Reflections on a Xenophobic Speech

By Bill Fletcher, Jr.

Anticipating and sitting through President Trump’s address to Congress last night was arduous, to say the least.  There are so many things that can be said about the speech, not the least being how many inaccuracies were mouthed by Trump.  I wish that I could say that was the most disturbing part, but it was not.

Trump’s speech was the most xenophobic speech by a US President that I can remember.  If you took him seriously, barbarians are approaching the gates and it is everyone for themselves.  I actually wish that we could afford to make fun of him and his rhetoric, but there was a deadly seriousness to what was offered.

It was not just that Trump went after immigrants from the global South as the alleged sources of crime.  Nor was it that he reiterated the misinformation that terrorism in the USA is mainly perpetrated by people coming from outside of the USA.  It was the cynical manipulation of the relationship of African Americans and immigrants from the global South that really caught my attention.

First things first.  At no point did Trump mention the Russian mafia.  This is remarkable because they constitute the most feared criminal organization in the USA, an organization that has carried out multiple killings in the USA.  In listening to Trump one would have the impression that crime originates south of the Rio Grande.  It is also remarkable because crime carried out by immigrants, whether documented or undocumented, does not constitute the major source of crime and violence in the USA.

A second point is that President Trump is a bit fast and loose when it comes to discussing terrorism.  The major source of terrorism in the USA since 11 September 2001 has been right-wing, white supremacist individuals and organization rather than Muslim terrorists.  To this we must add that most acts of terror carried out by Muslim terrorists have been the acts of individuals legally in the USA.

Now, however, let’s get to the cynicism.  Trump nuanced the xenophobia through playing up the alleged threat that immigrants from the global South constitute for African Americans.  It was no accident that Trump used examples of alleged criminal activities by immigrants against African Americans.

Just as the Trump administration is working overtime to split up organized labor, last night evidence was displayed of an effort to create a wedge between African Americans and immigrants from the global South, suggesting that such immigrants are our competitors as well as being a threat to our very existence.  This was smooth and well-choreographed, but clearly something that flies in the face of facts and, as such, was quite demagogic.

Immigrants are not closing down factories and other workplaces.  They are not the major sources of crime and violence in African American communities.  The immigrants that Trump wishes us to focus upon are those from the global South, many of who are coming to these shores as a direct result of the economic, political and military policies (and actions) of the USA.  This contrasts with why East Europeans, for instance, would come here.  And the fact that Trump never seems to get around to mentioning European immigrants is not representative of a memory lapse, but rather a calculated effort to focus the attention of non-immigrants on immigrants from the global South as our alleged enemies rather than focusing on the multi-national corporations and the capitalists who run them.

Hopefully we are not foolish enough to be played.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the former President of TransAfrica Forum.  Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and at www.billfletcherjr.com

New Issue!

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Our January/February issue is finally out–sent to e-subscribers a couple of days ago, and in the mail to print subscribers.  We most recently posted David Bacon’s contribution to the issue, What Trump Can and Can’t Do to Immigrants, especially timely given Trump’s recent executive orders.

Here is the issue’s editorial note:

Arise!

If you’ve just awakened from a Rip Van Winkle-like sleep, you should probably stay lying down for a little while. You’re in for a shock.

A presidential candidate who slandered Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, claimed a Mexican-American judge was inherently biased against him, called for a ban on Muslims coming to the United States, called for compulsory registration of Muslims in the country, boasted of sexually assaulting women, insinuated that gun advocates might assassinate his opponent, and pledged to abide by the election result “if I win” … was elected president.

Here’s another shocker. Who among us expected to hear the Republican nominee for president—just four years after the party’s nominee was private-equity mogul Mitt Romney—say the following, as Donald Trump did in a October 2016 speech? “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington and for the global special interests. They partner with these people who don’t have your good in mind. … It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”

The leading figures in the mainstream of the Democratic Party certainly did not expect an adversary raging against corporate globalization (even with the anti-Semitic dog whistles audible in Trump’s denunciations of the “global elite”). For decades, leading Democrats had bought into the neoliberal economic agenda, steering away from policies that could get them branded as “anti-business.” They derided criticism from the left as juvenile and quixotic, not dreaming that they would be outflanked on the right by a populism like Trump’s.

The analysis by liberal and progressive commentators since the election has focused largely on why Trump won and what it says about the country. We have to remember, however, that election results are not revelations of the national soul—especially not under the United States’ non-majoritarian presidential election system. The overt racism, nativism, and misogyny of Trump, his allies, and supporters are important facts about the United States today, but they are not the singular truth about the country or its people.

Yet there is nothing to be gained by minimizing what Trump has conjured. He tapped into widespread sentiments of grievance in a manner typical of right-wing populists: simultaneously directing his supporters’ ire at (some of) the wealthy and powerful and (some of) the poor and marginalized—blaming both, jointly, for the ruin of the country. The people Trump speaks to and claims to speak for are overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, and the grievances to which he gives voice are not simply those of workers and poor people in general. They are, rather, the particular grievances of those who recoil at gradually sinking into a mass they see as beneath them.

The articles in this issue attempt to dig deeply into both what has gotten us to this point, and what are possible ways forward.

Our cover article for the issue, by political scientist Sasha Breger Bush, argues that what we’re seeing is not the end of neoliberalism, but rather its transformation, from globalized neoliberalism into “national neoliberalism,” and its culmination: a corporate capture of government now more complete than ever.

Steve Pressman and Gerald Friedman both add depth to our understanding of Trump and what he represents. Pressman explains Trump in light of the squeeze on “middle class” incomes and the rise of economic inequality. Friedman adds to his previous analysis of American nativism (the November/December 2016 cover story) an “Economy in Numbers” on U.S. immigration in the current era.

David Bacon and Frank Ackerman, meanwhile, turn from retrospect to prospect. What does the coming period hold in store? Bacon focuses on immigration policy, noting the constraints under which a Trump administration will operate. Even in an era of increased border enforcement and deportations nationwide, Bacon argues, immigration policy will continue to be driven by employers’ need for a cheap and controllable labor force.

Meanwhile, Ackerman looks at the prospect for meaningful climate action, even with the Denier-in-Chief in the White House. He argues for a consortium of U.S. state and local governments—a “Green-State America”—committing to meet the emissions-reduction goals set down in the Paris climate agreement. “And this could be a model for other issues,” he concludes. “Green-State America might also want to support international treaties on the rights of women, the treatment of migrants, the rights of indigenous peoples, and more.”

To be sure, there will be many struggles ahead. Time to arise.