After Wednesday’s attack on the US Capitol, I’ve seen lot of people saying that this isn’t really America, “this isn’t who we are.” The thing is, the images and news you see coming out of it are nothing new. It’s the culmination of years of unspoken truths.
People stormed the Capitol and among their flags were ones that touted a message of Christianity, a shocking dissonance to the violence around them. Yet for decades the American Right has been marrying Evangelicalism and to its ideals, so of course, they would march in lockstep now.
While the mob thrashed the Capitol, a man took the time to rip a scroll written in Chinese. “We don’t want Chinese bullshit,” said the woman watching him work. This isn’t sudden, shocking xenophobia, but it’s part of a long American tradition of Sinophobia that includes the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Rock Springs massacre, and a President blaming the pandemic on a “Chinese Virus.” What else could have happened?
The sight of a man parading the Confederate Flag — the flag of white supremacists who fought a war against the United States — through the halls of Congress is an unsettling sight, but not a surprising one given the nation’s refusal to reckon with the fact that a Civil War was fought over the ownership of slaves.
Trump’s election was a result of a backlash against Obama’s presidency, one described by Carol Anderson as white rage. In her book (also called White Rage) she describes its trigger as black advancement, “blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship” (3). For most of the US’s history, people who looked like Barack Obama had no right to be anywhere near a leadership position. They were slaves, they were a separate caste subject to Jim Crow laws and kept out of higher education. Obama’s rise was a violation of the natural order of things (and indeed it has been seen as natural: “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro,” wrote Thomas Pearce Bailey in 1914). So Trump won, the result of “…unbridled anger at Obama for having had the audacity to become president…” (Anderson, 173). It’s no surprise that so much of Trump’s presidency has seen the man undoing as much of Obama’s legacy as possible; in much the same way that public pools in the 1950s had to be drained and scrubbed clean when a Black person touched the water, so too did the American Presidency need to be cleansed of Obama’s touch.
Over the last four years, Trump has morphed into the embodiment of the unspoken truths of America. He is a man with little care for immigrants or communities of color, a man who has no shame about sexually assaulting women (because, in this mindset, who are women but subservient to men?), a man who lauds white supremacists as “very fine people” because who are they but those who have been in power for almost of American history? And they have been, because that has been the undercurrent to slavery, Chinese exclusion, and Indian removal: making sure that white Americans are able to stay in power, untainted by ‘lesser’ races. Trump is the subtext writ large.
For Trump to lose an election, especially to a candidate voted for by 87% of Black Americans, is an unthinkable result. How could so many people vote in such numbers to remove him from office? How could an Electoral College designed to empower southern white voters fail? A challenge against Trump is a challenge against the white supremacist backbone of the US. For people to revolt, to attack the US Capitol isn’t some shocking plot twist, but just the next part in this push and pull of history. After all, the way they see it, they deserve a political system that exists to benefit them and so the right to attack those who would get in their way. You can’t attack the status is quo.
This is America.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Writers Note: This week has been A Lot and there’s still a pandemic running rampant over the US. Over the past few years, I’ve been reading up on and around the sort of political machinations that have led us to this place.
- White Rage by Carol Anderson, which I quote here, traces how major events like Jim Crow or the gutting of the Voting Rights Act can be linked to a backlash against Black advancement.
- One Nation Under God by Kevin M. Kruse follows the how the political bloc of ‘evangelical Christians’ was developed and leaves little surprise that they now support Trump.
- I’m currently reading Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, a book that positions the racial order of the United States as being akin to the caste system of India. It’s a heady read, but one that’s definitely worth a read for its unflinching analysis.