On 9 June 2020, viewers around the globe were glued to international TV networks to watch the live coverage of the funeral of George Floyd. George Floyd was an African-American man who was killed by the police during an arrest in Minneapolis on 25 May 2020.
Four police officers pinned him to the ground and literally chocked him while he was helplessly pleading for his life. One speaker at the memorial service could not have stated it better when he said: “…the only crime that George Floyd has committed was that he was born black.” Protests in response to both his death and more broadly to police violence against other black people quickly spread across the US and internationally.
Police brutality against African-Americans is not something new and this is what led to the slogan Black lives Matter that has been the lodestar of the recent waves of protest. The American Police Force is embedded with systemic racism which seems to have been reinforced by the presidency of Donald Trump. As one TV commentator has put it, President Trump has failed to “speak to the moment” regarding the brutal killing of George Floyd and the subsequent street protests. The few moments when Trump spoke publicly, he was very combative and belligerent. Instead of telling the protestors that “…I hear you and I will address your grievances,” Trump, instead, has chosen to come across as the law and order President who is out to put the protestors in their place. He was even threatening to send in the army to quell the protests. In any democratic country, the military is deployed to deal with external aggression and I do not think the American military is an exception to this rule. However, here we have the President of the most powerful country in the world, the epitome of democratic governance threatening to use the army against peaceful demonstrators.
Since his election in 2016, Trump has basically reversed the American political life ninety degrees back to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) days; both domestically and at the international level where he is pursuing a hawkish (aggressive) foreign policy. The phrase WASP refers to an informal but closed social group of high-status and influential white Americans of English Protestant ancestry. This is the group that has dominated the political and social life of the US for many years.
Against this backdrop, we can conclude that Trump represents a new social phenomenon which can be referred to as right-wing white nationalism – that has a strong international dimension. In the era of the perceived or real danger of international terrorism; refugee crisis; and international migration, this right-wing movement has been on the rise in several western countries. The decision of Britain to exit from the European Union should, for example, be understood within that context. The leader of the far-right National Front in France, Marine Le Pen, also came out singing praise songs to Donald Trump after the latter was elected to office in 2016. In an article that was published in The New York Times on 2 November 2016 and re-published in The Namibian newspaper of 4 November 2016, titled Behind 2016’s Turmoil, A Crisis of White Identity, Amanda Taub argued that: “...whiteness is more than just skin colour. You could define it as membership in the ethnonational majority. What it really means is the privilege of not being defined as other.”
Trump’s political tone and vocabulary find resonance with supra-racist groups like the Ku-Klux-Klan and other right-wing white elements. To paraphrase Taub in the article referred to above, the supra-racist elements in the US feel that they were in a long line leading uphill where they were hoping to get hold of the American dream; but alas the line had slowed down because immigrants, African-Americans and other “outsiders” seemed to be cutting the line.
That is the heart of Trump’s tone and it does not matter how much his spin-doctors may want to sugar-coat it; it is heavily loaded with racism! Taub further argues that: “…for decades the language of white identity has only existed in the context of white supremacy. When that became taboo, it left white identity politics without a vocabulary.”
It is that white identity vocabulary vacuum that Trump is trying to fill. For Trump and his supporters, the grand American narrative is white. In other words, for them, what constitutes “political community” in the US is the “silent” assumption that it is “the white ethnic majority.” The others are “outsiders” and thus just a footnote; if not a nuisance to that grand narrative. It is this narrative that racist elements in the US (including some police officers) feed into.