“Trump’s America,” wrote a leading African American journalist, Charles Blow in the New York Times, January 30, “is not America: not today’s or tomorrow’s, but yesterday’s.
“Trump’s America is brutal, perverse, regressive, insular and afraid. There is no hope in it; there is no light in it. It is a vast expanse of darkness and desolation.”
There is a lot of disgust toward Trump and his white nationalist strategist Steve Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart News, a leading promoter of conspiracy theories and white supremacists.
However, those liberals attempting to label Trump a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin are seeking the easy way out, rather than address their own failures or the decline of unions and working-class political influence.
The fact is the Republican Party is now under Trump’s control. The official leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, are on board with Trump’s America.
They agree that wielding power, especially white power, is how to “Make America Great Again”. African Americans, Mexicans and Muslims especially, Trump says, make America weak. Many white working people accept this myth.
During the struggle against the white supremacist Apartheid regime in South Africa, the leading anti-apartheid force, the African National Congress (ANC), coined the phrase: make the country “ungovernable”. The ANC rejected apartheid rule as illegitimate, since it excluded the clear majority of the population from basic rights.
That strategy — inside and outside the country — worked. Especially with the rise of Black South African workers’ organising and a powerful mass democratic movement, Apartheid’s central ally, Washington and especially then-president Ronald Reagan, could not prevent the Black majority from winning political rights.
Since Trump’s Electoral College victory, there have been unprecedented protests by a wide cross-section of the country. They include the largest marches ever in Washington, DC and other cities. More than 3 million people marched under the banner “National March for Women’s Lives”.
Native Americans have led the anti-pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation, immigration rights activists are defending the undocumented and the Movement for Black Lives (a broad coalition of more than 50 groups, including Black Lives Matter, formed last year) is stepping up resistance to police violence.
Trump is the bombastic figurehead for the ruling super-rich. However, if his bizarre behaviour, inflammatory rhetoric and policies begin to hurt their interests because the majority sees Trump’s presidency as illegitimate, it could affect domestic stability and international alliances.
A weathervane historically is the Black population. Resistance by African Americans, as slaves and then as second-class citizens, has stimulated others to fight back. The two greatest struggles in US history were the movements for abolition of slavery and to end Jim Crow segregation last century.
The vanguard role of African Americans in these and other struggles has shaped the country.
‘My African Americans’
Trump’s view of Blacks fits his vision of how to “make America great again”, a view in which social progress has made the country a “disaster”. He refers to his Black supporters as “My African Americans”, a condescending comment reflecting his view that Blacks are lesser to himself and other whites.
At the same time, he seeks to use more police terror to put down Black resistance to racism. He has already targeted the largely Black south side of Chicago, speaking of sending more federal forces to the city.
Trump met with Black supporters on the first day of Black History Month. He praised the greatness of African American anti-slavery fighter Frederick Douglass, referring to the 19th century freedom fighter as “someone who has done amazing things and is being recognised more and more, I notice” — as though he were still alive.
He holds the same view of all non-whites. For the first time since Reagan, there is not a single Latino in his cabinet, even though they are the largest minority in the country.
A statement by the White House on National Holocaust Day failed to mention that Jews were targeted by Hitler for extermination. His spokesman said it was by design because other groups were also murdered by the Nazis. But it reflects the anti-Semitism of the “alt-right” white supremacists.
Racism is about power, as Malcolm X and many radical Black nationalists and militants explained in the 1960s. The Trump administration’s agenda is about returning to a pre-civil rights era.
Blacks — women especially — will likely be in the vanguard of the new resistance. Black women voted most strongly against Trump, gave the largest “No” vote to Trump, initiated the Movement for Black Lives and were key leaders of the January 21 March for Women’s Lives.
The historical context is important to grasp why African Americans have historically played a vanguard role in struggles to better society.
After the American War of Independence, a clause in the constitution gave Southern slave states extra votes in the Electoral College by increasing their voting power by adding slaves to the total (three fifths per person). This helped keep the slave states, who feared domination by Northern states, in the union.
Once slavery was abolished, its original purpose should have made it obsolete. But the rulers saw value in preventing citizens from directly electing the president, the most powerful branch of the state.
After the Civil War the issue was: should the freed slaves get the vote? Radical Republicans supported it, but Democrats, including in the North, were against full equality.
For his part, Abraham Lincoln opposed slavery but sought to appease slave holders with compensation.
It took a long time for presidents to open the door of the White House to African Americans. President Teddy Roosevelt (1901-09) was the first president to invite an African American to a White House dinner — Booker T. Washington in 1901, shortly after his inauguration. The outcry led him never to do that again.
Franklin D Roosevelt (1933-45) never invited an African American to the White House for meetings or official events. FDR’s base included the racist southern DixieCrats; it is noteworthy that his New Deal policies effectively left many African Americans out as he refused to challenge racist laws.
After the 1936 Berlin Olympics, white US athletes were invited to see and meet Roosevelt. No such invitation was made to the African American athletes, such as Jesse Owens who had won four gold medals. Owens commented: “The president didn't even send me a telegram.”
Roosevelt also refused to support an anti-lynching bill for the same reason.
Immigration and African Americans
African Americans are, for the most part, not descendants of “immigrants”. That phrase that the US is “a nation of immigrants” misses the reality of deep institutional racism and white supremacy.
Barack Obama was an unexpected break from this racist past. Even whites who voted for him hoped that the issue of race and racism would be consigned to history’s dust bin. Instead, racism increased in the Obama era. Obama’s actual policies were mainstream Democratic and Republican. He did little for African Americans directly.
However, with the rise of Obama, hardcore white supremacists saw the US as a “white country” undermined by the “other”. Obama’s “colour-blind” approach to racism did not mollify them.
For a brief period of 10 to 15 years after the end of the Civil War in 1865 (known as the Reconstruction), former slaves won some real freedom and could vote. Many were elected to office.
But a violent counterrevolution arose to end these rights (a period during which the Klu Klux Klan rose as a white supremacist terrorist group). Slavery as a system never returned as it was less efficient and profitable than wage slavery.
Blacks were not paid equal wages. Many white workers falsely believed their situation was better thanks to the super-exploitation of African-American labour.
It took 100 years for Blacks to win back the vote in the post-slavery South. Now, more than 50 years after the vote was won, it is being suppressed again and civil rights are under attack.
Resistance is key
The mass protests show that African Americans, many women and others know that the electoral system is not the solution to institutional discrimination. Trump and his white nationalist advisers seek to use executive orders, the Congress and Supreme Court to impose a new presidential dictatorship, but the public is not ready to give in.
A majority oppose racist and anti-immigrant policies, but sentiment alone cannot stop the right. The ruling class knows that its control of the state depends on public acceptance of the system.
Unjust laws and orders by Trump and his backers must be met by civil disobedience — the active, public, conspicuous breech of the law to bring about a change in law or public policy. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and ’60s deliberately broke segregation laws to force federal action and fundamental change.
The authoritarian president will always blame those he fears as “the enemy”. He hits the “fake media” first, then all critics. The battle to defeat Trump’s regime will require the same determination as that of earlier generations.
The goal of opponents should be to make the Trump presidency ungovernable. In such a struggle, revolutionary change is possible.
[Malik Miah is an editor of Against the Current. A longer version will appear in the March/April edition of ATC.]