Jonathan McIntosh / flickr
On August 3, Patrick Crusius shot and killed 22 people in a shopping center in El Paso, Texas, in the name of ethnocentric nationalism. On August 5, President Donald Trump declared: “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated.”
Yet Trump and his supporters have more in common with Crusius than many would like to admit. They can only see the Latino as the foreign, and the dangerous. The president has relied on the language of onslaughts and invasions in his own speech, and he laughed at a public rally when supporters joked about shooting illegal immigrants. His campaign has run more than 2,000 ads that use the word “invasion” in the last year alone.
He also stated that, in the wake of the weekend’s shootings, “Republicans and Democrats must come together and get strong background checks, perhaps marrying this legislation with desperately needed immigration reform. We must have something good, if not GREAT, come out of these two tragic events!”
The El Paso shooting only has something to do with immigration reform if Crusius was right that there is a Latino invasion of Texas, the former territory of Mexico filled with citizen-descendants of Mexicans for more than 150 years. (Never mind that it was impossible for Crusius to know which Latinos he shot were citizens and which were illegal immigrants.)
Is it any surprise that Patrick Crusius called his attack “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” when the president himself seems to grant the depiction legitimacy?
Understanding the ethno-nationalist logic shared by the president, some of his supporters, and Crusius is essential if we want to stop a tragedy like El Paso from happening again. To do this, we must cultivate citizen friendship that transcends the ethno-nationalist narrative. We must strongly and actively repudiate the racial and ethnic characterizations that many on the right have failed to adequately oppose thus far.
Ethno-Nationalism Is White Supremacy
Please note: I am not referring to legitimate attempts to reform legal channels of immigration and in doing so to suppress illegal ones. It is a legitimate national interest to ensure that those who migrate to America will defend the Constitution and support the American political order.
Instead, I am talking about the claim, sometimes dressed up in scholarly, respectable clothes, that the American nation is a primarily white nation and is under existential threat from non-whites like me, and that our cultural contributions, historical and contemporary, do not count as examples of American culture.
In one sense, the claim that America is being invaded by non-whites is not “responsible” for the shooting. It did not give birth to the demon of racism, which hisses that non-whites must be disenfranchised or destroyed to protect America. That demon is an old one, alive since the colonial era, with lineage that stretches back much further. Still, the president and his intellectual and political followers have created a moment in which this American racial demon has become a driving force of politics. It forms an increasingly large part of many people’s vision of a secure America.
The violent defense of America as white will continue until the idea that America is a white nation is put to rest. There is nothing wrong with nationalism per se, but identifying the nation properly is the first task of any nationalist movement.
There is nothing wrong with loving one’s own race, but in America, having love and affection for one’s race does not mean that you have a right to make your race into a nation. And if nations rely on bonds of affection and tradition, isolating one part of the American tradition to be privileged, treasured, and honored inevitably means that you are preventing the development of love, honor, and affection among diverse members of our composite culture.
In ethno-nationalism, we find the return of the sentiments that animated American slavery, the Trail of Tears, broken treaties with Native Americans, Jim Crow, Japanese-American internment camps, and Mexican-American repatriation. To protect the “true Americans,” the thinking goes, racial and ethnic separation, disenfranchisement, and elimination must occur.
We must understand that, in a nation comprising multiple ethnicities and races from its inception, ethno-nationalism is white supremacy. The logic of white supremacy is based on the exclusion of non-whites, even those who have a claim to American citizenship and American culture, and whose families have been living on American soil longer than those of many people of “white” descent.
From this vantage point, one can see how Latinos are characterized as “invaders” and America as “white” even when the nation itself possesses significant Latino heritage in its demographic profile and its history.
Ethno-nationalism does not respond to the complex question of immigration from non-western nations by searching for measured reforms based on the resources and needs of the nation. Instead, it offers an instinctive and aggressive defense of America—not America as it truly is, but America as white. It is in this context that the massacre in El Paso makes sense as an outgrowth of ethnocentric nationalism.
Instead of understanding America as natively diverse, as thinkers from Alexis de Tocqueville to Albert Murray have, the ethno-nationalist creates a narrative in which the labor, politics, history, and culture of the nation are exclusively white—or, more specifically, they are white by virtue of population percentage and of political and intellectual dominance, and of civil rights understood narrowly as the rights of Englishmen and their descendants.
But when the political system deliberately excluded non-whites for centuries, political dominance is clearly not an accurate test of the identity of the nation. If anything, this dominance points to the strength and nativity of American diversity. It is impressive to consider just how much political and legal clout was required to suppress the racial and ethnic minorities that contributed so much to the cultural, economic, and social identity of the nation, and to sustain what many ethno-nationalists point to as evidence of the fundamental whiteness of the nation.
In reality, blacks and Latinos have not played a role in American culture and history by simply becoming more “white” or more “English.” The American South and the American Southwest, in particular, yield countless historical and current examples of this.
Invasions and Aberrations
A similar logic is at play in what happened on August 3. It is noteworthy that Crusius chose El Paso for his massacre. El Paso cannot be “invaded” by Mexicans, because it has largely comprised people of Mexican descent since Texas joined the Union in 1845. In many ways, these citizens have given Texas its distinctive culture. But Crusius’s choice follows the logic of ethno-nationalism. It does not matter if El Paso is a majority-minority American city with a strong Latino heritage predating statehood. It does not matter if, as the Washington Post points out, white nationalists envision a “version of Texas that never existed.” What matters is that the city is not “white.” As a result, it is identified in the ethno-nationalist consciousness as belonging more to what is taken to be its true, non-European culture of origin than to America itself.
An identical delineation between the truly American and the aberrant-American is found in the president’s recent remarks about the “Squad,” four junior representatives of color whom the president told via tweet to “Go back to where they came from.”
According to Trump, these women originally came from countries whose governments are complete and total catastrophes, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, how our government is to be run.
For Trump, these women—who are not only American citizens but political representatives elected by their fellow American citizens—are defined by what he sees as their true, non-western origin. Consequently, the criticism they offer is unwelcome. Never mind that the president himself campaigned on the decline, failure, and lack of greatness in our nation.
For the ethno-nationalist, El Paso and the Squad are, at the very least, a problematic part of America. At most, they are simply not a true part of America. They are an aberration, because they are non-European, and the ethnic nation is understood as deliberately exclusive of them.
Given all this, it is unsurprising that white supremacists see force as the appropriate response to the perceived threat to ethnic purity, especially when “nonviolent” means fail to work. Reminders of America’s natural diversity must be delegitimized or, preferably, erased. After all, the preservation of the nation requires the courage of martial defense, and the preservation of the ethnic nation requires protection from non-white outsiders.
The American demon of racial animus inevitably leads to violence, even if it also manifests in rhetoric and ideas. The Dallas native Crusius was able to conceive of an American city as the target point of an invasion because he rejected the legitimacy of Latinos as Americans.
The shooting in El Paso is not an isolated event. In February, a member of the Coast Guard was arrested for hatching a terrorist plot to create a white homeland. In June, police in the South Texas town of Harlingen apprehended a white nationalist attempting to bomb a Latino house of worship.
Ethno-Nationalism and Political Friendship
Ethno-nationalism not only breeds terrorism and violence. It also destroys civic friendship.
The aftermath of the shooting reflects this deterioration. It is difficult to reach agreement about the connection between something like El Paso and the current administration, despite the fact that cities that host Trump rallies experience a 200 percent increase in hate crimes. A lot of post-El Paso dialogue on the right will take the path of plausible deniability and minimization in an effort to absolve the conservative political movement of any responsibility. Tucker Carlson and Brian Kilmeade already began this defense.
Some people say that such violence is not the “fault” of the president. They are partially correct. America has consistently failed to engage in the hard work of racial integration that will move us from an understanding of non-white Americans as incursions, add-ons, or aliens to a vision of us as allies and equals before the law. The president and his political collaborators did not create this persistent animus, but they make use of it to great political effect.
The failure to do the work of racial integration makes it easier for someone like Crusius to arise, and for the violence of El Paso to be seen as a “fringe” thing instead of an existential threat to Latino citizens everywhere and, consequently, something all citizens should react to with solidarity and co-suffering. Nor does the president’s rhetoric help address the role that mental illness plays in such violence
The resurgence of ethnonationalism has affected me in a personal way. Four years ago, I thought that my white friends accepted me as a fellow American, worthy of protection. I never thought that some of them would embrace the idea that I am a stain on the nation, a member of an insidious invading force and malevolent non-European culture that true Americans need protection from, someone who, if I possess the “wrong” political opinion, can be reduced to non-white, non-American origins.
I could not imagine that attending the Spanish Mass at my local parish would mean that there is a non-trivial chance that my family could be killed. I never imagined I would have to explain to reasonable people why ethno-nationalism was dangerous and why it puts me and my family at risk.
In 2016, my brother had trash thrown at him by a white man, who told him to keep curfew. Last summer, another white man stood on the sidewalk where my brother worked, made his hands into the shape of a gun, and pulled the “trigger.” This summer, my brother was menacingly heckled by white men in the middle of the street, this time for having a white wife.
All of this looks much more frightening after El Paso.
Ashleen Menchaca-Bagnulo is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Texas State University. She lives in New Braunfels with her husband and two children. This article has been republished from Public Discourse with permission.