Donald Trump and the Rise of Global White Supremacy

The presidency of Donald J. Trump has accelerated the spread of a strain of global white supremacy characterized by stunning levels of anti-Black racism domestically, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments internationally. The horrifying March 15 shooting at two mosques in New Zealand, which left 50 people dead, is directly linked to President Trump’s racist and divisive rhetoric, hate-filled rallies where he’s encouraged supporters to commit acts of violence, and administrative policies that have placed strict restrictions on people from Muslim-majority countries. The shooter’s manifesto characterized the president as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose” that in part inspired his racial and religious terrorist actions.

The president downplayed questions about the global rise of white supremacy that culminated in his rise to power, insisting to reporters that hate groups merely reflect “a small group of people that have very, very serious problems.” The truth is that this group is vast, growing, and a large part of Trump’s domestic and international political base.

The president’s refusal to acknowledge the growing political threat of white supremacy is part of a pattern that has allowed him to strengthen long-standing racial divisions in America and around the world. He simultaneously pleads ignorance once, as Malcolm X famously quipped, the chickens come home to roost in the form of increased global violence unleashed in part by Trump’s rhetoric. Malcolm understood white nationalism better than any activist of his generation, which allowed him to boldly confront anti-Black racism with a bracing candor that stunned white politicians, embarrassed mainstream Civil Rights leaders, and eventually led to his assassination. According to the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, white supremacists have unleashed the majority of terrorist attacks on American soil over the past two decades. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported four consecutive years of increasingly high numbers of domestic extremists, with 2018 reaching a record high of 1,020 that hate groups.

White nationalism predates the Trump administration of course. Its roots stretch to before the founding of the United States, where an ideology of white supremacy helped the slave trade flourish globally.

White nationalism became a civic religion based on the rise of global capitalism, which literally grew from the broken backs of Black people who made cotton into an international commodity.

The idea that America belonged to white men and women, even as enslaved Africans produced the wealth that allowed white dreams to flourish, was important enough to lead to the Civil War — where over 700,000 Americans were killed, and Black soldiers fought bravely to reimagine American democracy free of racial hatred and white privilege.

Black folks won the war but lost the peace. White nationalism scarred local, regional, and national Reconstruction efforts through racist violence, lynching, sharecropping, convict-lease systems, and segregation that ensured white privilege at the expense of Black citizenship. America innovated a new form of white supremacy in the 20th century, which both imbibed and expansively reimagined the racial imperialism and politics of domination once perfected by the British Empire and other Western colonial powers.

Although America claimed no colonies in Africa (despite having assisted in the founding of Liberia), the US relied significantly on the continent for the material and ideological supply chain that allowed white supremacy to flourish.

Beginning in World War I and accelerating dramatically after WWII, Black and developing nations waged revolutionary struggles against white supremacy. These resulted in African and Third World independence abroad, as well as Civil Rights legislation and Black Power breakthroughs in the United States. Yet white nationalism — dubbed “massive resistance” during the 1950s — continued to rear its head. The “white backlash” of the Civil Rights-Black Power era represents the continuation of a violent and longstanding white nationalist tradition. It was marked by the rise of segregationist George Wallace, the assassinations of Medgar Evers, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Bobby Kennedy.

President Richard Nixon’s “law and order” strategy (effectively deployed by Trump in 2016) galvanized white nationalists by exploiting white racial fears about Black Power. After calling Black women “welfare queens” in 1976, President Ronald Reagan declared his allegiance to states rights during a 1980 speech in Neshoba County, Mississippi — near the horrific lynching of three Civil Rights workers during 1964’s Freedom Summer. In one fell swoop, Reagan, still one of our most popular and beloved presidents, declared himself a white nationalist without ever uttering the word. Trump’s nationalist sentiments are more bluntly crude than Nixon or Reagan and have proven to be even deadlier. As a presidential candidate, he surrounded himself with self-proclaimed white nationalists, most notably Steve Bannon who, once exiled from the White House, reinvented himself as a political advisor to the European right wing. Bannon preached against “globalism’s” harmful impact on white identity and warned that post-Mueller Report, Trump will make his enemies pay.

White nationalism’s global appeal can be seen in the controversial Brexit vote, still under debate in the British Parliament, as well as the rise in authoritarian leaders in Italy and Brazil, the crackdown on immigrants in nations like France, and European animus against refugees from conflict zones such as Syria.

Trumpism — the philosophy of white nationalism which preaches a full-throated embrace of white privilege, anti-Black racism, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-Muslim intolerance, and the marginalization of women, the poor, and LGBTQ populations — has become the greatest threat to dreams of multicultural and multiracial democracy free of war, racism, poverty, and violence that Martin Luther King Jr. called the “beloved community.” The president is uncharacteristically modest when he claims to have no clue about racial terrorists who cite him as an inspiration. Absent dog whistles, coded language, or even the slightest hint of nuance, Donald J. Trump has emerged as more than the “first white president.” He now strides the world stage as the undisputed leader of a global movement for white supremacy whose reverberations will last long past his time in the White House.

About the Author

Peniel Joseph holds a joint professorship appointment at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the History Department at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the founding director of the LBJ School’s Center for the Study of Race and Democracy. His career focus has been on “Black Power Studies,” which encompasses interdisciplinary fields such as Africana studies, law and society, women’s and ethnic studies, and political science. He is the author of Waiting ‘Til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America; Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, and Stokely: A Life.