Most people will tell you why nations split. Different groups living in the same country are naturally hostile and distrustful of one another. Yugoslavia was split by the Serbs, Croats, and later the Bosnian Muslims who began fighting each other shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Northern Ireland’s citizens fought to end Catholic dominance and discrimination. Ethiopia recently descended back into civil war because its various ethnic groups—the Tigrayans, Amharans, and those from the Sidama region—each wanted control of government. These conflicts must stem from fundamental ethnic, religious, and racial differences, surely?
The answer to that question is very important for Americans. This country is increasingly fractured, and race plays a key role in the debates about immigration, policing, health care, politics, history teaching, and policing. This polarization could lead to the country’s fracture.
The truth is that even differences don’t lead to violence. Political scientists have examined hundreds of ethnic conflict situations around the globe and found this. Nearly all nations around the globe are multiethnic, religious, and few have experienced civil war. In fact, most ethnic groups co-exist quite peacefully. Bosnia, a nation of diverse people, was home to Croats and Serbs for many decades. Education was high and intermarrying was common. Yet, 100,000 died in the civil war.
For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces—influential people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group. As a means to secure a political base, these mouthpieces use fear and intimidation to create fear in their target population. This can be politicians looking to win or retain power. But they also could include business executives (seeking brand loyalty), religious leaders, and media figures (seeking increased revenue and audience). Separate and hostile ethnic and racial identities don’t exist in a vacuum; they need to be crafted—and these individuals rise up to do just that. They’re often at high risk of losing power or have recently lost it. They see no other way to secure their futures and cynically use divisions to assert control. We’ve seen such figures here in the United States, from cable news hosts to congresspeople, and they’re more dangerous than we’ve been led to believe.
These instigators of conflicts are called ethnic entrepreneurs by experts. The term was first used in the 1990s to describe figures such as Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman in the former Yugoslavia, but ethnic entrepreneurs have emerged many times over, in all parts of the world. Though the catalyst for conflict is often ostensibly something else—the economy, immigration, freedom of religion—ethnic entrepreneurs make the fight expressly about their group’s position and status in society. They harness the power and influence of the media to convince the public that an outgroup is threatening them, and they must work together to defeat the threat. They also try to persuade those in their group, often with incendiary language, that they are superior and “deserve” to dominate. This is how, at a 1992 rally in the Rwandan city of Kabaya—two years before that country’s civil war—Hutu politician Léon Mugesera came to tell supporters that Tutsis were “cockroaches,” adding that “anyone whose neck you do not cut is the one who will cut your neck.” And it’s how Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir exploited the distrust between Arabs and Africans in his country in 2012, by describing his political rivals in similar terms: “The main goal should be liberation from these insects and to get rid of them once and for all, God willing.”
Why then do ordinary citizens allow themselves to be seduced by such rhetoric? Perhaps surprisingly, they’re often clear-eyed about ethnic entrepreneurs: They know these individuals have their own agenda and are not telling the whole truth. Many Serbs did not trust, let alone love Milošević, who had been a dedicated Communist just a few years earlier. But citizens become willing to show support if they feel a mounting threat—to their lives, livelihoods, families, or futures—and over time, Milošević’s rhetoric, together with increasing Croat bias against Serbs, steadily sowed doubts. After silencing disloyal journalists— Milošević and his government controlled over a dozen newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations—he plied his audiences with unrelenting messages of fear and suspicion. He appealed to Serbia’s historic greatness and reminded listeners of past atrocities perpetrated against their people. When Croatia declared independence, the government’s main TV station in Belgrade focused its coverage on the Serbs in the Krajina region of Croatia who, it was announced, were now defenseless against the “dark, genocidal urges of the Croats.”
People will trust leaders who provide protection, regardless of how shady, if they begin to think there is even the slightest chance of violent opposition. Thus, when Tudjman adopted the Croatian coat of arms and purged Serbs from his government, Serb residents of Krajina interpreted their sudden loss as confirmation that Milošević’s warnings were true. Likewise, by the time Milošević ordered the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army to move into Croatia, Croatians had begun to believe that their way of life, championed by Tudjman, was under attack. In the mistaken belief that violence was their only option to defend themselves or their group, both factions took arms.
Ethnic entrepreneurs in America are flourishing. But they didn’t emerge out of nowhere. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1960, and the transition to a Republican party that is white-only began. Voters in the eleven former Confederate states had been faithful Democrats for over a hundred years, still angry that Republican president Abraham Lincoln had refused to accept secession. But Lyndon Johnson’s landmark legislation in 1964, led to a seismic change. (“I think we just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come,” Johnson said to his special assistant, Bill Moyers.) Running for president in 1968, Nixon decided to capitalize on that racial resentment, leveraging white fear with calls for “law and order” and a pledge to fight the “war on drugs.” This so-called Southern Strategy helped the GOP win the presidency and later reclaim the Senate after being out of power for almost thirty years. Future Republican candidates would rely on similar appeals to win the presidency, though always with coded language, whether it was Ronald Reagan shaming “welfare queens” or George H. W. Bush disparaging Willie Horton. George W. Bush’s campaign was accused of spreading rumors that John McCain had fathered an illegitimate Black child.
The next step was religion. In an effort to secure the support of evangelical leaders and their increasingly mobilized voters, Republican elites staked out more and more pro-life positions. Leader of the Moral Majority (a Christian Right-associated political group), Jerry Falwell Sr. grew in power. Democrats, seeing a chance to win over more atheists, agnostics, and culturally liberal voters, came out increasingly in favor of women’s rights and access to abortion. If you were white evangelical Christian in the 20th century you could not vote Republican. Early partisan divides on abortion were followed by increasingly polarized positions on gay rights and eventually transgender rights. Voting patterns are driven more by moral imperatives and cultural identities than ever before.
By appealing to core policy concerns like gun rights and by stoking anxiety about immigration and America’s changing racial demographics (whites are projected to be in the minority by 2045), Republicans have been able to win over larger and larger shares of the white rural vote. Likewise, the Democratic Party has become an increasingly urban party by doing essentially the opposite—trying to reduce violence by restricting access to guns and embracing the diversity that is reshaping urban America.
All of these problems were exacerbated in the 2000s by social media. Just as the two parties were diverging on identity, Twitter exploded, Facebook went mainstream, and social media became an ever present part of our lives. Critically, a network of gleeful ethnic entrepreneurs realized that they could gain ratings and influence by emphasizing this division online. Rupert Murdoch, Sinclair Broadcast Group (owned by the Smith family), media titans whose bottom line was enhanced by clicks and ratings fed more and more polarized material. Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, TV personality experts, were more than happy to propagate conspiracy theories to get their ratings. Alex Jones was a conspirator who encouraged distrust in all aspects of the political system. Jones joined the group. Alex Jones Show was attracting two million listeners each week. Keith Olbermann was a left-leaning voter.
Into this political morass stepped the biggest ethnic entrepreneur of all: Donald Trump. In his quest for power, Trump realized that appealing to ethnicity could help him rally his supporters. In the past, he had made a racist crusade of questioning Obama’s birthplace. He now embraces identity politics with enthusiasm and explicitity. Black Americans were described as being poor and violent by him. He also called Mexicans criminals. Even though there were numerous allegations of sexual assault, he spoke out in favor of Christian values. He called women “horseface,” “fat,” and “ugly.” Once sworn into office, he quickly instituted a travel ban on many Muslim countries, and called Haiti, El Salvador, and African nations “shithole” countries. His policies were nativist policies: He started building a “big, beautiful wall” along the border with Mexico, pulled out of international agreements, and started a trade war against China. Trump retweeted a video of a retiree in Florida chanting “white power.” And he threatened to veto a defense spending bill in order to protect the legacy of Confederate generals on U.S. Army bases.
In all of these ways, Trump was encouraging ethnic factionalism—the splintering of political parties along ethnic lines. It’s what Tudjman did when, as part of his plan to become president of an independent Croatia, he began to consolidate Croatians into an ethnic faction in 1989. It is what Hutu extremists did when they characterized Tutsis as cockroaches and Hutus as the chosen people. It’s what President Henri Konan Bédié did in the Ivory Coast in the mid-1990s, when he reversed his pro-immigrant policies to gain more votes from native citizens. And it is what Modi in India does when he promotes India as primarily for Hindus.
The openly racist platforms of Republican presidential candidates in recent years have been unprecedented. They also explicitly favored white evangelical Americans over all others. At first, it wasn’t clear that the Republican leadership would go along with it—during his own presidential campaign, Texas senator Ted Cruz blasted Trump, calling him “utterly amoral”—but many of them saw in Trump a way to enact their own agendas. This included tax cuts for the rich, business deregulation, and environmental rollbacks. With Trump in the White House and Republicans controlling the Senate, the party could also stack the Supreme Court and the judiciary more generally with conservative judges who could potentially stymie democratic initiatives for years to come. They, too, became ethnic entrepreneurs.
Trump knew instinctively that a deep sense of alienation in many white voters would be enough to propel him to the top. And so he didn’t just focus on division, denigrating Muslims or Black Americans as the “other.” Like other ethnic entrepreneurs before him, he emphasized the downgrading of the former majority—in this case, how much whites had lost. He put the grievances of white, male, Christian, rural Americans into a simplified framework that painted them as victims whose rightful legacy had been stolen. He often spoke out about the things that were being stripped away, including religious rights, gun rights, and job opportunities. His campaign slogan promised a return to glory: “Make America Great Again.” In him, people saw someone unlike any other candidate, someone who recognized the value of their lives and offered them protection.
Trump was a natural ethnic entrepreneur. His example showed other candidates how to win over a select group of white voters, and to rally them for the election. He wasn’t as successful convincing the majority white population that they were being attacked by the Left. He exaggerated the threat from antifa, conjured Mexican rapists, and claimed that America’s cities were dens of violence. However, not all white voters believed his claims. Particularly suburban women were skeptical. His hold over the party is strong and millions of Americans continue to support him, even the Republican leadership. Once ethnic entrepreneurs have made it clear that they believe their success is dependent on one person, it can be hard for them to lose. This is how they maintain their power, often using fear and extreme nationalism. Milosevic remained Serbia’s party leader and president for 8 years—crafting an increasingly authoritarian government—until he was eventually thrown out as a result of mass protests.
All signs indicate that Trump is likely to be the Republican candidate again in 2024, but even if he isn’t, other ambitious Republicans—Tom Cotton, Ron DeSantis, Josh Hawley—have studied his playbook and will no doubt use it to try to catapult themselves into the White House. They will try to attract Trump’s eighty-eight million followers, but they will also seek to gain additional ones. By creating threats, inciting more racial terror, and convincing the white population that they really are fighting an existential war, they can do this. These ethnic entrepreneurs will go far. What will they do?