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Student researches where anti-establishment, xenophobia collide

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Emily Dalgo

No matter what city I found myself in during my first month of studying abroad in Europe, everyone I met was itching to ask me, the American in the room, about one particular topic: Donald Trump. It was January of 2016 and I noticed that I was constantly talking about the election, but the more I explained, the less I understood. It was difficult to answer questions about political divides in the US and to rationalize the growing power of two anti-establishment candidates in a country with clearly defined political parties. The success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump challenged the foundation of my perceptions of American politics. If so many Americans could agree on hating “the system,” why were their candidates so vastly different?

I realized that the rise of anti-establishmentarianism—right-wing populist movements in particular—is not a strictly American phenomenon. Across the world, a deep dissatisfaction with the “establishment” has been growing. While most people have been quick to blame globalization for citizens’ anger and their belief that the elected elite no longer represent the people, my mentor, Professor David Bell Mislan, and I had a different interpretation of these events. All anti-establishment movements are based on grievances and all seek to revise traditional political and social institutions, but they disagree on what those grievances and institutions are. It was in talking about this essential concept that Professor Mislan and I knew we had a research question to explore and that the AU Summer Scholars Research Fellowship would be the perfect way to answer it.

In the wake of the refugee crisis, Trump’s “wall,” and a decisive split among anti-establishment followers on what is best for America’s future, I decided to research why some anti-establishment movements contain xenophobic characteristics and why others do not, using the Sanders and Trump campaigns as case studies. Through the AU Summer Scholars Research Fellowship, I was able to conduct research in Washington, DC, with Professor Mislan. I surveyed 580 individuals about their feelings toward immigration and immigrants, as well as their preferred “Origin Story” of America—essentially, when and why America became the America it is today. I turned these 580 responses into a quantitative analysis that posits a new theory for understanding xenophobia and the rise of Trump-like right-wing populism. The new theory, broadly, is that an individual's "Origin Story" of America is a better indicator of xenophobic political tendencies than socioeconomic status. In other words, one's perception of America's origin and identity influences voting behavior more than previously supposed.

Because of my fellowship, I’ve learned how to use SPSS, a tool that seemed too daunting to approach before this summer, and learned how to interpret the data thanks to Professor Aaron Boesenecker. I have also been accepted to the International Studies Association Northeast research conference in Baltimore, where I will present my project alongside renowned international relations scholars. Focusing all of my time and energy into an independent research project this summer was truly the most educational and challenging experience I have had at American University. I was fully immersed in academia, constantly reading, analyzing, questioning, and writing. Through this fellowship—and with Professor Mislan’s mentorship and unwavering support throughout—I was shown that chasing after my questions head-on and tackling the puzzles that stump me does not have to wait until graduate school or later. At AU and SIS, undergraduates can and will be supported in their efforts to make a difference in their fields. For this, I am extremely grateful.