The enslavement of Africans and African-Americans. The Pequot War. The Olowalu Massacre. The Trail of Tears. The Mexican War. The Civil War. The Sand Creek Massacre. Wounded Knee.
I’ve seen this Feb. 9 Vox.com post from Ezra Klein, titled “The rise of Donald Trump is a terrifying moment in American politics,” a few times already in my social media feeds. This is probably because its point is so simple and digestible:
“Trump is the most dangerous major candidate for president in memory. He pairs terrible ideas with an alarming temperament; he’s a racist, a sexist, and a demagogue, but he’s also a narcissist, a bully, and a dilettante. He lies so constantly and so fluently that it’s hard to know if he even realizes he’s lying. He delights in schoolyard taunts and luxuriates in backlash.”
There can be no doubt that Trump is a straight-up fascist, as Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate back in November. Indeed, he’s one of ugliest, nastiest presidential candidates I’ve ever seen (assuming he’s not an agent provocateur aiming to destabilize the Republican Party from within–a possibility we still can’t entirely rule out).
But let’s assume Trump really wants to be President. Reading over Klein’s essay, I got the feeling that he was painting Trump as some kind of outlier, an aberration in American politics. “Behind Trump’s success is an unerring instinct for harnessing anger, resentment, and fear,” Klein wrote. “Trump doesn’t offer solutions so much as he offers villains. His message isn’t so much that he’ll help you as he’ll hurt them.”
Jim Crow laws. The Spanish-American War. The annexation of the Philippines. The Philippine-American War. The annexation of Hawaii. The Ludlow Massacre. The Great White Fleet. Lynching.
Donald Trump is no aberration. The violence and racism of his message don’t break away from American politics, they stem directly from it. Before Trump there were men like George Wallace, Joseph McCarthy and General Edwin Walker. All preached hate, and all were tremendously popular.
This is because America was built on violence and hatred. Other nations see it vividly, but here, it’s something we’d rather not talk about. That’s why John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan scored so many points when they quoted from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and referred to America as a “city upon a hill.” No one running for office today can deny American exceptionalism–even Barack Obama, falsely slurred by Republicans as someone who doesn’t love America, still believes that America is exceptional.
But what, really, makes us exceptional? Our shared belief in liberty? Our supposed commitment to justice? Ask the Cherokee nation about that.
The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. The overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz. The Bay of Pigs invasion. Myriad assassination attempts against Fidel Castro.
Every single adjective Klein uses to describe Trump–terrifying, racist, sexist, narcissist–can be used to describe America, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. Trump isn’t a fool–he knows what American history looks like; he’s just rich and powerful enough to not give a damn about what he says.
American politics today demands that we shun even recent history. We hang on the words of presidents, but ignore their actions. George W. Bush only said we use “enhanced interrogation” at our black site prisons around the world, so it’s all ok, right? And why should anyone around the world be afraid of CIA-orchestrated kidnappings if we call them “extraordinary rendition?”
American history is largely the same story told over and over, of white men seizing power, land and resources. Our founding documents list many ideals of human decency and voice, but our actions rarely deviate from the insatiable desire to attain national security by whatever violence is deemed necessary.
The Vietnam War. The bombing and invasion of Cambodia. The bombing of Laos. The invasion of Grenada. The invasion of Panama. The Persian Gulf War. Guantanamo Bay. The invasion and occupation of Iraq. Abu Ghraib Prison. Drone strikes in Pakistan.
“[S]hame is our most powerful restraint on politicians who would find success through demagoguery,” Klein writes. “Most people feel shame when they’re exposed as liars, when they’re seen as uninformed, when their behavior is thought cruel, when respected figures in their party condemn their actions, when experts dismiss their proposals, when they are mocked and booed and protested. Trump doesn’t. He has the reality television star’s ability to operate entirely without shame, and that permits him to operate entirely without restraint. It is the single scariest facet of his personality. It is the one that allows him to go where others won’t, to say what others can’t, to do what others wouldn’t.”
The painful truth is that exposing Trump as a liar and bully does about as much good as saying the same thing about America. Where is America’s shame at two centuries of racist laws and brutal wars of conquest? Where is the call to replace childish notions of “American exceptionalism” with a humble but thorough accounting of past crimes?
Yes, Trump is a monster. But is he worse than George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger–all of which have the blood of thousands, perhaps millions of people on their collective hands?
Hey, here’s what would truly make American exceptional: a fearless resolve to honestly account for our own crimes. Make that the historical and political bedrock of America, and gutter trash like Donald Trump will have no hope of becoming president.