Donald Trump is America’s Karma
(Yet Another History Lesson)
The cosmic principle according to which each person is rewarded or punished in one incarnation according to that person’s deeds in the previous incarnation. Fate. Destiny.
The impeachment hearings are revealing the extreme aberration of the mechanics of our government by the current administration. A reality show host has perverted the lives of U.S. citizens on a daily basis for almost three years now. What I’d like to do is portray the larger context that explains how we have come to this juncture in our history.
Our story begins several weeks ago, with the death of Noel Ignatiev on Saturday, November 9th. Most people don’t know who Noel Ignatiev was but his passing merited an essay in the November 15th online edition of The New Yorker (Jay Caspian Kang, “Noel Ignatiev’s Long Fight Against Whiteness”). My connection to Ignatiev began in 1995, with the publication of his Harvard dissertation How the Irish Became White (Routledge). I was teaching in the Education Department at Brown and was focused on attacking the notion of white privilege as part of my instruction. Ignatiev, as it turned out, had been fighting that notion for his lifetime, writing about “white chauvinism” as early as 1967, in a letter to the Progressive Labor Party. As noted in The New Yorker, “Many scholars have cited Ignatiev’s letter as one of the first articulations of the modern idea of ‘white privilege.’” At that time, Ignatiev, a devoted Socialist, was working in steel mills in Ohio and it took another decade and a half before he finally went to Harvard’s graduate school to work on How the Irish Became White and coalesce his ideas about how the “white ruling class” has essentially indoctrinated working class & poor whites to identify with that ruling class rather than their more natural ally, workers of color. Ignatiev believed that relating the narratives of these working class people uniting (something he was able to accomplish on a very small scale in individual steel mills)would, somehow, lead to a spontaneous revolution that would transform American society. In keeping with that notion, he and John Garvey, a former NYC cab driver and labor organizer, created the journal Race Traitor in 1993. The motto of Race Traitor was “treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” and their patron saint was John Brown.
So how does the late Noel Ignatiev help explain our current situation: a corrupt President facing impeachment and probably escaping removal because the Senate will not convict him? It’s all got to do with white chauvinism/white supremacy/white privilege that Ignatiev so eloquently articulated but has now been shelved to an academic discipline (Critical White Studies) and is not spotlighted as the factor that led to Donald Trump’s election. Ignatiev saw white privilege as a “time bomb” in our society and I believe the election of Barack Obama lit the fuse that led to the Improvised Explosive Device that is Donald J. Trump. To truly understand this, we have to take Mr. Peabody’s Way-Back Machine (hat tip to Jay Ward’s Rocky & Bullwinkle) to trace how the myth of white supremacy has infected our body politic so deeply that we don’t even think we are ill.
For us to fully comprehend the depth and breadth of white supremacy and racism in the United States in 2019, we have to go back to the beginning and move through each phase of its historical construction, brick by hideous brick. The easiest way to do this is to examine each historical era that contributed to the creation of a world where a Donald Trump can rally millions of people to his white supremacist/racist exhortations. Looking back, we need to carefully study the Colonial period (1607 – 1763), the Revolutionary era (1763-1787), the creation of our Constitutional republic (1787-1801), the Antebellum years (1801-1860) and, of course, the Civil War & Jim Crow Reconstruction (and proliferation). As we move into the 20th Century Jim Crow Era, we begin to see a full-throated Civil Rights Movement emerge, particularly after the Second World War. That struggle produced the Republican Party’s defection to dog-whistling racism (led by Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy”) --- formerly the domain of Southern “Dixiecrats” (racist Southern Democrats like Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms). As a final Act, we get the elections of Barack Obama & Donald Trump --- and you have to see those as the clear cause/effect logical product of 400 years of white supremacy and racism.
The Colonial Period (1607-1763). Even though slaves were not first imported to the British Atlantic Seaboard colonies until 1619, a system of indentured servitude was already an ingrained feature of a classist society, dividing “masters/owners” from “workers/servants.” There were several legal actions taken before Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia in 1676, a turning point in America’s racist history. Colonial Virginia had passed laws excluding “Negroes” from “normal protections of government” (1639) and would not allow baptized Blacks or Indians to change their legal status (as non-citizens - 1667). Maryland, in 1664, passed the first “anti-amalgamation” (race-mixing) law in the colonies, soon followed by other Southern colonies. But it was Bacon’s Rebellion, in 1676 Virginia, when Black and white indentured servants and slaves united with frontiersmen, taking up arms against the Colonial Governor Berkeley, that led to a hardening of racial identity in the British colonies. “The alliance between European indentured servants and Africans (many enslaved until death or freed), united by their bond-servitude, disturbed the ruling class. The ruling class responded by hardening the racial caste of slavery in an attempt to divide the two races from subsequent united uprisings with the passage of the Virginia Slave Codes of 1705.” (wiki) And that’s where our deep racist divide’s cornerstone was laid.
Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion “servants” (Black or white) were considered the “property” of the planting class. After the Rebellion, as noted in Patrick D. Anderson’s essay in the Grand Valley Journal of History:
Colonial elites responded to the growing solidarity by treating whites and blacks differently in order to inhibit class-consciousness and promote racial separation. For decades, the only difference between white and black servants was that the latter were occasionally servants for life, but in the face of growing class-based resistance, the elites used racist justifications to create legal racial distinctions. The elites' ideas about the "nature" of blacks came to the fore as they remorselessly degraded people of African descent. The belief was held by many, even in England, that the negro was not a man but a wild beast, marked by an intelligence hardly superior to that of a monkey, and with instincts and habits far more debased. He was considered to be stupid in mind, savage in manners, and brutal in his impulses. (italics & bold, mine)
With those ideas in mind, the British Southern colonies codified racism and white supremacy. With white planters turning more and more toward using slaves, as opposed to indentured servants, the slave population increased and the planting elite did not want poor whites aligning with the Black slaves. Patrick D. Anderson clearly explains:
As the demographics of the colony transformed, black and white workers – now called slaves and freeholders or laborers – were split into two classes. The new class of slaves were defined racially and excluded from the community in various ways. Blacks were given different clothing, food, work, and housing to emphasize the difference between slave and white.
Compared to their African counterparts, white workers perceived themselves as a distinct group above slavery, even though they remained subject the power of the ruling elite. Most working class whites acquired small plots of land by 1776, and were therefore considered "free," in contrast to dependent slaves.
If we look at the Trump demographic (white, non-college educated, rural or ex-urban men, in particular) it is not difficult to see the deep roots that were planted during Colonial America to create the white supremacist/racist “base” the current President appeals to.