Since the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis last week, violence has spread through major cities across the United States. The vast majority of the violence has been the work of the police themselves, in a pattern of gratuitous assaults on peaceful and defenceless demonstrators, cheered on by president Donald Trump.
This police riot represents Trumpism in its rawest form, while Trump himself is the purest expression yet of a politics of white racist reaction that has been growing across the West since the 1960s, gathering particular pace and virulence over the past ten years. And just as Trump’s escalation of state violence has only served to inflame the current crisis, so the feral nature of modern conservatism creates widening fissures in the same social order that it battles ever more desperately to defend.
The return of the Confederacy.
The vow to reassert traditional hierarchies has always been front and centre in Trump’s politics. The ‘birther’ movement he led – which baselessly challenged Barack Obama’s eligibility to be president – reanimated a long established narrative in American white supremacy, namely that the legitimacy of a person’s citizenship is contingent on that person’s race. Trump’s obsessive preoccupation with Obama – with undoing the very fact of his presidency, let alone its legislative and diplomatic achievements – reflects a visceral urge to keep the subordinate in their rightful place. White supremacy is structural, but commitment to it is evidently a very personal matter, bound up in a brittle sense of status and self-worth.
Extreme as it is to tear small children from their parents and cage them indefinitely as punishment for falling foul of a border regime, or to fire teargas and rubber bullets at defenceless people protesting persistent racial injustice, these acts have done nothing to dent Trump’s core support of predominantly middle class and affluent white men. The promise to enforce the racial order with suitably gratifying levels of violence is one made to them not only by Trump, but by generations of Republican politicians going back to the civil rights victories of the late 1960s.
But while this consciously adopted strategy was previously couched in deniable language – of ‘law and order’, a ‘war on drugs’ or a crackdown on ‘welfare queens’ – available as such to be taken up by the right wing of the Democratic party as well, decades of authoritarian drift have seen a reconfiguration. Today’s GOP is a mask-off defender of racial entitlement reminiscent of the old Confederacy, a posture whose hegemonic potential appears altogether less promising than the previous era of respectable, bipartisan dog-whistling.
An international ‘whitelash’.
It’s important to see Trumpism as just one part of a broader international ‘whitelash’, as the racial order in contest here is an international one, almost by definition. The early struggles for civil rights and racial equality in the US and the wider West were intimately connected with simultaneous struggles for autonomy and against colonial rule in the Global South. The relative success of those struggles has proven deeply unsettling for a class of people whose sense of self-esteem has for centuries been invested in a racialised belief in their own superiority, whether expressed in biological or ‘cultural’ terms. The loss of empire through repeated political and military defeats at the hands of those long deemed inherently inferior has proved to be more than many of these people are able to bear.
Racialised anxiety about Britain’s global decline and a persistent desperation to reverse it has been a central feature of the great spasms of British conservatism in the post-colonial era. Jorge Luis Borges may have seen the Falklands War as “a fight between two bald men over a comb”, but on these shores it prompted an orgy of flag-waving self-satisfaction at a supposed recapturing of past imperial glories.
Tragedy was repeated as both tragedy and farce in the Brexit vote which, like Trump’s 2016 election win, was delivered overwhelmingly by middle class authoritarian whites. The overt racist demagoguery mobilised by the Leave campaigns against peoples from the Middle East was heard both by those voters, and by Thomas Mair, the fascist who murdered the MP Jo Cox. The wider outbreak of racist hate crime that followed the referendum had a particular and unmistakable character: a gleefully vindictive sense that Britain was great again because racialised others had finally been put in their place.
The Middle East has become the most significant site of contestation for western power internationally, and as such has become a key target for the current whitelash. The ‘war on terror’ propelled an especially paranoid, ‘clash of civilisations’ strain of Islamophobia which is now rife across Europe, uniting a spectrum from the liberal centre to the far right. In July 2017, at the height of the refugee crisis, Trump delivered a speech in Poland which captured these anxieties explicitly in the language of modern white nationalism. “The fundamental question of our time”, Trump asserted – while thousands of refugees were drowning in the Mediterranean because Europe was too racist to grant them shelter – “is whether the West has the will to survive”. His answer to this supposed question was delivered in the chilling Bannonite climax: “The West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph”.
Unravelling the thread.
Racism and capitalism have a long history as distinct but often closely interrelated systems of power and control. The classic picture of the nineteenth century textile mill, its capitalist owner and Lancastrian workforce, is incomplete without the slave labour that produced the cotton, and the captive south Asian markets into which the finished products were sold following conquests justified by racist ideology. In the present day, racialisation continues to facilitate the exploitation of certain workforces, while racist ideologies continue to justify the projection of western power into the Middle East to maintain the exploitation of the region’s energy reserves by the West and its client elites.
However, the drama of the last fortnight raises a question mark over racism’s future as the basis for a stable political hegemony. As corporate brands desperately (and cynically) scramble to disassociate themselves from Trump and align themselves with Black Lives Matter, clear tensions are appearing between conservative white nationalism and a superficially cosmopolitan neoliberalism, with an insistent and genuinely emancipatory anti-racist politics driving a wedge between the two.
When we fight racism, be it on the streets or in the realm of culture and language where the ideology is produced and reproduced, we pull at a thread which threatens to loosen, and perhaps ultimately unravel, an extensive web of power relations beyond our immediate focus. No wonder our enemies are scared.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and author of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain.