March 2017 Spotlight On: Race

This Really Is Your America

From the announcement of his candidacy in 2015 to his victory on election night a year later, many (particularly white liberals) viewed Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency with a sense of steadily growing disbelief.

From the announcement of his candidacy in 2015 to his victory on election night a year later, many (particularly white liberals) viewed Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency with a sense of steadily growing disbelief. His infamous announcement speech on June 16, 2015 set the tone for the next eighteen months of his campaign, one plagued by revelations of sexual assault, racial discrimination, and the occasional (frequent) retweets of white supremacist propaganda and conspiracy theories. Only a month into that campaign, the Huffington Post dismissed Trump as a “sideshow,” one that deserved to be covered in the Entertainment section rather than Politics. HuffPo finally retracted its statement five months later, when Trump promised a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” declaring that it was “no longer entertained.” Two months after that, the outlet announced Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire primary with the headline “A Racist, Sexist Demagogue Just Won the New Hampshire Primary,” marveling in the subheading that “Donald Trump seriously did it.” By the time the votes were counted in November, the Post had become one of the loudest of many voices insisting that Trump’s America was not their America. I wish that were true. I also wish I had a million dollars.

Pictured above: me. Courtesy of

If the exit polling is to be believed, by far the most reliable indicators of support for Trump were race, gender, and religious background. Trump won white voters, men, and evangelical Protestants by double digits.

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Courtesy of the Washington Post.

Countless authors have written about the appeal of Trump’s campaign to “Make America Great Again” among these groups. They tie his success to a conviction within the white working class that the status of white Americans in the United States and, by extension, that of the United States in the world at large, is threatened by the gains made by other groups. Advances in equality and opportunity for women, people of color, and immigrant communities over the past fifty years (advances symbolized by the election of the nation’s first black president and nomination of the first female candidate by a major party). The root of that conviction, as the narrative goes, is the very real economic impact felt by the white working class, and especially white working class men, as the United States began to shift away from an industrialized economy in the late twentieth century. But, according to Nate Silver on, the median household income of a Trump voter was $72,000, well above the national median of $56,000 and the $61,000 median for Clinton supporters. On top of that, as the New Republic pointed out only a week after the election, the white working class was by no means the only white voting demographic to swing heavily for Trump. In fact, as Vice noted shortly after the election as well, Trump won nearly every conceivable demographic of white voters, from white women to white college graduates. By targeting those voters in swing districts in key states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania with laser-like precision, Trump was able to patch together an electoral victory despite a record loss in the popular vote.

Trump’s electoral success sent many liberals (again, particularly white liberals) into a tailspin of anger and despair. Don’t get me wrong. I’m angry too and I share your despair.

Pictured above: also me. Courtesy of

But I’m also not surprised. Most of the pieces examining the roots of Trump’s victory tend to focus on the last fifty years of American politics and social relations. These were years when the Republican Party came increasingly to rely on appeals to the racial fears of white conservative voters for electoral victories. They were also years when the communities targeted by Trump achieved a series of halting and gradual advances in the direction of social progress. But if we look at Trump within the broader scope of American history, he’s more the norm than the exception. He might be the first president to offer ill-informed, stream of consciousness policy “ideas” on Twitter every ninety minutes. But, he’s not the first president to be accused of sexual assault. He’s not the first president to lash out against immigrant communities. And he’s certainly not the first president to rub elbows with white supremacists. Like Trump, his predecessors in the Oval Office were not operating in a vacuum. They were behaving in ways that were not only tolerated but encouraged by their society at large. They rose to prominence in a nation that taught them that the key to American success was the exercise of political, social, and economic power by white, Protestant men, men like them, an exercise in the exclusion of groups without that power. It was a lesson that began before their nation existed and continues into the present, not as an outlier or undercurrent but as the very fabric of American national identity and power relations in the United States.

The roots of American identity can be found in that of Europeans in early colonial America, which was triangulated in terms of race, class, and gender.[1] By cementing their appropriation of capital, land, and labor through legislative acts and social rituals that placed white identity firmly at the top of the political, social, and economic hierarchies, elite colonial men were able to establish a racial coalition between themselves and white lower-class men.[2] This relationship enabled them to maintain their authority and gave white lower class men a stake in colonial power relations without allowing them to fully share in it.[3] This positioned white colonial men in opposition to women, enslaved Africans, and American Indians, groups whose very existence threatened to upend the colonial power structures that benefited white men. Then, these groups, in the eyes of those white men, needed to be feared, hated, and controlled for those power structures to remain in force. This system of racial and gendered exploitation provided white men with the motivation and justification to continue perpetrating acts of enslavement, imperial expansion, and sexual violence, acts that provided a series of self-replicating economic and social benefits.[4]

Illustration depicting the sexual and racial authority of white men in Virginia, 1825. Courtesy of

This pattern of exploitation continued right up to the point of the colonies’ split from the British Empire. Indeed, a number of historians argue that racial fears of slave uprising and Indian attack that developed during the colonial period were primary causes of the rebellion, fears that were specifically named in the Declaration of Independence as motivating factors.[5]

American political cartoon depicting King George III of Great Britain participating in cannibalism with American Indians, 1780. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In the postwar period, the same elite white men whose fear had inspired the rebellion began to redefine themselves and newly define their nation in the interest of both maintaining the political, economic, and social benefits they enjoyed under the British Empire and bringing together a group of less than united states.[6] No less fueled by racial fears than before, they came more and more to embrace the notion that their new nation was one destined to preserve and defend the social hierarchies that had enabled their rise to power in the first place.[7]

Like Trump, his predecessors in the Oval Office were not operating in a vacuum. They were behaving in ways that were not only tolerated but encouraged by their society at large. They rose to prominence in a nation that taught them that the key to American success was the exercise of political, social, and economic power by white, Protestant men, men like them, an exercise in the exclusion of groups without that power.

Several movements challenged elite white power in the decades that followed American independence and threatened to undermine the power relations enshrined by our nation’s founders. The idea that all were created equal fueled the growth of the anti-slavery and suffrage movements.[8] Evangelical ministers preached that all human beings, including slaves and women, were equal in the eyes of God.[9] A rising middle class fought to gradually expand the electorate beyond wealthy elites.[10] But, in each instance, those challenges were gradually undermined, fractured, and were absorbed into the American political mainstream. Southern evangelicals gained more congregants by preaching against the spiritual liberation of slaves and women than for it.[11] Middle class voters united with elites in their shared celebration of wealth and white racial identity.[12] Abolitionists abandoned their commitments to black enfranchisement in the post-Civil War period in favor of reuniting white Americans in the North and South along the lines of race, a decision that allowed white capitalists throughout the nation to enrich themselves through the greater exploitation of former slaves.[13] White suffragists agreed to preclude black women from the vote in order to push through the Nineteenth Amendment.[14]

Political cartoon in the New York Tribune depicting the rejection of black suffragists by white ones, titled “Just Like the Men,” 1913. Courtesy of

The result of the mainstream’s success against these forces was the construction and growth of an aggressive American nationalism built along the lines of race, class, and gender to directly benefit rich, white men. Those benefits came at the expense of women, people of color, the lower classes, and the citizens of foreign nations. They bore the brunt of conflicts fought for “national glory” like the Spanish-American War and resultant Philippine-American War, military actions that combined left hundreds of thousands dead (the majority poor and not American). Millionaire publishers like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph promoted those wars to sell papers, while investors like Henry Cabot Lodge eager to eliminate Spanish restrictions on transoceanic trade pushed them through Congress.[15] Those groups also became the backbone of industrialized economic growth, which was celebrated as the key to American global dominance. To feed starving families, they learned to live with the constant danger of hazardous working conditions imposed by rich employers looking to cut costs (conditions mirrored in the factories that rely upon immigrant labor today).[16] When they fought to improve those working conditions, they were brutally attacked and then replaced, actions actively supported or even perpetrated by the federal government.[17]

Political cartoon from the Philadelphia Inquirer depicting the spoils of the Spanish-American War, namely Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, and the Mariana Islands. Courtesy of

Those were not the only times the US government deliberately entangled itself in the strands of power. Many of America’s most revered presidents won election specifically because of their commitment to white supremacy. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson both rode to the White House on the coattails of voters informed by notions of white racial supremacy, and repaid that success by actively encouraging the expansion of slavery through wars of aggression against American Indians.[18] Later, Woodrow Wilson sought to limit the increasingly effective activism of women and African Americans while deliberately stoking the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment, all in the interest of protecting US national security during an overseas war.[19] But, that’s not all these three men have in common. They also happen to be the three presidents to which Donald Trump and his advisors have compared his electoral victory and administration. That’s not a coincidence.

Donald Trump won the election because he won the white vote, and he won the white vote because he promised to maintain white power.

So why did Donald Trump win? It has at least something to do with the explanations offered by others before me. But, it also goes much deeper. His appeals to “Make America Great Again,” his attacks against people of color and women, and his flirtations with white supremacy all tap into the fundamental needs of a white American national identity that has from Day 1 been taught to feel threatened by the rise of individuals like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Sign at Tea Party protest against President Barack Obama. Courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Donald Trump won the election because he won the white vote, and he won the white vote because he promised to maintain white power. Ignoring that fact and its historical origins does little to solve the problem. Being surprised enough by Trump’s victory to declare that Trump’s America is not your America doesn’t prevent the return of overt white supremacy to American politics. Continuing to refuse to fully acknowledge the fundamental connection between Trump’s message and the broader historical experience of the United States allows that message to continue to have power in American politics and society.

Protester at campaign rally for Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Courtesy of the Huffington Post.

In the past fifty years, the United States has begun a slow and torturous movement in the direction of progress. In 1954, the landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education allowed civil rights activists to chip away at Jim Crow laws in the South and begin the process of desegregation in public schools. In 1978, the Nixon Administration instituted the Philadelphia Plan, more commonly known as affirmative action, providing for more equitable hiring practices in the public sector. In 1969, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, protecting native rights to free worship and access to sacred objects and sites. But, at least some white liberals seem content to follow in the footsteps of their abolitionist and suffragist forebears. They pat themselves on the back for supporting minor advancements, declare themselves colorblind, and go home to ignore the issues that continue to face the allies they’ve abandoned.[20] Public schools have become increasingly segregated in the twenty-first century following anti-desegregation protests and white flight in the twentieth. White women are affirmative action’s largest beneficiaries and most vocal opponents. Rock climbers continue to traipse about sacred indigenous sites like Devil’s Tower during times of worship, despite court advisories to the contrary.

Now, with a growing number of white Americans embracing the form, if not the substance, of multiculturalism, they have begun to fear that a Trump presidency means experiencing for the first time the terror that those outside of their group have felt every moment for their entire lives.

Online, white Americans hashtag #notallwhitepeople in response to activism, criticize protests by African Americans against a national anthem that objects to the freeing of slaves by British troops in the War of 1812, and accuse peaceful demonstrators of inciting riots. These actions serve to salve a wounded sense of white racial security that is bolstered by an unquestioned pride in their nation and its place in the world. That white fragility enables the restriction of social progress, as it always has, and it has consequences for those that it does not protect. Now, with a growing number of white Americans embracing the form, if not the substance, of multiculturalism, they have begun to fear that a Trump presidency means experiencing for the first time the terror that those outside of their group have felt every moment for their entire lives. Fueled by that fear, they frantically Googled the term “white nationalism” after Trump’s victory. The reality is that they knew what it was their entire lives, just by another name. White nationalism is American nationalism rebranded. Until they realize that, their America will continue to be Trump’s America.

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[1] See Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race, and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1996).

[2] See Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).

[3] The idea that constructions of race fueled the creation of a coalition of white colonists and propped up elite power in colonial society (and underpinned later racial notions of freedom and political engagement in the United States) was suggested by Edmund Morgan in his 1975 book American Slavery, American Freedom. Morgan’s volume, though flawed in terms of the author’s arguments regarding the shift from indentured to enslaved labor in colonial Virginia, remains of some theoretical value in respect to the specific relation between race and politics in early America that it proposes. See Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: Norton, 1975).

[4] Robin Blackburn argues that the rise of colonial slavery is key to understanding the later rise of global capitalism and that the latter existed as a result of the former. See Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (London: Verso, 1997).

[5] Historians point in particular to the white colonial reaction to British ministerial actions like the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763, which limited colonial expansion to the Appalachian Mountains to maintain peace with indigenous communities, and Dunmore’s Proclamation of 1775, which offered freedom to the slaves of any white rebel colonist that joined the British military. Many white colonists viewed these actions as part of a larger plot by the British ministry to limit their perceived “rights” by aligning with their longtime social enemies. See Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[6] For an overview of this process, see John M. Murrin, “Anglicizing an American Colony: The Transformation of Provincial Massachusetts” (PhD diss., Yale University, 1966). and T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[7] See David J. Silverman, “Racial Walls: Race and the Emergence of American White Nationalism,” in Ignacio Gallup-Diaz, Andrew Shankman, and David J. Silverman, eds. Anglicizing America: Empire, Revolution, Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 181-204.

[8] See Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

[9] See Patricia U. Bonomi, Under the Cope of Heaven: Religion, Society, and Politics in Colonial America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).

[10] See Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (New York: Norton, 2005).

[11] See Christine Leigh. Heyrman, Southern Sross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

[12] See Howe, cited above.

[13] See David W. Blight, Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2001).

[14] See Louise Michele Newman, White Women’s Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[15] See H. W. Brands, American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2010).

[16] See Glenn Porter, The Rise of Big Business, 1860-1920 (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014).; and Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001).

[17] See David Ray Papke, The Pullman Case: The Clash of Labor and Capital in Industrial America (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1999).

[18] See Anthony F. C. Wallace, Jefferson and the Indians: The Tragic Fate of the First Americans (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999).; and Anthony F. C. Wallace and Eric Foner, The Long, Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

[19] See Katherine H. Adams and Michael L. Keene, Alice Paul and the American Suffrage Campaign (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008).; Eric Steven Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013).; and Arnold Krammer, Undue Process: The Untold Story of America’s German Alien Internees (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).

[20] See Tim J. Wise, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity (San Francisco, CA: City Lights Books, 2010).

5 comments on “This Really Is Your America

  1. Pingback: This Really Is Your America | The Activist History Review – JoAnn Chateau

  2. Reblogged this on Espiritu en Fuego/A Fiery Spirit and commented:
    This is a long post but well worth reading. Mr. Nathan Wuertenberg breaks it down on all levels.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: “Bloom Where You’re Planted”: Local History as Activism and Healing – The Activist History Review

  4. Pingback: Historians Activate!: The Year in Activist History – The Activist History Review

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