Fragile Masculinity and Population Politics in the Rise of the Global Right
This fragility provides a rationale for strongman masculinity and contributes to the retrenchment of nationalist values.
By Dr. Banu Gökarıksel
Chair in Curriculum of Global Studies
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
By Christopher M. Neubert
PhD Candidate in Geography
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
By Dr. Sara Smith
Professor of Geography
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
In the midst of the current global turn to the right, striking resonances across oceans emerge: strongmen and their allies point to specific and vivid tales or images signaling demographic shifts as signs of danger. These could be lesbian farmers (supposedly) staging a takeover of the US Midwest, tales of virtuous headscarf-wearing women under attack by secular men (in Turkey), or of Muslim Romeos luring Hindu women to convert (in India). In each of these cases, the story lodges in the body and takes on a life of its own, inspiring fear and devotion, and centering the need for a heroic rescue. Here, we argue for the need for feminist engagement with political narratives about population change and point to the important work that fantastical stories focused on demographically based fears have done for the recent rise of right-wing politics in the United States, India, and Turkey.
We refer to these stories as demographic fever dreams to emphasize their simultaneous obsession with demography and detachment from demographic data. Our analysis shows that demographic fever dreams deploy gendered tropes to create a narrative of vulnerability for dominant groups in relation to a takeover by religious, racial, and sexual others. Attending to the discursive constitution of demographic fever dreams in media and by political leaders in each context, we examine how they effectively invoke populist fears and identify which bodies become threatening and which ones need protection. We show that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the United States, and Narendra Modi in India have all deployed an imaginary of an authentic nation under threat—whether that is racialized as the white working class in the United States or given religious inflection as authentically Sunni in Turkey and authentically Hindu in India. This imaginary becomes a fetishized group under threat from all manner of others threatening demographic destruction. In each of these instances, we argue that figures with political power use a vivid and fantastic fiction to amplify, imagine, and obscure demographic patterns of migration, birth, or mortality so as to consolidate political power or to dismiss and undermine class tensions and create fictitious communities of homogeneity. Thus, demographic fever dreams effectively produce a rationale for strongman masculinity and contribute to the retrenchment of nationalist values.
In a 2015 photograph, Vijaykant Chauhan poses casually on a motorcycle decorated with an Indian flag, answering a phone while a man out of the frame hands him a sword (Sethi 2015). Chauhan has pledged to defend Hindu women from “love jihad,” an elaborate conspiracy for Muslim men to marry Hindu women and change India’s demographic composition through conversion and then through their production of Muslim babies (Sethi 2015). In August of 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the US South, white nationalists in khaki pants and white shirts took over the University of Virginia campus. Tiki torches in hand, the crowd chanted Nazi slogans: “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” These violent messages materialized in the death of Heather Heyer and injuries of at least nineteen other counterprotestors. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to power by enacting a strongman leadership that mobilized a religious-conservative populism, promised to empower the oppressed (mazlum) and victimized (mağdur) masses against the (secular urban) elites and to defend the nation against the supposed threats embodied by a range of others (Ateş 2017, 112; Yilmaz and Bashirov 2018). Erdoğan locates Turkey’s future strength in a young and large population, stoking fears of population decline and of immanent betrayal by suspect others who might escape the government’s attempts to raise a “pious generation” (Ateş 2017, 112–13).
These cases are situated across oceans yet tied together by global flows and histories of colonialism, nationalism, and patriarchy into a constellation of ideas that center future threat as a justification for political action and violence. In the fears of “love jihad,” in the rallying cry against replacement, and in warnings of immanent betrayal, we see an epic reversal: men with majority privilege justifying violence by flipping the roles of aggressor and potential victim, placing those in need of protection (such as racialized or religious minorities) in the role of attacker, and thus enabling a violent response to be rhetorically justified as a form of existential defense (Ahmed 2004; Gergen, Smith, and Vasudevan forthcoming). Gendered tropes of women’s supposed vulnerability and men’s necessary strength are central to this message about the threats facing the nation. This discursive reversal is a critical tool of white supremacy and settler colonialism in the US context and is embedded in the exclusionary nature of the religious tones reshaping the nation-state in Turkey and India. Such a discourse formulates fears of disenfranchisement in terms of a perceived demographic threat: all manner of others replacing majority male bodies in positions of power or leading to chaos and societal breakdown.
The resurgent white supremacist and right-wing populist movements that have spread across the globe are astounding. While agendas range from the migration-engendered epidemic of “taco trucks on every corner” in the United States (Chokshi 2016) to worries about the presence of minarets in Swiss skylines and calls for white Germans to make Germany’s babies (NPR 2017), the political discourses and material practices that catalyze majority anxieties are similar in their generation of perceived threats to an unmarked but implicit national integrity based in majority identity—at times racialized, at times imbued with specific religious characteristics, and at times bringing these together. These resurgent political formations rely on normative ideas of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religious difference but also invent imaginative narrative justifications and a means for them to mutate and multiply. In each context, specific histories shape which bodies become the main objects of fear and what sets of difference are deemed threatening (Ahmed 2004). Here, we develop the concept of demographic fever dreams to theorize the role they play in the realm of the political. The term foregrounds the role of demography in driving politically pertinent anxieties and points to elements that often are only partly rooted in facts. Like a feverish dream, these narratives lack coherence even as they evoke deeply felt emotions. Rather than dismissing these demographic fever dreams as nonsensical, we argue that they do crucial political work to animate and inspire right-wing populist political movements worldwide.
Demographic fantasies are not uniform across contexts. As we consider the political purpose of these demographic fever dreams, the fears underlying them, and how the vivid imagery ties into fears of masculine decline and panic, we unravel these oddly specific imaginaries. In each of these instances, a vivid and fantastic fiction is used by figures with political power to amplify, imagine, and obscure demographic patterns of migration, birth, or mortality to dismiss or undermine class tensions and create fictitious communities of homogeneity.
Here, we focus on three specific dream forms: the mobilization of masculine virility in the service of creating a strong, loyal, and pious Sunni nation in Turkey; the political work done by “love jihad” in India; and the white heteromasculine nationalism of the US Right. In the sections that follow, we begin by laying out the intersections of literature on feminist geopolitics, embodied nationalism, fascist masculinities, and political demography that help us make sense of demographic fever dreams. We then turn to the cases in Turkey, India, and the United States where demographic fever dreams have become key to the recent resurgence of right-wing nationalist political movements despite different histories of colonialism, nationalism, and locally inflected forms of patriarchy. In tracing the similarities and differences between these three case studies, we deploy discourse analysis (LeGreco and Tracy 2009), examining media sources from news stories and politicians’ speeches to radio shows and Twitter. Our analysis focuses on the most salient aspects of these narratives and their resonance as they travel from one source to another. Through this examination, we identify four aspects common to each of the demographic fever dreams that are key to their functioning as a technique of political animation: first, vivid specificity through an evocative story line or character; second, a focus on population; but, third, detachment from demographic data; and, finally, a gendered dimension that attaches these demographic fears to the potential of changing gender norms. We end by discussing how we can use the demographic fever dream framework to understand our times.
Embodied Nationalism, Masculine Power, and Their Insecurities
We turn to feminist geopolitics to understand the embodied and everyday workings of the state, borders, and political ideology, and how bodies and the most intimate aspects of life are deeply geopolitical.1 Recent research has analyzed, for instance, the ways that differently valued bodies are counted or uncounted (Hyndman 2007), violence of war spills into domestic violence (Pain 2015), the idea of the nation impinges on the bodies of ordinary people traveling through their daily lives (Fluri 2011), and the “war on drugs” comes home (Massaro 2015). This scholarship builds on well-established work on embodied nationalism that demonstrates how the nation is racialized and gendered to justify violent masculinity in its defense.2 Its focus on the political emergence of a violent masculinity as dominant complements theories of masculinity, specifically R. W. Connell’s (1987) conceptualization of hegemonic masculinity as an idealized form that regulates and shapes the range of masculinities possible within a society (see also Connell and Messerschmidt 2005). Linking embodied nationalism to emergent hegemonic forms of violent masculinity deepens the analysis provided by ethnographies and oral histories that center the lived and gendered experience of such violence.3 At the same time, this research contributes to geographies of masculinities that emphasize multiple, fluid, and relational production of masculinities that are influenced by the political, racial, gendered, religious, and class dynamics of specific localities, as well as global discourses and geopolitical strategies.4 Peter Hopkins’s (2008) work, for example, shows how the US-led war on terror has deeply impacted the formation of youthful Muslim masculinities and their everyday lives in Scotland, while Claire Dwyer, Bindi Shah, and Gurchathen Sanghera (2008) analyze the effects of the transformation of South Asian Muslim men’s image, from “cricket lover” to “terror suspect” in in the post–September 11 United Kingdom.
Feminist political geography has been especially effective in noting the ways that a national sense of insecurity is generated by political actors to shore up agendas, while human security is simultaneously undermined.5 Here, we train our eyes on embodied life as the site where nationalist and geopolitical conflicts are constituted through webs of affective relationships and mark certain bodies as threatening and fearsome.
Barbara Spackman’s (1996) work on fascist virilities and Klaus Theweleit’s (1987) work on male fantasies point to a relationship between the politics of strongmen and gendered narratives around the creation of masculinity and the risks of the feminine. Theweleit connects military masculinity with violence, specifically fear-based hatred of women and femininity in the fantasies of the Freikorps, a volunteer army that fought internal revolution in interwar Germany. Many of the Freikorps would go on to Nazi leadership. In their narratives, Theweleit finds that female figures are the object of violence but violence that is imagined to be self-defense and linked to fears of dissolution—of society, of one’s own masculinity, and of the prospect of being overwhelmed, softened, dissolved. It is a masculinity that is both hard and violent but also quite fragile. As Sara Ahmed (2004, 33) suggests, “the normative subject is often secured through narratives of injury: the white male subject, for example, has become an injured party in national discourses, … as the one who has been hurt by the opening up of the nation to others.” The spread of this discourse is facilitated by the majority male subject’s access to resources and thus access to “the capacity to mobilise narratives of injury within the public domain” (33). The need for both the strong masculine figure and the victim narrative means that the figures to be protected are majority women; this enables men to both claim injury (to “their” women) but also claim the position of the strong though embattled savior.
In these rhetorical moves, demographic fever dreams provide a similar fantasy world to fulfill the logics critiqued by scholars above, by rewriting histories and futures with majority figures centered as the true protagonists of history. The stories told by white nationalists in the United States and Europe, by Hindu nationalists in India, and by Erdoğan’s espousal of a vigorous and modern Sunni youth are stories in which the chaotic diversity of a multicultural world and the messiness of women and femininity are both backdrop and adversary in a story line centering strength and the masculine hero as the true protagonists of all stories. Here, the centering of one man as savior is not a fluke, a distraction, or a sideshow but is critical to the functioning of the dream.
The Politics of Population and Demographic Fever Dreams
Demography plays an important role in the interactions between politics and space.6 Population-based desires and fears are not limited to one party or ideology but animate political discourses, as we have seen in Hillary Clinton’s reference to Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” during the 2016 US presidential campaign, a move that plays to liberal desires by flattening opposition to a collection of simplistic demographic caricatures. However, demography’s Malthusian legacy “reinforces patriarchal and capitalist logics” by claiming that demographic change will lead to catastrophe (Robbins and Smith 2017, 201). These logics motivate and support right-wing movements across the globe that see their hegemonic positions threatened by migration and the reproductive fertility of racialized others.7 An important part of this politics is the demographic fever dream. Nightmarishly absurd, the “dream” also implies an orientation toward the future, one that is demographically apocalyptic for the dominating population and thereby requires active, often violent intervention. Along similar lines, Stephen Marr (2012) analyzes the discourses that emerged in urban Botswana as a result of perceived “demographic claustrophobia.” These discourses are mobilized to clearly identify those who are outside the dominant population, essentially making a spatial distinction that identifies who is and is not “from around here” (Abelson 2016, 1542). Moreover, while these discourses appear to those employing them as solid and durable, in fact they are in constant need of maintenance, adapting quickly to respond to rapidly circulating rumors (Marr 2012, 84), giving them a “dizzy quality” not unlike that experienced by a person with a high fever (Ceuppens and Geschiere 2005, 396).
Fundamentally, these fever dreams are motivated by the fears of the dominant population being made a surplus population (McIntyre and Nast 2011, 1468). The demographic fantasy thus serves to shore up the position of certain surplus populations at the expense of others. Demographic fever dreams like those we explore here are intended to be disruptive, provocative, and agitating, while deepening anxieties about penetration by others. Here, biological survival becomes the stake in an intimate geopolitical battle, where declining demographic dominance is read as “a symptom of broader decay” (Bialasiewicz 2006, 705) and future success depends on demographic growth and meticulous engineering of the population to ensure dominance. As such, these fever dreams work to securitize territorial boundaries by disciplining the individual bodies of dominant populations, drawing them closer to the biopolitical regime. These dreams are imbued with a form of “reprosexuality” (Warner 1991, 9) in which gender, sexuality, and reproduction are not only bound together but also understood to be weaponized. When the dream centers the figure of the migrant, or the undeserving/inauthentic citizen (in the case of India’s Muslims), they may be gendered male and implied to be sexually aggressive (e.g., Donald Trump’s description of Mexicans as rapists). Majority women’s reprosexuality may be described positively (mothers of the future nation, in Turkey) but in need of protection and guidance. The perceived threats from migration and reproduction are distinct but also linked and sometimes blurred: in fact, often the intent is to blur, such that people who have lived in a place for generations are eternal migrants, and their reproduction a form of invasion.
When presented as common sense or “hard facts” by someone who “tells it like it is” as opposed to “intellectualizing commentators and academics,” these fever dreams become tinged with the ring of truth and are thus much more potent as biopolitical discourses (Bialasiewicz 2006, 713). We differentiate these dreams from generic right-wing discourses, which may include a broader array of espoused positions—suppression of dissent, desire for a strong military, conservative values—by pointing to their intimate, embodied, and feverish nature. The demographic fever dream is thus an essential technique through which discourse becomes lodged in the body and mind, at times becoming the central message itself. The dreamlike quality both enables the narratives of threat to “stick” to particular figures (Ahmed 2004) and creates an image or story, which sticks in the imagination of those who come to fear this figure.
Turkey: A Pious and Vigorous Future
Since the Adalet and Kalkınma Partisi (AKP; Justice and Development Party) came to power in 2002, it has sought to position Turkey as a devout Sunni Muslim nation that plays a leadership role regionally and globally. Central to this geopolitical strategy have been orchestrated attempts to widen the AKP’s support base by economically and politically enfranchising segments of the population that long felt abandoned by the state and put down by the secular urban elite despite their claims to be the demographic majority. While masculine power and virility have been key to Turkey’s state tradition and national identity since the beginning, AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s embodied performance of a strong masculinity that is simultaneously all-powerful and always threatened does important political work in his ambitious program to create what he calls a “New Turkey.”
Erdoğan’s personal story becomes crucial to his embodiment of fragile virility and his claims to be one of the marginalized with his provincial background, religious orientation, and conservative moral attachments (Gulalp 2003; Gunter and Yavuz 2007): his family’s origins in a conservative city in the Black Sea region that has sent many migrants to Istanbul; his upbringing in the working-class neighborhood of Kasımpaşa, known for its kabadayıs (rough men who protect the neighborhood and the honor of its residents); education in an Imam hatip Islamic school (a system of schools key to the Islamist struggle against the more secular national system); and even his time playing soccer, a highly masculinized sport (Nuhrat 2017)—all mark his suffering and masculine strength. The elements of this story take form in his bodily conduct—from the way he carries himself in confident strides to his combative rhetorical style and use of his voice to project simultaneous vulnerability and aggression. Erdoğan’s rise on the national scene came with his election as the first mayor from an Islamist party to preside over metropolitan Istanbul in 1994. His 1997 persecution for publicly reciting a poem that the secular-dominated judiciary and military deemed provocative became another instance of Erdoğan’s suffering that linked his body to the oppressed masses once again. He was sentenced to ten months in prison, served four months, and was barred for life from public office (Rotham 2016). When he was released from prison, he participated in the establishment of the AKP as an Islamically oriented, thoroughly neoliberal capitalist, initially pro-EU party that came to power in 2002. After the AKP lifted the ban preventing him from serving in public office, Erdoğan became the prime minister (2003–14) and first president to be elected by the public (rather than Parliament) in 2014.
In his rise to power, Erdoğan presented the AKP as the party of the oppressed and victimized and continues to formulate his powerful position as a direct representation of the will of the nation, and thereby unquestionable. Despite the unprecedented power he has amassed over the decade and a half the AKP has ruled the country, solidified by the transition to a presidential political system in 2017, Erdoğan continues to remind the masses of their shared victimhood and an ever-existing threat of returning to a past of oppression. This threat is variously located in the mostly liberal and leftist Gezi protestors of the summer of 2013, the Kurdish and Alevi minority population that threatens a Turkish and Sunni majority, and the failed July 2016 coup attempt allegedly organized by the religious Fethullah Gülen’s hizmet (service) movement, which used to be an AKP ally (Demiralp 2016; Yavuz and Koç 2016) and is now labeled a terrorist organization and persecuted (BBC 2016). When Erdoğan stated that no Muslim family should practice birth control (Hürriyet2016), he not only expressed the importance of a young and large population for Turkey’s economy and political power but also argued that the “events” of the previous three years had clearly shown the need for “growing our own generations” and taking the matter into “our” hands to ensure their piety—and their loyalty, referring to the perceived betrayal of Gülenists and others. Thus, Erdoğan has framed his ambitions to “raise a pious [Sunni Muslim] generation” within an understanding of betrayals of those whose loyalties are suspect, and he has politically reinforced the link between Sunni piety and loyalty (Hürriyet2012). In fact, the AKP government has proposed and implemented a series of measures to reengineer Turkey’s population for this purpose by introducing religion classes that focus on Sunni Islam in primary schools and by expanding religious education in middle and high schools. Critics also point to the placement of Syrian refugee camps in or near Alevi villages in eastern Turkey as a strategy to change the demographic composition of these areas to ensure Sunni hegemony (Dağlar 2016). By 2017, Turkey’s fertility rate had fallen below replacement level to 2.1, its lowest since World War I (Sarıoğlu 2017)—a fact that gained fantastical elements in the government’s persistent narratives that link declining fertility rates to the threat of population decline and the demise of the nation.
While Erdoğan targets young, vigorous, devout Muslim men as the source of New Turkey’s power, he relegates women mainly to the role of reproducers (like his wife, who bore their four children). This approach to women is central not only to Erdoğan’s conservatism but also his authoritarianism (Yılmaz 2015). In an infamous speech that he gave at the first international meeting of the women’s organization KADEM (Kadın ve Demokrasi Derneği, Women and Democracy Association) focusing on the topic of “Women and Justice,” Erdoğan denied the equality of men and women, arguing that gender equality would be against fıtrat (creation; Milliyet2014). He continues to depict women—especially headscarf-wearing women who suffered under the secular regime’s implementation of dress codes that restricted access to education, employment, and public service—as victims and empowers men and masculinist institutions such as the police force to protect women and stay vigilant in the face of constant threat. During the tumultuous time of the 2013 Gezi Park protests, which began as a sit-in against plans to demolish a central city park and quickly evolved into a wider criticism of the AKP regime and its neoliberalism, imposition of an Islamic lifestyle, and restrictions on civil liberties, Erdoğan kept referring to a story that was proved to be false months later. According to this story, a young, headscarf-wearing mother and her baby were attacked by a large group of men while waiting for a bus in Istanbul. There were several reliable reports of headscarf-wearing women being harassed at the time, but there were also many headscarf-wearing women participating in the protests, including a group who organized a demonstration that criticized harassment of all women. Yet the progovernment media and politicians, including Erdoğan, repeated the story of the attack. As the story circulated, twenty men became forty, and other embellishments appeared to make the narrative even more appalling: supposedly men had bare chests, some carried chains, and they urinated on the baby. By the time the story was proved false by CCTV footage, it had already done the political work of rallying crowds to counter the Gezi protests and discredit the protestors as thugs whose only goal was to bring back “secular tyranny” (Gökarıksel 2016, 236).
If the story of a woman being assaulted by secularist brutes served the AKP’s narrative of an ever-present threat, the 2016 coup attempt helped solidify the empowerment of ordinary men who are loyal to Erdoğan as the defenders of democracy and protectors of the nation. Only a few hours into the coup, in a televised Facetime connection, Erdoğan called on people to come out into the streets and fight against the soldiers. Although women were among the crowds that poured out in response this call, and several images show women transporting men, walking toward tanks, and challenging soldiers (Akınerdem 2017), civilian men were the heroes of the night. Men came out of that night with a sense of masculine power, symbolized perhaps most strikingly by the photograph of a man mounted on top of a tank with the tank’s cannon tube protruding like an oversized penis or a phallic attachment (Korkman 2017, 182). Civilian men had succeeded in stopping tanks and fighter jets with no weaponry other than their courage—or so the narrative went. If the coup was deeply rooted in a long, masculinist military tradition and culture, the reaction to it also worked to strengthen and legitimize aggressive, violent masculinities of civilian men and the police (Gökarıksel 2017, 174). Since then the country has been in a nightmarish frenzy driven by fear and suspicion, looking for betrayal and labeling thousands “terrorists” whether they are coupist soldiers, Kurdish nationalists, Gülenists, or liberals. The military, partly emasculated by the failed coup attempt (Açıksöz 2017), has been waging war against the Kurds in the southeast and across the border in Syria, while the police have solidified their power as the backbone of the state. Thus, the current regime is characterized by claims to a masculine virility, but one that is fragile. This fragility requires the double work of displacement of vulnerability onto convenient and compelling victims, mostly women, and of being on the offensive against a dizzying list of threatening groups, institutions, and individuals and necessitates the creation of a population with unwavering loyalty. Hence Erdoğan’s ambitions for creating a pious (Sunni Muslim) generation and obsession with declining fertility rates. Demographic fever dreams in the Turkish case come to life in the vivid specificity of the story of the headscarf-wearing mother under assault; amplified anxieties over potentially declining population growth and perceived betrayals by those close to the government and the potential threat of different others; and the emergent need to vigilantly defend the nation against disorder and chaos, which necessitates a strong masculine leader. The demographic fever dream in the Turkish case is more like a fantasy that centers on a demographic utopia: only when the population is cleansed of enemies and recreated to ensure loyalty, vigor, and piety can the cultural and economic flourishing of New Turkey be achieved.
India: Love Jihad and Romance as Threat
Following the 2014 victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in national parliamentary elections and Narendra Modi’s ascendancy as prime minister, “love jihad” discourses have proliferated and been accompanied by a ghar wapsi (“homecoming”) campaign seeking Hindu converts, as well as new rounds of violence stemming from “cow protection” (Palshikar 2015; Gupta 2016; Varma 2017). While Modi has at times sought to distance himself from the BJP’s Hindu nationalist roots, for many this centrist posturing has been unconvincing, and under his leadership regional party leaders and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Organization, a militant part of the family of Hindu national organizations) have been emboldened (Palshikar 2015; Jaffrelot 2016, 2017). This has been particularly evident in comments made by regional party members—for instance, the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath, who threatened, “if one Hindu girl is converted, we will convert 100 Muslims girls. … The way Hindu girls are insulted, I don’t think a civilised society would accept it. … If the government is not doing anything, then the Hindus will have to take matters into their own hands” (in Safi 2017).
The love jihad narrative first emerged in 2009, following a case of two women allegedly abducted from their local college in Kerala and coerced into Islam in order to marry Muslim men (Gupta 2009; Das 2010). Subsequent court cases in Kerala and Karnataka, widely reported in the national media, alleged a wider conspiracy, and police even investigated whether or not there was a love jihad organization (Das 2010). Within days, pamphlets were passed out at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (one of India’s most prestigious institutions). The text warns:
A Pakistan-based terrorist organization is planning, abetting and financing the enticement of college students from different communities in the State to become cannon fodder for its jihad in India. The report terms such young women as “Love Bombs.” … Trapping naïve Hindu girls in the web of love in order to convert to Islam is the modus operandi of the said organization. Already more than 4000 girls have been converted to Islam by these Jihadi Romeos … recruits need to trap a Hindu girl within the time frame of 2 weeks and brainwash her to get converted and then get married with her within 6 months. Special instructions to breed at least 4 kids have also been issued. … College students and working girls should be the prime target (in Das 2010, 381).
As Charu Gupta (2009), Veena Das (2010), and Mohan Rao (2011) have argued, love jihad is fundamentally linked to older tropes in South Asia on the potential for violent responses to (and need to police) Hindu-Muslim relationships, particularly in reference to women’s sexuality. As we see in the pamphlet above, this language also targets specific segments of the population (“college students and working girls”) and is one of a series of technologies for policing women (Varma 2017), which have included restrictions on movement, mobile phones, and clothing (Phadke, Khan, and Ranade 2011; Varma 2017). We see the vivid specificity of the bewitched Hindu woman and the Muslim “Romeo” and the conflation of women’s bodies with territorial conquest, which is both a predisposition of colonial processes (McClintock 1995; Simpson 2009) and a lasting element of what Ann Laura Stoler (2013) refers to as “colonial ruination”: the ongoing destructive effects of colonization that are perpetuated and transformed after independence (see also Das 1995; Butalia 2000). As Das (2010, 378) explains in her extended ethnography of a Hindu-Muslim couple in Delhi, within this context, for ordinary couples, “something as simple as a Hindu boy having fallen in love with a Muslim girl becomes a seed scattered in the soil of the everyday. It carries within it the potential to unleash great violence—but also an opportunity for intimate aspirations to be realized by all who have to re-create their relations around the couple.” However, while religious intermarriage on the ground is a complex set of shifting relationships between individuals, the state, parents, and community organizations (Mody 2008), in the accusations of love jihad it becomes something else entirely—ordinary life is transformed into a feverish kind of fantasy in which a seemingly impulsive interaction—flirting—could turn out to be part of a jihadi conspiracy.
This particular form of demographic fever dream is linked to fears built over the course of the twentieth century, which reached their specific formulations beginning in the 1980s and 1990s, with what has been described as “Saffron Demography” (Jeffery and Jeffery 2005; Rao 2010). As Patricia Jeffery and Roger Jeffery (2002, 1806) argue, the “threat” of a rising Muslim population is used to solidify a Hindu voting base through manipulation of how population is represented and through omission of the ways that use of family planning is more clearly linked to socioeconomic status, level of education, and other marks of inclusion that are difficult for religious minorities to obtain.8 More pertinent to our argument are the ways that this population thinking is profoundly tied to the colonial encounter (e.g., Appadurai 1996; Dirks 2011) and resonates with gendered narratives of colonization in which “white men [save] brown women from brown men” (Spivak 1988, 305; see also Mohanty 1991). It echoes Erdoğan’s “saving” of the woman pushing the stroller and Trump’s fantasies of protecting (white) women from the rapists he (a sexual abuser himself) imagines crossing the US-Mexico border.
India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, came to national power by positioning himself as an efficient, neoliberal “development man,” who would deploy the “Gujarat Model” of economic growth across the nation (Mehta 2010; Jaffrelot 2016). However, as scholars, journalists, and activists have noted, his roots as a member of the RSS and his role during the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat are the backdrop for a proliferation of Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) campaigns. As a corollary to the love jihad discourse, there is now the ghar wapsi campaign to “welcome home” Hindus who had been converted to Islam. While his 2014 campaign was imbued with a focus on the economy (Palshikar 2015), Modi retains his history as the boy who joined the RSS at the age of eight and then as a young man abandoned his seventeen-year-old wife for a life of Hindu activism and apparent celibacy. Modi developed his political career as the chief minister of Gujarat, beginning his term in 2001, and his role during the 2002 Gujarat riots (which left 2,000 people dead and 150,000 in refugee camps) was widely criticized as enabling ethnic cleansing.9 Only months after the violence, Modi participated in a Gujarati pride pilgrimage (Gaurav yatra) across the state, delivering controversial remarks in September of that year on Muslim Gujaratis, accusing them of a population boom and asking: “What should we do? Run relief camps for them? Do we want to open baby-producing centres? But for certain people that means ‘hum paanch, hamare pachis’ (We five and our 25)… . We must teach a lesson to those who multiply like this” (in Bunsha 2002).
“We five, our twenty-five” is a reference to the family planning call for small families. This is meant to evoke an image of a Muslim man with four wives and twenty-five children (we five, our twenty-five) as the opposite of the government family planning slogan that encourages a nuclear family of two parents and two children (we two, our two). This imagery willfully obscures the fact that the Muslim population of Gujarat had at that time held steady at 10 percent for over 50 years. When asked about his role in the Gujarat riots, Modi restated his Hindu nationalism, declined to admit culpability, and went on to compare Muslim deaths to those of “puppies,” saying, “if we are driving a car … if a puppy comes under the wheel, will [it] be painful or not? Of course, it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad” (Times of India2013).
Christophe Jaffrelot (2016) has argued that Modi began his political rise through his rhetorical strategy of embodying Gujarat and positioning himself as fighting for Gujarat against an indifferent center. He has also done so in a way that resonates with other nationalist work to define Hindu masculinity in reference to a pathologized Muslim other (Blom Hansen 1996; Bacchetta 2000; Banerjee 2005). Modi has forged a new path by working toward a carefully cultivated image, rising from humble roots as an Other Backward-Caste tea seller to become the face of India in a suit with pinstripes spelling his name, presiding over a wave of traditionally communalist incidents of violence such as cow-protection killings and the love jihad/ghar vapasi campaigns, while simultaneously promoting a deepening neoliberalism in tandem with cultural symbolism appealing to Hindutva (such as his embrace of yoga).10 Gupta (2016, 292) convincingly argues that the BJP victory in 2014 was inseparable from a deep shift to the right and was dependent on religious symbolism and the discourses of love jihad and ghar wapsi, which “operate at a subterranean level,” sometimes translating to common sense, such that some Hindu majoritarians feel emboldened by national politics even as others vote for the BJP in spite of rather than in deference to its embrace of Hindutva, either because of Modi’s promise of an economic miracle or due to India’s tendency to vote out incumbents (in this case the Congress Party) rather than reelect them. This narrative resonates with the politics of white supremacy in the 2016 presidential elections in the United States.
The United States: They Are Constantly on the March
In our final case study, we turn to events surrounding the 2016 presidential election in the United States, which saw Donald Trump elected president following a campaign filled with appeals to xenophobia, often through the deployment of demographic fever dreams. Our goal here is not to argue that demographic fever dreams were somehow responsible for the election of President Trump. We seek instead to demonstrate how they have given life to a vivid and unforgettable right-wing discourse of existential demographic precarity where a white masculine nation is being usurped by queer “toxic assets” (Chen 2012, 191) and “brown threats” (Silva 2016). We begin with an in-depth exploration of one particular fever dream before turning to broader statements made by the president and other prominent politicians to show how the 2016 election was permeated with fever dreams that would come on quickly, and intensely, before dissipating into the fog of the fever itself.
In the summer of 2016, the US Department of Agriculture hosted a conference at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa—a “Rural Pride” summit—celebrating LGBT contributions to agriculture. Held in a swing state during an election year, this otherwise low-key event attracted the attention of popular right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh, who on his August 17 broadcast warned his national audience of a sinister plot by the “Obama Regime” to divert federal funds to “convince lesbians to become farmers” and thus “change the perception of what it means to be a farmer in America away from the ‘white, rich male’” (Limbaugh 2016). On its face, the premise seems absurd, and even Limbaugh had to admit that most people would see the news and “ignore it or laugh at it but ultimately cast it aside.” Still, he insisted that lesbian farmers posed a serious threat to the conservative, “self-reliant, rugged individualist types” currently populating his vision of the rural United States. For Limbaugh, this was part of a larger conflict being waged on demographic terrain, and he left his listeners with an ominous warning: “No matter where you turn, you can’t escape this fact: if you are conservative, Republican, straight and white, you are yesterday. You are so yesterday. You are so irrelevant. You are so unnecessary.” The implication here is clear: Limbaugh’s audience is in danger of losing the future and being replaced by queer and brown bodies (here represented by the lesbian farmers sent by the Obama Regime) that, as he claimed, “are constantly on the march.”
Limbaugh provided hope for listeners in the form of his own spectacular masculinity delivered daily through his radio program. He concluded his segment on lesbian farmers by telling his audience that even though everyone else would laugh or ignore the signs, “I, El Rushbo, am able to read the stitches on the fastball and clearly see what this is about.” Once again, the fever dream is positioned as a toxic threat to the hard, masculine nation that can only be cured through the intervention of a strongman like Limbaugh himself. Later in the program, he cautioned a distraught woman from Maine by telling her, “you can’t grow immune to” such threats. Indeed, immunity renders the toxin imperceptible and negates the need for a cure. Limbaugh’s story here is thus emblematic of the demographic fevers dreams we have outlined: the image of the lesbian farmer is vivid and specific, positioned in this narrative as a threat to the dominant rural population all while being detached from data and infused with an underlying fear of a gender role reversal. Moreover, this particular threat positions lesbian farmers as toxic assets, where queerness becomes both valued by capital (in an aside, Limbaugh reveals his envy for gay couples who are “smarter,” and “hip,” and “sophisticated”) and simultaneously a danger to the “affective fabric of immunity nationalism” where pure, impenetrable populations are the key to healthy nations (Chen 2012, 192; see also Puar 2007).
Limbaugh’s claim is premised on the idea that the demographic purity of the rural United States is being undermined by the intentional efforts of the federal government (at the time, led by President Obama) to displace, replace, or convert farmers. This rhetoric positions an embodied white masculinity as constantly under threat from outside demographic forces represented by brown, Black, and queer bodies moving from the city into rural space. As Katherine Cramer (2016) notes, the history of political discourse against government redistribution and regulation in the rural United States has “historically been made by equating deservingness with whiteness,” such that political conversations in these communities “are about race even when race is not mentioned” and foster a particular resentment against nonwhite bodies (86). Similarly, research on white fragility shows us that when faced with “even a minimum amount of racial stress,” white communities will react defensively (DiAngelo 2011, 57). The fever dream of the lesbian farmer is interesting in this context because while Limbaugh has not explicitly racialized the queer bodies, they are threatening in part because they are being sent by the federal government, represented at the time by President Obama, a Black man whose own national origins and religious affiliation had been openly questioned by Limbaugh and then-candidate Trump. Thus, we see that the object of resentment cannot be placed above race; nor can we simply accept that race is intertwined with place and class in rural consciousness, because life in the rural United States has been made possible only through a “hieroglyphics of the flesh” where power has been etched into human flesh to create the appearance of a natural sociopolitical hierarchy (Weheliye 2014, 50). In other words, we have to understand rurality in these discourses as fundamentally about whiteness. Such fever dreams are thus effective because they are deployed in this existing discourse where white, rural Americans already see their livelihoods as constantly being threatened (Cramer 2016), but they function to intensify the political valence of this discourse by providing a more vivid and enticing story line to understand existential and prolonged economic crisis (Fojas 2017). “Lesbian farmers” stand in for a whole host of queer and brown threats to the integrity of masculine white supremacy.11 These are all bodies that “aren’t from around here” (Abelson 2016), and Limbaugh appeals to fears of declining fertility in rural, white populations by positioning lesbian farmers as nonreproductive bodies that will disrupt the livelihoods of traditional, masculine farmers, who view themselves as the world’s food providers. As Jasbir Puar and Amit Rai (2002, 117) observe, the queer intruder resonates with the unknowable and monstrous other figured elsewhere as the terrorist, the failed heterosexual, the queer monster, and the foil to “aggressive heterosexual patriotism.”
When Limbaugh speaks of “rural America,” he is invoking a particular image of “home” as a space of “excessively romanticized belonging” that also serves as a proxy for the nation-state, where belonging is “based on identifying and producing those who did not belong” (Silva 2016, 19). When considering the space of the rural United States, then, we must contend with how that space is marked as white and how queer and brown bodies threaten the boundaries of whiteness when they enter rural space. In another example, Iowa Congressman Steve King signaled support for Dutch nationalist Geert Wilder’s Islamophobic xenophobia by tweeting that “culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” (in Haag 2017). We must understand how this message underlines the political significance of demography in animating fever dreams about threats to the future of the nation. That is, “our civilization” in this tweet quite clearly means white civilization, and “somebody else’s babies” means brown babies. King’s tweet is just a local variation on the emergent nationalism in the United States that centers an ironically strong and existentially threatened white heteromasculinity under attack from others who in fact suffer from marginalization, underrepresentation, sexism, and racism.
Importantly, this same rhetoric, with its coded fears of an ever-encroaching “brown threat” (Silva 2016), was picked up by Trump in his 2016 presidential campaign. Speaking to a group of farmers, bikers, and veterans at a “Roast and Ride” hosted by Iowa Republican Senator Joni Ernst in Des Moines, candidate Trump told a mostly white crowd, “I know what’s happening to you. … We get it. We all get it. We understand what’s going on.” He never explicitly said what’s “going on,” but the audience received the message—the cheers in response were deafening. Trump positions “what’s going on” as a battle, where pure white space is being penetrated by toxic threats, and he promises “to end this war on the American farmer” (Henderson 2016). The unspoken assumption is that rural America belongs to white men like the speakers, who view themselves as good, normalized subjects with an inherent right to own and cultivate the lands they occupy (DiAngelo 2011). For Trump, these bodies are engaged in a demographic war against white farmers. The maintenance of fear and anxiety toward lesbian farmers, Latinx immigrants, and any other demographic group considered “outside” is thus essential to maintaining this status of the white man as good subject: a provider and protector. When Trump speaks of “bad hombres” or claims that Mexican men are crossing the border to rape US women, the fever dream is a call for a renewed commitment to masculinity (Pascoe 2017). This, then, is the work that demographic fever dreams do: identify those who must be kept outside any vision of a future nation; continuously maintain a vivid sense of fear, foreboding, and anxiety about what would happen if those others suddenly took over the state; and set up the strongman as the only possibility of preserving the integrity of the nation and its normative subjects.
As demographic fever dreams, these narratives center white masculinity as crucial to current right-wing populist rhetoric in the United States and locate threats to the nation in nonwhite, nonmale, and nonheteronormative bodies while seeking purification and power through a series of violent technologies. This technique of power renders class irrelevant, uniting white Americans across class divisions through an embodied fear of the toxic other and sustaining that fear through the constant introduction of new fever dreams. Trump’s “defensive obsession with his embodied masculinity” (Gökarıksel and Smith 2016, 79) reveals that gender is central to the feverish panic that is intended to lead to the inevitable conclusion that only Trump’s exaggerated masculinity can save the nation from racial and moral decline.
What are the points of resonance between white panic over demographic decline; the hoped-for, called-into-being upwelling of a vigorous Sunni youth; and the fear-mongering of love jihad rhetoric? Putting these three distinct and empirically rich cases next to one another reveals the important political work demographic fever dreams do to identify all manner of others as threats and present strongmen as saviors. Four aspects of demographic fever dreams are key to their functioning as a fleshy and sticky set of stories that take on a life of their own.
First, demographic fever dreams’ vivid specificity catches the imagination and invokes strong emotions through its centering on a particular figure or scene. Second, these narratives are obsessed with demographic changes that link the past and the future of the nation to population. Third, despite the previous observation, these narratives are strangely detached from demographic data. Finally, these fever dreams reflect a specifically gendered dimension, and they respond to particular masculinities that are understood as both threatened and resurgent. Gendered tropes in fever dreams often project the sense of victimhood and fragility onto a specific or anonymous woman whose imagined vulnerability is compelling and does not challenge strong masculinity but makes it necessary. The strongman can then emerge as the savior who can protect women and the nation, restore order, and ensure the population’s present and future well-being. This gendered representation of masculinity undergirds all the demographic fever dreams analyzed here and is bolstered by the embodied performances of Erdoğan, Modi, and Trump, among others. These figures skillfully translate perceived masculine strength into the perception of a strong political leadership. Yet their narratives and embodiment also shore up a sense of grievance and loss, enacting a “politics of resentment” (Cramer 2016) and victimhood that often relies on a corollary femininity in need of protection. The feverish dreamlike aspects of demographic narratives espoused in Turkey, India, and the United States thus underline a masculinity that is simultaneously strong and weak, under constant threat and (potentially) victorious.
Demographic fever dreams operate similarly to postapocalyptic narratives that play on “fears of being overwhelmed or overpowered by racialized others”: in these narratives, “the only thing worse than being killed and eaten by a zombie is becoming a zombie oneself” (Fishel and Wilcox 2017, 341–42). Fear of conversion and recruitment is central to many of these demographic fantasies. Love jihad threatens to transform Hindus into Muslims, declining fertility rates and a perceived lack of piety threaten the nation in Turkey, and queer farmers in the United States threaten agriculture as we know it. Each of these fears is intensely and intimately embodied and called into operation through seductive and deceptive means—threatening to infect the heart and body, to render college girls into love bombs, to bring queer identity to the heart of rural and agriculture heartlands, to harm mothers and daughters through corruption and impurity. Such fictions reflect a strong desire by dominant groups to contain the threat of contamination represented by otherized bodies or future-oriented dreams and to build a loyal, homogenous nation. The demographic fever dream warns its audience to turn to the strongman in a suit or else risk all manner of chaos and danger, and it provides specific characters and story lines to allow the fever dreams to take on a life of their own.
We do not care to smugly dismiss fears about an unlikely takeover by others or calls for women to have at least three children but, instead, desire to more carefully consider the content, deployment, and mechanisms of these vivid demographic imaginaries. In her work on fascism in Italy, Spackman (1996) emphasizes the ways that pathologizing fascism risks marking it as irrational and allows us to evade our own participation. Spackman (1996, xi) suggests that the syntax of fantasy can be mapped onto social and cultural fantasies in ways that “bind together a knowledge and a nonknowledge” so that “fantasy acts as a structuring illusion.” Similarly, demographic fever dreams shape the affective experiences and perceptions of (at least part of) the public and help craft what makes sense even when it does not. In putting forward the demographic fever dreams framework, our hope is that we can begin to unwind this binding and identify its resonances and contradictions to better understand how to combat the violent technologies of purification and policing that they enable. When demographic fever dreams begin to spread, often a first response is incredulity and feigned or sincere shock on behalf of those who do not wish to partake in these feverish escapades, or a knowing eye roll from those who are all too familiar with these story lines. We joke, we satirize, we highlight the absurdity of a wave of taco trucks or the burkini as dangerous. But absurdity turns out to be not a sign of the fever dream’s failure but rather its success. As we saw in Charlottesville, however absurd the army, their aim is violence. In moving forward, we must instead push into the discomfort of working to understand the origins of these feverish scenarios, to unravel their logics, and to pinpoint the ways that they are not outside “normal” but rather an intensification of the everyday violences that we already inhabit.
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Originally published by Signs 44:3 (Spring 2019), The University of Chicago Press, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.