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The Folly of White American Denial

Photo by Jim Mattis | CC BY 2.0

According to New York Times columnist Gail Collins (“How to Handle Trump,” August 17, 2017), “We had no idea how bad this guy was going to be.” “Admit it,” she writes “during the campaign you did not consider the possibility that if a terrible tragedy struck the country involving our worst political ghosts of the past plus neo-Nazism, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would know the appropriate thing to say but Donald Trump would have no idea.”

Frankly, I have problems with these pronouns. Who are “we” and “you”? Moreover, the term “ghost of the past” is a premature postmortem that suggests American racism is now dead, something the nation has left behind, when in fact it is alive and well, and thriving in the age of Trump. Though if one were to employ the same spectral allusions, after the events in Charlottesville those torch-wielding, marching polo-shirt-clad Klansmen and khakied Nazis evoke the Walking Dead rather than the candle-headed Ghost of Christmas Past.

Let me be clear and unequivocal: While corporate media may not have noticed, Trump revealed over and over again precisely what he was during the campaign. Between dog-whistles and out-and-out racist siren calls, Trump telegraphed the fact that he was, as it were, one “bad hombre,” one who only condemned leaks when they didn’t (allegedly) come from Russian prostitutes. He defiantly adopted neo-Nazi catchphrases (“America First”), chose a white supremacist, the now, hopefully, politically moribund Steve Bannon, as a key advisor, and when asked whether he would reject support from David Duke, incredibly not only denied that he knew “anything about him” but also white supremacists – only belatedly and disingenuously to denounce them when called out on it (sound familiar?).

This is, after all, a man who chose Jeffery Beauregard Sessions, a bona fide racist, as his attorney general. A man who in 1989 rallied for the reinstatement of the death penalty for the Central Park Five and who in 2016, fourteen years after they were exonerated, a pre-presidential Twitter rant dismissed a documentary chronicling their innocence as “a one sided [sic] piece of garbage that didn’t explain the.[sic] horrific crimes of these young men while in park.” Not only has Trump failed to apologize, he has stated, “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous.” These are the same faultless police that Trump has more recently advised to rough up suspects (as if they need any encouragement).

Finally, for lack of space, this is the man who notoriously challenged Baraka Obama to produce his birth certificate, who had the mendacity to claim bigly that “investigators” he had dispatched to Hawaii had purportedly found damning evidence (never revealed) that would back his claim. Nonetheless, despite such documented facts (a term like “privacy,” “compassion,” and “integrity” that has come under relentless assault under the Trump ascendancy, although it did not begin with him), a third of Americans still support him and his divisive agenda. None of these facts were concealed from the public; they were known to those who voted for Trump as well as those who generously and foolishly gave him the benefit of the doubt and who now by choosing trivialize and ignore and deny them, abet his attempted rape of the republic.

Collins’ goes on to assert that “What we don’t want to hear is what’s really on his mind.” Again, that pesky pronoun: to what “we” does she refer? Not only did corporate media want to know what was on that mind, it obsessed over it. Why else generously give him such a broad platform to bloviate ad nauseam on its airwaves. In fact, when it comes to Trump’s posturing as both candidate and president, Americans and the world at large have heard nothing but what is on his feeble, self-obsessed mind, even as his handlers scramble in vain to coral its wild bluster. According to Media Matters, telephone interviews on CBS’s “Face the Nation” (7 times), CNN’s “State of the Union” (6), NBC’s “Meet the Press” (6), and MSNBC (where almost daily during the campaign one could have a slice of Trump with one’s morning cup of Jo), ABC’s “This Week” (10) and any number of corporate media outlets that couldn’t wait to hear what the reality television star /attention whore was thinking, to the virtual exclusion of the other candidates. The soaring ratings ensured that Trump’s thoughts – in all their frightening and entertaining incoherence – got out.

No, we knew what we were getting and it’s about time the deniers owned up to it. It is also time that corporate media admit its complicity in the creation of Trump (how ironic that Trump continues to bite the hand that fed him to the public) and not practice belated, catch-up investigative journalism by way of atonement. Trump is a bigot, a racist, and a xenophobe, who keeps company with – and, when the “rating” demand it, pardons – bigots, racists, and xenophobes. This conclusion does not require Holmesian deductive skills. It should not have taken the tragic events in Charlottesville and the president’s woefully inadequate response to them to demonstrate his depths of his moral bankruptcy, as if somehow his previous invectives and policies against Mexicans, Muslims, and transgender people were not evidence enough. But the fact that it took such events to mobilize, particularly among previously acquiescent Do-Nothing/Know-Nothing Republicans, raises a disturbing question: Is America’s bar of racial intolerance set so high that one has to have the backing of white supremacists and neo-Nazi to before being condemned a racist or is it that the victims of racial violence must be black, white, Jewish, or straight before the label gains traction?

Collins concludes that we can no longer wait for impeachment. “Patriotic Republicans and administration officials, “she writes, “have to get together and find a way to make sure that Trump will never again say anything in public that is not written on a piece of paper. It’s their duty to the country.” Here I agree, but in the end, it is closing the barn door after the horses have bolted, or, as it were, the ass has brayed. Ironically, the impetus for Trump’s impeachment, the slippery slope so feared by Trump, may turn out to be lubricated by his own words and actions. For if the removal of decades old confederate statues is justified because they embody a racist ideology, then so, too, is the removal a president who by his words and actions has proven himself to be a racist troll, albeit an eminently incompetent one. However, impeachment does not really solve the dilemma in which we find ourselves, if, as seems likely, the removal of an incompetent, irrational bigot will only see his replacement by a “more reasonable,” competent one in the guise of Mike Pence.

The unresolved racist underbelly of American society produced Trump. The point is that given what we knew about him, Trump should never have been president to begin with. This is the ugly fact that white America must face if the country is ever to move ahead. It is this moral miasma that provided the conditions conducive to reign of Trump. Given such conditions, to paraphrase Voltaire, if Trump didn’t exist, white America would have had to invent him, as indeed it did. Despite ongoing acts of resistance, these conditions remain. They will continue to remain until white America accepts responsibility for Trump and his dire legacy.

John G. Russell is a cultural anthropologist based in Japan.

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