Donald Trump and American History

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 I. 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 himself. So making sense of his words and actions means making sense of his particular experience of history. Trump is also 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 that an America that had been ‘great’ in the past now needed to be rescued. 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 aspirational; it can be useful; and it can be very 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 others—particularly 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 its current divisions and herald a darker future for a nation that once styled itself as a beacon for life and liberty – and as a refuge for tired, poor people, yearning to breathe free.

Christer Petley

8 June 2020

Reflections on ‘Nelson’s Dark Side’

I have been interested in Admiral Lord Nelson for about as long as I can remember. I knew him first as the heroic victor of the Battle of Trafalgar. Famously, Nelson gave his life to help win that battle, against the rival combined fleets of Napoleonic France and Spain. Badly wounded at the height of the fighting, Nelson died aboard his flagship HMS Victory shortly after the last shot was fired. His signal to the British fleet at the start of the battle is as vivid in my memory as any of the lines from Shakespeare that I had to learn at school: ‘England expects every man will do his duty’.

Part of J.M.W. Turner’s famous painting of the Battle of Trafalgar

But in later years I have come to know a different Nelson. My research and teaching have focused on the history of the British empire, and my particular focus has been on the British sugar colonies in the Caribbean during the eighteenth century. I learned that Nelson’s first long sea-voyage as an adolescent boy was to the sugar colonies of the West Indies, that he served in the region as a young Naval officer during the War of American Independence, and that he met his wife while stationed in the eastern Caribbean during the 1780s.

The transatlantic slave trade and the wider institution of slavery drove the plantation economies of the British Caribbean. But beginning in the 1780s, a nationwide British campaign, spearheaded by William Wilberforce, helped bring an end first to slave trading between Africa and the Caribbean (in 1807) and then to slavery itself (during the 1830s). The debate over the future of slavery divided Britons. Wilberforce personified one type of British patriotism—arguing for an end to slave-trading on the basis that it was a blot on the reputation of a proud and Christian nation. Slaveholders offered their own patriotic arguments—maintaining that the trade was so instrumental to the imperial economy that Britain could ill-afford to stop it.

Nelson had befriended several slaveholding colonists during his time in the Caribbean. Privately, he came to sympathise with their political outlook. It is clear that, by the time of his death at Trafalgar, he despised Wilberforce and stood in staunch opposition to the British abolitionist campaign.

Horatio Nelson as a young man, in 1781, around that time he was posted in Jamaica

My article in BBC History Magazine, published this month, explores that part of Nelson’s story. It does so in part to try to show that Nelson was a complicated individual. Since his death, he has been elevated to the status of an almost god-like imperial, patriotic hero. But though uniquely gifted in command of a fleet, he was in other ways as fallible and flawed as any human being—shaped by his own experiences, friendships and prejudices.

By looking at those things, the article offers a new slant on the Nelson story. But it also does more than that. It shows how Nelson, the navy, and Trafalgar were all linked to the bigger British political struggle over the future of slavery—a struggle that Nelson’s actions at Trafalgar helped to resolve, albeit in unintended ways.

The article is one product of new research in the History department at the University of Southampton about the Royal Navy and the British Atlantic Empire of the eighteenth century. This has resulted in a book that I co-edited with Dr John McAleer, The Royal Navy and the British Atlantic World.

‘Nelson’s Dark Side’ is a distillation of parts of my chapter in the book, ‘The Royal Navy, the British Atlantic Empire and the Abolition of the Slave Trade’.

For the BBC History Magazine article, click here.

On White Fury

The title of the book was decided late on. ‘Slavery and Revolution’ was my working title throughout the writing process. But with the manuscript completed, the press wanted a change, and we eventually agreed on White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution. The book, as the title makes clear, is about a slaveholder. But it also about more than that—it seeks to examine British slavery and the late eighteenth-century revolutions that undermined it. Still, it is Simon Taylor, the richest colonial slaveholder of his generation and a prolific letter-writer, who remains the main point of focus. In fact, a big part of what I wanted to achieve was to explain how a man like Taylor was able to perpetuate the world of Caribbean slavery, and how he came to defend it—right down to the last weak scratchings of his pen. Here, I reflect on why White Fury is an appropriate title for a history book about this man, and I add a few thoughts about why I think understanding Taylor’s white fury matters to us in the present.

‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’, abolitionist slogan and emblem, c.1788.

By the year 1807, Simon Taylor’s anger was running hot. This old white slaveholder was, by then, approaching seventy, and the abolitionist campaign, which he had vehemently opposed since it first began two decades earlier, was on the brink of a major success. After many years of debate, the imperial parliament in London was poised to put an end to the transatlantic slave trade. It pitched Taylor into a state of incandescent fury.

‘Am I not a man and a brother?’ was the slogan of the abolition movement, always accompanied by the image of a kneeling African, begging for help—a message that grabbed imaginations and changed perceptions. And, for a man like Taylor, whose wealth was based on buying, selling, and exploiting enslaved Africans, it was nothing less than a disaster. From his home in the British colony of Jamaica, he had long raged against abolitionists. To him the figurehead of the anti-slave-trade campaign, William Wilberforce, was a ‘hell-begotten imp’, spreading ‘infernal nonsense’. Taylor continually expressed outrage that such a man had misguidedly taken up the interests of ‘negroes’ against those of white colonial slaveholders. Taylor had never been able to understand Wilberforce.

Taylor’s view of empire was built around the principles of white supremacy and white solidarity. To men like him, the only people who could be considered ‘natural born subjects’ of the British Empire, and therefore deserving of its care and protection, were whites; and he considered black people merely as items of property. He struggled to understand how any truly patriotic Briton could see things differently. How could the British public and parliament fail to see that colonial slaveholders were the most precious and useful inhabitants of the empire? How could they prioritise the welfare of black slaves over the interests of their fellow white Britons?

Taylor was born in Jamaica in 1740, into a family of slaveholders and into an empire that seemed to belong to such people. The eldest son of a Kingston merchant, he was packed off to school at Eton before returning to Jamaica in 1760, taking over the family firm, and branching out into the sugar business. He was investing in the most lucrative and dynamic part of the eighteenth-century British imperial economy. Sugar planters were notoriously wealthy, Caribbean sugar was Britain’s most valuable overseas import, and the enslaved Africans whose labour made all of this possible were treated as a disposable resource. Taylor bought and developed three huge plantations—which, like all British sugar estates, were worked by hundreds of enslaved workers, imported to the Caribbean colonies from West Africa via the transatlantic slave trade. He was poised to become one of the richest British sugar planters of his age. He had the world at his feet.

And Taylor prospered, and his influence grew. He was middle-aged by the time that the abolition movement emerged. At first, he saw it as a naïve and sentimental outpouring of emotion that would soon wither, once sensible men of business exposed its absurdity. But by the time he entered his sixties, abolitionism (coupled with revolutionary uprisings by enslaved people throughout the Caribbean) had forced him to accept that the world of plantation slavery that he had worked all his life to sustain was more vulnerable than at any time he could remember. ‘I am glad I am an old man’, he grumbled in a letter to an old friend, as the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, and confessed he was ‘really sick both in mind & body at scenes I foresee’.

A few years after, on receiving the long-anticipated news that parliament had reached its momentous decision to put an end the slave trade, his reaction was predictable. He felt ‘really crazy’—‘lost in astonishment and amazement at the phrensy which has seized the British nation’. Of course, parliament had only abolished the trade in slaves across the Atlantic. (By the time concrete plans were laid to end slavery itself, Taylor had been dead for two decades.) But the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 was, nonetheless, a major political setback for Taylor that dealt a significant blow the wider system of slavery. It might be tempting, then, to view Taylor’s rage as the behaviour of a man failing to come to terms with inevitable, irreversible defeat. Perhaps, we should try to take comfort in the knowledge that Taylor and the world of slavery that he built with such self-confident conviction and defended with such venom are now safely in the past. That, however, would be unjustifiably complacent.

When we look at it carefully, we see that Taylor was angry not because he believed that defeat was certain but because he believed that it could, and should, be averted. And privileged, vocal, outraged men like him can be influential even when major decisions go against them. In the political wrangles over the dismantling of the British slave system, slaveholders won large concessions and retained significant privileges. What is more, the kind of angry reaction to change vocalised by a man like Taylor is not simply a thing of the past. Instead, Taylor’s fear and outrage are often chillingly recognisable. Again and again between his times and ours—through unfinished struggles over emancipation, decolonization, and civil rights—those who have grown up as beneficiaries of white privilege have responded to pressure for equality, increased diversity, and even the most basic of reforms, as though those were types of oppression. Institutionalised racism rooted in colonialism and slavery proves stubborn in the face of challenges, partly because when old white privileges are confronted, indignant white fury—of the sort that Taylor so luridly expressed—is rarely far behind.

Christer Petley

White Fury: A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution is published by Oxford University Press (£20, ISBN 9780198791638) click here to buy


A few weeks ago I met with Elaine Mitchener at the University of Southampton to workshop ideas for our Sweet Tooth collaboration. I was tired. We talked about our project – about how we are going to try to put together a piece of performance around the historical topic of Caribbean slavery and Britain’s historical involvement with it – and we practiced breathing and speaking. I do those things all the time – breathing and speaking – but it is only since I’ve been working with Elaine that I have thought seriously about how to do them properly. And doing them properly takes time and thought (it really does!). And it makes a difference. Trust me. By the time we had done some exercises, I was feeling more energised.

Then we read out some names. We just read out people’s names, from a list – me reading from the top, Elaine from the bottom. We read out names. And the effect of that woke me up with a jolt. I was surprised. This was such a simple but powerful and moving way of using sound to produce an effect … to evoke thoughts and feelings about our subject.

These were the names of enslaved men, women and children from a register of slaves on a Jamaican plantation, made by a white British-colonial slaveholder in 1813. I transcribed them back in 2013. I didn’t know why at the time. Not really. I had been working on the letters and life of Simon Taylor, the powerful and wealthy Jamaican planter for some time. My main project was to find out about him and his world. But what about the 2,000 and more enslaved people who Taylor ‘owned’ when he died in 1813? What was my work doing about them?  Working from the probate inventory of all Taylor’s property at the time of his death, I began transcribing these two-hundred-year-old names and any other information listed about the people in the list: occupation, state of health, gender, age, … the cash value ascribed to them by the man who made the list. I kept going until I had written out the names of every single person listed in that inventory. It took several days, and I did not quite know what I would do with the material.

These lists were themselves part of the technology that kept people enslaved. They kept a record of people and reduced them to a name (most likely not of their own choosing) and brief comments about their use as workers and value to slaveholders – information that helped regiment workers and facilitate their transfer from one owner to another. There are a lot of things that a historian can do with this kind of evidence about enslaved people. And even though this is bald and problematic data, it has started to give me at least some insight into the lives led by people forced to live and work on Taylor’s Jamaican properties, which I’m writing up as part of a book project that I plan to finish next year.

In the hands of someone like Elaine though, names and lists can be used in other ways. Representing this material not in a book but through performance can take our understanding of slavery – and our thinking and relationship with this aspect of our shared and knotted history – into different dimensions.

‘Buck, Man, Field, Able, £40; Buller, Boy, Hog Boy, Healthy, £70; Fanny, Girl, £100; Fatima, Woman, Field, Able, £90’. To read out all of the people on the list like this, steadily, evenly, without stopping would take five hours. To even just start to do that, for one thing, confronts us with the brute facts of people reduced to names on a list with other information that was useful to someone but not to the people themselves. It gestures at the scale of this system, and of the workaday characteristics (just names on a list) of an atrocity that wrecked and ended lives, that continues to haunt and shape us. The experience of reading or hearing this list though resonates beyond that … it has a suggestive pathos and power that I cannot yet really begin to describe, and which perhaps simply goes beyond what words can say.

I don’t yet know whether the work Elaine and I did on that day will form part of the Sweet Tooth piece that we we will start to shape at the end of the month, or whether they might be used in different ways. But I was grateful to be working in unexpected ways, outside my typical zone of comfort … and to have copied out the list.

Work in progress Sweet Tooth will be shared at the Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton at 7pm on Wednesday 29th June: Click Here

Our work will also be showcased at the Snape Proms, Suffolk at 6pm on Thursday 11th August: Click Here

Elaine performed her stand-alone pice [Names] at the Spill Festival of Performance, Ipswich, in October 2016: Click Here

Snape Proms

Sweet tooth is supported by Arts Council England, Aldeburgh Music, University of Southampton, St George’s Bloomsbury, Centre 151, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, and Bluecoat Liverpool