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T.J. Stiles: How Do We Explain This National Tragedy? This Trump?

the west

Where did Donald Trump come from?

The most accurate explanation for this national tragedy won’t emerge for generations. It will be big and complicated, and will involve heavy use of the cliché “perfect storm.” But here I am, like you, wondering what the hell happened. We’re too close to recent events to know much, but I have some ideas. I think Trump’s rise reflects, among other things, a particular theme in American history—an unresolved problem that sends us into crisis again and again.

Let’s start with my family. Most of my relatives voted for Trump. They didn’t tell me why, but I’m sure partisanship explains a lot of it. They’re predominantly Republican, and more than 90 percent of each party’s adherents cast ballots for their side’s nominee for president. But I do have an aunt who told me in December 2016 why Trump’s victory made her happy.

“Race issues have been in our face way too much,” she wrote, looking back on the Obama presidency. “I have noticed a positive [change] in the last month. People have smiled, looked me in the eye and wished me a Merry Christmas. It’s approved of now.” I know what you’re thinking: Thank God a white person can finally go five minutes without having to think about race—at last my aunt is free from the scourge of someone politely considering the possibility she’s not Christian. Free at last!

Sadly, she was not joking. Her relief affirms what should be obvious: Donald Trump won because of a dread of Others. But my aunt’s comment highlights an important aspect of Trump’s appeal. To make America great again is to return not only to an era of white supremacy, but to a time when the white Christian was assumed to be the norm, the default setting for “American.” As I read the election, my aunt and many other Trump voters resent merely the acknowledgment that “American” might stand for something other than themselves alone.


It is an axiom that our republic was founded on ideas, not ethnicity; it would be more accurate to say it was founded on ideas in tension with ethnicity. The European occupation of this continent occurred in the context of global history, which is not a story primarily of inclusion and tolerance. I sometimes think of the colonization of North America as the last of the Germanic invasions of the West, the hordes of Huns, Franks, Angles, Saxons, Goths, and Vandals who swept in from the steppes, swarmed over the Rhine and English Channel, shoved the Picts and Celts aside, and sailed across the Atlantic as soon as they had seaworthy ships for the open ocean. By the time the white tribes stormed ashore, the idea of the nation had begun to sprout in the West, but was tied to some notion of blood. So what were they to do with the other tribes that crossed the ocean, those found in place, or those brought here unwillingly? As colonizers and their descendants, Anglo Americans confronted diversity under almost unique circumstances. In this diversity the United States would find its genius and its sin, its triumphs and its atrocities, all wound together.

Long before such recent books as White Trash and Hillbilly Elegy drew attention to white subcultures, historian David Hackett Fischer wrote Albion’s Seed, which describes four major groups that settled British North America: the Puritans of East Anglia, the royalist cavaliers of the south and west of England, the Quakers of the North Midlands, and the poor of the English, Scottish, and Irish borderlands. Each left a lasting imprint on America’s regional cultures, he argued. It’s fascinating stuff, yet these groups differed far more from the non-British peoples they met than each other. These encounters multiplied as Anglo Americans annexed the lands of others through wars, treaties, or migration.

They saw four options for how to deal with these alien tribes: assimilate, exterminate, expel, or imprison. They chose to assimilate the Dutch of the Hudson River Valley and the French of Louisiana. Though both groups spoke their own languages for generations, they belonged to the European world-system, to borrow a concept from Immanuel Wallerstein—a structure of states and commerce and society shared by conquered and conquerors. They understood the universe in the same terms.

“Trump’s rise reflects, among other things, a particular theme in American history—an unresolved problem that sends us into crisis again and again.”

As Anglo Americans expanded their borders, they encountered Native peoples who stood apart from this world-system (though they interacted with it). So they looked for other choices. At times, they selected genocide—a preconceived policy of extermination—largely obliterating Connecticut’s Pequots, for example, and many of California’s peoples. But they relied most on expulsion, or “Indian removal,” often after savage warfare. It was a major preoccupation of US leaders. George Washington ordered the destruction of scores of Iroquois villages in the War of Independence; Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison built political careers on Indian wars and expulsions; even Abraham Lincoln served in the Black Hawk War of 1832, which prevented Sac and Fox from returning east of the Mississippi. The United States stripped Mexico of half its territory in 1848, then struggled against resident Navajos and Apaches in wars lasting until Geronimo’s surrender in 1884. Indian removal ended in the reservation system, a peculiar kind of imprisonment. Reservations are internment zones not for individuals, but for nations.

In 1848, tens of thousands of Spanish speakers also found themselves in US territory—and they were more alien, more marginal to the European world-system, than the Dutch or French. They resisted exploitation and incorporation in New Mexico’s Lincoln County War, involving Billy the Kid (whose last words were in Spanish), and West Texas’s Salt War of 1877. But the concentration of the Hispanic population made Arizona and New Mexico a kind of organic containment zone. Those territories entered the union only in 1912 as the last of the contiguous 48 states—62 years after neighboring California, which had flooded with white settlers during the Gold Rush. For a century, that demographic concentration meant that Latinos would not dominate the national politics of diversity and bigotry; but within the Southwest, Mexican Americans endured segregation and other kinds of repression that left a deep and bitter legacy.

Then there were the tribes that came here, willingly. One enduring truth about immigration is that someone always is fretting that foreigners will take over the country. Another is that foreigners are really bad at taking over the country. Another is that foreigners don’t want to take over the country. Benjamin Franklin raised alarms about Germans who came to colonial Pennsylvania. In the 1850s, the nativist Know-Nothings briefly became a major political force by campaigning against Irish Catholics who escaped the famine and Central Europeans who fled after the failed revolutions of 1848. But today tourists flock to German-settled Lancaster County, and every American city salutes its Irish heritage on March 17. But the fretting endures, as malevolent as ever.


I have another aunt who told me that my great-grandmother once had a photo of herself in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. It was taken in Illinois in the 1910s or 20s, when the Klan flourished in the North as an anti-immigrant movement. Millions joined in anger at the influx of Jews, Catholics, and Slavs from Eastern and Southern Europe. And they won. The 1924 National Origins Act limited immigration and apportioned it according to the ratios of the foreign-born counted in the census 34 years earlier. Now you know exactly when America was great: It was 1890.

It says a great deal that the nativists of that era called themselves Klansmen. You may know the Ku Klux Klan from such racist episodes as the violent overthrow of Reconstruction and the 20th-century murders of civil rights activists. By identifying themselves with this terrorist group, the nativists revealed the centrality of African Americans to white nationalism—and to the making of our best ideals and legal achievements. Whites brought captive Africans here specifically to live in their midst, which barred all but one option for coping with the Other. Extermination and expulsion both would run against the purpose of the endeavor—to acquire forced labor. Assimilation? A system of hereditary slavery is by definition a rejection of its possibility. So they imprisoned Africans, yet broadly distributed them.

The situation created a paradox: To enslave a people in perpetuity, Anglo Americans had to create an ideology of their own racial superiority; but they also lived in the reality of Africans’ full humanity—their ability to organize, to retaliate, to resist. Even as slaveholders talked about blacks’ intellectual limits and servile nature, they feared another Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, or Joseph Cinqué, and railed at the work of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and countless now forgotten black abolitionists. Many Irish and other derided European immigrants asserted their whiteness to separate themselves from Africans, polarizing tribal hostilities into a racial divide. In California the Chinese presented another despised minority, as did Hispanics and Natives in the west—but African Americans became the fulcrum of racial conflict in American history. The largest and most feared minority, they not only lived among whites but sustained their entire economy.

Slavery touched everything. Total investment in all railroads and manufacturing in 1860 amounted to $2.2 billion—in slaves, $3 billion. The North gradually eliminated the “peculiar institution,” but also grew rich on it. Take my great-great-great grandfather: born to an old Puritan family in Connecticut, he captained a schooner in the 1820s that sailed between New York and New Orleans. He moved cotton, and later opened a mercantile house on the Bowery and Canal, specializing in textiles—a trade ultimately dependent on slave labor. As the nation’s shipping and financial center, New York funded slavery’s expansion across the South, insured investments in human beings, freighted cotton to New England textile mills, and fashioned their output into clothing.

It was white racial aggression, not a “states’ rights” defensiveness, that drove the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the civil rights era. The crisis that led to secession came from Southern efforts to enforce slavery nationwide through the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, a notable expansion of federal power at the expense of states, and to end prohibitions on slavery in western territories. Pro-slavery “fire eaters” grew more ideological and more militant. In the presidential election of 1860, Southern politicians demanded victory, or else they would break up the United States. They made it a hostage negotiation. They weren’t defending their own; they demanded it all.

African Americans defied expectations by rising up against slavery in the ensuing Civil War. With the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln tried to catch up to the facts they created on the ground. After the war, with the support of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson, Southern whites lashed out ferociously at black self-assertion. Republicans in Congress could not tolerate traitors (as they saw Confederates) oppressing the South’s loyal population (i.e., emancipated African Americans). In 1865, only the radical minority of Republicans believed black men should vote, but Southern violence and intransigence pushed Congress further and further, until it had passed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution, the Reconstruction acts (requiring ten Southern states to enfranchise black men, under military supervision), and the Enforcement Acts, which gave the federal government authority to protect individual rights.

“The majority has yet to realize our freedom exists because of the struggles of the outsiders, the oppressed, and that it is incomplete.”

These measures officially de-tribalized the United States. It was at this moment—the climax of a fight over African Americans, sparked by African American resistance—that many of the ideals we so often attribute to the Founders actually took effect. The Fourteenth Amendment established birthright citizenship and equality before the law, and protected civil liberties from state as well as federal infringement—something the Bill of Rights did not do.

We need to recognize the magnitude of that triumph, born of a confrontation with oppression. All our ideals, all hope of progress, rest on it. But it is a paradox. On one hand, it speaks to a great strength of this republic. The Founders created a system that was capable of greater things than were they themselves, limited as they were by their times. Slaveholder Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite, yes, but his writings about equality and liberty helped later generations advance toward those ideals. Similarly flawed individuals, such as Andrew Jackson, expanded democracy in ways that allowed later generations to expand it further. On the other hand, Reconstruction would show that merely writing a great principle into law is insufficient in itself.

Reconstruction briefly gave rise to multiracial democracy. In the late 1860s and 70s, African Americans voted and held public office, including in both houses of Congress, playing a pivotal role in the three states with black majorities. It also had unintended consequences. Republicans applied the universal ideal of American citizenship to Natives, ending recognition of Indian sovereignty in 1871. They used individual rights, a great advance in one context, to end group rights, so important to peoples who did not identify with the world-system that had subsumed them. And the era did not last. In 1876, the government finally gave in to white violence against Reconstruction. What changed was enforcement, not legislation or the Constitution. The egalitarian spirit of the law lived and died with the specific political conflict that spawned it.

And so racism continued to infuse policy and practice, from the Chinese Exclusion Act to Japanese-American mass internment to federal housing policies that affected black home ownership and segregated northern cities. When African Americans began to edge ahead in education and prosperity, they faced lynchings and formalized segregation. All along, their struggle continued. The NAACP was founded in 1909, at the height of lynching and Jim Crow laws, and labored for decades to make the campaigns of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others possible. The civil rights movement’s core achievement was to reactivate the Reconstruction acts and amendments by fighting and winning a new political conflict that gave new life to the spirit of the law.

The pattern persists of progress and reaction. The civil rights era brought with it a major change to immigration law that greatly diversified legal (let alone unsanctioned) immigration. In 1970, the Pew Research Center notes, Latinos amounted to only 5 percent of the population; today they amount to 18 percent—and they are no longer confined to the Southwest. The reaction? Explicit racial and ethnic gerrymandering, English-language requirements, mass incarceration, attacks on affirmative action, an insistence that the United States was created as a Christian nation, calls for a wall on the Mexican border—all representing the same tribalist reaction, in kind if not degree, as the various iterations of the Ku Klux Klan. It’s no surprise Donald Trump became president immediately after Barack Obama, who was not only black, but had a Kenyan Muslim father, embodying the full range of fears of white nationalism. Trump is retaliation.

America has a knack for going too far in its tribalist reactions, and in the past this has sparked a countermovement that, at times, led to greater freedom and equality. But we haven’t yet corrected for the flaw in our original civil rights era, Reconstruction. Back then we changed the law, but not ourselves. Anglo Americans still conceive of American identity as themselves plus others—liberty as a state to be extended to newcomers, rather than something confrontation with aggressive bigotry has reinvented, something that redefines us, as a people. The majority has yet to realize our freedom exists because of the struggles of the outsiders, the oppressed, and that it is incomplete. If we are ever to break out of this cycle of self-assertion, reaction, and resistance, then we need to set aside the four options of tribal contact—even that of assimilation, which seeks to alter the Other until it is us. We must believe diversity itself is the American identity. We must get to the point where no one can enjoy the assumption that she is the norm.

Hope endures, even when progress takes decades. If a bunch of white guys in the 1860s who hated Indians and Chinese and weren’t too keen on Africans could find it in themselves to rewrite the Constitution to make it race neutral and protect individual rights, then we have at least some chance of progress, even in the age of Trump.


From Zyzzyva No. 111 Winter 2017

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