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The Neo-Imperialist’s Burden

Trumpism brings overseas brutality to the homefront

On September 18, President Trump took the stage at a campaign rally in Bemidji, Minnesota, to the wild cheers of the assembled MAGA crowd. It was a cool Friday evening, and, like 79 percent of the state’s population, most of the gathered audience was white. “You have good genes,” the president told them. “You know that, right? You have good genes. A lot of it is about the genes, isn’t it, don’t you believe? The racehorse theory. You think we’re so different? You have good genes in Minnesota.” Trump, who has declared himself a “gene believer,” went on in later portions of the speech to disparage refugees, playing on fears that the state’s Somali population would crowd out whites and their privileges.

The reactions to Trump’s speech, which came just twelve days before his refusal to condemn white supremacists on the debate stage, were swift and stunned. Author Steve Silberman wrote, “As a historian who has written about the Holocaust, I’ll say bluntly: This is indistinguishable from the Nazi rhetoric that led to Jews, disabled people, LGBTQ, Romani and others being exterminated. This is America in 2020. This is where the GOP has taken us.” Washington Post columnist Radley Balko tweeted, “White leader of a powerful country tells a nearly all-white crowd that he and they are genetically superior to other people.”

The outrage was reassuring, but reflects its own amnesia about how America and the Western world arrived at this point. In this moment when the venom of Trumpist America threatens to poison one and all, there is a tendency to imagine racism as a unique condition of the spray-tanned blabbering president and his cultish followers. But as Pankaj Mishra points out in his latest book, Bland Fanatics: Liberals, Race, and Empire, this myth of a previously tolerant America governed by a Black president is false. False, too, is the premise that racism comes only from boorish, uncouth, and open white supremacists like Trump who traffic in it.

There is a tendency to imagine racism as a unique condition of the spray-tanned blabbering president and his cultish followers.

The collected essays in Bland Fanatics are sharp and prescient reminders that the architecture of Western racism, laid down in the colonial and imperial ages, has endured ever since—and that what falls from the virulent lips of Donald Trump appears also on the pages of top scholars and statesmen. One case in point is Niall Ferguson, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, whose trajectory into a scribe of neo-imperial history Mishra traces in “Watch This Man.” A self-described champion of today’s imperialism (“I am a fully paid-up member of the neo-imperial gang”), Ferguson, who is much more feted in the United States than in his native United Kingdom, has laid down a theory of “Anglobalization.” Young Americans, he proposed, should be taught to go overseas and transform it in their own image, much as Britain once did. Imagine his glee when, immediately after 9/11, calls to defend white civilization began to emanate from every liberal mouth, and the United States actually set out on a mission to civilize the rest of the world using its military and its bureaucrats with their penchant for free markets. The resulting war, waged on millions of brown people who had no involvement in 9/11 at all, was a racist war and a neo-imperial war.

The liberals and neoconservatives who justified it, and all the others who went along, cannot be forgotten—and Mishra’s trenchant essays lay their premises bare alongside the racist rants of Donald Trump. In “Why Do White People Like What I Write?” an essay on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book about the Obama years, Mishra takes us down a sordid memory lane of Iraq hawks, many of whom have since embraced Coates. Its markers include Newsweek’s post-9/11 invocation “It’s time to think of torture”; Time magazine’s recommendation of “focused brutality”; Vanity Fair’s endorsement of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s “oddly reassuring ruthlessness.” The New Yorker published a long report by Jeffrey Goldberg, the current editor of The Atlantic, detailing links between al-Qaeda and Iraq—links, Mishra underscores, that we now know did not exist. The particular neo-imperialist flavor of the moment was captured in a bit of triumphal reporting by the journalist Robert Kaplan, who gleefully wrote in 2005 that “Welcome to Injun Country” was a refrain heard among American soldiers all over the world. What white colonists had done to Native Americans, they would now do to everyone else.

Imperialism, fed by the belief that the white and Western master race must go out and civilize the rest of the world, is at its core a racist idea. Under its auspices, millions were enslaved, their property and possessions plundered. As Mishra writes, “racial supremacy has been historically exercised through colonialism, slavery, segregation, ghettoization, militarized border controls, and mass incarceration.” James Baldwin’s “terrible probability” of a “racial war” such as the world has never seen, an idea which Mishra returned to in an op-ed for the New York Times, seems imminent if not already underway.

Indeed, you can see our neo-imperial wars, specifically the War on Terror and its constituent cataclysms in Iraq and Afghanistan, as editions of just this sort of “racial war,” where the old empire, Britain, and the new, America, colluded to ensure they could keep plundering strategic resources in other parts of the world. The men, the liberals, the historians, who built the arguments, who hammered in the justifications, who performed the proud self-righteous puffery of being white and Western and entitled to rule, were also racist. It is not enough to condemn Trump for his blatant racism on campaign and debate stages; it is necessary to remember that his rise was facilitated by a international ethos of racial superiority, an ethos that undergirded wars which were, at least for a time, cheered by everyone. “The barbarians, it turns out,” Mishra states, “were never at the gate”; there was no burgeoning Islamist terrorist behemoth spanning continents and poised to invade America, nothing to justify the torture, the brutality, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people.

The ravages of the coronavirus have exposed the paucity of so-called world powers.

Trump is terrifying to neo-imperialists (some of his most committed critics belong to this group) because he has brought the brutality home. This vigor for domination was played out on American protesters in Lafayette Square in front of the White House in June, when Trump had them cleared out by riot police, two days after vowing in a speech that he would never let “angry mobs . . . dominate.” That old word, used by those who bombed brown bodies abroad, was now being deployed against Black, brown, and white bodies at home.

In recognition of the continuity, rather than sudden evolution, of America’s special brand of racial imperialism, perhaps the future will not be so blinkered, so naïve, before the seductions of variously outfitted bigotry. Mishra finds hope in the fact that “a great correction is underway today, with triumphalist narratives of British and American exceptionalism interrogated as stringently as the  post-colonial claims to virtue once were.” The ravages of the coronavirus have exposed the paucity of so-called world powers, and their feeble defenses against mass death are an indictment of the very systems that were supposed to be models for everyone else. “The world as we have known it,” writes Mishra in his introduction to Bland Fanatics, “molded by beneficiaries of Western imperialism and anti-imperial nationalism, is crumbling.” The war of our present moment will decide what takes its place, and Mishra’s book should be a necessary part of our arsenal.