Under President Trump, Americans are entering a historical conjuncture in which intolerant and racist ideologues are ascending to top White House posts.
Some of the most egregious appointments thus far have included Jeff Sessions as attorney general, Stephen Bannon as chief White House strategist, Mike Pompeo as head of the CIA and Tom Price as secretary of health and human services. All of these men are poised to promote policies that will increase the misery, suffering and policing of the vulnerable, sick and poor.
In increasingly overt ways, racism is becoming the major ideological force for establishing terror as a weapon of governance. Not only did Trump make “law and order” a central motif of his presidential campaign, he also amplified its meaning in his attacks on the Black Lives Matter movement and his depiction of Black neighborhoods as cauldrons of criminal behavior.
The repressive racial state is certain to intensify and expand under Jeff Sessions — a strong advocate of mass incarceration and the death penalty, and a white nationalist spokesman for the Old South. The Nation’s Ari Berman observes that Sessions is “the fiercest opponent in the Senate of immigration reform, a centerpiece of Trump’s agenda, and has a long history of opposition to civil rights, dating back to his days as a US Attorney in Alabama in the 1980s.”
Sessions has a long history of racist rhetoric, insults and practices, including opposing the Voting Rights Act and addressing a Black lawyer as “boy.” He was denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s because his colleagues claimed that he made racist remarks on a number of occasions. Sessions has also called organizations, such as the ACLU, NAACP and the National Council of Churches “un-American” because of their emphasis on civil rights, which he has portrayed as being shoved down the throats of the American public. He was also accused of falsely prosecuting Black political activists in Alabama for voting fraud.
Sessions’ racism often merges with his religious fundamentalism. As Miranda Blue observes, he has “dismissed immigration reform as ‘ethnic politics’ and warned that allowing too many immigrants would create ‘cultural problems’ in the country. Earlier this year, he cherry-picked a couple of Bible verses to claim that the position of his opponents on the immigration issue is ‘not biblical.'”
Under Sessions, a racist militarism is set to serve as an organizing principle to legitimate ultranationalist endeavors to create a society strongly shaped by white nationalists. As Andrew Kaczynski points out, Sessions made his racist principles clear while appearing on the Matt & Aunie talk radio show on WAPI.
Sessions has praised Trump’s stance on capital punishment by pointing to Trump’s “1989 newspaper ads advocating the death penalty for five young men of color accused of raping a jogger in Central Park.” Sessions made these comments knowing full well that the Central Park Five were not only exonerated by DNA evidence after serving many years in jail, but were also awarded a wrongful conviction settlement, which ran into millions of dollars. Moreover, Sessions was aware that Trump had later criticized the settlement calling it a disgrace, while suggesting that the Central Park Five were guilty of a crime for which they should not have been acquitted in spite of the testimony of Matias Reyes, who confessed to raping and attacking the victim.
Sessions’ racism was on full display when he stated in the interview that Trump “believes in law and order and he has the strength and will to make this country safer.” He then added: “The biggest benefits from that, really, are poor people in the neighborhoods that are most dangerous, where most of the crime is occurring.” Trump’s tweets falsely alleging voter fraud in order to defend the ludicrous claim that he won the popular vote is ominous because they suggest that in the future he could allow Sessions to make it more difficult for poor minorities to vote.
At the same time, Sessions is far from an anomaly and only one of a number of prominent officials appointed in the Trump administration who are overtly racist and run the gamut in arguing for a Muslim registry, to suppressing voter rights, to producing social and economic policies that target immigrants and Black people.
For example, Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon as senior counselor and chief White House strategist is deeply disturbing. Bannon is an incendiary figure whom critics as politically diverse as Glenn Beck and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont have accused of being a racist, sexist, anti-Semite. While the head of Breitbart News, Bannon courted white nationalists, neo-Nazi groups and other far-right extremists. In doing so, Amy Goodman points out, he helped to rebrand “white supremacy [and] white nationalism, for the digital age” under the euphemistic brand of the “alt-right.”
Bannon is on record stating that only property owners should vote; stating to his ex-wife that he did not want his twin daughters “to go to school with Jews;” calling conservative commentator Bill Kristol a “Republican spoiler, renegade Jew;” and publishing incendiary headlines on Breitbart’s website, such as “Would you rather your child had feminism or cancer?” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy.”
What we see in Trump and his advisors and appointees is an America that embraces the values and ideals of an ultranationalist and militarized white public sphere. Even before Trump takes office, the threat of authoritarianism is becoming visible, “exploding in our face, through racist attacks on school children, the proliferation of swastikas around the country, name-calling, death threats, and a general atmosphere of hate,” in the words of Rebecca Gould.
Given the vice-president-elect’s abysmal record on women’s issues, there is also little doubt that the war on women’s reproductive rights will accelerate under the Trump administration. As NARAL Pro-Choice America Senior Vice President Sasha Bruce has observed, “With the selection of Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donald Trump is sending a clear signal that he intends to punish women who seek abortion care. Tom Price is someone who has made clear throughout his career that … he wants to punish us for the choices we make for our bodies, our futures, and our families.”
An Escalation of Racist Militarism and Weaponized Ignorance
As Donald Trump’s rule begins, it appears that Americans are entering a period in which civic formations and public spheres will be modeled after a state of racist warfare. During his presidential campaign, he provided a nativist language that targeted the most vulnerable in American society, including immigrants, Blacks and Muslims. He also provoked society’s vilest impulses, energizing a range of extremist racist and anti-Semitic groups, including authoritarians, fascists, neo-Nazis and white nationalists, some of whom seek to normalize their bigotry under the umbrella of the “alt-right.” According to The New York Times, members of various racist and ultranationalist groups have been energized by Trump’s election.
One of the founders of the neo-Nazi website, The Daily Stormer, was quoted as saying that Trump’s victory has resulted in a “reboot of the White Nationalist movement.” The same article also quoted Richard B. Spencer, another prominent figure in the so-called “alt-right” movement, who without apology argues that his organization, the National Policy Institute, is dedicated to “the heritage, identity and future of people of European descent” and that “Race is real, race matters. Race is the foundation of identity.” This is simply neo-Nazi dribble dressed up in the discourse of difference. There can be little doubt that these antidemocratic and racist tendencies will play a major role in shaping Trump’s presidency.
The call for regime change, a term used by the White House to designate overthrowing a foreign government, seems certain to intensify under Trump’s administration. This means a more militant foreign policy under Trump. But it also signals a domestic form of regime change as well, since this authoritarian neoliberal government will deregulate, militarize and privatize everything it can. With this regime change will come the suppression of civil liberties and dissent at home through the expansion of a punishing state that will criminalize a wider range of everyday behaviors, expand mass incarceration, and all the while enrich the coffers of the ultra-rich and corporate predators. The hate-filled discourses of intolerance, chauvinism and social abandonment are already creeping further into the ever-widening spheres of society bent on blending a militarized war culture with a totalizing embrace of corporate capitalism.
Under Trump, ignorance has been weaponized and will continue to be used to produce a profoundly disturbing anti-intellectualism. It is important to remember that in his various speeches, Trump emptied language of any meaning, giving credence to the charge that he was producing with his endless lies a kind of post-truth in which words did not count for anything anymore, especially when informed judgments and facts could no longer be distinguished from opinions and falsehoods.
Words for Trump are reduced to emotions, shock and effects that mimic tawdry reality-TV-style performances. He continues to speak from a discursive space in which everything can be said, the truth is irrelevant and informed judgment becomes a liability. Under such circumstances, it is extremely difficult to grasp what he knows about anything. He steals words and discards their meaning, refusing to own up to them ethically, politically and socially.
There is more at work here than the registers of incoherency, ignorance and civic illiteracy. There is also an inconsistency that errs on the side of a militant racism and a racist militarism. For instance, the only moments of clarity in Trump’s discourse are when he uses the toxic vocabulary of hate, xenophobia, racism and misogyny to target those he believes refuse to “Make America Great Again.”
The Suppression of Dissent Has Already Begun
Under Trump leadership, a war culture, a culture of aggression and state violence are set to intensify. There will almost certainly be a widespread suppression of dissent — a suppression similar to the police violence used against those protesting the Dakota Access pipeline in Standing Rock, North Dakota, along with the arrests of journalists covering the protests.
It is reasonable to assume that under the Trump administration there will also be an intensification of the harassment of journalists similar to what happened to Ed Ou, a renowned Canadian photojournalist who has worked for a number of media sources, including The New York Times and Time magazine. Ou was recently detained by US border officers while traveling from Canada to the US to report on the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline. According to Hugh Handeyside, “Ou was detained for more than six hours and subjected … to multiple rounds of intrusive interrogation. [The border officers] questioned him at length about his work as a journalist, his prior professional travel in the Middle East, and dissidents or ‘extremists’ he had encountered or interviewed as a journalist. They photocopied his personal papers, including pages from his handwritten personal diary.” In the end, he was refused entry into the US.
Given Trump’s recent insistence that protesters who burn the American flag should be jailed or suffer the loss of citizenship, his hostile criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement and his ongoing legacy of stoking white violence against protesters, it is reasonable to assume that his future domestic policies will further legitimate a wave of repression and violence waged against dissenters and the institutions that support them.
For instance, his tweeted threats regarding the burning of the American flag can be read as code for threatening dissent, or worse, unleashing the power of the state on them. How else to explain the motive behind Trump’s consideration of Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke as a potential candidate for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security?
Clarke has referred to the Black Lives Matter movement as “Black Lies Matter” and compared it to ISIS. Grace Guarnieri reports in Alternet that Clarke has “proposed that terrorist and ISIS sympathizers in America need to be rounded up and shipped off to Guantanamo, and has stated that ‘It is time to suspend habeas corpus like Abraham Lincoln did during the civil war’…. He guessed that about several hundred thousand or even a million sympathizers were in the United States and needed to be imprisoned.” It is difficult to believe that this type of egregious call for repressive state violence and a disregard for the Constitution supports rather than disqualifies somebody for a high-ranking government office.
Expanding what might be called his Twitter battles, Trump has made a number of critical comments regarding what he views as dissenting criticism of either him or his administration. For instance, after Brandon Victor Dixon, the actor in the Broadway play Hamilton, addressed Vice-President-elect Mike Pence after the curtain call, stating, in part, “We are diverse Americans who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable right,” Trump tweeted that Pence was harassed by Dixon and that the actor should apologize. Trump also took aim at a “Saturday Night Live” episode in which Alec Baldwin satirized a post-election Trump in the process of trying to figure out what the responsibilities of the presidency entail. Trump tweeted that it was “a totally one-sided, biased show — nothing funny at all. Equal time for us?”
As cyber-bully-in-chief, Trump has taken to Twitter to launch tirades against the cast of the play Hamilton, against “Saturday Night Live” and against Chuck Jones, president of United Steelworkers Local 1999. Trump’s verbal takedown of the union chief was a response to Jones accusing Trump of lying about the number of jobs he claimed he prevented Carrier Corporation in Indiana from shipping to Mexico. Actually, since 350 jobs were slated to stay in the US before Trump’s intervention, the number of jobs saved by Trump was 850 rather than 1,100.
To some, this may seem like a trivial matter, but Trump’s weaponizing of Twitter against critics and political opponents functions not only to produce a chilling effect on critics, but also gives legitimacy to those willing to suppress dissent through various modes of harassment and even the threat of violence. Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, is right in stating that “Anybody who goes on air or goes public and calls out the president has to then live in fear that he is going to seek retribution in the public sphere. That could discourage people from speaking out.” Such actions could also threaten their lives, as Chuck Jones found out. After the president-elect called him out, he received an endless stream of harassing phone calls and online insults, some even threatening him and his children. According to Jones, “Nothing that says they’re gonna kill me, but, you know, you better keep your eye on your kids. We know what car you drive. Things along those lines.”
I am not convinced that these tweets are simply impetuous outbursts from an adult who has the temperament of a bullying 12-year-old. It seems more probable that his right-wing advisors, including Stephen Bannon, view the tweets as part of a legitimate tool to attack their perceived political foes. In this case, the attack was not simply on Jones but also on unions that may rebel against Trump’s policies in the future.
Trump is at war with democracy, and his online attacks will take place not only in conjunction with ongoing acts of state repression but also with the production of violence in the culture at large, which Trump is seeking to orchestrate as if he were producing a reality TV show. At first glance, such responses seem as thoughtless as they are trivial, given the issues that Trump should be considering, but Frank Rich may be right in suggesting that Trump’s tweets, which amount to an attack on the First Amendment, are part of a strategy engineered by Bannon to promote a culture war that riles “up his base and retains its loyalty should he fail, say, to deliver on other promises, like reviving the coal industry.”
In addition, such attacks function to initiate a culture war that serves to repress dissent and divert the public from more serious issues, all the while driving up ratings for a supine media that will give Trump unqualified and uncritical coverage. Referring to the Dixon incident, Rich writes:
It’s possible that much of that base previously knew little or nothing about Hamilton, but thanks to Pence’s visit, it would soon learn in even the briefest news accounts that the show is everything that [the] base despises: a multi-cultural-ethnic-racial reclamation of “white” American history with a ticket price that can soar into four digits — in other words, a virtual monument to the supposedly politically correct “elites” that Trump, Bannon, and their wrecking crew found great political profit in deriding throughout the campaign. Pence’s visit to Hamilton was a sure-fire political victory for Trump even without the added value of a perfectly legitimate and respectful curtain speech that he could trash-tweet to further rouse his culture-war storm troopers. The kind of political theater that Trump and Bannon fomented around Hamilton is likely to be revived routinely in the Trump era.
Trump’s trash-tweeting mimics the hate-filled discourse and threats of violence in which he often engaged during the presidential primary campaign — only now he has a much broader audience. Americans are already witnessing a growing climate of violence across the United States, spurred on by Trump’s previous support of such actions aimed at Muslims, immigrants, Black people, foreign students and others deemed expendable by Trump’s white ultranationalist supporters. Of course, none of this should seem surprising given the long legacy of such violence, along with the decline of the welfare state and the rise of the punishing state since the 1970s. What is distinctive is that the formative culture, organizations and institutions that support such violence have moved from the fringe to the center of American politics.