Trumpism and Césaire’s “Terrible Boomerang Effect”

Photograph Source: Mickaël T. – CC BY 2.0

And then one fine day the bourgeoisie is awakened by a terrific boomerang effect: the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss.

-Aimé Césaire

Aime Césaire’s words of 1955 in his Discourse on Colonialism (36) burn brightly still to illumine the politics at work in 2020 America. Just ten years after Hitler’s demise in World War II, this young Francophone and French poet, an Afro-Caribbean intellectual and politician from the island of Martinique, shares truths about European and U.S. ruling groups that we ignore at our peril.

Especially Césaire’s views on the “terrific boomerang effect” need to be recalled and owned anew. They can even clarify why strong critics of the current two party corporate/warrior class nevertheless can approach the 2020 presidential election to vote for the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Césaire’s words also make very clear, though, why any election of Biden will not solve our national crisis. I will support a Biden vote, but this is not because I embrace the idea that Biden is “the lesser evil,” “lesser racist” or perhaps to demote Biden further, “the least worst.”

No, instead I am voting for Biden because his presidential regime would present the real target at which we must take aim and resist with ever stronger rising social movements for justice and peace. Trump is demagogic, even fascist, yes. But he is those things as an outgrowth sprung from within the U.S. “bourgeois” state, our long-dominant U.S. two-party corporatocracy, involving its ultra-rich donors and those who support them. Members of this corporatocracy often style themselves as champions of civility, antithetical in their politics and culture to crass, authoritarian and fascist figures. Césaire dared to declare otherwise. The “civil” niceties of ruling elites may be distinctive and at times even less dangerous, but they are integral to ruling elites’ ways of being, of maintaining their power. “Without being aware of it,” Césaire wrote, “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois of the twentieth century has a Hitler inside him.” Hitler’s emergence in Europe was to Césaire not the imposition of a surprising antithetical force. His fascism was the effect of a “boomerang” coming back into European culture from European rulers’ own ways of building up its powers over decades and centuries, in colonialism abroad and also exploitation in European lands own past histories.

Similarly Trump and Trumpism can be viewed as a “terrific boomerang effect” from past and present structures of American elite rule. Although Trump styles himself as critic of the liberal “radical” Left, he is actually the returning and whirling scythe of U.S. liberals and neoliberal structures of violence. Trumpism’s blade, though, now without pretense or surely of “civility,” is raised to slice away any vestige of institutions protecting the long repressed and those who stand with them. Trumpism can bring to bloody and more visible culmination the corporate rule whose domination in the past was so pervasively hegemonic that it often went unnoticed, save by those who were made to suffer it so chronically. Trump occasionally argues that he’s saved his people from the nation’s “endless wars,” reducing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. That can be welcomed, but only with a tentative nod. Some on the Left nod too vigorously, I think, as if these troop draw-downs manifest Trump’s solidarity with working classes whom he saves from the ravages of war. But it is Trump, recall, who has submitted ever greater military budgets (with unquestioning Democrat party support) thus guaranteeing that the U.S. remains the globe’s number one merchant of war. Trump also has deployed more drone strikes and in more secretive ways than under Obama, who though more “cultured” than Trump in the previous presidency had already raised the number of drone strikes to new heights. Trump’s own drone-striking and his connivance with Democrats in ever bigger military budgets is a route by which this scion of real estate wealth seeks a place in the nation’s militarized corporate elite. This elite stands astride a corporatocracy that rules over the “military industrial complex” of which Eisenhower warned in 1961. Now, Trump’s crass thug persona offers to U.S. liberal classes a temporary safe-cover for the brutal militarism from which these liberal classes benefit along with Trump. In the long view, both liberals and Trump work in tandem and so assure that the U.S. will remain, as the 1967 Martin Luther King lamented, “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

This means that the signs of the times that are dismissed as only Trump’s doing or “Trumpist” have to be seen in a different, more comprehensive light. They must be seen as failures of our corporatocracy, or what Glen Ford of Black Agenda Report intrepidly and persuasively describes as a two-party oligarchy, a “billionaires’ duopoly.” Can we see the dangers of Trumpism in this broader way? The boomerang has come back in ways that are often intensifications of abuses begun before Trump, but indeed more dangerous now. Consider, for example, I.C.E.’s BORTAC swat-team troops on our Portland streets? Trace the concentration of an ever smaller percent of the wealthy class who leave the masses of poor and middle classes ever further behind? Who can miss the white supremacist groups who celebrate Trump as their leader in the White House, and take to the street as self-styled “militias” in his name, showing there those white sullen faces that reflect still the white confederacy’s supremacist dreams of old? Our rights to privacy are increasingly curtailed whatever be our class, as we are surveilled in ways similar to the racialized poor, long “stopped and frisked” in their urban neighborhoods? Maybe a warning like Césaire’s, when it is most needed is, by definition, one that comes too late. I am not sure. I do know that the bodies of North America’s residents and U.S. citizens, especially those among its indigenous, slaves and descendants, the working poor and more – these have all long suffered a thoroughgoing repression. The repression though can get worse; “the gestapos are busy, the prisons fill up, the torturers around the racks invent, refine, discuss?”

The Cesairean boomerang effect is not the outcome of divine or metaphysical recompense (“what goes ‘round comes ‘round). It is better understood as the outcome of the way present-day domestic affairs are showing ever more pervasively the same brutal traits of rule that U.S. leaders have often “offshored,” so that dictators abroad do the U.S.’s dirty work whether in service to neoliberals or neoconservatives. Perhaps the U.S. hasn’t quite seen before white supremacist militias receiving such obvious presidential signals of support as we’ve seen from Trump. The U.S. has long benefited, however, from boots on the ground to enforce American geopolitical interests globally, allowing little “Trumps” abroad to ravage and repress other people’s polities, over there. Then, too, on the homeland, governors, mayors, police commissioners and more have also acted like little “Trumps” in the whole history of U.S. white supremacism. Abroad, recall U.S. support for the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, the Duvaliers in Haiti, Suharto in Indonesia, Saddam Hussein (our ally in Iraq before the U.S. found him dispensable), Orlando Hernández in today’s Honduras – the list goes on of U.S. strongmen servicing U.S. interests.

Césaire well discerned the reasons for the boomerang effect from all this. Césaire explained it not so much as vengeance sent back from the lands suffering U.S. geopolitical domination. It is more that the architects of imperial repression abroad “dehumanize” themselves. They treat foreign others as racialized beasts. “Even the most civilized” among colonizers engage the exploited and repressed “other,” and become accustomed to “treating him like an animal” (41). The servants of imperialism thus becomes animal, and return to their own “civilized” homeland to tear at their own people with sharpened fang and claw.

As sociologist Kathleen Belew has shown in her book, Bring the War Home, U.S. military contractors (mercenaries), after supporting U.S. military operations in Latin America, Africa or Asia, often return to target “enemies” in the homeland and contribute to white power movements of varying sorts. White domestic terrorism is, in part, a fruit of our corporate warrior elites’ so-called “wars of necessity.” Perhaps Césaire’s critique of colonialists as animal was not fair to animals; it may be more accurate to say that the U.S. has made exploited people into things, chattel, especially racialized black, brown and indigenous peoples who, while still resisting, today still bear the scars of the genocide and slavery that lie at this nation’s foundations.

Trump and company, I know, do not like to be reminded of this history. In fact, current Trumpian executive orders seek to ban teaching about U.S. founding violence as inherently “un-American.” I’ll admit that there were some ingenious constitutional drafters among the nation’s late 18th century founders. I too – once in a while – like to pull my copy of the constitutionalist debates off the shelf and read Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and others defending their ideas. But we cannot revere those founding texts now, with so little progress having been made toward “the more perfect union” that people say these founders wanted and that many today assume is being built. Something more fundamental needs to be rethought and rebuilt, another kind of revolution – to be sure a “feasible” one, as philosopher Enrique Dussel thinks on revolution in his Ethics of Liberation (413-31). It would have to be a revolution, though, that strives to meet the basic human needs of all, striving genuinely toward egalitarian ideals for those among the U.S. poor who most have been ground down like the colonized of the world. Movements toward that ideal will have to be birthed from new and stronger movements at multiple levels of our society. Movements such as these are often hard to find, but perhaps one example is that of the Back is Black group planning a November 8 March on the White House, its vision blending a contemporary fight against colonialism with demands for black community control of policing.

Right up to this 2020 presidential election, Trump and cronies have stomped and tromped through any remaining semblance of the rule of law, whether in Bill Barr’s latest desecration of justice in the name of his version of the “Judeo-Christian moral tradition,” or in Trump’s penchant to tolerate and affirm white militias. The gestapos are busy.


It is more than appropriate to stop looking for liberating effects, surely liberating solutions, to come solely through electoral politics, especially when both major national parties remain beholden to their corporate donors. Nevertheless, how we vote in this election does matter. To be sure, Biden as well as Harris have their strong connections to U.S. sectors of the corporate elite. We need not have any illusions that they will organize to take down the U.S. corporate warrior elite, even if some powerful movements today have won some minimal concessions from these. These flicker occasionally in Biden’s talk of health care as a right, in his calls for action on human-induced global warming, and his announced plans to tax at greater rates the corporations and others making over $400,000. We should have no illusions that this represents success, or that we should build allegiance with them if we vote for them. They have been too long a part of the two-party corporatocracy that is responsible for bringing Trump and Trumpism home to the U.S. as “terrific boomerang.”

We must sweep Trump aside, deflecting the boomerang as best we can, so that we can take on the corporate warrior elite, whether liberal or conservative, neocon or neoliberal – challenging them more directly with stronger and more powerful social movements. Giving Trump more time in the presidency only exacerbates the destruction of this boomerang, this “blast from the past” that lays waste to so many now but that has been harbored so long within the rule of powerful structures of America. The stakes are high. Trump’s white supremacism and crass nationalism, as Chris Hedges has long argued in his own trenchant critiques of the two-party system of corporate rule, now are giving rise to a Christian fascism that increasingly sanctifies repression. A Christianized gestapo threatens and – like too many other Christians of the past – is ready to bless and bow to the U.S. corporate warrior elite. This is not just a travesty of the Christian gospel, as I as a theologian have long argued over the years; it is also destructive of justice and peace for all humanity.

Philosopher of practice, Cornel West put it well in a recent call. After reminding his readers that Biden’s past and present, in themselves, provide no reasons for voting for him, West insists nevertheless: “a vote for Biden is . . . a way of preserving the condition for the possibility of any kind of democratic practice in the United States.” It may be added that if Biden is elected, we still cannot rest. There should be no relief, only a deeper resolve to now get about the work of ending the two-party rule of U.S. corporate warrior elites. If we don’t follow our dethroning of Trump with an equally emphatic ending of today’s repressive corporatocracy, some new demagogic regime far worse than Trump’s will be this nation’s future fate. Then the gestapos will really get busy.

Mark Lewis Taylor is Maxwell Upson Professor of Theology and Culture, Princeton Theological Seminary.