The US intellectual class has failed to understand the racism at the core of Trump’s political project. White supremacy is a social and political system, not simply a matter of individual attitudes. And it changes its shape over time as movements spring up to challenge it, and, in reaction, political projects emerge to give racism a new face, the better to preserve it.
Trump’s election should be understood as the coming to power of such a political project. At its core is a distinctive racial identity politics that views the United States as undermining itself through politically correct multiculturalism and globalization, rendering it too weak to defend itself from the perceived civilizational threat of Islam and the rise of China.
Its antecedents lie as much in the European far Right as in the Republican Party, especially the re-invention of French fascism in the 1980s. At that time, members of the French far Right began to downplay their Nazi pasts and instead emphasize the need to preserve cultural identity, defined as an ethnic “way of life.” In this new identitarian narrative, whiteness became an ethnicity under threat from a ruling elite favoring excessive immigration, multiculturalism, and globalization. Invoking the imagined threat of “Islamization” was a powerful way of weaponizing this formula of white victimhood.
In the US, this kind of politics has been closely associated with the hugely popular Breitbart News. As its former chairman Stephen K. Bannon said in 2014, Breitbart News firmly believes it is leading a right-wing “global revolt” that includes the Front National in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Narendra Modi in India, and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party, which this year achieved its aim of Brexit. All of these parties are united in ethnic separatism and anti-Muslim racism, which they present as the insurgent, anti-establishment common sense of ordinary folk.
The appointment of Bannon as chief strategist underlines the influence that this identitarian far-Right politics will have in the Trump White House. Its purpose is to provide a way to connect anger at the failures of capitalism to a defense of a victimized whiteness. One of Trump’s campaign successes has been to get the intellectual class to talk more and more about the “white working class” as the main victim of corporations, rather than understand the working class as multi-racial. The corporate multiculturalism of Obama and the Clintons, whose anti-racism started and ended in the boardrooms, has been outflanked.
A reassertion of white supremacy and a program of ethnic cleansing is likely to follow. The mechanisms through which it will be implemented can already be discerned: compulsory registration programs for Muslims, mass round-ups and deportations of Black and Brown foreign nationals, a federal stop and frisk program, new “law and order” initiatives targeted at Black communities, restrictions on voting, and the criminalizing of Black Lives Matter and Palestinian solidarity. The remnants of democracy would be shredded.
Such are the building blocks of a new far-Right paradigm of government. With Trump at the helm of the largest surveillance system ever created and the capacity to carry out extra-judicial killings by drone strike on demand, the groundwork for a very twenty-first-century fascism has been laid. Our response must match in radicalism Trump’s own rhetoric but ground it in a genuine program for moving beyond the failures of an unleashed capitalism.
Arun Kundnani is the author of The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism and the Domestic War on Terror and The End of Tolerance: Racism in 21st Century Britain.