Donald Trump and the Fall of Whiteness

An Illustrated Soap Box Lecture

Michael Mark Cohen
Nov 8, 2016 · 9 min read

“I don’t know what you are even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacist” — Donald J. Trump on CNN 2/28/2016

“The time is past when the white world can exercise unilateral authority and control over the dark world…” Malcolm X, December 4, 1963

The 500 year old world historical project of racial white supremacy is coming to an end. Slowly, incompletely, necessarily, whiteness is ending. This is not to say that in the future we will be all be beige or all-tan-everything. There will always be white people. What I am saying, is that the global hegemonic racial project of white supremacy is coming to an end.

Begun by Columbus, lost in the Bahamas in 1492 and fueled by indigenous genocide, African slavery and capitalist accumulation, white supremacy created an ideology of biologically defined racial differences.

In this vision, white Europeans, scientifically rational and militarily powerful, were naturally superior to the darker races. This racial imaginary claimed for itself the universal form of humanity — MAN — who is naturally understood to be white and, well, male. Whiteness serves as the unmarked subject, the normal, the fully capacious form of universal humanity. Everyone else, women, people of color, the gender non-conforming or disabled, gets some form of discrimination and a hyphenated identity. Only white people get to be complete and whole.

This was and is a myth. Race as a biological theory of history is simply false. We are all, equally, members of the singular human race, myriad in its diversity, yet one in its common destiny. But race and racial stereotypes are no less consequential for being fictional.

In 1790 the newly independent USA granted citizenship to all “Free White Persons.” This established national identity by race from the very start. With the racism imbedded at the heart of settler colonialism and chattel slavery, the vision of biological race emerged to explain why millions could be displaced off their land and millions more held in perpetual bondage in the land of the free.

How can you have millions of enslaved Africans in a country dedicated to the Jeffersonian principle that “All Men Are Created Equal”? It turns out to be simple: in the new racial ideology of the founding fathers, those Indians and Africans are not men at all. They are instead, explains Thomas Jefferson, members of an inferior race, biologically incapable of self-governance, property holding and self-possession.

America’s favorite slave holding philosophers of freedom: John Trumbull, Signing of the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (painted 1819)

“American racial ideology,” writes the historian Barbara Fields, “is as original an invention of the Founders as is the United States itself. Those holding liberty to be inalienable and holding Afro-Americans as slaves were bound to end by holding race to be a self-evident truth.”

Or as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.”

White supremacy endured in the USA after the Civil War forced expropriation in the form of emancipation. And it shaped world history in the form of settler colonialism, imperialism and war.

Yet it was with World War II that the expanding tide of world white supremacy reached its peak and cracked, shattering at the gates of Auschwitz and in the atomic flash over Nagasaki.

World War II as the moment of Peak Whiteness: Vinnista, Ukraine (1942) & Nagasaki, Japan (1945)

Photographic evidence of the evil committed in the name of white supremacy, colonialism (in Eastern Europe and East Asia), and technological progress could no longer be denied. With the Old World shattered, a global wave of liberation from European power spread over the post-war world in the form of Decolonization, Civil Rights and Labor movements, Feminism and sexual liberation.

Women’s Liberation March, NYC 1970.

“Unbiased scholars and unbiased observers agree,” claimed Malcolm X in 1963, “that the wealth and power of white Europe has rapidly declined during the nineteen-year period between World War II and today… You and I were born at this turning point in history,” he continued, translating religious prophecy into profane politics. “Our present generation is witnessing the end of colonialism, Europeanism, Westernism, or ‘White-ism’… the end of white supremacy, the end of the evil white man’s unjust rule.”

Radical activists like Malcolm X have to believe that either revolution or ruin is immanent, that history is just about to make its decisive turn. Unfortunately, change on the scale of ending “White World Supremacy” has proven to be a much longer, slower process.

“The white establishment is now the minority.” Bill O’Reilly on Fox News’ election night coverage in 2012.

While it is naïve of us to have ever imagined that President Obama could bring to an end 500 years of American white supremacy, it is equally cynical to suggest that his Presidency is not a sign of our progress, evidence of all too slowly improving race relations. If white supremacy exerted a racial dictatorship over the world for 450 years, Obama’s election marks a mere seven decades past the mid-twentieth century moment of peak whiteness.

Of course, Obama’s election alone has not forced this change. The Obama era has seen the rise of new social movements which are forcing us to change our language and see the world in new ways.

A movement of movements: Occupy Oakland’s General Strike, November 2, 2011.

Occupy demanded economic justice for the majority of Americans (setting up Bernie Sanders’ successful primary challenge). Marriage equality has been achieved and the fight for LGBTQ civil rights continues to expand. Immigrant rights activists and Dreamers have forced a new discussion on citizenship. And Black Lives Matter has powerfully changed the conversation around race, police violence, mass incarceration and human rights.

So taken together, Democratic party control over the White House, an increasingly liberal popular culture, and an expanding wave of radical, grass-roots social movements have left White Male Heteronormativity feeling challenged and diminished.

These two photos can either represent the new Black awakening in Obama’s America; or, it can represent a liberal conspiracy to destroy American from the inside.

The symbols of American power and national identity — from the Obama family in the White House to Colin Kaepernick protesting the National Anthem — have been usurped by people the Founding Fathers would not have recognized as fully human, let alone capable of citizenship.

This singular issue — Whiteness and American National Identity — offers the best explanation for why the right wing opposition to Obama dressed up in revolutionary war garb and called itself the Tea Party Patriots.

The New White Right, or Tea Party Patriot Protests 2009–2010

Donald Trump first staggered into presidential politics by promoting the racist conspiracy theory that Obama was born in Kenya into the Mainstream. By pointing to Obama’s race (and without saying it) Trump and the Tea Party sought to strip the President of his legitimacy, to deny the legality of his election based upon the crime of his race.

During the primaries, Trump took up this white nationalist base and conquered the Republican party. White supremacist or white nationalists, defined as those who claim a white identity as biological evidence of racially superior blood, bodies and civilization, have formed the core of Trump supporters from the start. With the selection of Steve Bannon of Breitbart news, Trump invited the Alt-Right to take over and direct his campaign.

In fact, the single leading indicator of support for Trump is to ask if you think Obama is a Secret Muslim.

While 54% of Republican voters think Obama is a Muslim, some 74% of Trump supporters think the President is a Muslim. 76% of Trump voters also support his ban on Muslim immigration and denying entry to Syrian refugees. Thus is it no joke when Trump supporters talk about deporting the President.

Of course when Hillary point this out, putting half of Trump supporters into “a basket of deplorables,” that same liberal media forced her to apologize for the generalization. This despite the documentable fact that she underestimated the basic sociological facts. She is expected to adhere to the basic rule of politics: you can insult a candidate, but never insult the voters, especially if those voters are white. Trump can call Mexicans rapists, tell African Americans they live in Hell and demand that good Muslims report on bad Muslims, and never have to apologize for insulting “the voters.”

The former Grand Wizard of the KKK salutes Trump’s speech at the RNC.

Make no mistake, white racial resentment is one of the leading factors driving this election. And that this resentment — this sense of loss, or mourning on the white right, this sense of “being strangers in their own land,” is overdetermined, meaning that it has more than one cause.

We are familiar with the fact that in the nation’s elementary schools, white children are now a minority. That in California, white people are no longer a demographic majority. And we know that one day in the early 2040s a brown baby will be born in Oakland or Atlanta or San Antonio and white people will no longer be a majority in the United States.

We can also see, if we care to, that red-state white America has been suffering disproportionately since the start of the Great Recession. A startling survey, reported in 2015, revealed that older white American men are dying off at an alarming rate. This demographic, virtually alone in the overdeveloped world, seems to be dying off in increasing numbers. Due to unprecedented rates of suicides, drug addiction, alcoholism and overdoses, the life expectancy of white men has declined by nearly four years since the 1990s. No wonder Trump supporters speak in such apocalyptic terms, because for millions of older white men, their world is literally ending.

New York Times (November 2, 2015)

But demographic shifts are not enough. The end of a white demographic majority does not mean the end of white supremacy. After all, this is exactly what Trump’s electoral campaign stands to prove. Minority white power governed Apartheid South Africa and Colonial India for centuries. White minorities rule in many post-colonial nations today. Nothing says it can’t happen here.

White supremacy will neither end on its own nor will it end quietly.

As always, the work falls to us. We need to make overt bigotry shameful again and to hold Trump and his supporters accountable. We must defeat this movement at the ballot box, and defeat it in such large numbers that Donald J. Trump be forced to recognize the outcome.

But even if Hillary wins, even if the Democrats take the Senate, and even if they take the House, white grievance and patriarchal authority will not disappear simply just because its loudest champion loses an election.

White supremacy may yet prove to be more durable than our democracy.

40,000 Klansmen march on Washington DC in 1925

Nonetheless we are faced with a real choice, between continuing the all too slow progress of the past years and elect Hillary Clinton to the Presidency, or an explicitly revanchist re-embrace of white supremacy. This election is a difference between the messy processes of democratic governance and the authoritarian dynamism of Fascism which threatens to realign our rights along exclusionary racial lines.

During the second debate, Trump complained that he was being interrupted by the moderators — a white woman and a gay white man — calling them unfair several times. Yet after the debate, the clock had Trump and Clinton speaking for nearly equal time. Which shows us something about white male privilege and what the future of our politics is going to look like. For someone used to a life of advantage and privilege, egalitarianism and equal treatment feels like an injustice, like something is being unfairly taken away.

Fighting for equal time at the last debate, and my choice for the singular photo of this campaign.

It’s not about facts, it’s a feeling. And that is why Trump is impervious to fact checking, impervious to scandals, impervious to accusation. Trump’s campaign is evidence that whiteness remains entrenched in our political culture, and why Trump has damaged our Democracy for decades to come, even if he loses.

This is what we are up against, not just a single candidate, but against the fictions of white supremacy itself. We cannot win this fight in a single election, but we can most certainly lose it.

Nothing less than this is at stake on November 8th.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

Thanks to Anthony Gilmore

Michael Mark Cohen

Written by

Father, husband & American Studies Professor at UC Berkeley. Fan of Honeybees, Gramsci, Messi, and the One Big Union.

Secret History of America

New Essays in American Studies from UC Berkeley

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