Most analyses of the Trump phenomenon start from the obvious question:
How could such a narcissistic, authoritarian, ignorant, incompetent, bombastic moron be elected president of the most powerful country in the world?
Populists argue that the people were tired of being betrayed by the political and economic elites and wanted someone who was not a politician and who would shake up the establishment. Trump fit the bill.
Many Democrats argue that Clinton, sticking unimaginatively to the usual Democratic coalition of minorities and young people, neglected the concerns of the white working class, who then voted for Trump.
But the facts say otherwise. Obama in both 2008 and 2012 got only a minority of the white vote, but won an overwhelming percentage of the black, Hispanic, Asian and millennial vote. This is precisely where Clinton fell down in 2016. She got almost the same percentage of the white vote as did Obama but did much worse with minorities.
Trump’s election was unabashedly about race. His appeal was less about economic populism —this was window-dressing— than about the anxiety and anger that many older and less educated whites, especially Southerners — felt about the demographic shifts towards a more diverse, multicultural nation.
Trump, both before and after his election, consistently appealed to white supremacists.
He came to political prominence by questioning the legitimacy of the first black president, maintaining he was not even an American. He was thus tapping into a deep loathing that a significant minority of white Americans had for the idea of a black man – especially an educated, articulate, charming one – being the president of their country. And since assuming office, every executive policy initiative Trump has taken has had one overriding objective: obliterate every trace of the legacy of Obama.
Trump also tapped into the anxiety white supremacists felt about the ‘browning’ of America, hence his highly inflammatory attacks on Hispanics (Mexicans are rapists) and Muslims (ban them), and his stoking fear of immigration on the whole (the infamous wall along the border with Mexico).
On assuming office, he immediately set up a commission whose sole purpose was black voter suppression. He refused to criticize the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville (‘Jews will not replace us’), he attacked black players respectfully protesting in the National Football League, and more recently, he became a vocal opponent of the removal of statues and other symbols of the Confederacy.
This last is most revealing, because the Confederacy and everything associated with it is the very heart of white supremacy, which regarded the enslavement of black people as a God-given right.
These statues were not Civil War memorials but symbols of white bigotry and terror erected in the Jim Crow era. As the mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, so eloquently put it,”These statues are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=WQ29Uwz5yPU
The Civil War (1861-65) is one of the most significant and tragic milestones in the history of the US, in which more Americans lost their lives than in all other wars combined, and in which the issue at stake was freedom or slavery. Thus it is almost incomprehensible how Trump’s chief of staff, General John Kelly, could have suggested that the war might have been avoided if there had been greater compromise between the men of goodwill on both sides.
The only compromise possible would have been the acceptance of the enslavement of black people and its white supremacy ideology as the future of American society. Yet, by the 1870s, the leaders of the Confederacy were back in power and launched a vicious onslaught on black people in the South in the Jim Crow era (1870s to 1950s). They lost the war but won the game.
The civil rights movement, starting in the early 1950s and reaching its peak in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, might be seen as a re-litigation of the Civil War.
The period from 1964 to 2008 might be seen as the second Reconstruction culminating in the election of Obama. Now Trump’s presidency promises his supporters the last hope for the restoration of white supremacy across America.
After the second consecutive loss in the 2012 presidential election, the official Republican post-mortem report (2013) argued that the party should be more inclusive and reach out to minorities. But there was a conflicting minority tendency on the far right of the party, championed by Steve Bannon and Donald Trump. This group essentially argued that trying to win over blacks and Hispanics was a lost cause.
Instead the party should try to consolidate and expand the white vote using cultural identity issues, camouflaged as economic populism, while, at the same time, seeking to suppress the black and Hispanic vote. Then, once in office they should make a fundamental change to immigration policy in favor of whites.
This is what Trump has done and is doing, with a little help from the Russians.
So the Trump presidency may well be a tipping point for Americans: either it will usher in a new era of white supremacy in which the rights of African Americans and people of colour will be curtailed, or white supremacy will be defeated once and for all. The recent gubernatorial election in Virginia is a hopeful sign.
The irony in all this is that American culture and civilization have been fundamentally shaped by the African American experience. Just think of religion, literature, dance, food, sports, and most of all music, and you realize it is not just a question of the unrecognized contribution of black people to American civilization, it is a question of recognizing that America is at its core a profoundly black country.
If white supremacy with all its toxic myths can be defeated, not just at the polls, but economically, socially and culturally, then race will no longer be such a determining factor in America. And the world will be a better place for it.