
immigrants were ampersands, maintaining dual loyalties and dual citizenships. A
massive Hispanic influx raised questions concerning America’s linguistic and
. Huntington was not a populist himself, but he
was a culture-based American nationalist regarding his worries about the American
identity, about the fundamental change in the ethnic composition in America’s
population. The emerging American populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex hence gains its
momentum and finds its intellectual foundation in Huntington’s theory, which
indicates the return of the culture-based American nationalism.
Consequently, the United States began to more severely control its immigrants in
general, and its immigrants from Latin America and Asia in particular, which was
embodied in The Immigration Act of 1990. Subsequently, to safeguard its southern
borders, various ‘‘operations’’ were adopted, ranging from Texas’ Operation
Holdthe-Line which was expanded into New Mexico later, San Diego’s (in California)
Operation Gatekeeper, Arizona’s Operation Safeguard, to East Texas’ Operation
4 The Implications of the Populist ‘‘Enemy’’ Complex in American
Ethnic Politics to Trump’s Foreign Policy
Rather than a unique case in American history, we had better regard the rise of
populism after 2008 as a return. Populism in American history can be various, but
they do have a commonality in nature, the exclusiveness out of the culture-based
American nationalism, which is typically exemplified in Trump’s populism.
Accordingly, we will have a discussion about the impact of the populist ‘‘enemy’’
complex in American ethnic politics on Trump’s foreign policy and beyond.
It is argued that sources of this new populism include economic stasis,
demographic change, ill effects of globalization, technological progress, and deficit
. Besides, the fact is that the immigration issue as an
origin of populism is deeply involved in America’s ethnic politics, because the
ethnic composition of the population in America is under fundamental change
[Form 1 (Table 1); Form 2 (Table 2)] since the Immigration and Nationality Act
Amendments of 1965 was approved, which resulted in the immigrant influx,
especially in the last decade. The grassroots whites, once the majority in America’s
population and enjoying their advantages, are thus increasingly agitated and begin
to embrace populism. The rise of populism at this moment is closely connected with
their worries about losing the American identity that they ever owned, which is
accompanied by the increasing sentiment of the populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex finding
its root in the culture-based American nationalism and targeting at the ethnic
minorities and immigrants, especially the Latinos.
In this regard, Donald Trump should offer his thanks to his immediate and smart
responses to the grassroots whites for their support in the presidential campaign.
Yet, populism in the Trump era could be substantially different from what was
witnessed in American history, such as in the Andrew Jackson era, owing to the fact
that there are differences in both the international environment in which the United
States is involved and the ethnic composition in its population. With the evolution
of the two types of American nationalism in the past over 200 years, regarding their
respective effects on the American society, the populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex out of
the culture-based American nationalism is increasingly balanced because of the
inclusiveness in the ascending belief-based American nationalism. The implication
is that Trump’s policy (making), domestically or internationally, will be doomed to
be torn apart because of these two counteractive forces if Trump’s policy (making)
is observed in particular from the ethnic political perspective based on the American
populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex with two different but interrelated dimensions.
4.1 Dimension One
The populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex does have effects on Trump’s policies, because its
target is on the specific ethnic group(s). It is worthwhile here to have a mention of
Trump’s several policy (making) issues, including the executive orders signed by
President Trump, popularly known as the Trump’s executive order to build a wall
along the border with Mexico on January 25, 2017, Trump’s first executive order
(Executive Order 13769) banning the targeted Muslims into America on February
The wall building order is mired in difficulties regarding its implementation,
because the cost to build the wall along the 3219-km-long US–Mexican border is
expected as high as $12 billion, and no one knows, where the money will come
from. President Trump’s position is that part of the money will come from the
federal surplus budgetary funds, while the remaining major part from the
compensation by the Mexican government, whether in a direct way in terms of
paying it to the US government by the Mexican government, or in an indirect way in
terms of increasing 20% more tariff on the imported Mexican goods by the US
government. Both the two sources were rootless either because of the opposition
from Congressmen or because of the protest from the Mexican government. As to
the case of Muslim banning, when Trump was a presidential candidate, his
‘‘Contract with the American Voter’’ pledged to suspend immigration from
‘‘terrorprone regions’’. The Muslim banning order, or the Executive Order 13769, titled
Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States, was
blocked by federal district courts in quite a few states. Specifically, the contents in
the Executive Order 13769 lowered the number of refugees to be admitted into the
United States in 2017 to 50,000, suspended the US Refugee Admissions Program
(USRAP) for 120 days, suspended the entry of Syrian refugee indefinitely, directed
some cabinet secretaries to suspend entry of those whose countries do not meet
adjudication standards under US immigration law for 90 days, and included
exceptions on a case-by-case basis. Homeland Security lists these countries as Iran,
Iraq, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The legal challenges by judges (includes
James Robart of federal district court in Washington State) came from quite a few
states, and they simply made the rule to defer the implementation of this order.
Again, it is not unusual for a specific ethnic group to be a targeted objective in the
American history, but it is unusual that the discrimination against a specific ethnic
group is resisted so fiercely by federal judges and many American people this time,
which can be attributed to the rising influence of the belief-based American
nationalism as a counter force against the culture-based American nationalism.
4.2 Dimension Two
The populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex does have effects on Trump’s policies, because the
majority of his supporters are the grassroots whites who are anti-elites,
antiestablishment, and anti-political correctness, and have the ‘‘enemy’’ complex in
their mind. Based on such social forces, Trump took measures to counter against the
liberal causes, including his try to overthrow the Obamacare Reform, and to stop the
TPP negotiation. What he has done is greatly welcome by his supporters, the
bluecollar white working class embracing the culture-based American nationalism, and
is finely in accordance with their concerns, including adopting a protectionist policy,
taking tough measures against immigrants.
This was why Trump’s first move in the White House was to sign the executive
order to stop the Obamacare Reform plan, although, ironically, this was also the
biggest setback in his one-hundred-day ‘‘New Deal’’: the Trumpcare was in the end
approved in the Congress by a small margin on May 4, 2017, it is yet to wait for the
outcomes in the Senate. This Trumpcare will result in the loss of medicare with an
estimated 230 million people among whom many are Trump’s supporters.
Following the executive order of US TPP withdrawal on February 23, 2017,
President Trump’s new executive order on the next day was to establish working
groups on regulatory reform in the executive institutions, of which the purport was
to remove those regulatory measures adopted and implemented in the Obama
administration and basically involved with challenges in the environmental and
climate change areas.
There are four concluding remarks based on the analysis about the effects of the
populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex on Trump’s policy in general and on his foreign policy
First, the reason that there are uncertainties regarding Trump’s policy lies in the
fact that there is power struggle between the right-wing populists and the traditional
conservatives in the Trump administration:
A battle is being waged between the ideological Steve Bannon faction and a more
pragmatic faction. The former wishes to bring down the modern bureaucratic (or
administrative) state and go back to the America of Andrew Jackson and the
supremacy of the white ‘‘common man.’’ The more pragmatic faction sees itself in
the tradition of the conservative Reagan administration when the US was the
undisputed global leader…. Right-wing ideologues and inflexible economic
nationalists such as Steve Bannon, Steve Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Kellyanne
Conway, Peter Navarro and Kathleen McFarland have been somewhat sidelined but
most of them remain in Trump’s inner circle. Lately, however, more competent
experts with a greater grasp on reality such as National Economic Council chairman
Gary Kohn, a former Goldman Sachs banker, but also Secretary of State Tillerson
have seen their influence grow. Not least the advice given by defense experts such
as General H.R. McMasters, the National Security Adviser, and Secretary of
Defense General James Mattis are being taken more seriously by the White House
than was the case initially…. Yet, this situation is in flux and there is no guarantee
that the ‘‘grown-ups’’ in the administration will continue to increase their influence.
While McMaster, for instance, is credited with having ‘‘professionalized’’ the
National Security Council, Trump appears to have become ‘‘disillusioned’’ with him
Second, the reason that there are uncertainties regarding Trump’s policy lies in
the fact of Trump with his unique personalities:
While the Obama White House was proud of coming across as a reliable,
trustworthy, and predictable government, Trump aspires to the opposite. He is
mightily proud of his ‘‘flexibility’’ which, he believes, enables him to change course
quickly whenever it seems appropriate to him. ‘‘We must, as a nation, be more
unpredictable,’’ he declared in April 2016 during a major campaign speech
A close observation further reveals the reason why he can behave
‘‘imperviously’’ lie in the fact that he has the support of the lower class whites with strong
populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex. In other words, he behaved in an ‘‘impervious’’ way
because of his power based on the support of such social forces.
Third, the reason that there are uncertainties regarding Trump’s policy lies in the
structural confrontation between people with strong populist ‘‘enemy’’ complex and
those with belief-based American nationalists. While the former can have great
effects on Trump’s policies, the later will counter against his policies in a one way
or another, which should be attributed to the eroding consensus based on the Grand
Compromise in American politics, namely, without going to extremity, since the
end of WWII.
Fourth, the ‘‘hatred’’ between the two juntas will bring about another two
uncertainties. One uncertainty is that the potential instability of the Trump
administration will produce uncertainties regarding Trump’s policies, a case in point
is Russia’s alleged ties to the Trump campaign
. The other
uncertainty is that the time for Donald Trump to learn how to become a ‘‘mature’’
president will be longer, which will have effects on the uncertainties regarding his
policies although he practiced seemingly well as a president in his meeting with
Chinese president Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago in Florida in early April this year, as
well as his briefing to all the legislators the North Korean crisis in the White House
on April 25, 2017.
Chuanxing Wang graduated from School of Public and international Affairs, Fudan University with a
PHD degree in 2001, is currently a professor of School of Political Science and international Relations,
Tongji University. His research interests include the U.S. politics and American foreign policy, Arctic
politics and Arctic security.
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