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The Sadism of American Power

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It was just a couple of weeks ago that President Trump was both inciting and praising anti-lockdown protesters around the country. These included armed white militia men who stormed state capitol buildings demanding an end to public health measures to curb the spread of the deadly Covid-19 virus. Many of them were filmed harassing nurses and blocking ambulances from reaching hospitals, but to Trump they were all just “good people.” He did this all while the deaths in the US from the pandemic lurched toward the 100,000 mark, the highest recorded death toll for any nation on the planet.

But in just the span of a few days Trump’s rhetoric shifted. After the sadistic murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, he labeled the protesters against police brutality “thugs” and tweeted “once the looting starts the shooting starts.” A clear call for state violence. Floyd was a Black man who was accused of using a $20 counterfeit bill. For this he was handcuffed and pinned to the ground by several white officers. One of them, Derek Chauvin, kneeled on Floyd’s neck for an agonizing 8 minutes and 46 seconds, as he gasped for air, begged for his life, and called out for his late mother. At no time did Floyd appear to be resisting and bystanders pleaded with the officers to stop their assault. Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck for 2 minutes and 53 seconds after he lost consciousness.

Trump’s shift in tone regarding the protests of this horrific act of brutality shouldn’t come as any surprise. One of his most consistent traits has been to incite violence. At his rallies he has reveled in ridiculing the most vulnerable and has encouraged his feckless fans to “beat the crap” out of those who oppose him. “The man who once said that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters” was not kidding. More recently, Trump threatened protesters against police brutality outside the White House:

“The front line was replaced with fresh agents, like magic. Big crowd, professionally organized, but nobody came close to breaching the fence. If they had they would have been greeted with the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons, I have ever seen. That’s when people would have been really badly hurt, at least. Many Secret Service agents just waiting for action. ‘We put the young ones on the front line, sir, they love it, and … good practice.”

But Trump is the odious symptom of a grave disease. One which has inflicted far more damage than any virus. The systemic violence of the American project has always been rooted in sadistic racism. For instance, the demonstrations that formed after the footage of George Floyd’s killing was released were largely non-violent. Despite this, they have been met with the full force of state violence. Police used tear gas, pepper spray, flash grenades, and rubber bullets, not only at protesters but also members of the press. One Black reporter for CNN was arrested while his white colleagues were not despite them being together. There were also many credible reports of agents provocateurs among the protesters. One video shows a white man in a gas mask smashing windows. The US Customs and Border Patrol even flew one of its predator drones around Minneapolis amidst the protests. Like the tanks used at Standing Rock, this is an ominous sign that America’s war machine, that has made life a misery for millions abroad, is being turned inward.

There were no such police responses to the anti-lockdown protests which were composed mostly of white people. On the contrary, multiple videos show cops gently dealing with unruly white protesters despite many of them wielding assault rifles. It is a textbook example of structural racism at work. Given the armed nature of these demonstrations, one would guess that had there been a forceful approach by the police they would have been far more destruction than the “I Can’t Breathe” protests in Minneapolis and other US cities.

Trump’s blatant racism and belligerence are not anomalies to American culture. And those tempted to say “this is not us,” yet again, should pause before doing so. At a certain point there must be a reckoning to what America started out as and what it has become. The United States was founded upon white supremacy and violence. And it is not something of the distant past. Its tendrils reach deep into the very fabric of American society today.

Like all colonial empires, sadism has always been the driving force of American power. Not freedom. Not liberty. From genocide of the native population to centuries of slavery, from Jim Crow and the internment of Japanese citizens, from the carpet bombing of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia to drone strikes in Afghanistan and Somalia, from Wounded Knee, to the Trail of Tears, to the Tulsa Massacre, to My Lai, to Abu Ghraib, to Guantanamo, the message has always been one of coercion through sadistic cruelty and violence. It explains how 48% of Americans can justify torture. It explains how so many Americans can easily forgive their war criminals. It explains how the US military could use Agent Orange, and white phosphorus, and depleted uranium in its warfare. It explains how immigrant children can be separated from their parents with nearly 70,000 of them held in squalid detention camps. And it has always thrived on supremacy. This is demonstrable in its abysmal response to the pandemic. Most of the victims in the US are people of color, immigrants, Native Americans, and the poor. It is no accident that they are being forced back to work in many states and abandoned to die should they become ill.

The knee that mercilessly crushed the neck of George Floyd is the same knee that has crushed the global south everywhere, both in the US and abroad. The US is not alone in this, but it surpasses every one else in terms of capital and brute strength. To think that Trump is some kind of glitch is both ahistorical and ludicrous. Indeed, there have been scores of Trumps throughout the bloody history of the US and before. There are scores of them now, and many in positions of power, from the military, to ICE, to the CBP, to the judiciary, to the police, to correctional officers, to corporate executives. Trump has definitely emboldened them. But, in truth, they do not need much encouragement to begin with, because there is a long legacy of barbarism for any of them to draw from.

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Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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