Donald Trump has repeatedly shown, through both his words and deeds, that he is a white supremacist. Over the course of the last few weeks, he has launched (even more) racist fusillades against black and brown people. Trump and his advisers have clearly decided that's how he will win the 2020 presidential election.
Trump's most recent racist attacks began two weeks ago with his tweets suggesting that Democratic congresswomen Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar should "go back" to their supposed home countries because they dared to criticize his policies — especially the detention of black and brown migrants and refugees in concentration camps. To state the obvious, these congresswomen are Americans.
Last weekend, Trump turned eliminationist and genocidal language against Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, chair of the House Oversight Committee — which is investigating numerous aspects of the Trump presidency. Trump described "Cumming District" [sic] as "a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess" and a "very dangerous & filthy place," and that "no human being would want to live there." Trump also implied that Cummings himself might be corrupt. In fact, Cummings is a well-respected and well-liked member of Congress who has prided himself on friendly relations with many Republicans (none of whom stood up to defend him against the president's racist taunts).
Earlier this week Trump turned to the Rev. Al Sharpton, using language frequently deployed by white supremacists in claiming that the longtime civil rights leader "Hates Whites & Cops!"
All the Democratic candidates who hope to run against Trump condemned his racism during the CNN debates in Detroit this week. On Tuesday, Rep. Rashida Tlaib fought back against Trump's racist screeds and attempts at character assassination against her and her colleagues, writing in a Washington Post op-ed that "This behavior is sadly familiar — almost every day, he disgraces his office with rhetoric rooted in hate."
On the same day Quinnipiac University released a public opinion poll which showed that 51 percent of Americans believe that Trump is a racist. Only 8 percent of Republicans subscribe to that view, which should surprise no one. Trump won the 2016 election largely because of white racism. By implication, Trump's supporters and the Republican Party as a whole both tacitly and actively endorse his white supremacist and racist policies, behavior and beliefs.
Following the Democratic debate on Tuesday night, Trump (again) attacked CNN host Don Lemon on Twitter as "the dumbest man on television, [who] insinuated last night while asking a debate 'question' that I was a racist, when in fact I am 'the least racist person in the world.' Perhaps someone should explain to Don that he is supposed to be neutral, unbiased & fair or is he too dumb (stupid} to understand that."
Don Lemon is not dumb. But he is black, and Donald Trump believes that black people are less intelligent than white people.
Widespread condemnation of Trump's racist and authoritarian behavior and beliefs is essential if America is to remain a democracy in the near present and future. But Trump's racist attacks on the "Squad," as well as on Cummings, Sharpton and Lemon, must also be understood not in isolation but instead as part of a much larger authoritarian project.
In his 2017 book "Aspirational Fascism," political theorist William E. Connolly writes that Trump is a would-be dictator who "pursues crowd adulation, hyperaggressive nationalism, white triumphalism, a law-and-order regime giving unaccountable power to the police, a militarist, and a practitioner of a rhetorical style that regularly creates fake news and smears opponents to mobilize support for the Big Lies he advances." Here, Connolly locates Trump's racist attacks as tactics in service of a larger strategy.
Central to Trump and the Republican Party's fascist agenda are beliefs about love of country, the meaning of community and how national belonging is defined — and the walls erected around all of these ideas. Trump attacked the Squad's members by writing: "I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country. They should apologize to America (and Israel) for the horrible (hateful) things they have said. They are destroying the Democrat Party, but are weak & insecure people who can never destroy our great Nation!"
Unfortunately, too many journalists, reporters and other political observers still chase phantoms of "material self-interest" or "economic anxiety" in the "white working class" in a near-futile effort to make sense of Trumpism. In reality the worst human emotions — and how best to manipulate them — often offer better explanations for how politics works in the real world.
"Love" is both a noun and a verb. Who gets to define what it means to love their country? What actions qualify as "approved" and "acceptable" expressions of love of country? What about legitimate criticism? What about those who fight and work to make their country a better place, and do so precisely because they are critical of their country? Did the freedom fighters who struggled, bled and died during the civil rights movement to bring down Jim and Jane Crow love their country? What of the activists who worked so hard to end the Vietnam War? Who fought for women's rights? The rights of gays and lesbians? The rights of the disabled?
Are some groups of people allowed to criticize America and have that seen as an act of love, while other people who criticize their own country are viewed as "traitorous" and "un-American"? Who gets to play referee?
For Donald Trump, "love" means submission to him. More broadly, Donald Trump's "love" of country is channeled through racial authoritarianism, where nonwhites are to be submissive and silent, surrendering to white power and white dominance over every area of American life. In this deranged worldview, to be an "American" means to be "white" first of all. And the most "authentic" kind of American is not merely "white" but also a "Christian" and "conservative" Trump cultist. (I use the scare-quotes to emphasize that none of those words have clear or obvious meanings.)
Of course there are exceptions. Black and brown conservatives can try to buy their way into political whiteness by being enthusiastic supporters, defenders and excuse-makers for Trump and the white right.
When asked the day after Trump's political hate rally in North Carolina about the president's racist slurs against the four progressive congresswomen, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., basically offered an explanation of honorary whiteness. He told reporters, “I don’t think a Somali refugee embracing Trump would be asked to go back. If you’re racist, you want everybody to go back because they are black or Muslim. That’s not what this is about. What this is about to me is that these four congresswomen, in their own way, have been incredibly provocative. ... If you think he’s as racist, that’s up to you. I don’t. ... For President Trump, if you embrace his policies, doesn’t matter where you come from, he probably likes you.”
Leonard Pitts Jr. offered this additional context in a recent op-ed for the Miami Herald:
While there is no official “honorary white” status in this country, American politics has evolved a rough analog. As lily-white conservatism has lurched deeper into a brazen racism and xenophobia reminiscent of the 1950s, black and brown people willing to use their color to give it moral cover have seen themselves eagerly embraced by those whose sins they abet.
It’s not that people of color can’t or shouldn’t be conservative, as that term was once understood. But this modern iteration doesn’t care about small government or muscular diplomacy. Rather, it is working to normalize racism and enshrine xenophobia, and if you’re black or brown and still don’t realize that, well, again, wow.
The thing is, honorary whiteness has its limitations. Consider Barry Martin, an honorary white black dancer who toured South Africa in 1983 and was in a single-car accident while there. An ambulance picked up the white driver, but left Martin in the wreckage. A black motorist happened by and took him to a white hospital where he was refused admission. Eventually, Martin wound up in the black section of another hospital.
Somewhere in all that jostling, his injured spine was severed. Martin became a quadriplegic. He never walked, much less danced, again.
Take his story as an object lesson, you honorary whites of American politics: You are not special, only useful.
You’d be wise to learn the difference.
Trump's twisted understanding of who is a "real American" — and, by extension, whose love of the country is deemed authentic — rests upon a commitment to protect, defend and expand white privilege. This campaign to write nonwhites out of full membership in the American polity has had great material consequences: the white-black wealth gap being one of the most obvious examples. There are emotional and psychological consequences as well.
Nonwhites, especially black Americans (the only group who had to be explicitly written into the U.S. Constitution as citizens), occupy a type of liminal and contingent space in America. Such a state of being causes racial battle-fatigue and all the associated negative health outcomes that stem from it. This state of conditional "American-ness" quite literally kills black people through "negrophobia," manifested, for example, when police and other law enforcement agents abuse or murder black people with relative impunity.
Because America is a racialized democracy, citizenship and belonging are calculated by one's proximity to "whiteness." By definition, there is no way in America for black people as a group to ever "graduate" or be "promoted" into whiteness — to do so would destroy what it means to be white in this country.
Writing at the Atlantic, historian Ibram X. Kendi explains this by imagining a Trump supporter in a MAGA cap, working on his antique car in his Mississippi driveway:
That he is at home, that he is in his country, is as much a fact of his existence as the tool clenched in his hand, as the sunrays shooting past the Mississippi trees hovering above his sweaty hat and its four beaming white words.
Nothing is more certain to him than that he is an American—and that I am not. My living here, being born here, and being a citizen here — none of those fine details matter. To him, to millions like him, to their white-nationalist father in the White House, I am not an American. They want me to prove, like all the Barack Obamas, that I’m really an American.
This blend of nativism, racism, and nationalism is central to Trumpism, to their worldview. They view me as, they disregard me as, an illegal alien, like those four progressive congresswomen of color. I am tolerated until I am not. I can dine on American soil until I demand a role in remaking the menu that is killing me, like those four progressive congresswomen of color.
What I do know is that historically, people like me have only truly been all-American — if all-American is not constantly being told to “go back to your country” or “act like an American” — when we did not resist enslavement on a plantation, or in poverty, or in a prison with or without bars shackling our human potential and cultural flowering. ... Am I an American only when I act like a slave?
As always, racism and white supremacy rests upon a foundation of hypocrisy. These questions of love of country and patriotism are no exceptions. On this, the 100th anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919 — when white mobs ran amok across the United States, destroying African American communities and killing black people by the hundreds — one cannot forget that black soldiers were special targets for white rage. These "Men of Bronze," such as the Harlem Hellfighters, had survived the killing fields of World War I in Europe only to return to Jim Crow America, where black folks' patriotism was viewed as a threat to the existing racial order.
In the words of the Equal Justice Initiative: "Between the end of Reconstruction and the years following World War II, thousands of black veterans were accosted, assaulted, and attacked, and many were lynched. Black veterans died at the hands of mobs and persons acting under the color of official authority; many survived near-lynchings; and countless others suffered severe assaults and social humiliation."
The hypocrisy of whiteness continues at present through Donald Trump and the white right's weaponized white identity politics.
Donald Trump and his supporters can obsessively criticize America in the harshest and most negative terms — and win an election by doing so — yet their national belonging and love of country is, for the most part, never questioned.
The vast majority of black Americans (and of course Native Americans) were in the United States decades or centuries before Donald Trump's German grandparents got here, along with millions of other "white" people who arrived in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. (Many of whom were not originally understood as "white," a term that has constantly been in flux.) Yet those people's identities as "real Americans" generally go unquestioned. Such is the fetishist power of whiteness in America.
With the rise of Trump and his fascist movement, America faces perhaps its greatest challenge since World War II, if not since the Civil War. Donald Trump and his political movement have shown that they are determined to overthrow America's multiracial democracy through all available means, both legal and otherwise.
When viewed through a longer social and historical lens, Donald Trump and the white right's desperate campaign to protect the material and psychological wages of whiteness for all time in America is a battle against democracy.
Writing for the Guardian, Princeton historian Nell Irvin Painter, author of the award winning book "The History of White People," summarizes the stakes:
With Trump and his party re-enacting the history of American white supremacy, citizens who cherish democracy must take the opposite side in our national drama and stage a counter re-enactment.
Just as Trump has carried his just-happen-to-be-white into proud-to-be-white followers and into white nationalism, anti-Trump Americans must carry the nation in a saner direction. And just as Trump’s racism calls up old themes in America’s history, anti-racists must now act on a history of their own, one sufficiently powerful to defeat Trumpism, as it defeated slavery, segregation and disfranchisement.
African Americans already know this history and are already motivated. Other people of colour are learning it and engaging with the cause. And while Trump has galvanised his white people for bigotry, now anti-Trump white people need to step up into activism — on behalf of multiracial, multicultural American democracy.
Painter has offered a diagnosis and a call to action. Robert Mueller did not save American democracy from Donald Trump. The Democratic Party continues to show that it is not up to the challenge of saving American democracy from Donald Trump. The responsibility, as it so often does, is in the hands of the American people. Will enough good Americans rise to the challenge or have they already been cowed and beaten into submission?