The Dangerous Truth about Trump's Racism: White Power, Elite Rule, and Justified Privilege

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) speaks as Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) hold a press conference addressing remarks made by President Donald Trump. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

The Dangerous Truth about Trump's Racism: White Power, Elite Rule, and Justified Privilege

“The Squad” threaten his very elite existence and the eugenicist convictions that underpin its legitimacy

Last week, President Trump set off a political firestorm that sent shock waves across the US and the world when he tweeted that four non-white progressive congresswomen--Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, and Ilhan Omar, who all but one were born in the US--should "...go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came." These words were immediately condemned by Democrats, who only days before had been close to a political Civil War between its progressive and "centrist" wings. Republicans, by contrast, remained largely silent, deafening in their complicity with Trump's explicit racism.

The majority of the media attention has been, understandably, on the idea that these non-white women were somehow not just figuratively "unAmerican" but actually quite literally not-American. This claim is as factually false as most of what Trump claims. It also hints at an updated version of McCarthyism in which fear of left wing ideas is mixed with traditional US racism. The chants of a crowd at Trump's rally soon after to "send her back" (which even he had to initially decry) alongside the concentration camps at the border and the increased ICE raids revealed that these were much more than empty threats.

Yet in all the anger and recriminations, false equivalencies and further insults, a crucial aspect appears to have been dangerously close to being overlooked. It was the second half of what Trump tweeted--"the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came"--that is perhaps the most important and revealing. It is here where he reveals an even sicker social racialized world view. It is that non-white nations and people are not civilized--criminals who have ruined their own countries and even more worrying are threatening to infect "modern" white societies.

Revealed is a deeper and more destructive form of racism. It is an entire racialized philosophy based on a white supremacist notion that only whites can be modern and be trusted with power. Non-whites are to be mostly tolerated and when absolutely necessary allied with. However, ultimately they are a threat to progress and prosperity. We may appear to be in the province of the Far Right here, but this underlying logic continues to guide, both explicitly and implicitly US policy at home and abroad.

A Racist World View

Trump's tweets were quickly labeled by many to be "hate speech". It was even argued that they violated federal anti-discrimination laws. The "Squad" of progressive politicians who he criticized responded rapidly and forcefully. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York declared: "I want to tell children across this country is that no matter what the President says, this country belongs to you. And it belongs to everyone and today that notion, that very notion was challenged." Representative Ayanna Presley added, "Our Squad includes any person committed to building a more equitable and just world, and that is the work that we want to get back to and given the size of this Squad and this great nation, we cannot, we will not be silenced."

It is tempting, perhaps, to think this is just a cynical ploy by Trump and his acolytes to gain support from "deplorable" white voters. While this may have some truth to it, what it misses is the fundamental racism underpinning Trump and many of his supporters' perspective of history and the world: that whites are the only race capable of truly being successful en mass, and therefore the only "civilization" able to be materially prosperous and culturally vibrant. It tragically echoes when Trump referred to Haiti in 2016 as a "shithole country".

The threat then from these powerful and progressive non-white women is not just ideological nor is it simple racism. It is a deep seated fear of non-whites coming to corrupt white power and civilization. In his view, they "came from countries whose governments are a complete and total disaster, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world...viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, how our government is to be run". Their growing support represents a traditional US terror that non-whites will not only rebel against their White oppressors they would also destroy their superior culture. To use modern parlance, Trump was voicing a fear that these non-white women would due to their supposed inherent inferiority turn the US into a "shithole".

An ideology that runs more than Skin Deep

That Trump is a racist is beyond dispute. Yet to fully understand the present threat of his racism, it is important to first understand its historical roots. At the global level, his comments merely echo a genocidal and ongoing history of colonialism. The conquest, exploitation, and extermination of colonized populations was ostensibly justified by bringing them "civilization" and legitimate due to their inherent inferiority. Inexorably linked to this racist discourse of international plunder and rule was the conviction that non-whites were to blame for their own sorry condition and that racial integration and mixing would be ruinous to civilization itself. What preceded was more than a century of formal and informal racial segregation, in which white priviledge was defended and reinforced by policies of segregation followed by practices of white flight and gentrification.

This history echoes Trump's own history. Much has been made of his official charge of racial housing discrimination in one of his first properties. However, this was not an act of a lone racist. Rather, it reflected New York's racially divided culture at the time in which white residents feared the "infiltration" of their neighborhoods by poorer black residents. According to Ginia Bellafante, in the New York Times, "It is this place that the president comes from essentially--a time, a part of the world and a mind-set in which access to certain kinds of power, comfort and rights of assertion was not to be universally shared." Two decades later, he would go even further, calling for the death of five innocent black young people falsely accused of raping a white woman in Central Park. This sensationalist and racist attack could be traced back to this fear of urban black invasion, the terror of "savage" non-whites threatening the peace and safety of "civilized" whites.

In Trump we see an evolving belief in the inherent superiority of the white race. Whilst his most virulent statements make all the clickbait headlines, hidden below the surface is ideology of eugenics. Trump's biographer Michael D'Antonio notes that

"The [Trump] family subscribes to a racehorse theory of human development. They believe that there are superior people and that if you put together the genes of a superior woman and a superior man, you get a superior offspring."

Trump himself constantly frames his success in genetic terms--arguing that he and others at the top have "a certain gene", a "great gene", and "the winning gene".

Trump believes, furthermore, that whites are genetically superior to non-whites and that while there may be individual exceptions, white supremacy is not a matter of opinion but scientific fact. In 2018 at a private speech he told a British audience that they "all have such good bloodlines" and "amazing DNA". He also favors supporting immigration from "white" countries such as Norway.

Uncovering A Deeper Prejudice

The danger of the belief in white superiority has shown itself again and again throughout Trump's presidency. He used his election campaign to denigrate non-white immigrants and asylum seekers. He has used his Twitter bully pulpit to call marching neo-Nazis "good people". He is slowly but surely normalizing blatant and explicit racism as part of mainstream US political discourse.

Nevertheless, his racism is not mere prejudice. It is a part of a rebooted global movement of "nativism". It evokes the fear that there are non-white "barbarians at the gate" and that "real citizens" need literal and figurative walls to defend themselves against these hoards. Yet while its supporters claim that these views are not "racist" but an equal opportunity form of ethno-nationalism, the rejigged version of the "separate but equal" smokescreen of yesteryear. Here, every national "tribe" must take care of their own, first and foremost.

These discourses intentionally and diligently ignore the past and present colonial histories that are responsible for massive global disparities in wealth and power. They also blissfully overlook the complexities of matching national identity inexorably with a "pure" ethno-racial identity. The goal of this ethno-nationalism is not merely to secure borders and power within them but to prevent the desired racial purity from being corrupted by inferior "foreign" agents whether at a social, cultural or genetic level.

Yet these discourses also point to a crucial, though unacknowledged, basis for this perceived superiority--the insecurity of elites and those with privilege over the rightness and sustainability of their power and position. It is not a coincidence that this upsurge in racial division and hatred follows in the wake of decades of neoliberalism. The trickle-down policies of the 1980s were ultimately built on the myth of the deserving rich. When this myth was exploded following the financial crisis in 2008, racism returned as the primary means of justifying such inequality. Capitalism's justifications have morphed, hence, into more nationalist and racial ones, once again.

The threat, then, of "The Squad" is more than just political for Trump. It is not populism, pandering to the lowest instincts of his support base. It is existential and it is ideological. In his fevered racist dreams, and those who passionately chant his tweets as their own, "The Squad" are bringing with them racial degeneration and cultural destruction. They want to invade the US, the imaginary last white island of "civilization", the place that could still be redeemed from a world of non-white criminality and contamination. Even more so, "The Squad" threaten his very elite existence and the eugenicist convictions that underpin its legitimacy, revealing in their progressive politics and willingness to fight back that the days of unearned privilege--whether capitalist, nationalist, racist or eugenicist--may soon be numbered.