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OP-ED

Racism and US exceptionalism are as American as apple pie

Racism and US exceptionalism are as American as apple pie
US President Donald Trump. (Photo: EPA-EFE/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)

There is nothing new about Donald Trump’s divisive, racist politics of anger. Racism was, from the very beginning of the United States, a defining feature of its politics, culture, society and economy. It morphed over the centuries into various forms of racial segregation, discrimination and outright violence.

Much of the commentary on the US presidential elections has centred on concerns about the fragmentation of the United States into hostile political camps. The upshot of this commentary is that the US has become a polarised and fractious nation where Donald Trump supporters opposed a coalition of progressives in a bitter standoff. However, this commentary lacks a historical perspective. The US was never a “united” country as its Latin motto, E Pluribus Unum, “From Many, One”, might suggest.

The United States began as a loose confederacy of British colonies. The so-called Revolutionary War of 1775 to 1783 pitted opposing economic interests in these colonies against each other. The resulting Constitution is often credited with being the first democratic constitution, yet many of the issues that now haunt US politics – especially the composition of the Senate where a few thousand residents of Alaska have as many representatives as the 39 million Californians, or the composition of the electoral college that now determines who will be president based on the over-representation of rural areas – are fundamentally designed as anti-democratic mechanisms.

The US revolution took place in a context of a war of attrition that eventually decimated the Native American population to such an extent that contemporary political scientists worry more about the behaviour of Indian American voters than Native American ones. More, the colonies supported an extra-ordinary system of slavery that shaped the political economy for centuries to come. Racism was, from the very beginning of the United States, a defining feature of its politics, culture, society and economy. It morphed over the centuries into various forms of racial segregation, discrimination, and outright violence. And not just in the South but across the entire nation from San Francisco to Boston. And it spawned a progressive movement that set itself against these discriminatory practices that included abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass and the many socialist organisations in Northern cities that organised workers into cooperatives and trade unions.

Apart from the systematic annihilation of the indigenous population and racial oppression, which formed a kind of sub-structure to a pseudo-democratic system that was to emerge in the 19th century, the politics of immigration began to shape the machine politics of urban spaces across the country.

It is a forgotten fact that Protestant Anglo-Saxons formed a secret society that became the American Party in the 1850s to fight against what they perceived to be the invasion of their country by Catholic Irish, Italian and German immigrants. The “Know Nothings” were a precursor to the racism that is now aimed at Latin Americans who are trying to get to the US to support their families with an income. The political machines of the Democratic Party, in turn, mobilised the tired and huddled masses to support their economic interests, all the while bribing them with food, clothing and tenement housing. And, of course, these immigrants then became the backbone for the Union Army and bore the brunt of that terrible war.

The US spends more money on weapons than any other nation-state on the planet and many of its citizens believe that these weapons, married to a US soldier, should ensure that the US way of life is “secured” from foreign threats. The fiction that security can be bought with guns is as important domestically, as exemplified by the role the National Rifle Association plays in US electoral politics, as it is globally.

It is incorrect to blame Bill or Hillary Clinton for the division of contemporary US politics. Even Al Gore’s drawing attention to blatant electoral manipulation in Florida in 2000 by the Bush brothers did not cause the Grand Canyon gulf of contemporary US politics. That gulf has been there from the day the US emerged as a sovereign nation.

It manifests in racial discrimination that lasted from the first European settlements to the present. It is expressed in a white supremacist view that the US has a right to determine the outcome of economic and political life across the planet. And it is opposed by progressive elements whose aim is to bring about wholesale economic, cultural, social and political reform.

By their very nature, these progressive forces are highly divided and often find it difficult to provide a common framework. Reaction against them is a far easier political project than bringing about meaningful change, especially when the system is so rigged against them.

The US spends more money on weapons than any other nation-state on the planet and many of its citizens believe that these weapons, married to a US soldier, should ensure that the US way of life is “secured” from foreign threats. The fiction that security can be bought with guns is as important domestically, as exemplified by the role the National Rifle Association plays in US electoral politics, as it is globally.

But the end of American hegemony is in full flight and the anger this causes a significant section of the US voting population has been palpable in Trump’s campaigns. The US’s problems are domestic and they are deep-seated. A lack of health care, a tsunami of corporate profiteering and tax evasion, deficient broad-based education, minimum-wage jobs, jarring levels of economic inequality and precariousness, are not easily fixed with torrents of guns and heavy doses of racism.  

Contemporary US politics is no more nor less polarised than it has been in the past. It is playing out in a chorus of dissonance based on competing economic interests defined by a rapacious form of capitalism and a military designed to occupy other regions of the world when economic power fails. Add to this a litany of domestic failures directly linked to both the form of neoliberal capitalism and global military overreach.

And domestically, several groups have now had enough of centuries of systematic exclusion and demand, rightfully, their place at the table in the spirit of Martin Luther King and the many progressives before and after him.

E Pluribus Unum” is a promise that has not been kept and until it is, division will remain the cornerstone of its politics as it has been since the beginning of the US as a sovereign nation. Trump’s political style has, no doubt, elevated polarisation but we should not fall into believing that this is either new or news. He symbolises a political project of anger, racism, and raging violence that is as American as apple pie. DM

Thomas Koelble is Professor of Business Administration in Political Science at the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

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