Hard to Build, Easy to Lose

Crossing Borders is my second book. Not sure I have a third in me. Frankly, still surprised I had a first.

But writing is a curious process. You gather a massive amount of information. Hope it might tell some kind of story that makes some kind of point. And hope it makes sense to anyone not living in your head.

Along the way, the information hunting and gathering process takes you down various and sundry rabbit holes. Some of which are useless. Others end up being fantastic. Crossing Borders was no different.

Particularly when the trail of fear and hate that eventually led to the January 6th insurrection took me to the early days of the Alt-Right.

The term, was first coined by Richard Spencer in August of 2008. Members of the Alt-Right “looked like hipsters, not skinheads,” I wrote. “Coiffed hair, skinny jeans, groomed beards.”

But “As soon as they opened their mouths, or put pen to paper, the façade of coolness was gone. They were racists.”

Over the course of the Obama administration, with the rise of online “news” sites such as InfoWars and Breitbart News, the Alt-Right found a massive megaphone through which they could amplify their ugly rhetoric. All of which, came to a head in August of 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a young woman was killed by one of Spencer’s followers.

As I gathered information, the alignment became clear. The rise of the Alt-Right in the U.S., the weaponization of migration by Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the way Trump railed about immigration all fit together:

Since the turn of the century, the growth of partisan newsfeeds, political polarization, and economic inequity has led to a growing mistrust in institutions, government in particular. In 2010, the Tea Party emerged to advocate for a type of angry populism. The Alt-Right followed in the populist footsteps to tap into white identity. In the context of a diversifying population and global migration, populism, nationalism, and evangelicalism combined to become a toxic mix of xenophobia, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism that decimated trust in systems or institutions.

Things have gotten worse.

Last September, in a segment titled “Nothing About What’s Happening Is an Accident,” Tucker Carlson said that current U.S. border policy is designed to ‘change the racial mix of the country. … In political terms this policy is called the ‘great replacement,’ the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from faraway countries.”

Look, Tucker Carlson doesn’t spew hate by accident.

In fact, as my colleagues at the National Immigration Forum wrote in December, we can trace the use of great replacement theory use “from French nationalist authors to fringe alt-right xenophobes, and on to its introduction into more mainstream channels.”

Former Reagan White House official, Linda Chavez, was more explicit regarding the threat. “Great Replacement Theory is the dark underbelly of the immigration restriction movement,” she recently wrote for The UnPopulist. “But its danger is not merely in stifling debate over necessary changes to our dysfunctional immigration system.”

A concern that was unpacked in this brilliant conversation between leading conservative writers Peter Wehner, Elizabeth Neumann and David French.

Now that we understand the problem, what do we do about it?

Well, most importantly, it is essential to see the difference between the racist xenophobes and the people they try to influence.

These days, it is hard, if not impossible, to change the mind of a member of the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, etc. But we can compete for the same hearts and minds they are trying to convert to their side.

Which, as I learned in another rabbit hole, requires that we understand the different social groups we live in. And how those ingroups are shaped and influenced.

To be more explicit, me telling someone they are a racist, while trying to change their mind, is not going to work. Understanding their fears, creating opportunities for them to learn from people they trust, offers a path to a new ingroup. One that may still be socially or politically conservative. But not one based on a deep fear and hatred of the other. This all requires us to be patient.

And patience is hard to come by. Because when we see how our fellow Americans are told that immigrants are cultural threats, we want to shake people by their collars and tell them, “Don’t you see they are lying to you!”

Which leads the person we are shaking by the collar to ask, “How do I know you aren’t lying?”

My point here is that trust is hard to build, easy to lose.

Across a number of issues, the bad guys want to make sure we don’t trust each other. Given how easy misinformation is distributed and how angry we are, it is an easy goal to achieve.

The harder job — our job — is to build trust.

Which starts with trusting that each of us are good people and that we aspire to be better people. Given the times we live in, this is hard to do.

But if we start there, we can start a different conversation.

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President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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