This article was first published in 2016, when Americans were deciding between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in the US presidential election.
Some people say Trump is the United States of America’s Mussolini. Some other people say Trump is the USA’s Berlusconi. Silly people say Trump is USA’s Hitler.
Here’s a thing that no one says:
The world’s first concentration camps were built in Africa. Thirty years before the Holocaust, Germany murdered over one hundred thousand Africans in three years in Namibia. From 1904 to 1907, Africans were driven into the desert to die or placed into concentration camps where they were worked and starved to death by the thousands.
Today, seventy years after the Holocaust (the capital H one where mostly white people died, not any of the THOUSANDS of lower letter h ones where brown people died), Germany still maintains a colonial presence in Namibia. Indigenous Africans live in poverty and squalor yards away from Nazi war memorials, windmills, and expensive high-rise condos filled with openly racist German investors and ‘entrepreneurs.’ Today the land where the concentration camps stood is a popular tourist destination for visiting Westerners.
Here’s another thing no one says:
Hitler literally came out and said the tactics of extermination the Nazis used during the Holocaust were inspired by American treatment of Natives in the US.
As John Toland writes in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, Adolf Hitler: “Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild west; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity. He was very interested in the way the Indian population had rapidly declined due to epidemics and starvation when the United States government forced them to live on the reservations. He thought the American government’s forced migrations of the Indians over great distances to barren reservation land was a deliberate policy of extermination.”
And yet: when the capital h Holocaust happened Americans and Europeans (the white ones) reacted in shock. HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED, they said. WHERE DID THIS COME FROM.
Africans and Native peoples were not shocked. The colonized people of the third world were not shocked. We watched the West go to war with itself over who would have control of the darker nations with weariness and caution. We understood then, as we do now, the true nature of Western so-called civilization. No matter who won, we lost.
American greatness, upheld by Donald Trump in his much derided but now iconic campaign slogan but also by Hillary Clinton in her many unapologetic exhortations of this country’s exceptionalism, has always been fueled by atrocities and by the deaths and dehumanization of hundreds of millions of people all over the world. America’s foreign and domestic policy is, and has always been, genocide, theft, torture, slavery, and organized campaigns of sexual abuse and rape that have spanned the entire globe.
Everyone knows about this country’s birth in blood – few people will argue about the barbarity that characterized the Euro-American settler conquest of this nation: approximately 110 million Natives and over 30 million Africans raped, sold, enslaved, and murdered so the American empire could be born. But how many people know about the 2 million Filipinos who died in the Philippine–American war? Or the 1.5 million Haitians worked to death on sugar plantations during the American occupation of the island? Or the 3 million Arabs and Muslims dead from American sanctions and interventions in the Middle East? Or the tens of millions of Indigenous people murdered and disappeared in Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Columbia, Honduras, El Salvador, Chile, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Cuba, equatorial Guinea, and Mexico by dictators, secret police, and cartels installed, funded, and trained by the US government?
Scratch the surface of any part of American history and you will find atrocities barely hidden beneath the myth. It is these atrocities which have made America the most powerful country in the world. The American Empire is an explicitly white nationalist, settler colonial project whose economic foundation is genocide and theft targeting the darker nations and peoples of this planet. There is no you, America, without the death of us. It is only with this context that one can provide a proper analysis of Donald Trump and what he and his so-called movement represent.
Donald Trump as a candidate and Trumpism as a movement do not represent an aberration or departure for American politics. They are the inevitable consequence of American nationalism and the violent expansion of the American Empire.
Every single horrifying thing that Americans quake in fear of Donald Trump bringing to the US, the US has inflicted in their name – often with their enthusiastic support – on people all over the world and within these borders. The difference is that the victims of these accepted American atrocities were African. Arab. Asian. Native. Poor. Brown. Women, queer folks, and children. Within the expansive cloud of hot bullshit known as Western conscience and Western morality and in particular American exceptionalism, those lives do not matter. Those lives are slaughtered so that the last gasp of the American dream may live. The sad fact is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are more or less ok with this reality as long as they don’t get it too. The ones who think they have the moral high ground – the ‘progressives’ – will tsk tsk before ultimately hand waving it all away as a necessary evil.
But the thing about building an entire culture and economic system rooted in the exploitation of huge swaths of life on this planet is that it warps your humanity. It makes monsters. Monsters are real and in this context they are distinctly Euro-American, pink faced, stubby fingered, and they have bad hair.
You CAN NOT separate the brutal reality of American domestic and foreign policy from the conditions that gave birth to Trump. You CAN NOT separate Trump the candidate from the history of this country and what it has done. You CAN NOT hope to stop the ideology and consequence that Trump represents by voting in a person who will in every way continue the legacy of brutality, depravity, and pain that turned America into a superpower except this time wearing a three thousand dollar pantsuit and kitten heels.
Donald Trump is America and America is Donald Trump. Americans can not run from him. They also can’t save themselves by voting for the more politically sophisticated lady version of him. By refusing to acknowledge the basic reality of their history, Americans are guaranteeing that another, much worse Trump will come.
So what do we do? Where do we go? How do we stop the inevitable rise of a new American fascism and how do we survive these times?
Americans must divest from empire. They must refuse to be complicit with atrocities committed in their name. They must reclaim their humanity and understand that their fate is tied to the fate of the rest of life on Earth. Americans must reject the parasitic relationship they have developed with the rest of humanity and they must join the growing revolutionary anti-imperialist movement while organizing to resist the empire’s interventions abroad. Americans must struggle in solidarity with the global south and the colonized people of this land to overthrow this empire, destroy capitalism, and with it racism and white supremacy. They must stand on the side of the coming global revolution.
In practice this looks like rigorous study and political education focused on unlearning the indoctrination of American nationalism and learning the true history of the American empire. This looks like a complete rejection of so-called lesser evil politics. This looks like creating and supporting programs of dual power like the AAPRP breakfast program and the School of African Roots here in Portland and MXGM’s Cooperation Jackson program in Mississippi. This looks like materially supporting the resistance of colonized people who are rising up all over the world and right here in the US. This means moving beyond just saying “Black Lives Matter” to organizing for police and prison abolition, helping your community develop alternatives to keep each other safe, and talking to your racist ass relatives.
Above all it means understanding that you can’t vote your way to liberation and feeling bad isn’t enough. Realize that capitalism, imperialism, racism, and fascism are a feedback loop. The bigotry that you allow your state and media manufacture at home, provides justification for American barbarism here and abroad.
Divest from empire and reclaim your humanity.
*The title of this essay is inspired by a line in Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism. You should read it.