In a recent interview 60 Minutes presenter Anderson Cooper asked incoming Democratic Congressmember Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez: “Is President Trump racist?” Ocasio-Cortez responded in the affirmative, resurrecting a persistent controversy about the claim. Apparently, because President Trump does not explicitly use slurs and denies any bigotry, the argument is more interpretive than empirical. Yet there is no denying that the Trump campaign and the present administration have used tactics meant to dehumanize the people of Central America, especially vulnerable and persecuted groups seeking refuge from their wealthy and (ostensibly) benevolent northern neighbor. The decision to portray these refugees as uniformly violent and criminal based on nothing more than their ethnicity and geographic origin is, simply, racism, albeit cloaked in its usual insidious and suggestive forms. Notably, when right-wing movements outside the U.S. played on prejudices for populist support in Europe prior to the rise of Trump (such as with Geert Wilders in the Netherlands or the British National Party in the United Kingdom) there was little hesitation within Western institutions to label them as racist, Islamophobic, and otherwise socially reactionary. Once this global trend manifested in the U.S. in the guise of Trump, Steven Bannon, and the “alt-right,” racist ideology gained a level of credibility and legitimacy as the “people’s choice.” As people do not like being told many of them are racist, the idea that Trump and his followers hold racist beliefs and engage in racist behavior by necessity becomes “controversial.”
To its credit, the U.S. media has done well in pointing out that the entire concept of a “border crisis” is a right-wing fantasy. Illegal border crossings are on the decline and arrests for that crime at the Mexican border have been beneath 0.5 million annually since 2009. The explanation for the “border crisis” issue lies with another statistic: Latinos make up more of the United States’ demographic changes than any other group, with the U.S. set to become a “minority majority” country by the mid-21st century. Due to the diversification of the country’s demographics, the long-standing majority—Protestants of mostly Central and Western European descent—have reacted with the same resentment as expressed in those same Central and Western European countries today. Despite the “melting pot” rhetoric, U.S. identity revolves around a specific racial and religious make-up just as “being German” or “being French” does, these themselves being social inventions. It is true that the U.S. is a “nation of immigrants,” but that phrase belies the enormous power differential between those immigrants who settled the colonies in its early history (going on to become its first elites) to those much larger groups of immigrants who came during and after the industrialization of the U.S. It also elides the long history of nativist politics in the U.S. as exemplified by the Know Nothing Party of the mid-19th century or the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. That Trump and his movement represents the latest iteration of politicized racism in the U.S. is obvious.
In a certain sense, Trump and his movement (as well as similar movements in the U.S.) represent a preternatural predilection for xenophobia, the fear of strangers. The etymology of the word “barbarian” literally means “all that are not Greek,” and as a word the ancient Romans adopted it to refer to cultures outside the Greco-Roman world. The Romans borrowed much from Greek culture, which itself incorporated much of the knowledge from interactions with peoples in Asia Minor and North Africa. Differences in beliefs and norms led each culture to view the other as “uncivilized” and thus “less than” their own (even if they had some good achievements). These cultures, however, were not “strangers,” at least not in the sense of the unknown; it was knowledge of their “strangeness” that made them “uncivilized.” “Barbarians” were not inherent threats, at least not at the zenith of Greek and Roman power; on the contrary, it was first the Greeks and then the Romans who imposed their own cultures across the Mediterranean through domination and colonization. When “barbarians” became threats, it was as military ones, sacking Rome when the empire had devolved into weakness and bloat.
Modern xenophobia is far more intolerant than that of the past. This change has arisen out of the several ways Western cultures have (often forcefully) absorbed different ethnic groups into their societies. Western imperialism created colonies precisely to establish flows of trade between metropoles and peripheral possessions, and from these flows came people. Obviously, there was the literal trade of people: the institution of chattel slavery. It was with the African slave trade that the concepts of “whiteness” and “blackness” were born, byproducts of justifying and rationalizing an economic practice that made a white minority (the slaveowners) dependent on the black majority (the slaves) living and working among them. From this reality also came the persistent fear among slaveowners that their slaves would rise up, seizing power as well as freedom. To prevent this, slavery laws created the systems and structures by which slaves would remain subjugated, while Western cultures (especially the U.S.) socialized its white majority to accept racism as scientifically correct and morally just. This marked a departure from a “fear of strangers in strange lands” to “fear of the stranger who lives among you.” Prior to this period, European Jews were the targets of this brand of persecution through discrimination and pogroms, despite the extensive efforts made by most Jewish communities to assimilate. Whereas the Jews were ghettoized, African slaves lived on the estates and plantations of their masters, their full exclusion from white daily living not an option. In the U.S. South in particular, slaves formed the bedrock of the economy, that made the lifestyles of rich whites possible. Thus, it was not just primal suspicion that informed this strain of racism, but a compulsion to normalize an undeniably brutal and immoral custom through the promulgation of racist ideas.
As mentioned, European Jews found some places of safety from general mistrust and hostility until the 20th century, when they became the scapegoats of a complex system of international politics (World War I) and finance capitalism (the Great Depression), both of which had failed catastrophically in the 1910s and 1920s. Elites supported and encouraged anti-Semitic and other far-right nationalist movements in lieu of left-wing forces agitating for their abolition. Obviously, this resulted in an ideology that dehumanized Jews to such an extent that the only “solution” to the “threat” of their existence was total annihilation. The same logic was applied to other social “undesirables” in the same scientific and righteous language as that used in the U.S. to validate slavery as ultimately serving some greater good. The difference was that bondage rather than death was the “cleansing” force where slavery was concerned.
Thankfully, slavery in the U.S. and Nazi Germany were defeated, but unfortunately, their cultural legacies persist in the U.S. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in a 1997 essay, “The Making and Unmaking of Strangers,” writes about “anthropoemic” versus “anthropophagic” forms of xenophobia. In the former, strangers must be exiled and ostracized, while in the latter, strangers must be destroyed. The ghettoization of the Jews or the relocation of Native Americans to reservations represents the former type while the systemic murder of Jews during the Holocaust or the ethnic violence of the Yugoslav Wars illustrate the other. Notably, the sort of xenophobia used by Trump and his supporters is one that views undocumented migrants as a cancer harming the U.S. from within. Therefore, undocumented migrants must be barred entry (no matter how valid their claims to refugee status) and those migrants already in the U.S. must be “excised” through detentions and deportations. Their makeshift “ghettoes”—old Wal-Mart stores filled with pages for holding children—are temporary, not permanent, and will only house them until they can be sent back to struggles of life and death. For some children, detention in the U.S. has already ended in death, including on Christmas.
The rounding up and caging of human beings in a manner similar to animals is disturbing, but it also comes out of the far-right fantasy of contemporary concentration camps for the “threats” to the “white race.” In 1967, the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord wrote about recuperation, the process by which the ruling class appropriates subversive thoughts and symbols into conventional imagery. Thanks to the dependence of U.S. media networks on White House access, broadcasters give a platform to Trump to essentially sanction the far-right canard of a “border crisis” that endangers the U.S. Indications that approving this conspiracy theory has led to the bolstering of other similar misbeliefs, including the Nazi perception of Jews or the idea that blacks are seeking homicidal revenge on whites. We are not living in the world described in The Turner Diaries, a popular novel among the U.S. far-right, where white Christians live in a society controlled by Jews and where violent African-American and Hispanic-American gangs roam the streets. Yet, if a person ignorant of the larger world were to consume only the messages promoted by Trump and his surrogates on outlets like Fox News or The Daily Caller, they might well believe they are living in that world. Thanks to the panopticon of mass and social media many U.S. citizens live with, it is possible to get such an incorrect view, and from there to depart to other dangerous delusions.
The “border crisis” is not important because it pertains to an ongoing government shutdown, which may well be the longest ever in U.S. history, but also because as a larger issue to continues to shape and define the future of those refugees detained at the border and who continue to come for lack of any better alternative. Children have already died, and there is every reason to believe that such a policy will produce more tragedies, not less. In the long-term, the “border crisis” also matters because the very fact it is being covered so uncritical is a victory for racism as embodied by Trump and his movement. It is a manufactured issued based on irrational hatred toward people who, as I have explained elsewhere, are fleeing their homes because of U.S. policies.
Ocasio-Cortez is correct, and it is something that voices on the U.S. left should not be afraid to say: Trump is a racist, as his words and deeds have shown. Even if he was so much of a dupe as to not realize it, Steve Bannon charted a path to the nomination greased with far-right grievances and talking points. Trump’s appearance on The Alex Jones Show was no accident; his equivocating on who the antagonists were at Charlottesville in August 2017 was a deliberate move not to alienate his support among white supremacists. Using network airtime to sell a “border crisis” that does not exist save in the U.S. imagination as a racist fever dream serves the same function. That Trump is prepared to hold the government hostage and waste billions of dollars on a wall (or even increased border security at all) is offensive given the plethora of genuine issues, social and economic, clamoring for attention. In the name of “civility” (more accurately “courtly etiquette”) the present Democratic leadership is loath to declare a Republican administration locked into a fundamentally racist policy. It presents, as the professional pearl-clutchers say, a “lowering of the discourse.” What is truly more degrading to the national discourse is the continuation of a discourse around immigration that keeps on dehumanizing non-whites as some sort of “threat.”
Ocasio-Cortez has already shown that it is possible to seize the narrative around an issue, as she recently did with raising tax rates on the wealthiest Americans. While more economic populism is needed in the Democratic Party, there has not been enough leadership in fighting back against the racist attitudes that underpin much of the mainstream discourse. Democrats should be more vocal and assertive in laying their opposition to Trump, his movement, and his wall as not just “bad policy” but the politics of racism, division, and fear. Until that happens, a milquetoast party can only expect milquetoast enthusiasm, no matter the public appetite for opposing Trump’s racism.