According to Donald Trump, Britain and Europe is “losing its culture” as a result of immigration. In an interview with The Sun newspaper, given in Brussels shortly before travelling to London, Trump explained how migrants from the Middle East and Africa are permanently changing Europe for the worse.
Speaking about the pain it causes him, given that both his mother and father were European, he added:
I think what has happened to Europe is a shame. Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame. I think it changed the fabric of Europe and, unless you act very quickly, it’s never going to be what it was and I don’t mean that in a positive way … I think you are losing your culture. Look around.“
On one level, it may not be that surprising that someone who has made immigration a cornerstone of their political rhetoric and campaigning in the US, has made such comments. But it must be challenged nonetheless. When world leaders adopt cultural racism in this way, they legitimise right-wing extremism.
Trump’s comments chime with the discourse of the far right in Europe over the past few decades. Key to this is the notion that the West is being ”invaded“. Starting with mass migration following World War II, champions of this rhetoric suggest that immigration to Europe has been far more insidious than humanitarian.
And when it comes to the recent influx of migrants fleeing civil war in Syria, the argument goes further. Now these arrivals seek to "take over” the nation states that are seen to have generously afforded them shelter. Focusing on the fact that recent migrants have been Muslim, far-right rhetoric goes on to suggest that takeover is equivalent to Islamification. It destroys “our” culture, values and way of life and therefore, all that “we” hold dear. Resisting immigration, therefore, is held up as the only way to protect Europe.
Far-right group Britain First, for instance, has routinely cited the perceived need to defend Britain from Muslims and Islam. It even refers to itself as “the frontline resistance” to the Islamification of Britain. This is the same group that enjoyed a major moment in the spotlight when Trump retweeted some of its videos late last year.
Potentially conferring credibility on the movement and its abhorrent Islamophobic ideology, it’s likely that Britain First and its supporters will seek to capitalise on Trump’s most recent comments. His views are also likely to bolster those from within the British far-right who have recently used socially acceptable issues – such as the debate over free speech – as a means by which to promote their more divisive ideologies.
Following Twitter’s decision to permanently ban Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League, as well as two of Britain First’s leaders, Jayda Fransen and Paul Goulding, supporters have come together to protect and defend free speech, presenting it as an a central element of “our” way of life. They see free speech as a loophole exploited with impunity, especially by Muslims, and argue that “no platforming” people who seek to spread their ideology is a form of censorship. That doesn’t extend to protecting freedom of speech for radical Muslim clerics, of course.
Like the far right, Trump’s comments are a form of what might be best referred to as “new” or “cultural” racism, a notion that first emerged in the early 1980s. At the time, early race relations legislation in the UK had begun to criminalise and curtail more overt expressions of racism. As a result, there was a marked shift in how many begun to refer to and subsequently employ discourses about minority groups.
Instead of using historically established markers based on skin colour, cultural markers of difference were increasingly deployed to demarcate “them” from “us”. A good example of this was when former Conservative MP Norman Tebbit put forward his “cricket test” to identify which migrants could be seen to be loyal to the UK and thereby a part of who “we” are. Likewise the Conservative MP Michael Fallon who suggested British towns and cities were “under siege” from migrant workers and people “claiming benefits”. Both are clearly premised on the basis that “they” can not only be differentiated from “us”, but that it is easy to do so.
This tactic enables political actors to navigate new landscapes of diversity and legislation, all the while affirming that “they” are indeed different to “us”. Migrants are, as a result, seen as even more threatening. Not only do they look different, they threaten a way of life. When deployed by political actors, the rhetoric of “losing culture” is far more toxic than what came before. It deliberately hides a bigoted and discriminatory message behind a veneer of respectability and seeming common sense.
In the wake of the Brexit referendum, when levels of hate crime have reached new highs in Britain and when the far right feels increasingly emboldened, Trump’s comments –- more importantly the message underlying them -– are extremely problematic. Given that supporters of Robinson and other from the far right are marching in support of Trump’s visit to the UK, further strengthening or conferring credibility onto them is something that has to be challenged. Where that might come from within the British political establishment is currently sadly unclear.