This paper was written for and presented at the American University of Cairo conference “RUMPUS: America and the Age of Trump, An International Studies Conference” on May 13, 2017.
As masses of people attended Donald Trump’s speeches, cheering on his hate and ignorance, his anti-politics politics, the majority of American liberals—from television political commentators and media personalities to well-intentioned friends—insisted defiantly: Trump does not represent us, Trump does not represent America. Trump is the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, orange exception to America’s progressive primacy. That group of people supporting him, those are the rednecks, and they are holding us back as a nation. That’s not who we are.
We’ve all heard it, right? Citing the higher number of votes going to Hillary Clinton, or the more than half of the population who supposedly view him unfavorably, or wistfully quoting First Lady Michelle Obama “when they go low, we go high” to prove the utter injustice of it all.
The entire election has sparked a nationwide debate about what it is to be un-American, with liberals describing Trump’s administration as a disjuncture from previous presidential presidents.
This paper covers the other narrative: Trump’s ascendance to political power reflects exactly who and what America is.
The United States is a settler colonial project. Most Americans believe the colonization of native lands was a singular event in the past, either a dark but necessary history that allowed for the current state’s existence or a war that was rightfully won by the stronger party. Patrick Wolfe has argued that the invasion of settler colonialism is not an event, but rather a structure. From the 15th century white colonial murder-explorers to the 1776 American Revolution replacing monarch’s divine rights with the divine rights of white men to Manifest Destiny justifying the US settlers’ expansion, settler colonialism in the Americas has created a structure of displacing and destroying racialized and disposable peoples and replacing them to sustain the permanency of the white occupation.
Joshua Inwood and Anne Bonds describe the three primary logics of settler colonialism that enshrine white supremacy in the United States:
- The logic of genocide: disappearing indigenous peoples to appropriate profitable lands. This includes the notion of private property coupled with labor systems to make them productive.
- The logic of slavery: which mutates over time and space, connecting sharecropping, welfare programs, and mass imprisonment.
- The logic of orientalism: constantly creating enemies, putting the US in a permanent state of warfare both within and beyond its borders.
Ruth Wilson Gilmore aptly puts it: “The US was conceived in slavery and christened in genocide.”
In other words, the US cannot escape its genocidal past, because it is constantly and perpetually being reproduced. It is this structure of settler colonialism, which racializes bodies to support the white man’s right to private property and capital accumulation and disposes others for labor systems, disappearance, or death, that defines America.
Even with the abolishment of slavery, the denouncement of segregation and racism, and so on, Charles W. Mills argues that the power relations produced to uphold white supremacy in the US continue to survive after the formal dismantlement of those colonial, genocidal, and oppressive enterprises. American white supremacy does not vanish, because it is foundational to the continued occupation of the land; rather, it changes from an overtly legalized form to an implicit and de facto form.
A few days ago, a young 15-year old black boy named Jordan Edwards was murdered by a white cop in Texas, in a city neighboring my hometown. The cop, Roy Oliver, shot three rounds into the back of Jordan’s head using an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, the US military’s weapon of choice for over fifty years due to its ability to kill “mass numbers of people with maximum efficiency and ease.” The cop was a veteran who joined the police force after completing two tours in Iraq. His family claims he suffered from PTSD. Oliver has been fired and charged with murder, but Jordan Edwards is still dead, and his teenage brothers and friends watched him die.
The increasing militarization of the police is not a new phenomenon. This has been progressing for decades. When Obama was still president, I remember seeing the regular cop cars slowly disappear and in their place cruised long and tall SUVs holding more and bigger weapons and equipment for war. Yes, even under the liberal Obama, police brutality and militarization continued, US involvement in wars around the world increased, drone warfare increased, US empire expanded. No past administration has truly given us reprieve. Electing a black president did not end racism, and electing an overtly racist president did not cause it.
Inwood and Bonds write: “The settler state is premised on permanent war, inscribing militarism and violence into everyday geographies and naturalizing erasure of racialized bodies.” These are the heartbreaking moments that define America. A young boy, racialized for disposal despite his youth and innocence. A man used by the state to enforce the project of empire abroad returns untreated, prepared to act patriotically and continue to eliminate the Other at home. A boy is dead. A man is a murderer. America remains.
When Late Show host Stephen Colbert asked about Trump’s candidacy last year, Vice President Joe Biden—in a brief moment of sincerity—described the United States government as “the largest corporation in the world.” And he’s right. The US settler colonial project is one that is not only meant to replace what is rendered disposable but also expand its reach under the auspices of capitalism. Who better to lead the corporate empire than Donald Trump, a business man who has risen to light in the popular media since the 1970s as a beacon of American wealth and ingenuity. His media presence as a successful mogul has been so engrained in the popular psyche that his supporters refuse to believe anything that tells them otherwise, be it his bankruptcies, his numerous failed business ventures, or his late-night Tweets that lead some to question his general wellbeing.
The people who attended Trump’s campaign speeches were largely made up of the petty bourgeoisie and the white working class. The reasoning behind the wealthier voters’ support is fairly obvious as a group that is not quite rich enough to avoid the brunt of a financial crisis but rich enough and white enough to blame and victimize ethnic-racial minorities. But what about the white working class? Why would they vote against their own interests? What made them turn toward Trump and the fiscally conservative GOP?
As neoliberal policies prioritizing deregulation, free trade, and technological innovation led to the further disenfranchisement of rural America, the white working class developed anti-statist attitudes, building movements that target the government and the state as the enemy, in the name of nation and patriotism to it. In other words, this movement insists that their government has been “occupied” or “co-opted,” and the members use patriot rhetoric to mark themselves as true Americans and distinguish from their constructed un-American enemy.
While this group could have been mobilized along class lines, the white workers chose race over class because the symbolic capital of whiteness is guaranteed. Subsequently, as Carolyn Gallaher argues, “the revolutionary banner of class has been adopted by the right… linking right-wing populist economic rhetoric with conservative social causes.” In short: the white working class prioritized their whiteness over their class, missing that the cause of their own disenfranchisement—neoliberalism, globalization, etc.—is precisely the result of the white America their patriot rhetoric represents.
American nationalism is the tool that Trump used to garner support over class lines. The racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and general orangeness of patriot rhetoric is a product of American white supremacy and capitalism. It is not an exception; indeed, it follows the rule.
Gerald Horne points out that white supremacy, as a mechanism designed to insure economic hegemony, private property, and the power and privilege that goes along with it, is composed of ruling ideas that belong to the ruling elite; “this, white supremacy has served in the first place the interests of the Euro-American elite and has been perceived by many non-elite Euro-Americans to serve their interests too.” So, though it has been a part of the fabric of the US since its inception, it is a structure dominated, controlled, and perpetuated by the elite.
This paper does not aim to dismiss or invalidate any radical work and struggle in the US as “American” and therefore inevitably part of the settler colonial project on a terrain of white supremacy. Such an argument would deny the possibility of a future free from that oppression. And there are Americans and people living within America’s borders who are doing incredible and everyday things that I believe are pushing us toward that horizon. However, they do not deny or romanticize the past. They do not ignore the people targeted by white supremacy, by settler colonialism, by US empire. Their resistance does not accept what is unacceptable, because there can be no compromise in the fight for liberation.