Woody Guthrie was one of the United States’ greatest folk singers and activists. Most Americans can recite the following lyrics from memory:
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York island;
From the redwood forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
These beautiful words were both a slogan and a demand.
Donald Trump does not share such egalitarian values.
Last week, Trump was the featured guest at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. where he outlined a vision of Christian nationalism. A twice-divorced man, repeat adulterer, professed sexual predator who has said he grabs women by their genitals, liar and fraud, guest star in a pornographic video and a person who is neither pious nor modest speaking on matters of God and faith might be seen as comedy gold. Likewise, Trump’s promises to tear down the boundaries between church and state could also be mocked as boilerplate right-wing talking points that only resonate with the ignorant or the politically unhinged.
In this historical moment, these matters are too serious to be greeted with laughter, however. Trump’s comments at the prayer breakfast are part of a much larger and very dangerous pattern.
Donald Trump used overt white racism as well as white racial resentment to secure his victory over Hillary Clinton. The narrative of “economic anxiety” among working-class whites is largely incorrect. White identity politics and ginning up fear about “white oppression” won Trump the White House.
Two of Donald Trump’s most senior and trusted advisers are Stephen Bannon and Stephen Miller, long associated with white nationalist causes and publications.
Donald Trump has attempted to ban Muslims from entering the United States. (To this point, the federal courts have stopped him.)
Donald Trump has ordered that federal resources be diverted away from tracking white supremacist organizations.
Donald Trump has said that “illegal immigrants” from Mexico come to America in order to rape and kill white people. He has promised to build a wall to protect the country from these foreign “invaders.” Trump has also said that a Mexican-American judge was inherently incapable of treating him fairly because of the judge’s ancestry. As House Speaker Paul Ryan observed at the time, it was the definition of a racist comment.
Donald Trump’s administration does not view protecting the civil rights of non-whites as a priority. He has threatened to unleash the police and military on black and brown people who live in cities such as Chicago. Trump’s personal behavior is replete with examples of bigotry and racism.
This is a vision of America as a Herrenvolk society where democracy, freedom and opportunity are centered around the principle that white people are the in-group to be privileged and protected, while nonwhites are to be treated as second-class citizens. This vision of America also embraces what white supremacists and white nationalists have referred to as “ethno-nationalism”: the idea that the modern nation-state should be defined by “ethnicity,” and that there are certain core values that must be protected at all costs against “outsiders.”
But “ethno-nationalism” is no more than racist doublespeak. It is a somewhat more acceptable reframing of the white supremacist belief that America and Europe should be “white” by law, habit and tradition. By implication, people of color (and those who are not Christian — especially Muslims) are pollutants to be expunged, by whatever means necessary, from the white body politic.
Last week, Donald Trump doubled down on his embrace of these racist Herrenvolk and ethno-nationalist values when it was announced that former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Anton would be joining his administration. Working under the pen name of Publius Decius Mus, or “Decius” — apparently a reference to a Roman general who sacrificed himself for the empire — Anton is best known for writing a pro-Trump authoritarian manifesto called “The Flight 93 Election,” whose title alludes to the plane brought down by its passengers during the 9/11 attacks.
Anton describes the government (pre-Trump) as “the junta.” This cannot be dismissed as mere rhetorical exaggeration. To Anton, the rising share of the nonwhite population is a foreign invasion: “The ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle,” he writes. He describes the children of immigrants as “ringers to form a permanent electoral majority.” The racial and political implications of this argument are both clear and extreme: Anton believes the white Republican base is the only legitimate governing coalition. Democratic governments are inherently illegitimate by dint of their racial cast.
Race is integral to Anton’s sense of his own persecution. He sees the enthusiasm for Trump among avowed white supremacists as more reason to support Trump: “The Left was calling us Nazis long before any pro-Trumpers tweeted Holocaust denial memes,” he argues. “And how does one deal with a Nazi — that is, with an enemy one is convinced intends your destruction? You don’t compromise with him or leave him alone. You crush him.” It is a fascinating line of reasoning: There are Nazis supporting his chosen candidate, therefore the left will crush conservatives like Nazis, therefore his chosen candidate’s triumph is all the more necessary.
If there is a single passage of the essay that most succinctly summarizes its case, it is this: “I want my party to live. I want my country to live. I want my people to live.” Anton equates all these things — his party, his country, and his people, insisting that four more years of a Democratic presidency will extinguish all three. This is a textbook example of the kind of reasoning, the conviction that a single election defeat will usher in permanent destruction, that liberal theorists see as inimical to democratic government.
Predictably, “The Flight 93 Election” manifesto is popular among white supremacists who have praised it online and elsewhere.
Anton apparently now occupies a central advisory role in the White House and will be helping shape American foreign policy.
Many Americans still feel a sense of shock over how the United States could so suddenly go from the more cosmopolitan and inclusive presidency of Barack Obama to the naked bigotry and racism of Trump. Unfortunately, American history is deeply marked by the enduring power of white supremacy and white nationalism. As troubling as this fact may be (especially for those born after the Civil Rights movement and who cast their first presidential votes for a black man), those repugnant values are not deviations from the country’s trajectory.
Through discriminatory immigration policies; government subsidies that created the white middle class and were denied to black Americans and other people of color; de jure and de facto white supremacy; racial discrimination in housing, banking, and the labor market; white racist pogroms and ethnic cleansing; racist terror inflicted by the police, other law enforcement and paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan; eliminationist policies and land theft toward First Nations people; and a founding document that dictated that black people were human property, America has been a white republic for most of its history.
In his role as the white nationalist in chief of the United States, Donald Trump wants to make clear that America is a white man’s country and that everyone else permitted to live here is just a guest, permanently “on notice.” This is revanchism of the worst kind, and a desperate effort to turn back the clock to the wrong side of history.
Donald Trump and his minions will soon discover that black and brown people built America. Indeed, many of them were in the United States long before “white” Europeans arrived and tried to claim it exclusively as their own. The United States is a mulatto society, not a white nation. In many ways, black and brown people are the quintessential Americans. Whatever Trump may say or do, they are not going anywhere.