While watching Raoul Peck’s stunning film, “I Am Not Your Negro,” an ethical and political meditation that channels the brilliance of James Baldwin, like everyone else I found myself obsessing about Trump and his posse of fascistic madmen invading the federal government. Baldwin reminds us of the brutal history of this country, its foundation on the genocide of Indigenous people and the enslavement of Africans. In other words, this is nothing new.
That might be discouraging but in some strange way it gives me hope, or at least perspective. Let me explain.
Raoul Peck chooses particularly creepy images to illustrate the mindless narcissism, the bloated obliviousness, of the privilege white people live under. He shows a series of Kodak ads depicting the ideal American WASP family, some shots of John Wayne and Doris Day, and really disturbing clips of some white dancers who can’t dance in the musical The Pajama Game. What we’re seeing here is the dream of whiteness, the 1950’s patriarchal, white supremacist America. It is a dream built on the backs of millions who have been enslaved around the world, who are today compelled to get up before dawn to work all day in sweat shops making cute clothes for us, who suffer health crises and environmental devastation all in the service of the empire. Indeed, the US economy is ultimately unsustainable – extractive and predatory. Today thousands of ships are at sea, chugging their way across the Pacific from Asia to fill the shelves at Walmart and Costco so that we can continue to stuff ourselves with commodities.
The US has had military and economic dominance of the world since the early 20th Century and has reaped huge wealth as a result. Even as production has moved to the Third World, the power relations have meant that most of the profits have gone to the US and European countries. We have, in short, a parasitic economy. That reality was fragile and could not last forever, and that dominance is unraveling. It hurts and those used to privilege, even workers used to being the aristocracy of labor, are highly upset to see the US decline.
Let us suggest, then, that a parasitic empire is a bad thing and it is in crisis and collapse – because it has reached the outer limits of what it can exploit to increase profits. It is in collapse because peoples of the world won’t take it any more, or even because other (not necessarily good actors) empires would like to move into position number one.
Ultimately we want a better relationship to peoples all over the world, right? Do we want empire to end? Would we like to be a nation among nations, with resources more equitably distributed? Or would we like to stay on top, keep the empire, defend it with brutal force, just with someone smarter than Trump sitting in the throne?
For most people, we would like to live in a more equitable relationship to other peoples of the world. We would like an end to racism and racial hierarchies, and end to patriarchal power. We would like to make peace with the colonized, the neocolonized, and the internally colonized. If you are anti-imperialist, if you want empire to end, then how do you think that will actually happen?
Too often we enumerate our complaints but we have to take responsibility for our vision of a more just, peaceful, equitable world. What would be better than living under imperialism? Some kind of democratic socialism? A harder revolutionary socialism? Or even a kind of capitalism that is just less hateful and rapacious? Any or all of the above would be fine, but just not this, not what we have now. What comes next depends on us fighting for more democracy, more justice, more transparency here and now. That will help determine what’s next.
The number one reality is that we are experiencing a crisis – the collapse of the US empire. For our part, as progressives, as people who believe in equity and democracy, we should welcome this change. It’s about time the US acted as a nation among nations, instead as the boss of the world. With the end of US imperial dominance, we would not be in a state of constant war; we might have fewer goodies because we would no longer be the ultimate consumers of the commodities of the world economy. But in a post-imperialist world, life could be richer, sweeter.
So we come to Trump. Another stage we expected when the empire was heading into decline is that the imperialists would lash out, they would become even more dangerous. Sometimes they start wars. Sometimes they bring methods of colonial violence home to the domestic sphere, and that is called fascism. These outbursts are predictable and Trump is the mad representative of all these tendencies. But let’s remember our anti-imperialist values, our ethics. We are not sorry to see empire fall and we hope it can go down peacefully, or with the least damage possible.
Seen in this context, Trumps moves are not only stupid but in their ineptness we see that generally his machinations only hasten the decline of empire. And this is where I have more hope, where I seem to feel that – if we can muddle through this period, if we can fight and resist in the right ways – the insane Trump era might just be the final gasp of a dying beast.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that the Trumpistas will do a ton of damage. Will people be hurt? No doubt. It will be, it is, terrible. I don’t say these things lightly; from my position of privilege I’m likely to suffer less pain in this horrible period. We have to fight against every attack, every horror, that is being unleashed.
But the question still is: where is this thing going and what will really happen?
Let’s take a look at Trump’s lurches into policy. Threats and bluster might work when you are building a casino but they don’t really work on the world stage. Here are a few examples:
Trump declares the gag order, that NGO’s around the world that are involved with women’s health cannot mention abortion. That’s terrible, right? But a week later the Netherlands offers to take over funding of these NGO’s. And other entities, independent or from other countries, are sure to follow suit. The women still get health support and full information. The only difference is that the US is out of the game, isolated, resulting in less influence for the empire.
Trump pulls the US out of the Paris climate change talks. But a week later, India and China declare that they are intensifying work on alternative energy sources. Where before these countries, the greatest coal-burning polluters, were holding back, now they are taking the lead. It may be that this development is better for the environment than the old status quo. The US is therefore more isolated, less of a factor. And that’s a good thing too.
Trump offers to put a 20% tax (really a tariff) on goods coming from Mexico. Besides the fact that that will just increase costs to the US consumers, we will also find Mexico increasing trade with other countries of Latin America as well as China, Europe, and elsewhere, which is probably a good thing for the rest of the world and bad for the US empire. Another shot in the foot for Trump.
Trump bans Muslims, turns away refugees, and tries to shut the southern border. Let’s be clear about a few things here. First, people are trying to get to the US because they are driven out by wars or by climate catastrophes or by economies that have been dominated and undermined by the US. Certainly that is true in Latin America. No one is just dying to visit the US to go to Disneyland. They are driven here because they face starvation in economies trashed by the US. They are following their stolen resources north. In spite of any move Trump may make, people will either recover their economy or will find ways to get across the border anyway. As for Syrian refugees: These are people who would not even be trying to get here except for the war the US provoked in their country. Others are fleeing wars that have been promoted by the US and fought with US weapons in Central America, the mid-East, Africa, and even Mexico. So we must fight for refugees and immigrants to have a right to get in. But we also must stop the US wars and disruptions that have created these crises. Trump’s bumbling gestures here only expose the US as a heartless aggressor.
Trump flubs everything in Asia policy – from his talks with Taiwan followed by a pull back when he talked to Xi Jinping, to his discussion about Korea policy with Shinzo Abe in an open restaurant, to his empty threats about China’s claiming of the Senkaku Islands – only affirming the US as a paper tiger.
The Trumpistas hope to go back to an era of white male supremacy – to the authoritarian power of a bygone era. It is a dream that was a nightmare for the vast majority, and a dream that they can never realize. They love the idea of white men being waited on by their “colored” servants; of the poor knowing their place; of women being under the thumb of daddy until given over to hubby. But this is a pipe dream and the courageous and determined resistance of millions is showing the impossibility of such a development. Every stupid move Trump makes only encourages other countries to find their connection, their way of interacting, away from the empire. Every move isolates the US more.
So I have to say that I find hope in these times. It is a convulsion of hatred by the bully who is being cut down to size. It is dangerous and horrible. But it is the prelude to a new and better world. The empire will end – that is certain. Our hope, and our work and activism, is to make that happen soon and to make that transition occur peacefully.
Author and activist Rebecca Solnit says, “We are awesomely ungovernable and insubordinate. They came to rule; they stayed to be mocked and thwarted and despised. This doesn't mean that everything's fine or you can just coast from here, but it's an auspicious week three.”
For many millions in this country, the Trump regime is clarifying – the problem of US arrogance and violence is exposed for what it is. We will come out of this much better than before. I hope so, anyway. Certainly this is why I am reading the news, and taking action, with less dread and more anticipation of better days.