“Don’t Trust the Refugees!” 1980s Peru, Stylee

It will come as no surprise to many that Donald Trump’s beating of the fear drum vis-a-vis Arab and Muslim migrants and refugees is a tried and true narrative among politicians who oversee police regimes .


In 1982, during Peru’s conflict with Sendero Luminoso, a violent communist insurgency that specialized in terror,

the elected civilian government of Fernando Belaunde Terry (1980-85) ordered the armed forces to enter into action [where Sendero was active] and declared the region an emergency zone.

Between Sendero and army violence, an estimated 50,000 forced migrants fled the rural area (Ayacucho) for Lima and other urban areas.

Ayacucho is a rural area overwhelmingly populated by indigenous people who, as throughout most of the world, faced discrimination and third class economic, political and social status in Peru.  Unsurprisingly, this stigma, on top of the stigma associated with being “a refugee” led to substantial abuses at the hands of urban police: in a democracy, marginalized minorities receive scant support from the majority population.

Michael Smith summarizes the situation.

Once in Lima carrying a voting identification with Ayacucho marked as a birthplace was a guarantee of two weeks in the security police’s prisons and even torture.  Police units staked out bus depots to follow passengers coming in from the Central Sierra.

Why did police units do so?  For the very reason the Republican candidate for US President advocates: because they were born and raised in Ayacucho the democratically elected Peruvian regime viewed them as suspicious: were they supporters of Sendero Luminoso, come to Lima to spread communist ideology and terror attacks?  Who could be sure?  Best to keep a close eye on, arrest, and interrogate them.

Those of us who study insurgency, terror, counter-insurgency, repression, and human rights are very familiar with the basic narrative structure that the Republican candidate is advancing.

Guilt by association (the so called “links” and “ties” to this or that group), and presumptive guilt by heritage and birthplace are hallmarks of the anti-Enlightenment forces that have advanced the inherent goodness (and, at times, superiority) of group A over the scary members of group B since the 1800s.  It is the ideology behind nationalism and all sorts of other stripes, whether the Hindu racism of the BJP or the white racism of Stormfront.

Those who criticize Trump’s rhetoric as racist are missing the key point.  The hallmark of rhetoric is brazen, naked nationalism, and it is a political error to think of it simply as racism.  Why?  Nationalism is a far more effective political appeal to mobilize support–it appeals across categories, as Trump did so effectively on Monday.

One of the inherent weaknesses of the speech that Obama recently made criticizing Trump’s post-Orlando speech is that it is not “hand-in-glove” with nationalism.  Sure, one makes the appeal to “the America we want,” but the Enlightenment ideals need to be appended to a specific nation.  Voters can embrace nationalism and its symbols, but dismiss the rights of “bad people” with considerable ease and a clear conscience.

On the other hand, the political power of the nationalist appeal that leaders of police regimes make is that it fits “hand-in-glove” with the dehumanization of the scary other; the foreigner “who does not share our values”; the “terrorist” at our door.  And this is not an American thing.  It is a human thing.  Analysts unfamiliar with the breadth of appeal contained in such nationalist messages are poor students of coercion, repression, and the violation of human rights.

In 1933 US President FD Roosevelt famously told Americans that they had “nothing to fear but fear itself.”  Then, on February 19, 1942 he reversed course, fearful of Japanese Americans, and signed Executive Order 9066 deporting or “concentrating in camps” secured by military police (interred them en masse is the polite phrasing Americans like) all people of Japanese ancestry in the US.

These nationalist appeals are effective politics, folks.  It repeats itself over and over again, throughout the world.  And if you are a US citizen, congratulations: you definitely have a front row seat to history.  What role will you play?


About Will H. Moore

I am a political science professor who also contributes to Political Violence @ a Glance and sometimes to Mobilizing Ideas . Twitter: @WilHMoo
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