Slavery and Revolution


Donald Trump and American History

By Christer Petley |

History makes us. It shapes us, just as much as any one of us can shape it. And this is as true for a President of the United States of America as it is for you or me. So, for us to try to understand President Donald Trump’s place in American history, we need to try to understand his past. Doing that can help us understand what makes Trump tick. It can help us understand his enduring popularity with sections of the American electorate. It can also help us understand why he appears so often to be so angry, and how his anger reflects a more widespread white fury in twenty-first-century America.

Many Americans identify with Trump, and whatever problems he may appear to have with syntax and precision, he certainly has a knack for getting his message across and defining the conversation. Because of that, we should worry less about how this President talks and think more about what he says and why he says it.

Trump is interested in American history (in its essence not its detail). His presidential campaign, after all, was built around a clear slogan – Make America Great Again – that traded on a powerful idea about American history: this nation had been ‘great’ in the past but now needed rescuing. Like all Americans, Trump has an idea of what America has been that shapes his dreams – and his fears – about what comes next.

The American dream—of a land defined by life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—is a powerful dream. It is both aspirational and comforting. But American history is also dark. America was born in conflict. America was defined by dispossession. The counterpart to the American dream is an American nightmare of murder, slavery, and the dispossession of others. Some Americans, particularly many white Americans, find it difficult to confront the reality that their own wealth and comforts have been won—somehow and to some degree—at the expense of African Americans and Native Americans.

Those Americans whose lives have been defined as much by the nightmare as by the dream find it almost impossible to ignore that dark side of the nation’s past. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about the America he knew as a young African-American boy growing up—a country which had ‘acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery’, in his words. Now, that is a sweeping summary of a complex national history. But it captures a characteristic of the American story just as surely as any narrative about life, liberty, and happiness. American slavery existed for 244 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Only 155 years have passed between emancipation and now.

African Americans in particular have faced what the academic and author Carol Anderson calls ‘white rage’ for generations, centuries. After slavery, former slaves were prevented from having a freedom that was worthy of the name; and after the Civil Rights era, new techniques of segregation made sure that black Americans still would not get equal schooling, fair policing, or an even playing field in the property market. Voter suppression continues to prevent many from exercising their rights at the ballot box.

That white rage—that blocks progress for African Americans—is fuelled, Anderson argues, by white fears. Some Americans, particularly many white Americans, fear that all that they cherish and comfort is under threat from the enemies within and invasions from without—from gangs of dangerous black youths, or Hispanic migrants taking away white jobs (or raping white women). And from that perspective, segregation, police brutality, suppressing the black vote can look like comfort and protection.

Like all Americans, Donald Trump’s imagination is shaped by these American dreams and denials—by American fantasies and American fears. Just as much as Ta-Nehisi Coates or Carol Anderson, Trump grew up in an America defined by the light and dark of its own history.

He grew up and came of age at an unusual time. America—the City on a Hill, an Asylum for Mankind—has been a nation of migrants—of people on the move in search of their own particular American Dreams. But for a short time, while Trump grew up from a boy into a young man, it looked as though that might change.

Over generations the stories have been told of how the Pilgrim Fathers arrived in New England in 1620. The frontier was pushed back. Independence came and the West was won. American cities sprung up from the wilderness—bringing modernity, progress, civilisation. This expanding America needed people. At first they arrived from England, but also from the Celtic lands—from Scotland and Ireland; and they came too from Scandinavia, and Germany, and Italy. Migrants also came from across the Pacific and travelling up from South America to a new life in ‘El Norte’. Many had already lived the nightmare of being forced to come from Africa. For the first three centuries of its history, America was migration.

Trump himself is, of course, descended from migrants: Scots and Germans. But the America of his youth saw a low and declining number of foreign-born migrants. As I’ve said, this was an unusual time – a time in which more than 90% of all Americans were born in America. For a few decades, America had become a nation of migrants who had settled, with fewer and fewer new arrivals. It lasted until the 1970s, when the rate of migration increased back towards earlier levels, and that increase has continued: America is still migration.

We could read this recent resurgence of new arrivals as a return to the American norm. But for many of those who grew up during that mid-century era of the great migration lull, it has looked like something else. For some Americans, and particularly for many white Americans, it has felt like unwelcome change—like an invasion, particularly because so many of the new migrants were not white, like them. They were not coming from Europe but, instead, from all over the Americas and the world beyond.

As with migration, so too with race and colour: the America into which Trump was born was a bit odd, when we look at it within the broad sweep of American history . During the 1940s, the time of Trump’s birth, the population of America was as white as it has ever been. In that decade nearly 90% of the American people were descended from white Europeans. America had never been so white before, and it has never been so white since. More recently, there has been a change. Among young children, white Americans remain the biggest group but are now no longer in the majority. By 2050 it is predicted that the same will be true of the overall population of the country. Some Americans, particularly many white Americans, find this disturbing. Just as they fear that the America of their dreams is being subjected to invasion so too do they fear the changing face of modern America.

Growing up, the current President of the United States of America loved his dad, and he learned a lot from him. Trump’s father was born in 1905, the son of a German immigrant. He began his business of building, selling, and renting houses during the 1920s in New York. Early in the same decade he was arrested—allegedly after watching a parade through his home district of Queens by the Ku Klux Klan. All of that was long before the birth of Donald, his fourth child, in 1946.

Eventually, Donald assumed a prominent role in his father’s New York property business. Between the 1960s and the 1970s, he was the cherished heir to the family firm, and during this period the company developed a reputation for turning away potential black tenants. Those practices were, according to the New York Times, ‘painstakingly documented by activists and organizations that viewed equal housing as the next frontier in the civil rights struggle’. Investigations by the Times found that racial bias was endemic to the way that the company rented its properties. Donald Trump’s first moment in the public spotlight came in 1973. He and his father were co-defendants in a case of racial discrimination—sued by the Justice Department for systematic biases against prospective black tenants.

Donald Trump responded aggressively to the lawsuit and fought it every inch of the way. Eventually the Trumps agreed to sign a consent decree—which guaranteed desegregation in their properties. In all of his past careers—as a property developer, as a reality TV star, and now as a politician—repeated suggestions of a racist bias have followed Donald Trump. But he always denied that he or his business were ever guilty of racial discrimination against African Americans.

By the late 1980s, Trump was super-rich. Trump Tower was a feature of the Manhattan skyline and Trump the property mogul was part of the New York City elite. In 1989 he became embroiled in the fevered outrage in the city that followed the brutal rape of a white female Jogger in Central Park. In the immediate aftermath, the police arrested five youths—four of them black, one Latino—who stood accused of the crime. They were all of them between 14 and 16 years of age.

Trump took out a full-page advert calling for more power for the police to crack down heavily on young men out on the street and for a return of the death penalty. He wanted to deter gangs and crime—and, in his words, to ‘keep us safe from those who would prey on innocent lives’. He paid for this advert with his own money, and it appeared in four New York City newspapers. It coloured the public debate, helping to stir a media frenzy about the Central Park rape case in particular and about the dangers posed by young men of colour in general.

In his advert, Trump took aim at the Democratic Mayor of New York City—Ed Koch. He wrote: ‘Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer …’ Trump added that ‘maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done …’

Trump also offered up a misty eyed anecdote:

‘When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door . . . I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this City.’

What is this story? Look at it again:

‘When I was young, I sat in a diner with my father and witnessed two young bullies cursing and threatening a very frightened waitress. Two cops rushed in, lifted up the thugs and threw them out the door . . . I miss the feeling of security New York’s finest once gave to the citizens of this City.’

A damsel in distress. Heroes to the rescue. Quick summary justice. A happy resolution. Just like in the movies: Wyatt Earp, Dirty Harry, Superman, or John Wayne sticking up for what’s right – truth, justice, the American Way – with fists (or maybe with a gun). Bad guys getting what’s coming to them: beaten up, thrown out. The rude invaders of the dreamy safe space repelled. By New York’s finest. The Good Old Days. When America was great. When we were safe. When we were safe . . . and THEY were scared.

Trump’s advert screamed out to New Yorkers that places once secure were now in danger. It fitted perfectly with common narratives fed by nostalgia—about once-nice white neighborhoods coming under threat from black and Latino gangs of criminals. The solution, according to Trump, was more violence—from the police and justice system, to instill in the dangerous criminals the proper ‘respect for authority, the fear of retribution’. This is the sort of language that sometimes gets labelled ‘common sense’.

The five youngsters who were arrested for rape and assault in the 1989 case came to be known as the Central Park Five. They were convicted. But in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of New York in 1989, the police and the courts got it wrong. Their convictions were later quashed—overturned in 2002: after twelve years. It emerged that the Central Park Five had been frightened into making false confessions. The innocence of the boys, who had grown into men behind bars, was also proven by DNA evidence and by a confession from the real perpetrator.

In his reflections on the case, Yusef Saleem has said: ‘Black people across America know that because of the color of our skin, we are guilty before proven innocent. As a result, sometimes we lose the best years of our lives. Sometimes we lose our actual lives.’ Pushed to talk about Trump’s attitudes and behavior in relation to his case, Saleem simply notes that Trump is a man whose past actions seem to prove ‘that he lets neither facts nor humanity lead his steps’.

There are many reasons, of course, for Donald Trump’s rise and for his behaviour since getting into the White House. But one constant is his ability to play – with instinctive skill and terrifying success – on the shared nostalgia and fears of many of his fellow Americans. He is offering up dreams—that he knows are widespread—about what America should be and about who it should be for. He is raising the nightmare spectre of how a safe and secure American way of life is under threat by invasion from without and from dangerous people within. He wants us to believe that he is the wall protecting the American Dream from American Carnage. In the midst of the COVID-19 catastrophe and with citizens on the streets in protest at systemic racism, his approval ratings are low. But among many American voters, make no mistake, Trump is still their favourite President.

By now, we have enough evidence and experience to suggest that Trump is popular not despite his prejudices but because of them. Many Americans share Trump’s version of American history and like his assessment of how best to fix the nation. He has continually courted controversy while promoting popular versions of white nationalism. Since the hounding of Barack Obama over his place of birth, we have witnessed fury aimed at Mexican migrants who dare to dream their own dreams of America; fury for Colin Kaepernick and other black NFL players who ‘took the knee’ during the national anthem in protest at systemic American racism; fury flung at Congresswomen of colour who dare to oppose Trump’s politics.

This week Trump strolled through the scattering of a peaceful demonstration outside the White House to pose as the nemesis of Black Lives Matter protestors and declare himself the President of Law and Order. This was part of his response to riots and peaceful protests about the killing of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis, in which Trump has called on State Governors to deploy the National Guard, to ‘dominate the streets’. ‘You’ve got to arrest people’, he declares, ‘you have to put them in jail for 10 years and you’ll never see this stuff again’. It is a reaction in tune with all of those previous populist pronouncements, playing on white fears, stoking white fury …  all the way back to New York in 1989 and beyond: ‘I am your president of law and order’.

Ethnic nationalism and white supremacy have a long history in America. Trump and his white fury have not come from out of the blue. They come instead from ideas about America, from experiences of America, and from expectations about it, that have shaped the lives and outlook of Donald Trump and of many of his compatriots. They come from fears that are easily enflamed in times of uncertainty.

America is undergoing significant transformation, and the future could look very different. People are protesting the American nightmare and demanding a new beginning, locked in struggle against a fury that dreams of a time in the past when, for some Americans, it was great to be native-born and white. But that white fury is built on a fantasy, about an American dream that only ever told part of the nation’s story; and it is a fury that glorifies violence as a way of destroying dissent. Some Americans may find themselves soothed by the President’s promises of vicious enforcement of ‘law and order’. But his policies, like his dreams, are based on an unusual experience of America, and on a dangerous set of fantasies about its past. They can only deepen current divisions and herald a darker future for a nation that once styled itself as a refuge for tired, poor people, yearning to breathe free.

Christer Petley

8 June 2020