Notes From the Margins…

Stand With the Squad

  • July 17, 2019
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Yesterday, in yet another of the dismal milestones that the Trump administration continues to carve into American political history, the US House of Representatives voted 240-187 to condemn the President of the United States for making racist statements.    This unprecedented rebuke followed Trump’s Twitter attack on the four recently-elected Democrat Congresswomen, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Taib and Ayanna Presley who make up ‘the squad’,  in which he declared:

So interesting to see “Progressive” Democrat Congresswomen, who came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run.  Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.  Then come back and show us how…

As always Trump’s supporters have rushed to his defence.  Some have flat-out denied that these statements are racist.   Others clearly don’t care if they are – these tweets received 169,000 likes within the first couple of days.   A few pedants have tried to split the difference, and argued that Trump’s comments aren’t racist but merely nativist and xenophobic, as if that lifts them into some higher moral category.

We would do better not to be distracted by semantic smokescreens, and listen to what the objects of Trump’s bile are saying:

 

 

In telling these women that they should ‘go back where they came from’ Trump is recycling a long-established white nationalist trope that juxtaposes ‘indigenous’ – meaning white – people, with people of colour who are depicted as permanent outsiders because of where they came from, or where their parents and grandparents came from.   Trump also referenced another familiar trope; that immigrants, especially immigrants of a different colour, come from countries that are culturally defective, and that they bring these defects and inadequacies with them.

So just because Trump doesn’t use the N-word, or because he has shaken hands with black people, doesn’t mean that his comments are ‘not racist’ or that he doesn’t have a racist bone in his body, as he has subsequently insisted.    In case anyone needed reminding – and these days, it seems that a lot of people do – race is never simply about ‘race’, skin colour, or biology, or the imagined size of someone’s skull or brain.

Racism is a social construction that invents its own meanings and justifications for the exclusion, domination and persecution of the people it depicts as outsiders, aliens, cultural inferiors or subhumans.

It might take these justifications from the Bible.  Or by grafting classical constructions of the barbarian Other into colonial conquest.   Or from racial pseudo-science that equates cultural ‘primitivism’ with skin colour or degrees of white and black ‘blood’.   And then again it might shift to religion or culture – ‘It’s not racist to hate Islam!’  Or it might fuse ‘race’ with hyper-nationalist, nativist and xenophobic narratives that make it possible to describe immigrants in general as criminals, rapists, or cultural intruders who need to go back where they came from so that ‘we’ can ‘take our country back.’

It’s a moveable feast of dank and disgusting food, and this is the meal Trump is serving up for his base.  He is deliberately and carefully stirring the pot, so that the rank odours will attract and ‘inspire’ more people  to behave as he did this week.

To call this poisonous and destructive does not even begin to describe it.   Yesterday Trump’s ghoul-like counsellor Kellyanne Conway responded to a question from a reporter about whether Trump’s comments were racist with the question ‘what’s your ethnicity?’

On the same day avowed white supremacist and all-round American Nazi Richard Spencer was inexplicably invited by CNN yesterday to  give his opinion on whether Trump’s tweets were racist.  Not surprisingly, Spencer concluded that they were, while adding that racist ‘tweets that are meaningless and cheap and express the kind of sentiments you might hear from your drunk uncle while he’s watching [Sean] Hannity’ were not enough for his movement.

Spencer isn’t entirely wrong.  Trump is not an ideological racist like he is, or like Hitler was.  He uses racism essentially for personal reasons, to keep himself in power and distract attention from the corruption,amorality and criminality at the heart of his sleazy administration.

Nevertheless in doing so he is lowering the bar for white supremacists, Nazis and racists everywhere.   He is actively emboldening and encouraging them, with the assistance and complicity of the news outlets which support him and some of those that supposedly don’t.   His own party voted against yesterday’s resolution, with the exception of 4 congressmen.

The GOP, to its eternal disgrace, is dancing to Trump’s tune, either because its representatives care about nothing but their own careers and don’t have the guts to speak up about what they know is wrong, or because they have actively embraced his message, like Lindsay Graham, who called the squad  ‘a bunch of communists.’

Let no one think this just an American problem.  Last year Steve Bannon told a National Front rally in France,  ‘Let them call you a racist…wear it as a badge of honour.’

This is the world that he would like to see, and Trump’s outbursts are instruments towards achieving that goal.  For this reason it’s enough to call his comments ‘inappropriate’ or even ‘totally unacceptable’ as our retiring Prime Minister just about managed to do.   Neither she nor her potential successors could bring herself to call his comments ‘racist’ and were clearly at pains not to have to use the word.

The rest of us should have no such reservations.  This is a racist president, mobilising and stoking dangerous forces in American society that are already coursing through Europe and through our own country.

He and those who think like him need to be shunned, resisted, and relentlessly opposed.

And the question we should be asking is not whether or not his comments were racist, but whether or not we are going to stand with the squad.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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