For the past four years, many Americans have been scratching their heads in attempting to figure out how and why Donald Trump became a political phenomenon. How could someone best/worst known for bankruptcies and reality TV suddenly ascend all the way into the White House? And why has fascism suddenly become “high fashion” in American politics?
It turns out this is all rooted in the worst of American traditions: bigotry.
If we truly want to understand our present, we need to remember our past (as in, all of it).
For all the present complaints about “political correctness”, it’s important for us to correct the record of our own nation that’s been distorted all too often to whitewash our history. Since 1776, the U.S. government has stolen 1.5 billion acres of land from Native American tribal communities. While the 1830 Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears are perhaps the most infamous crime of ethnic cleansing targeting Native Americans, there are many more examples of America’s “Manifest Destiny” of westward expansion occurring at the expense of Native American lives and tribal sovereignty.
Speaking of westward expansion, as the U.S. expanded, so did government-sanctioned slavery. From the very beginning of this nation, white politicians viewed African-Americans as “property” rather than people. Even after slavery was formally abolished de jure, the Jim Crow segregation regime continued the subjugation and suffering of African-Americans under the guise of “separate but equal”.
Even now, the legacy of institutionalized racism continues to haunt us. From real estate “red-lining” to “officer-involved shootings”, and from our immigration system to our education system, the overall system is still very rigged against people of color. This is why The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates makes so much sense when he points out that “the foundation of Donald Trump’s presidency is the negation of Barack Obama’s legacy,” or in other words that Trump “makes America great again” by re-asserting white superiority in America.
Next, let’s examine two of the “Founding Fathers of American Fascism”.
Some may know George Lincoln Rockwell as the fictional “Reichsmarschall of North America” in The Man in the High Castle, but he’s also a very real founding father of contemporary American white nationalist fascism. In many ways, Rockwell was ahead of his time with his cosplay obsession, his conspiracy delusions, and his penchant for political theater. He founded the American Nazi Party in 1959, coined the now infamous rally cry “White Power”, organized counter-protests to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s events, and got the attention of the FBI long before his assassination in 1967 by a fellow neo-Nazi.
Following Rockwell’s death, William Luther Pierce rose through the ranks of the American Nazi Party, founded his own splinter group National Alliance in 1974, and became a vanguard in his own right by founding Resistance Records (a propaganda machine and cash cow combo) and Cosmotheist Community Church (a blatant attempt at tax evasion). But above all else, Pierce is best/worst known for writing The Turner Diaries under the pseudonym “Andrew MacDonald”.
In his 1978 novel, The Turner Diaries chronicles Earl Turner’s work with the Order, an underground militia that launches terrorist attacks across America and sparks an “Aryan revolution” that successfully overthrows the U.S. government. Yet beneath the surface of the fictional narrative of Earl Turner and the Order, The Turner Diaries also functions as a “how-to guide” on everything from assassinating journalists to executing a bomb attack on a government office.
Now that we see the pattern, we realize that this didn’t just “come out of nowhere”.
As sociologist Dr. Crystal Fleming recently explained on Gaslit Nation, “Trump winning didn’t turn this country racist, and it’s also not the case that there was the creation of new racism after Obama. No, it never stopped being a racist country. It just sort of manifests differently over time.”
While MLK is largely regarded as a national hero today, he and other civil rights leaders of the 1960’s were often vilified as “radicals”, kept under surveillance by then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, and even criticized by “well-meaning white liberals” who feared civil rights activists were going “too far, too fast” in pushing to dismantle systemic bigotry. This desegregation backlash continued into the 1970’s, as unrepentant segregationists fought against aggressive desegregation programs, and as “well-meaning white liberals” like then President Jimmy Carter and then U.S. Senator Joe Biden (D-Delaware) claimed desegregation programs like mandated school busing and neighborhood integration “overreached”, and they joined the unrepentant segregationists in rolling back such programs.
During the Freedom Summer of 1964, Neshoba County, Mississippi, law enforcement aided and abetted Ku Klux Klan members in their murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner, civil rights activists who traveled there to register African-American residents to vote. Some 16 years later, Republican operative Paul Manafort brought Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan to campaign at the Neshoba County Fair and deliver his now infamous “states’ rights” speech. Reagan went on to win the presidency and end the remaining programs that were established to undo Jim Crow segregation, because, you know, “states’ rights”.
We have a long history of hate, but we can choose to end it. (So will we?)
George Lincoln Rockwell may have been viewed as a Hitler-wannabe crackpot in his day, but he was venerated as a visionary hero a half-century after his assassination by the neo-Nazis who were carrying out his vision of “White Power” in Charlottesville, Virginia. William Luther Pierce may have lost his fight for full tax-exempt status, but his Turner Diaries manifesto inspired a real-life Order of a neo-Nazi militia network in the 1980s, encouraged Timothy McVeigh to bomb Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building in 1995, and has since been connected to over 200 white nationalist murders.
In the meantime, media pundits keep arguing over whether U.S. Senators Kamala Harris (D-California) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) “went too far” in holding Joe Biden accountable for defending his cooperation with unrepentant segregationists to weaken and dismantle desegregation programs. “Well-meaning white liberals” keep fretting over whether progressive activists are “going too far, too fast” in demanding Democratic politicians match their “woke” words with real action in dismantling discrimination throughout civil society. And of course, media pundits occasionally take a break from these arguments and fretting sessions to check in with the usual white Trump voters at the usual roadside diners to talk how Donald Trump speaks to their “economic anxiety”.
While Rockwell and Pierce did plenty to unleash a tsunami of bigoted violence, we can’t ignore the larger culture and traditions of bigotry that have made their violent movement possible. Long before “1488”, there was “Manifest Destiny”. Before the “Red Pill”, there was red-lining. Before Donald Trump called himself a “nationalist”, before Ronald Reagan praised “states’ rights”, and even before Richard Nixon evoked a “silent majority”, Andrew Jackson violated Native Americans’ human rights and tried to wipe out their entire nations.
While Joe Biden may feel true righteous indignation when he calls out Trump’s “both sides” rhetoric on Charlottesville and white nationalist terrorism, he and other “well-meaning white liberals” get it all wrong when they claim Trump’s presidency is a mere “aberration” in our larger history. No, Trump’s presidency is actually a continuation of our long history of institutionalized racism. In order to solve this crisis of extreme hate and violence, we can’t simply “return to normalcy”, but rather upend this entire history and demand real, lasting change. It’s now for us to decide whether we’ll finally do so.