Right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment in American politics

Plan Author

  • Robert Kinoy, 2019

Fields of Concentration

Faculty Sponsors

Outside Evaluator

  • William Bendix, Keene State College


How had a complete political outsider, whose name was a punchline, beaten a seasoned candidate with decades of experience? And most of all, how had practically nobody in the media seen this coming? This is an attempt to put these questions in conversation, more for my own education than anything else. I review some of the theoretical literature surrounding nativism and populism, and I apply some of these concepts toward examining the socioeconomic conditions in the places where Trump won. I also offer some thoughts as to how future campaigners could redirect some of the popular forces that helped fuel Trump’s victory. I suggest that Democrats take advantage of the populist energies in 2019, and formulate platforms that really could improve the lives of working people.


While Bannon mocked liberals’ supposed preoccupation with race and identity, he had calibrated his own version of identity messaging. As the presidential election season progressed, it became increasingly clear that the Trump campaign’s platform was successfully reaching its target audience. Disaffected working class Whites in the industrial Midwest found Trump’s promises of revitalization very appealing and found validation in his anti-immigrant posturing. Long since feeling abandoned by the liberal and conservative mainstream, they had found a candidate that promised directly to fight for them first and foremost.

Given the success of rhetoric inciting anti-Latino sentiment in getting out the Republican vote, it seems likely that Trump’s nativist and anti-establishment politics will remain a presence in public life for the foreseeable future. The aggressively xenophobic discourse that defined the 2016 presidential election will mark another unfortunate evolution in the decades long history of Leo Chavez’s “Latino Threat Narrative.” As anti-Latino alarm continues to escalate, hardworking and law abiding Latinos will increasingly find their lives politicized, caught between bad actors priming nativist reaction from supporters with xenophobic dog whistles.

Through examination of John Gaventa’s “mechanisms of power,” and analysis of Arlie Hochschild’s research in ​Strangers in their Own Land​, it become evident that industry often deliberately manipulates opinion, shapes ideology, and stifles debate so as to undermine public challenges to its interest. In Appalachia, this power dynamic manifested in corrupt local politics and the coercive tactics of the coal companies. In Lake Charles, Louisiana it was evident in the domination of government at all levels by faceless, unaccountable industrial giants. Inevitably, both circumstances have resulted in the inescapable “quiescence” of communities to private interest.


The most memorable part of Plan was conducting extensive research, more for my own education than for the paper. I found it interesting to explore the relationship between economic uncertainty and nativism, and how scarcity can prime people to see race relations as a competition.

My Plan was inspired by the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the populist atmosphere the outcome has created. I’m considering working on public policy or going into law, and my Plan would inform my approach to both fields.