Xenophobia is not always racist.

I have been reading and listening to the aftermath of Trump’s comments about the four female first term Democratic representatives, all of whom are “people of color.” I found the US coverage interesting both as evidence of partisanship and the deep vein of bigotry that Trump has tapped into in order to advance his political career. But some of the coverage has got me to thinking about how the issue is being framed, specifically whether or not his comments were “racist.”

Here is how I see it: Strictly speaking, the “go back to where you came from” line is xenophobic. It often is underpinned by racism, as in Trump’s case. But it is not the same or reducible to racism because culture, religion, language, dress etc. factor in as well. The primary inference is that the “other” is “foreign.” The distinction is important, especially in a country that has the Statue of Liberty as a national symbol.

Trump’s ignorance of his target’s birth origins does not take away from the underlying anti-foreign message. It appears that in the US xenophobia is more widespread than racism. Trump knows this. That allows him to disavow racism and yet throw bigoted meat to his base because foreigners are “aliens,” the inference being that they are sub-humans who come from crime-infested sh*tholes (his language, not mine). That he speaks of these first generation citizens’ supposed hate for America and loyalty to foreign enemies like al-Qaeda (both demonstrable lies) rather then focus on their racial characteristics is proof that the emphasis is on their foreign “otherness.” Likewise, in calling them socialists and communists Trump and his minions emphasise the “un” American nature of those ideologies and their supposed embrace of them. It is to the xenophobic streak in US society that Trump is speaking to, some of which may be embedded in broader racist sentiment.

As a third generation US citizen descended from Irish Catholic, Italian and Scottish stock, I am well versed in the “go back to where you came from” opinions directed at my grandparents. Then as now it may have overlapped with but was not strictly a matter of racism.

Anyway, as I see it, for all of the nice inscriptions on Lady Liberty, the US has a deeply rooted xenophobic streak that parallels and often overlaps with its history of racism. There are times when one strand overshadows the other, for example during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s when racism took centre stage and xenophobia took a back seat. In today’s context the “acceptable” form of bigotry–besides ongoing homophobia and misogyny–is xenophobia, not racism.

This is what allows the Trump administration to detain thousands of “illegal aliens” (most of the world uses the term “undocumented migrants”) in internment camps. It is what allows it to separate hundreds of “alien” children from their parents and remove them to detention centres far from where their parents are held. The justification for such depravity is not offered on the basis of race but on the basis of birth origin. That, it seems, is more acceptable to many “Americans” who would not accept the wholesale incarceration of African- or Asian-Americans on the sole basis of race.

Oh wait, check that thought. That was only true in other times.

Incidentally, I place qualifier marks around the term “Americans” because “America” refers to continents rather than individual nations, so the appropriation of the word by the US is more a form of linguistic imperialism than an actual descriptor of who is born there.

In any event, I feel that the emphasis on whether Trump’s comments were racist or not obscures and detracts from the fact that xenophobia, stoked by years of endless war against and tensions with foreigners (mostly of color) has made it the preferred form of bigotry wielded by Republicans and those who are fearful of the loss of white dominance in a country where demographic change does not favour them.

Whether or not it will be used as part of a winning electoral strategy by Trump and the Republicans in 2020 remains to be seen. But what it does demonstrably prove is that the historical roots of xenophobic “othering” are being well watered today.

Postscript: Conspicuous by its absence from the MSM coverage is the fact that Trump’s bigotry is, amid all of the rest, gendered at its core. He appears to take particular issue with women who challenge him, especially those who are non-white. He saves the worst of his personal insults for them, and in the case of Rep. Omar he has walked up to the fine line separating protected offensive speech from hate speech. After all, when he falsely claims that someone “hates America,” “is loyal to al-Qaeda,” is a “communist” and even was married to her brother (yes, he did indeed say that), then he is coming perilously close to inciting violence against her. After all, if you condense what he is saying, she is an insolent commie incestuous female who hates America and who therefore does not deserve the common protections afforded “real” citizens.

Yet the media has not focused on these components of his rhetoric as much as they should be. Instead we get the usual analyses that “he is consolidating his base” and “he is trying to tar the Democratic Party with the “four women of the apocalypse” brush”, which if true do not fully capture the evilness of his intent. While I do not think that his offensive views merit impeachment at this point (since in my opinion they do not rise to the level of high crimes and misdemeanours), should anything happen to any one of the so-called “squad,” and should that be the work of a Trump supporter, then I think that there is fair grounds to do so.

5 thoughts on “Xenophobia is not always racist.

  1. “Send her back” hmmm. After yesterday’s performance the GOP now has a new problem. Should Trump loose presidency to the democrats in 2020, he and they, can’t very well turn the WH over to the democrats having branded them enemies of America. To do so would be treason in the eyes of his supporters. So stand by for a huge constitutional crisis in the US next year.

  2. Informed friends of mine have speculated that should Trump lose the election or appear to be headed to a loss, he will claim that the vote was rigged and that he was robbed of victory. He will call his supporters to the streets to defend his right to office. That will lead not only to a constitutional crisis but to mass violence.

    Until recently I did not think that tis was possible. Not only because the institutions critical to governance would not back the move (say, the courts and the military), but also because even for Trump that would be a bridge too far. But in light of events I am now open to that very idea.

  3. The fact that part of Trump’s appeal is to people who either don’t, or can be easily convinced to ditch democractic norms or take partisanship to the extreme of implying Democrats are treasonous has been obvious since well before the last election. I wondered how he & some supporters would have responded had he lost last time.
    However all that just confirms to me what’s been apparent all along which is that whilst what Trump says and does is grotesque, it’s really not as important as what other Republicans say and do. He is what he is, and will do what do what he does. What damage is able to is really down to what Republicans allow him to do.
    Trump won’t care what a constitutional crisis means, and the impact the worst of his supporters can have. I don’t think he’s ever cared about the constitution or the institutions of the Republic.
    Republicans however claim to care. It’s going to come down to what extent they’re prepared to let Trump damage them for short term partisan gain. Clearly we’ve not got close to the point where they recognise or care about the damage being done. You’d like to think a refusal to accept the election result and the descent into violence would appall even those who up to now have enabled him, but i’m sure as hell not betting the house on it.

  4. Trump’s base only seem to grow more extreme and more committed. And now that Trump has said he is unhappy with the latest chant, I wonder what happens at his next rally. Will his supporters be restrained or do they rush on ahead of him heedlessly.

    Fascinating to watch.

  5. I find it hard to believe Trump really is unhappy with it. I suspect there’ll be GOP voices in the background telling him he needs to not let it get out of hand. This is their dilemma. They’re happy for Tump to be Trump most of the time, but at the same time aren’t really prepared for the ramifications of his rhetoric, which as you say is making his base more extreme and brazen with every utterance. You can see where it ends, but for now at the least the GOP either can’t, or want to pretend that something so awful is possible. It’s hard to see them ever cutting Trump lose, maybe the best we can hope for is they keep him on some kind of leash till he’s out of office. The question is then what damage does he leave behind.

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