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Historical Amnesia and the Burden of the Euro-American Past in the Age of Trump

Trump is not an anomaly but a historical continuation of many things American.

Trump is not an anomaly but a historical continuation of many things American. (Photo: Joe Flood / Flickr)

This article is published in collaboration with Black Perspectives.

In the last 100 days since he began his presidency, President Trump’s administration has unleashed a powerful nativist movement anchored on racist and xenophobic sentiments. Yet, the “Muslim Ban” notwithstanding, conventional wisdom, especially in liberal circles, would still have us believe the gospel of American exceptionalism as a home for refugees, the tired masses, and the poor. This narrative of the US’s enlightened benevolence posits Trump as an aberration of American humanitarian norms and values. As a result, it disavows the past to explain the rise of Donald Trump as an enigma. Among the greatest advocates of this elision of the past is former President Barack Obama, who has offered his election on the altar of American exceptionalism as the great American story. As he conceives it, his rise is testament to the irrefutable progress of the US’s march towards a more perfect Union. President Obama, like any other American, is of course entitled to see in his election a triumph of the better ideals of American democracy. However, this narrative also suppresses the fact that the Civil Rights Movement has not been followed by a teleological plane towards “better race relations” — a misnomer that supposes power relations between vastly unequal parties. What is left out is that decades of institutional racism in the guise of civility and color blindness have not been a panacea for centuries of systemic wrongs.

Color blindness and political correctness pushed the most racist Americans underground and to the fringe. It also forced the mild-mannered ones to contain this ideology within the confines of their segregated neighborhoods. In the process, we substituted white privilege for white supremacy and talked about race instead of racism. Much of that vernacular consists of distinctions without a difference. This was all in the noble hope of coping with a rather tortuous past. However, in just a few decades, from Presidents Reagan and now Trump, the house has been collapsing — even as we elected a Black man to the presidency and had a female presidential nominee. The rise of Black Lives Matter and the browning of the US by newcomers lifted the veil to show a bubbling implosion of decades of white frustration since the 1960s. Racism did experience a setback, but it has been dormant, as the so-called “silent majority” never forgave President Lyndon Johnson for enacting some of the Civil Rights agenda. The convenient lie we told ourselves was that American racism had ceased to function properly. Meanwhile, it was fomenting into the backlash that ushered Trump into power. What we really had was not a transformative country; we simply managed to create the mirage of a civil society, one fraught with racism but without visible racists. As the comedian Chris Rock was quoted by the Washington Post, “Donald Trump [not Mr. Obama] is America’s natural state.” From Mr. Rock’s perspective, “Barack Obama was an aberration” in the annals of American history.

Indeed, Donald Trump is a historical continuation of many things American. His vitriol is part of a legacy that mirrors the Jeffersonian ideals of Herrenvolk nationalism. This ideology justified the mass expropriation of indigenous land. Widely celebrated as the triumph of Jacksonian democracy, Jefferson’s dream was briefly defeated by the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, only to resurface in chameleon-like form that allows for racism to coexist next to utopian ideals of post-racialism. If today’s liberals and progressives are dismayed and shocked by the rise of President Trump, that too is itself an exercise in ignorance. At worst, it devalues the historical lives of Native Americans who remain a colony within a nation, held captive and alienated in their homeland by white encroachment and ethnic cleansing. It detracts from the known facts of Black Americans who have lived longer in slavery and state-sanctioned Jim Crow than in freedom, and of Asian and Brown Americans who have seen decades of varying moratoriums on entry, concentration camps and exclusionary measures like the Chinese Exclusion and Geary Acts, which were not abolished in earnest until 1965. The cumulative effects of this history are, in some ways, the rectification of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian ideals in the form of Trumpism. Perhaps for fear of what it might reveal, this contemporary phenomenon is subjected to a lack of critical retrospection on the past. Instead, many have settled to view it as an interruption of the American melting-pot story. Today’s narrative of American exceptionalism would have us believe that Trump’s “Muslim Ban” is exceptional. If this is so, what are we to make of the Chinese exclusion policies that, for the first time in 1882, proscribed federal restrictions on entry to the US by an ethnic group deemed to be an endangerment to Euro-American nationalism?

The blissful ignorance that dismisses Donald Trump as an anomaly distorts facts. Any sense of moral responsibility becomes impossible when the footprints and forces of history are rendered invisible. It is not that the US subscribes to immorality, but rather it settles for amorality. In an amoral world, the unacknowledged burdens of history provide cover for evading moral culpability. In that world, silencing past and present history turns even the most intelligent among us into learned idiots. To take an example, little scrutiny follows former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld’s book Known and Unknown, which turns a contradiction in terms into an acceptable mockery by an entire electorate. The absurdity of this culture of evasion preceded President Donald Trump. In fact, the president perfected if not personified it by deploying what his ghost biographer called a “truthful hyperbole.” Creating a cacophony around facts and truths and of what is supposedly known and unknown about American history assures that Anglo-America always lives to tell its exceptional version of the tale.

In some regards, the real version of the tale, as Susan Sontag once remarked, is that “If America is the culmination of Western white civilization, as everyone from the Left to the Right declares, then there must be something terribly wrong with Western white civilization.” So much so, argued Sontag, that even “Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world.” Sontag’s caustic remark ignited the backlash of apologists who emphasized her flawed choice of words, which equated western barbarism to white people as a cancer. One can condemn and repudiate her word choices without, as some are wont to do, detracting from her more salient point. What Sontag underlines is the violence and cruelty that have been imposed on many of the world’s darker-skinned peoples in the name of Euro-American progress. Generations after, racial imperialism has left Western Europe and the US in a morally dubious position. Consequently, where the US is concerned, and may be right, about stabilizing countries, its ethical leadership is questioned and its ability to dictate to others the virtues of peace is undermined by a history of racial capitalism.

Today, the globalization project of the West has marshaled the destructive capacity of capitalism with enough brute force that even white constituencies who had previously reaped the greatest benefits are now just as disaffected and sometimes left behind as are the wider racialized global lumpen-proletariat. The flight of jobs, industries, and the sheer carelessness of a disinterested global elite fueled these discontented parties to strengthen President Trump’s nativist message. Even more ironic is that the often-disenfranchised poor and working classes of white Americans voted as a block with their wealthier counterparts. Islamophobia and the threat of labor competition from Central American immigrants helped catapult Mr. Trump to power. Trump’s ingenuity was to set himself apart from his class of propertied elites while parodying himself as a modern-day Horatio Alger. Meanwhile, President Trump’s cabinet, staffed with men and women whose opulence resembles the Gilded Age, have for decades ignored the plights and declining fortunes of workers of all races. Yet, those who have been left without jobs, education, strong families or safe streets are beginning to realize the cost of the US’s individualism and materialism. They are realizing that this vanity has been hidden underneath the social gospel of capitalist progress. When stripped bare, the ideologies of progress, which have extracted so much from the rest of the world, have penetrated even the most developed economies of Europe and the US. Rooted in a Social Darwinist outlook on humanity, the West has, for five centuries, felt justified in inflecting European Universalism as the end-all-be-all on the world’s poor and working masses. Today, no worker, European, Asian, or African, is exempted from the creative destruction of capitalism.

The paradox of the disaffected poor and working white constituencies voting as a block with their vastly wealthier nemeses reveals fractures in American capitalism. In a desperate effort to rebel against elites, a majority of the country’s white Americans voted to appoint Trump as the czar who will save them from capitalism. Much like disaffected Germans and Italians who looked to the demagoguery of Adolf Hitler and Mussolini by racializing European Jews, nativist laborers are turning against their much more maligned immigrant counterparts, men and women who are themselves displaced by the casualties of American corporatism. From London to South Africa, and Washington to Mumbai, nativism and nationalism have put a chokehold on the disenfranchised global masses. Much of the discontent with globalization looks for solace in isolationism, which Trump extols to his electorate as a virtue. The chickens have come home to roost, as history that has been too long sanitized shows its ugly head in the form of Trumpism. Fortunately, the world’s societies now have the hindsight to read the present back into the past as prologue. In other words, the trinity of imperialism, racism and militarism has reached a brink. As the writer Pankaj Mishra recently put it, “The centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, genocide and slavery in Europe and America were downplayed with reason and individual autonomy made the modern world, and became with its liberal democracies a vision of the superior people everyone else ought to catch up with.”

Donald Trump was never an aberration on the US’s record. He is the product of a US struggling with the poverty of an ethics of capitalism that has unleashed the cult of redemptive white nationalism. In spite of this emergent racial nationalism, the traditions of enlightened cosmopolitanism, liberal democratic humanism and rationalism, we are told, must be defended because Trumpism is “not who we are.” But if that is a historically accurate assessment of American identity, how do we explain the centuries-long politics of violence and suppression both domestically and imperially? Where does European-American history begin and end? At the exceptional period of post-1945 economic growth? Or do we acknowledge the fact that the modernization project of American capitalism has often accompanied the historical traumas and violent nationalism that Trumpism promises to inflict on its targets? If we are to move forward to a more radically egalitarian future, the age of Trump cannot be quarantined within the box of Euro-American exceptionalism.

Our world today, and American society especially, is confronted with the fact that this sanitized history has obscured deeper tragedies that have resurfaced. Our societies must come to terms with the fact that the US’s sanitized version of the world and its own narratives impel us to speak back to how white supremacy utilizes power to reframe the past. Just three months into a Trump administration, we have entered the age of “Euro-American Absurdism,” when post-truths and “truthful hyperboles” reign supreme. Repelling this trend and moving forward, we have to abolish the convenience of selective memory of American history and look at the past as it was, not as we wish it were.

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