From Brexit to the victory of Donald Trump, the world order established in the post-cold war is now being shaken up. The UK’s decision to withdraw from the European Union channeled the populace’s disdain toward the system driven by neo-liberalism. In the US, a similar anti-establishment sentiment has grown, where many of those abandoned by the elites galvanized the campaign slogan “Make America great again”.
For those who voted for Trump, his win appeared to represent this backlash against corporate globalization. Yet, just as the left quickly found betrayal in the Obama’s promised ‘hope and change’, disillusionment hits Trump supporters as it is becoming clear that this impulse for change is now being subverted to further regress society.
The old colonial logic of conquest that was hidden during the previous administration with feel-good words and progressive images put forward by a ‘Black’ President is now out in the open. With executive orders targeting Muslims, immigrants and LGBT communities, the Trump presidency has begun to insert xenophobia and enclose the civic arena. From the Sessions’ Justice Department taking down the civil rights page on its website to voter suppression and disfranchisement of African Americans, this new administration has been widening racial divides in a blatant fashion.
The Rise of Nationalism
Trump’s White House reawakened colonial racism. It is a triumph of nationality over our humanity, where one’s identification with a particular group or race is heightened. This extreme nationalism has now become a nexus for control for the ultra-right to enact their agendas. Militarism, along with increasing power of the executive branch and a kind of verging police state are now being sold to the people through the rhetoric of national security and putting the country first.
This triumph of national identity seems to have kindled a resurgence of racial hierarchy in US allies. In Europe, far-right parties and neo-Nazi activities are on the rise, demonizing immigrants and asserting the old ideology of a ‘master race’. In Japan, Prime Minister Abe aims to reenact old imperial Japan and national identity to pre-WWII, through historical revisionism and militarism. ‘Yamato Damashii’ (Japanese spirit) that was once used as military political doctrines in the Showa era is now being revived among the right wing.
Unchecked patriotism could be easily repackaged to brand the old collective identity of Japanese as a superior and chosen race. In America, white supremacy groups are now being empowered. The ideas on the fringes such as social Darwinism and the colonial rule of Manifest Destiny are now entering the mainstream, creating a resurgence of European identity.
Collapse of Consumer Identity
So, what created this compulsive plunge back into the return of the old? As modern life has gone through industrialization, colonial practices of domination and subjugation of one people to another has been moved into the economy, by way of extreme capitalism. Corporate values of profit at any cost began infiltrating society and this bottom line rationale has slowly pushed humanity out of our culture. Relationship became a series of transactions, where people calculate their gains and losses to advance their selfishly driven agendas in the corporate ladder of success, rather than forming genuine friendship or care for one another.
Corporate America’s hollowing out of culture has created what psychologist Phillip Cushman (1995) described as the “empty self”, marked with a “pervasive sense of personal emptiness” that produces “values of self-liberation through consumption” (p. 6). This internal emptiness was tapped to create a ravenous consumer economy, where people are driven to chase after material happiness to soothe their hunger.
Corporate led globalization created a single market that homogenizes cultures. The American Dream, the idea that with hard work and talent one can improve one’s lot and build their own prosperity was exported into the globe. The expansion of unfettered capitalism turned people’s identity from that of citizen to that of the consumer, enslaving all people in debts while concealing continuous racial oppression in newly created political color blindness. With a global crisis of legitimacy unraveled in the 2007-8 financial meltdown, this dominant cultural narrative and consumer-based identity is beginning to crumble. As the American middle class shrinks, the void that used to be filled with products and commercial transactions is beginning to reemerge. This is now exploited again for political means.
Trauma at the Root of Identity
Resistance against Trumpism -this regression back to a colonial identity requires all to tend toward this emptiness inside and understand what makes us vulnerable to these identity politics. What is it that makes us cling to these identities that are given from outside and this external valuation imposed by hierarchy?
Professor emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature Michael Nagler once said, “There is something deeper than our culture (at the root of the problem) and that is our spiritual predisposition, which means who we think we are”. Colonial identity disconnects us from the roots of our humanity. Frantz Fanon (1952/2008) who explored the black psyche in the white world in the context of the Algerian resistance to French colonialism, shared his own experience of colonial identification:
“I arrive slowly in the world; sudden emergences are no longer my habit. I crawl along. The white gaze, the only valid one, is already dissecting me. I am fixed. Once their microtomes are sharpened, the Whites objectively cut sections of my reality. I have been betrayed. I sense, I see in this white gaze that it’s the arrival not of a new man, but of a new type of man, a new species. A Negro, in fact!” (p. 95)
In his own account, Fanon revealed how the idea of Western civilization was an effort to remake the world by the order of hierarchy, where European cultural values are made superior and white came to be synonymous with being human. Fanon concluded with his indictment of colonialism, reminding that “The misfortune of the man of color is having been enslaved. The misfortune and inhumanity of the white man are having killed man somewhere” (p. 205).
In efforts to ‘civilize’ itself, with its dark history of colonization and genocide of natives, Europe has cut itself off from its own lifeblood – indigenous cultures that remained connected to the earth. This separation from nature created a sense of alienation and loss of connection to our essence. Canadian physician and author Dr. Gabor Maté describes this disconnect as a kind of trauma. Unrecognized trauma is passed on from generation to generation. It freezes us in the unaccounted memory of violence that intrudes on the present. The old colonial logic is repeated by means of financial terrorism and corporate plunder.
Healing of the Past
The loss of connection to our humanity is a wound that many of us have become numb to. The pain drives us to engage in a power struggle. People fight to claim their racial and national identity, because in this colonial hierarchy, these differences, without being acknowledged in their own uniqueness, are pitted against one another and used to deny the other’s connection to their own humanity.
Radical nationalism is a symptom. It is an adaptive response to trauma. We are seeking for a connection to our authentic self. Yet, being paralyzed in this pain that we don’t know exists, we may be acting out and looking for answers in places where we can’t ever find them. By defending our identification with a particular nation, race or cultural values, we are perhaps trying to compensate for the loss of who we really are.
At the end of his search for himself, Fanon remarked;
“May man never be instrumentalized. May the subjugation of man by man – that is to say, of me by another – cease … The black man is not. No more than the white man. Both have to move away from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born … Superiority? Inferiority? Why not simply try to touch the other, feel the other, discover each other?” (p. 206)
This swing to the radical right happening in global politics appears to reenact the trauma of colonialism, taking a society down to decadence. Yet, at the same time, the light shines in the dark and indeed, it is in darkness that it shines the brightest. With this breakdown of civil society, we are given a chance to confront the colonial past. This peeling off of consumer identity brought by economic stagnation might be experienced as some form of existential crisis. Yet, at the same time, it offers us an opportunity to wake up to something larger than the identity offered by this materialism of corporate culture and its underlying discourse of colonialism.
Identity politics must not win over the hearts of people who remember their inherent obligation to one another. Nationalism can’t triumph over our intrinsic humanity. If we just recognize how at this deep core, we are fighting for the same needs and hopes, all simply wanting to be human, we now have a chance to heal the trauma buried inside history. We can break this repeated cycle of abuse, making colonization a thing of the past. Then, a new civilization becomes possible, one that is firmly rooted in our shared humanity.