From Colonialism to Trumpism: Remembering Aimé Césaire

We have much to learn from our ancestors; not only from our direct descendants, but from our intellectual ancestors—the long lineage of radical thinkers and activists that laid the foundation for the possibilities of critical thought and insurgent social mobilization. Aimé Césaire, the Caribbean anti-colonial intellectual, who died on April 17th of 2008, is but one example. In 1950, at the young age of 37, Césaire penned what some consider the manifesto on decolonial thought, Discourse on Colonialism. In the text, Césaire indicts the hypocrisy of Western civilization and its primary mode of interacting with the world: Colonialism. Just five years after the Second World War, while intellectuals across Europe and the United States scrambled to make sense of the savagery and barbarism that constituted Nazism, Césaire put forth his most critical rejoinder:

“A civilization that proves incapable of solving the problems it creates is a decadent civilization.

A civilization that chooses to close its eyes to its most crucial problems is a stricken civilization.

A civilization that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilization.”

Over fifty years after the fact and we still call it “the good war.”  We have yet to truly grasp, it seems, the significance of Hitler. For Césaire the answer to the question “But how and why Nazism?” was clear:

“We must study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism; and we must show that each time a head is cut off or an eye put out in Vietnam and in France they accept the fact, each time a little girl is raped and in France they accept the face, each time a Madagascan is tortured and in France they accept the fact, civilization acquires another dead wright, a universal regression takes place, a gangrene sets in, a cancer of infection begins to spread, and that at the end of all these treaties that have been violated, all these lies that have been propagated, all these punitive expeditions that have been tolerated, all these patriots who have been tortured, at the end of all the racial pride that has been encouraged, all the boastfulness that has been displayed, a poison has been distilled into the veins of Europe and, slowly but surely, the continent proceeds towards savagery…. And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers standing around the racks invent, refine, discuss….”

So, then what, if anything, does Césaire have to teach us today? If the words above resound familiar, it is because we can talk about Fascism in 2017 without sounding anachronistic. We watch carefully as a Trump presidency maneuvers its way into power, characteristic of authoritarian regimes. Much like Trump, Hitler’s rise in Germany, the narrative goes, surged in popularity at a time when Germany relished in a liberal democratic culture. Trump’s election, much like Hitler, was a reflection of the anger, resentment and frustration of a general impoverished and humiliated population. And much like Hitler, President Trump immediately sought to limit and or control the flow of information and news by declaring “The Fake Media” an enemy of the American people.

We can go on and on about the comparisons: about the scapegoating, the nationalist and populist rhetoric. We can explore at length, for example, the Chief Strategist of the Trump administration, Steven Bannon’s ideological approach to government and how at the core of his belief lies his apocalyptic concerns of a “world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West” in crisis. Bannon, addressing a group at the Vatican explains that although fascists and other rightwing tendencies in “Eurasianism” may have racist underpinnings, the root of fascism is really a yearning for “traditionalism.” Bannon continues, “as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing.” We can go on about Bannon’s hatred of Islam, Rick Perry’s “Nigger Head” Ranch, or Jeff Sessions disdain for immigrants, at the end of the day, as Aimé Césaire would say, “it’s Trumpism, it will pass!” But this is why Dave Chappelle’s SNL 2016 Election Night skit explains America so clearly. In the skit, after Trump wins the election, a white woman suddenly awakens from a colorblind slumber, “Oh my god! I think America is racist!” To which Chappelle responds, “Oh my god! You know, I remember my great-grandfather told me something like that. But he was like a slave or something, I don’t know.” It is not that Chappelle supports racism in America, it is that a black man in America knows Trump; and more precisely, Trumpism. In the eyes of the frightened and fierce immigrant, the face of every ICE agent looks like Trump. It has been this way for decades.

Césaire, much like Chappelle’s skit, mocks the idea that Hitler and Nazism were exceptions to the standard practices of Europe in particular, and Western civilization, in general. “People are surprised, they become indignant,” Césaire writes of Hitlerism:

“They say: ‘How strange! But never mind—it’s Nazism, it will pass!’ And they wait, and they hope; and they hide the truth from themselves, that it is barbarism, the supreme barbarism, the crowning barbarism that sums up all the daily barbarisms; that it is Nazism, yes, but that before they were its victims, they were its accomplices; that they tolerated that Nazism before it was inflicted on them, that they absolved it, shut their eyes to it, legitimized it, because, until then, it had been applied only to non-European peoples; that they have cultivated that Nazism, that they are responsible for it, and that before engulfing the whole edifice of Western, Christian civilization in its reddened waters, it oozes, seeps, and trickles from every crack. Yes, it would be worthwhile to study clinically, in detail, the steps taken by Hitler and Hitlerism and to reveal to the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century that without his being aware of it, he has a Hitler inside of him, that Hitler inhabits him, that Hitler is his demon, that if he rails against him, he is being inconsistent and that, at bottom, what he cannot forgive Hitler for is not the crime in itself, the crime against man, it is not the humiliation if man as such, it is the crime against the white man, the humiliation of the white man, and the fact that he applied to Europe colonialist procedures which until then had been reserved exclusively for the Arabs of Algeria, the ‘coolies’ of India, and the ‘niggers’ of Africa.”

Donald Trump, with his promise to place “America First” in order to “Make America Great Again,” has been consistent in his desire to keep out the Mexican rapist and to clean up “the carnage” Black criminals have created in the inner-cities. But these ideas are not novel; they run deep in the genetic make up of Anglo-Saxon America. After all, it was our dearest of all Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson, whom suggested we exterminate the Indian and deport Africans to Africa by way of the Caribbean. “In general,” Jefferson wrote of Black people’s mental capacity, “their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.” He likened Black people to “an animal whose body is at rest, and who does not reflect.” But do we need to reach so far into the history of United States to find such sentiments? Take the President’s words regarding immigrants, for instance:

“All Americans, not only in the states most heavily affected but in every place in this country, are rightly disturbed by the large numbers of illegal aliens entering our country. The jobs they hold might otherwise be held by citizens or legal immigrants. The public services they use impose burdens on our taxpayers. That’s why our administration has moved aggressively to secure our borders more by hiring a record number of new border guards, by deporting twice as many criminal aliens as ever before, by cracking down on illegal hiring, by barring welfare benefits to illegal aliens. In the budget I will present to you, we will try to do more to speed the deportation of illegal aliens who are arrested for crimes, to better identify illegal aliens in the workplace…”

Trump? Jeff Sessions? No! Clinton. It was Bill Clinton, after all, that put in place Operation Gatekeeper responsible for causing the horrifying deaths of thousands of human beings crossing the southern border. It was under Bill and Hillary Clinton’s watch that we saw the massive investment and growth of the Prison Industrial Complex to “deal” with “super predators” (primarily black and brown) in a shifting global economic and political landscape. Yes it is Trump, but before we were horrified, some of us were accomplices. Barak Obama, dubbed “Deporter in Chief,” moved millions of human beings out of the country and as entire families, toddlers, were locked up in “immigration detention centers,” most of America didn’t even bat an eye. As BLM hit the streets in protest of brutalization, murder, assassination, and terrorism of the black community at the hands of police and the state, most of America jeered at the black bodies blocking intersections, inconvenienced at the thought of being forced to confront their inner Trump, especially in a post-racial world: “This is not what MLK would do!” As Césaire would ask, sarcastically: “Who is roused to indignation?” How many Americans were actually disturbed at the sound of the bullet that murdered Oscar Grant, or the cry of white supremacy, “Not Guilty” which set Zimmerman free? How many Americans subscribed to the theory of the “bad apples”? The bodies incarcerated, lives stolen? And the list goes on. So I ask again, “Who is roused to indignation”?

Let us take Césaire’s question literally and take a brief look to learn from those that actually stood up with indignation to Trumpism and its variations in the past. We know that at a time when Mexicans, documented or not, were being shipped back to Mexico in mass, it was the likes of working class Mexicans in 1930s Detroit, who for example, established La Liga de Obreros y Campesinos to wage class struggle. The 5,000 largely unemployed Mexican men and women endured immigration raids, propaganda and an anti-immigrant climate for some time, creating their own radical leftist publications, educating themselves while organizing dance parties. At approximately the same time, Black Communist men and women in Alabama organized themselves amidst Jim Crow violence and a broken economy to demand dignity and the right to self-determination. The “Blues Epistemology,” as the late Clyde Woods called it, always vibrates against the sound of white fascist noise.

We can learn immensely from Robert F. Williams and his armed wing of Black radicals who stared the Klan straight in the face, armed with wit, intellect and guns. Because nothing frightens Trumpism more than the black radical tradition and organized workers of color. In times of crisis, we tend to see a bit more clearly the resistance that has stubbornly persisted all along. For some of us, since at least 1492, every single day has been a crisis. Let us learn from the great Chicanindio poet, Raulsalinas, who, after listening to black UMKC students recite poetry inside Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary—the same prison that hosted the murder of revolutionary, Ricardo Flores Magón, some years before—wrote:

“i heard some black cats blow today

who spoke of pigs, of being free, of many things

No Shakespear/Keats/ or Shelly; they,

No bullshit sonnets of nobility and kings.

Oh, No!

Theirs was street poetry/turn poesy

Of the wake-up kind;

With snap-to-it rhythm

The type that blows your mind.

“Tighten up your game/ “Get your head together”

they said to me.

“NOW IS THE TIME for all oppressed humans to be set


He ended with this afterthought:

“the MAN’S stepped on our toes his final hour

From now on he should get

Steady bombardment of our

People’s Power.”

“American domination,” wrote Césaire, “the only domination from which one never recovers. I mean from which one never recovers unscarred.” Even in 1950, Césaire knew American empire and its indefensibility. And now the indictment is brought against it by the millions and millions who have suffered and suffer still as a result of its racist and colonial arrogance. Césaire’s prophetic words are sound advice for us today, and are worth remembering now more than ever.

Abraham Ramirez is a Ph D candidate in the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley.