Populism And Posturing, The Real Risk Of Trump Goes Beyond Nationalism

Trump, Orbán, Le Pen: today's nationalists share certain things, like an antipathy for supranational institutions. But Trump's real danger is something completely different.

Election Day scene - Atlanta, Georgia
Election Day scene - Atlanta, Georgia
Kurt Kister

MUNICH — Of all the empires and superpowers that have written the script of world history, only two remained at the close of the 20th century: the United States and China. There were the faded remains of British and French glory; the Ottomans and the Habsburgs had gambled away their empires; Imperial Russia vanished twice during the 20th century, first the Tsars then the Soviets – much like the German empire and the Nazi state.

But since China's recent rise to the status of economic and political global power, many had called the 20th century the "American century".

The notion was first used in 1941 by the the American editor Henry Luce, as the cover line of an article in Life magazine. Without the late entry of the U.S., we would most likely have seen different outcomes of both World War I and World War II. And throughout, no other country defined last century's international politics like the United States – in both good and bad ways.

And America will continue to shape world politics in the 21st century. Still, the election of Donald Trump could be interpreted as a sign that the American century won't have a sequel. Trump is a protectionist and nationalist who doesn't understand a thing about international politics, who considers global institutions superfluous or even dangerous, where such American engagements such as establishing the United Nation as one big conspiracy of the establishment.

It must be said that the fact that a New York billionaire is somehow not seen as part of the establishment is proof that the showman Trump is the ultimate master marketer. The dark art of the populist includes an instinctive ability to read the moods of the public and to use aggressive rhetoric to transform it into one's own power. That's how Trump became Trump, and eventually president.

It is no wonder that we don't know what Trump actually wants to achieve as president. His ideology is built anew every morning, based on what has made him popular and successful the day before.

Trump's voters think his rejection of unruly organizations like the UN, the WTO, or NATO is right and justified. They want the world to be kept at bay with walls, custom tariffs and travel bans. Trump has promised to give that to them. Collective systems of security, diplomatic alliances, and, yes, even the dream of a united world, were the answers to the major catastrophes that had been brought on by an ideologically underfed nationalism of the 20th century.

Bird's-eye view, New York — Photo: ZeroOne

Even U.S. President Woodrow Wilson's effort to regulate cross-national power through a League of Nations was an attempt inspired by Washington to oppose the supranational to the national.

Recent times have been shaped by the idea that in a world made smaller by technology and communication, common problems can being tackled by common effort. Europe's experience with the devastating nationalism in the first half of the 20th century has led to the European Union. Even the NATO and the Warsaw Pact played off this idea, in the pre-1989 East-West confrontation.

In Europe nation-states have not vanished inside the European Union. The very different identities have survived, proof are the constant conflicts within the EU. Germany has occupied a special place, because its integration in the alliance in the first decades after World War II was also driven by a desire for a "re-civilization" of a country that had been propelled to a dark place by an aggressive war, the monstrosity of its crimes, and genocide.

There still exists a uniquely European sentiment for those who, even today, feel a responsibility to remember the cruelties of another generation, part of some sort of enlightened patriotism. The new right-wing extremism that is spreading risks corrupting that impulse.

Neo-nationalists, no matter if in the U.S., France or Germany, don't see the EU or NATO as the consequence of and response to a past evil. Instead, they think those alliances are the cause of a new evil. No matter how different are their countries, a Trump, Orbán or Le Pen share several things in common, above all the disparagement of international institutions.

Europe's retro-nationalists, contradictory as they often are, look at the EU and see both a convenient target for their ambitions and a bonafide threat to their way of life.

But the most dangerous thing about the nationalist Trump is something completely different. Because he will never stand to be seen as "weak" or a "wimp," a national security crisis could quickly become very dangerous. Categories like these – saving face, posturing, bullying – have always played a central role in his life. There's already a macho president with aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons in Russia. In January, another one will land in the White House. There is plenty to worry about.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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