“You see in times of crisis that extremist forces, populist forces, have a better ground to oversimplify things and to manipulate feelings. Feelings of fear.” — Jose Manuel Barroso
Across the world, nationalism is on the rise, as is populism. While there are many things driving this trend, terrorism is at the forefront. With each act of terror, it seems that populism and nationalism gain another foothold. Moreover, in a perverse turn, this rise in nationalism and populism are causing — among other things — a rise in terrorism. Wrapped up in this conversation are debates about immigration, refugees, human rights, defense spending, and moral responsibility. Recent US elections focused heavily on keeping the country safe from threats. Similar themes dominate the current French elections as well as national debates across Europe. Sitting at the center of this ideological nexus between nationalism, populism, and terrorism is the individual citizen and their fear of death. Knowing these trends intersect and drive one another provides individuals an opportunity to explore why terror brings out the irrational and reflexive bias towards ‘the other’ and it allows people to understand how individual fear of death helps sustain this precarious cycle.
A dangerous cycle: nationalism, populism, and terrorism
While neither nationalism nor populism is a novel idea, their modern intersection is part of a troubling cycle. When combined they exacerbate many of the underlying issues that fuel terrorism. Rather than moderate the root issues of terrorism, nationalism and populism combine to address the egoistic impulses of citizens. This is due to the stratification that underpins these political ideologies. In short, nationalism harnesses the dark side of patriotism. Where patriotism promotes pride in one’s country, nationalism often promotes pride in one’s country vis-à-vis other countries and peoples. While every nation exercises some degree of nationalism as a way to foster identity, within nationalism exists the potential for creating scapegoats and victims.
With nationalism, the inescapable problem of defining who is in and who is out comes to the forefront, as people consider themselves relative to others. In a similar fashion, populism plays to the darker tenets of centrism with its appeal to the common person — ostensibly, those left behind by other political doctrines. Again, there is an inescapable stratification involved in populism. Populism at its base relies on the assertion that the common people need to overcome a disinterested and corrupted elite. While populism may have a time and place, it also treats the populace as a monolithic voice — i.e. the voice of the people. It essentially relegates anyone on the outside to voices of dissent.
In the end, both nationalism and populism appeal to the ego and, as such, are rife for political exploitation. This is especially true in times of distress, as nationalism and populism complement one another with their appeal to the people and their use of superlative posturing. People take refuge in the symbolism and immortality of the rhetoric: be a part of something great, something bigger than yourself, something enduring. These illusions promise something transcendent in a time when everything feels ephemeral.
Terrorism also appeals to the ego, albeit in a different way. As human beings, the joy brought about by self-awareness comes with a price: dread of our inevitable death. It is this dread that terrorism exploits. Individual dread, multiplied times over, makes fertile ground for nationalism and populism. Motivated by fear, individuals look towards nationalist/populist identities to provide safety and security. They also look towards the symbolism offered by political narratives that provide meaning to the chaos.
Considering that nationalism and populism are wholly reliant on the will of the people, the people can end this fatalistic cycle by recognizing the impacts that their individual terror has on the national psyche. Terrorism — real or imagined — is a paradigm shift for many people as they go from a sense of safety and invulnerability to a state of insecurity and vulnerability. To understand how an individual’s terror supports a nation’s acceptance of nationalism and populism it is important to understand how people react to their potential death and the effect it has on their behavior.
The Terror Management Theory proposed by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker explains how people deal with the inevitability of their death. Specifically, detailing how and why people cling to their worldview when faced with the inevitability of death. The theory purports that the anxiety caused by our mortality is a major motivator behind much of our behavior, including, among other things, ethno-religious centrism, self-esteem, and love. One way people remedy this anxiety is to look towards culture as way to achieve a symbolic immortality. In short, while individual life may be short, the American culture that the individual is a part of will live on — ipso facto the individuals live on. This explains why people cling so strongly to their cultural worldview when facing existential challenges. Their are political impacts to this behavior.
As the theory also explains, during times of national fear people look towards iconic and charismatic leaders. Those leaders that promise to remedy the ills that caused the fear tap into the righteousness of one’s culture and the dread of the individual to coalesce a populace. This fits in neatly with the social stratification that underpins nationalism and populism, which encourages people to side with those with a shared ethnic, political, or cultural identity.
As people manage their individual terror they need to remain cognizant of the impact their terror has on national behavior. Separating the individual from the state allows scenarios like those unfolding across the globe. It is why we see nations and their citizens hold tight to views antithetical to their cultural values. Pluralistic societies founded on Christian values turn their back on refugees is reminiscent of stories about an inn that was too full to take in a wandering couple pregnant with child. Democracies spying on their citizenry to keep society safe, despite the fact that it have yielded little material consequence. These controls are attempts to restore the paradigm that terrorism upset — to lead people back to a feeling of invulnerability.
Engineering consent for à la carte values with fear and loathing on the campaign trail
Politicians, to court votes, make terrorism and its associated death salient — they put it front and center in vivid detail. This scares people, as intended, leading to an increased sense of a dread and a need to cling to a worldview that one finds comfortable. This political approach is particularly dangerous in pluralistic societies, where the fabric of society depends on an accepting and tolerant citizenry. Unfortunately, nationalist and populist rhetoric manifests itself through actions that feed terrorist ideologies and undermine cultural values: human rights violations, invasions of privacy, immigration policies, racial profiling, etc. These actions feed the terrorist narrative and rarely provide anything more than a psychological sense of security.
Ironically, they often erode the cultural symbols that drive people towards nationalism and populism in the first place. This was on display after the initial aftermath of the Sept. 11th attacks in the United States and the spate of attacks that plagued Europe in 2015 and 2016. At first, the populations coalesced around the tragedies, but as rhetoric transformed into action fissures emerged and a debate over the nation’s values and culture ensued. Furthermore, the resulting divisiveness plays right into the hands of terrorists, who seek to exploit fissures within national and international frameworks and pit freedoms against insecurities.
Rather than coalesce and cooperate to defeat this scourge, nationalism and populism divide nations over a variety of issues from immigration and human rights to privacy and security. These debates continue today through the election campaigns and national dialogues. Politically, this is unlikely to change. Therefore, the challenge becomes how individuals can avoid succumbing to their reflexive bias in times of fear. Foremost, it is important to recognize that one’s fear of death leads to the adoption of cultural values and that those cultural values become sacrosanct in an attempt to counter one’s fear of death. Additionally, it is necessary to recognize that nationalist/populist rhetoric appeals to the ego via those cultural values. In times of distress these political ideologies exacerbate situations and fuel terrorist rhetoric. The ability of individuals to acknowledge these psychological reactions may hold the key to breaking the cycle of nationalism, populism, and terrorism that is unfolding across the world.