History will look back on the Trump presidency as the last gasp of white supremacy in the US. This is not to say that after Trump’s defeat in November white racism will cease to exist, but it will be the beginning of a revolution.
First, what do we mean by ‘white supremacy’? This is an incoherent ideology that fantasises that white people are superior to all other peoples, especially black people and Jews, and are threatened by the rising tide of people of colour.
Second, what do we mean by ‘revolution’? We too often misunderstand revolution as a singular one-off event, but it is the initiation of a process of structural social change that has no end. It is never complete and its trajectory is rarely straightforward.
Donald Trump’s election in 2016 resulted from a resurgence of white supremacy in the form of a backlash against the election of the first black president of the US. This viral outbreak found its perfect vehicle in Donald Trump, who pledged (remember the Obama birther conspiracy?) to reverse everything Obama accomplished.
To understand the significance of Trump’s election, we have to place it in the context of a series of historical episodes that go back to the event that has had a determinative influence on all subsequent American history: the institution of the enslavement of Africans in the southern colonies of America in 1619. It is no exaggeration to say that every aspect of American history and culture — as, indeed, is the case with Barbados — is permeated by the consequences of slavery. The economic enslavement of Africans required an ideology to justify it: white supremacy.
Fast forward to the Civil War (1861-65) in which the Union of northern states, led by Abraham Lincoln, defeated the Confederacy of Southern States that had seceded to preserve slavery and white supremacy.
The South lost the war but won the battle for white supremacy, because although the enslaved African Americans were legally emancipated, there followed a period of virulent racism known as Jim Crow in which the Southern states passed ‘black code’ laws to control and segregate the emancipated blacks, deny them basic rights, and otherwise deprive them of the promise of freedom. The Ku Klux Klan, formed in 1865, led a massive campaign of terrorism against black people in the form of lynchings, shootings and burnings.
Statues and other symbols of the Confederacy sprouted like the Coronavirus all over the South — many of them in the early 20th century — at the same time as blacks remained oppressed and terrorised.
The Confederate flag became, and still is, a widespread symbol of white supremacy, not limited to the South but in rural parts of the Midwest. The virus had spread north in response to the migration of millions of blacks northward.
Fast forward again to 1964/65. Democratic President Lyndon Johnson, reacting to the relentless pressure exerted by the Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr., signed into law the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. One lasting result of the passage of this historic legislation was the shift of political allegiances in the white South from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, which had hitherto been loathed because it had prosecuted the war against the Confederacy and had abolished slavery.
This demographic political realignment in the mid-sixties resulted in Republicans becoming the party of white supremacy, though usually expressed in subtle ways. Starting with Richard Nixon, ‘law and order’ became the slogan through which blacks were criminalised. This, coupled with Reagan’s ‘war on drugs’, led eventually to the mass imprisonment of black males in the US. The systems of criminal justice and law enforcement became increasingly forms of brutal control of black people, who were also subjected to discrimination in education, health, housing and employment opportunities. This was not surprising, since in the South the police forces grew out of the ‘slave patrols’ whose function was to capture runaway slaves, terrorise the slave population to deter revolts, and to administer summary ‘justice’.
The demographic political realignment meant that people of colour, including not only African Americans but also the growing Hispanic population and other minorities, began identifying with the Democratic Party, culminating in Barack Obama’s election in 2008 as the first black president.
Fast forward once again to 2012, and we come to the rise of Trumpism within the Republican Party. After Romney’s loss to Obama in the 2012 election, the Party conducted a soul-searching post-mortem and publicly concluded that it had to become a more inclusive and diverse party if it were not to be left electorally stranded by changing demographics i.e. the ‘browning of America’.
But a forceful dissent came from Donald Trump, who lambasted the Republican post-mortem as a sign of weakness and political correctness. Instead, drawing on the fevered fantasies of the extreme right, he proposed to win a maximum of the white vote with minimum support from people of colour.
His strategy had four prongs all designed to create and maintain a permanent white majority in the US if he were elected president.
First, he would deport 11 million Hispanics, build a wall on the southern border with Mexico, and change immigration policy to let in people, as he said, from places ‘like Norway rather than from s…hole countries in Africa’. He would also ban Muslims from entering the country.
Second, he would intensify efforts to suppress the black vote and further criminalise blacks.
Third, Trump, a man devoid of any moral principles or one iota of faith, would garner and keep the electoral support of the religious right by promising to pack the Supreme Court with Justices who would overturn Roe v Wade and abolish a woman’s right to an abortion under any circumstances. Trump not only got the support of most white Evangelicals but was also strongly backed by some of the neo-fascist hierarchy of the Catholic Church, like Archbishop Vigano, the former Papal Nuncio to the US and a bitter enemy of Pope Francis.
Fourth, he would appeal to the cultural resentments of the white working-class at becoming a demographic minority in ‘their own’ country by celebrating symbols of white supremacy like the Confederate flag. He would exploit their grievances at being left behind economically by promising to smash the liberal establishment elites who promoted the welfare of people of colour and illegal immigrants at their expense. And he offered several scapegoats: Muslims, Blacks, Hispanics, and all foreigners.
Trump summed all this up in the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, harkening back to an era of white dominance and control. Finally, Trump topped it off by a classic fascist tactic used by Hitler and Mussolini: ‘I alone can fix it’. He was the dominant white male devoid of scruples, who could smash his enemies and destroy the Washington Establishment that had for so long betrayed the white masses.
So began the cult of Trump that, like the Coronavirus, has now infected and taken over the Republican Party bereft of any ideology other than white supremacy, taxpayer-funded welfare for the rich, and the sycophantic adoration of the Great Leader.
Up to a few months ago, it looked as if Trump would get away with it since he seemed headed for re-election. Then a policeman murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis and all hell broke loose. An American tsunami of indignation swept across the country in protest against not only the brutal policing of black communities but also the systemic racism inherent in the ideology of white supremacy that impacted all aspects of black lives in the US.
A sea change began to occur. Black Lives Matter went mainstream. People of all ethnicities joined in the demonstrations. All kinds of voices came out not just against bad cops but against the nature of policing and against the systemic racism in the criminal justice system and its links to white supremacy. NASCAR banned the use of the Confederate flag at its events. The head of the NFL apologised for criticising black players who knelt in protest during the national anthem, and so on.
The genie is now out of the bottle. The social forces presently aligned against white supremacy are overwhelming. Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, his uncaring response to Floyd’s murder, and his hostility to the Black Lives Matter movement have condemned him to the dustbin of history.
America is on the threshold of an era of transformation not just in respect of systemic racism, but also in rising to the challenges of dire economic inequality, inadequate health care, climate change, and rebuilding a world of international cooperation that Trump has ravaged.
Predicting the future is perilous, and no one should doubt that Trump will use every dirty trick in the book to avoid defeat, but the beginning of the demise of systemic white supremacy and the liberation of African Americans, accompanied by reparation for the damages done, and by the healing of their anguish, will release an outpouring of innovation, entrepreneurial energy, and artistic achievement the world will has rarely seen.
Indeed, the contribution of African Americans, even in oppressed circumstances, to America is such that American culture is in so many respects a profoundly ‘black’ culture, and when all Americans wake up and realise this, America will truly fulfil its promise of greatness.
(Dr. Peter Laurie is a retired permanent secretary and head of the Foreign Service who once served as Barbados’ Ambassador to the United States)