Why Immigration is Such a Key Motivator of Nationalist Aggression and Hostility

Residents of Staten Island, New York protest a new center for migrants. Image: Gabriele Holtermann/amny

In recent weeks, as Republicans rejected an immigration bill that met most of their demands for increased border security, pundits noted their willingness to give up enormous policy victories for the sake of keeping the issue alive. The surface explanation was wanting to deny President Biden a “win,” as another example of Republican intransigence enabling the blame of a Democratic administration. Political strategy is certainly part of the issue, but it doesn’t get at the deeper question: apart from the maximalist few who won’t stop until every last demand of theirs is met, why would Republicans, and Christian nationalists more specifically, want to keep this specific issue alive?

A brief comparison with Hindu nationalism can shed some light on this question. In The Clash Within, Martha Nussbaum highlights how Hindu nationalist rhetoric frequently revolves around themes of national purity, unity, and control. Together, these tropes create the image of a single national body politic: independent, self-contained, free of shame or disgust. This image of the body, often figured as “Mother India,” plays a central role in Hindutva ideology.

While such a body is easy to imagine, it is much more difficult to constitute. To maintain purity requires the expulsion of anything perceived to be other or different; to maintain unity and self-control requires the denigration and destruction of that which evokes shame. Thus, such a nationalist body must continually evoke that which is threatening and fearful. In Hindu nationalism, this primarily takes the form of anti-Muslim sentiment. Despite their long standing presence, Muslims are depicted as outsiders who are loyal to Mecca and not to Hindustan, and as keeping themselves separate and refusing assimilation. They are, one could say, represented as the immigrants within the nation.

What’s striking is how Hindu nationalist rhetoric depicts Muslims’ presence as a violation of national boundaries. In The Colors of Violence, author and psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar analyzes examples of this rhetoric of violation. The Partition of India, which Hindu nationalists blame on Muslims, is described as “chopping the arms off” of the Indian nation. Separation is figured not simply as distinction, but rather as dismemberment and disintegration. According to Kakar, Rithambra, an ascetic orator and ardent nationalist, describes government policies for inclusion of Muslims as “cutting open the Hindu chest” like the dissection of a frog, and compares Muslims’ presence in India to “a lemon in milk,” evoking both disgust and a sense of impurity. 

These images construct a sense of Muslims as violating national unity, or shredding and penetrating India’s boundaries. Figuring difference as violation evokes shame and humiliation. Nussbaum argues that this emotional core of Hindu nationalism motivates aggression and violence against Muslims, from massacres in Gujarat in 2002 up through more recent attacks activated and coordinated via WhatsApp. The language of violation unleashes a constellation of emotions and inspires aggression, which is then deployed in attempts to expel and remove shame by inflicting it on those claimed to have caused the violation.

The resonances between Hindu and Christian nationalisms in terms of the loss of purity and the violation of boundaries are readily apparent. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has frequently used the term “invasion” to describe the influx of immigrants, a term US courts have found to be legally false. Yet this framing underlies Texas’ claim of its own sovereignty being violated—leading, somewhat ironically, to Abbott’s decision to ignore federal authority and law. 

The issue of purity likewise fits with Trump’s frequent claim that immigrants “poison the blood” of the United States. Moreover, the mass shooter at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 targeted the synagogue in part because of its work in welcoming immigrants and refugees. 

Even more recently, in her State of the Union response, Katie Britt falsely claimed that a rape and murder which took place during the Bush Administration happened under President Biden—evoking feelings of shame and a loss of control. Her ineptitude in delivering the speech should not mask the emotional resonances that such a claim evokes. The continued salience of immigration is that it gives Republicans a figure for the violation of boundaries and national unity, ramping up emotional hostility and resentment to extremely high levels.

In the US, as in India, the rise of religious nationalism is best understood as a rejection of and attack on the secular and multiethnic democratic ideals toward which both nations have struggled. Combating religious nationalism will require more than education or better policies. If we want to check the growth and influence of religious nationalism we must learn to recognize its emotional valences and how they motivate aggression and hostility.