“If ever America undergoes great revolutions, they will be brought about by the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States; that is to say, they will owe their origin, not to the equality, but to the inequality, of condition.”
So wrote, presciently, Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman, in his seminal Democracy in America, published in two parts in 1835 and 1840. This was before the American civil war fought over the southern states’ dying wish to perpetuate slavery would lead to Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation declaration. But this insight is not peculiar to the United States of America. I suspect that Tocqueville’s intuition was informed by the objective conditions of the great revolutions that convulsed his native France and its slave colonies, in particular, the Haitian revolution led by the ex-slave Toussaint L’Ouverture and consummated by his protégé Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The Haitian revolution changed the character of the more romanticised French revolution of 1789-1799 by holding it up to its goal of equality, freedom and anti-monarchism. The inimitable radical thinker, C.L.R. James, made explicit the interconnectedness of the simultaneous Haitian and French revolutions in his classic work, The Black Jacobins.
Simply put, the high-flown slogans of the French revolution’s white Jacobins, “liberté, egalité, fraternité (freedom, equality, solidarity) rang hollow in the face of the brutal suppression by France of the struggle for freedom and human equality by the slaves in its colonies, the most prosperous being the island of San Domingo, later Haiti. It was this contradiction that inspired and sustained Toussaint’s successful rebellion while also committing the white Jacobins and, even more important, the Parisian masses who passionately denounced the “aristocracy of the skin,” to liberty and equality for not just themselves but the slaves in the colonies as well. Reviewing The Black Jacobins to mark its 70th anniversary, Ashley Smith underlines the point: “The fate of the two revolutions was tied together in a complex knot.” The wider impact of the Haitian revolution was clear to Frederick Douglas who reminded his fellow African-Americans in the United States not to “forget that the freedom” that they “enjoy today,” that “eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the Black sons of Haiti,” adding that “When they struck for freedom . . . they struck for the freedom of every Black man in the world.”
It need not be pointed out, does it, that it is the presence of the black race on the soil of the United States, precisely in the state of South Carolina, over a quarter of its population black and nearly sixty percent of its Democratic electorate, that resurrected Joe Biden’s dying party nomination bid? He had lost the three preceding Democratic Party caucuses and primary in the predominantly white states of Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada. Then the powerful clack congressman James Clyburn, son of the soil, endorsed Biden, made an impassioned plea to right thinking Americans, in particular, his African-American brothers and sisters, to rally round him. And so it was that the black vote saved Biden during the primaries and set him on the course of his turbulent but resounding election as the 46th president of the United States. Biden himself always knew his fate lay in African-American hands, going so far as to tell a black radio interviewer that any African-American who had a problem figuring out whether he or she is for him or Donald Trump “ain't black." It was almost one gaffe too many even for a famously gaffe-prone politician but African-Americans weren’t about to desert him for Trump, a racist bigot and enabler of white supremacists who saw fine people on both sides of neo-Nazis marching with tiki torches in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and the anti-racism protesters who confronted them. No, they weren’t going to cast their lot with a president who couldn’t bring himself to say that black lives matter nor offer one word of consolation to the families of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake or any of the many other African-Americans shot dead in cold blood by murderous policemen, among a thousand other bigoted actions. Nor had African-Americans forgotten that Trump launched his political career by leading the birther movement whose sole goal was to delegitimise Barack Obama’s ascension to the White House by peddling unrelentingly the patently false claim that Obama was not born on American soil, and insinuating that he was quite literally a secret Muslim fundamentalist.
Do I equate an election involving two centuries-old establishment parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, a fringe party or independent candidates, with a revolution? Yes, I do. I’m not a political scientist, nor a historian, but it is safe to say that the term is complex and scholars have yet to posit one definition of it. There are two broad ways of understanding a revolution, according to Tocqueville, invoked at the beginning of this essay: as a sudden and violent uprising aimed at the radical transformation of a society through the establishment of a new political system, or as a gradual but nonetheless sweeping transformation of a society, a process that may span several generations. Captured in these two rubrics are such cataclysmic events as coups d’état, civil wars, peasants’ revolts, or even any socio-economic phenomenon of such great impact as results in a significant transformation of beliefs and attitudes, making it possible for us to speak of the Industrial Revolution, the Scientific or Germ Theory Revolution, the Information Technology Revolution, etc. In this sense, I find Jack Goldstone’s definition in his “Towards a Fourth Generation of Revolutionary Theory” apposite: “an effort to transform the political institutions and the justifications for political authority in society, accompanied by formal or informal mass mobilization and non-institutionalized actions that undermine authorities.”
All of which means that in trying to understand a revolution, we must pay careful attention to its context, its preceding circumstances, for no revolution is prompt or spontaneous. There is no question in my mind that what Trump desired and so defiantly sought by his brash inauguration day declaration of America First was a retrograde return to the pre-Civil Rights political and socio-cultural order of Jim Crow and legalized segregation through the dubious policy of separate but equal. This is why his Make America Great Again slogan has been rightly unmasked as a not-so-clever code for Make America White Again. In any case, he never leaves room for doubt. If his racist birther-in-chief hounding of Obama forms the highlight of his discriminatory actions in public life, there was before that his dogged campaign for the execution of the Central Park 5, four black and one Latino teens, for rape, and his refusal to apologise even after DNA evidence exonerated the kids. And also in business: his serial violation of the Fair Housing Act by refusing to lease property to Blacks. And then his ceaseless dog-whistle calls to racists and white supremacists even in the heat of his re-election campaign, notably in Bemidji, Minnesota, where he regurgitated long discredited eugenics ideas of selective breeding that categorise white Europeans as superior to all other peoples. “You have good genes, you know that, right?” he said to his pearly-white audience. “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 different? You have good genes in Minnesota.” This same Trump noisily claims at every turn to be “the least racist person” alive! By scorning all decorum, norms, ethics, manners and character in private and public life, Trump sought to clear for himself an unrestricted space for doing and getting away with anything, so that, as he put it himself, he could stand in the middle of New York’s Fifth Avenue, shoot somebody and not lose any voters.
Still, there are those who would think that all of this is just being misconstrued and mean to Trump. The gene theory leaves just enough room, a suffocatingly small room, for deniability. But not if you have paid attention to its origins and the catastrophic uses it has been put to, especially by Hitler’s Nazi Germany for the extermination of the Jews and the European colonisation of Africa and the rest of the non-white places of earth. At any rate, as is his wont, Trump makes his real intent very clear. Bemidji, seat of a county eighty percent white in a state with an even higher percentage of white residents, had voted against refugee resettlement. And Trump, remember, rails relentlessly against Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the Somalian refugee, calling her an “American-hating socialist” and a “disgrace” who should never tell white Americans “how to run our country.” Minnesota also happens to be home to the highest number of Somalian refugees. So, Trump warned his white audience in Bemidji about the danger that Joe Biden posed to their nicely white communities: “Every family in Minnesota,” he said, “needs to know about Sleepy Joe Biden’s extreme plan to flood your state with an influx of refugees from Somalia, from other places all over the planet” (you can include Nigeria). Carin Mrotz, executive director of Jewish Community Action, understood what Trump was about. “For Minnesota Jews,” Mrotz said, “it’s chilling to hear this language, which echoes the ‘race science’ used by the Nazis to justify the extermination of so many of our ancestors.” The interesting thing about Trump and his fellow white supremacists is their total lack of self-awareness, their refusal to acknowledge that the land they wish to preserve for white privilege was stolen from its aboriginal owners and made rich by slaves stolen from Africa. Mrotz points out the first part of this wilful amnesia as part of Trump’s project: “But we recognise that the President is choosing this language intentionally, celebrating the supposed genetic superiority of European immigrants here in Minnesota on stolen land that has become home to immigrants from all over the world, to sow division and hatred among us.”
And yet there may still be sceptics or just plain ignorant people, among them the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who prayed, fasted, probably even donated money and even marched for Trump’s victory here at home, a good many of them because they see Trump as God’s chosen messiah to redeem the promised land of Palestine for his chosen Jewish children and Christendom; as the lone standing tribune in the western world that would save the world from Al-Qaeda, ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram, among other Islamic terrorist groups. I have written elsewhere about this utterly unchristian notion in a piece entitled “Nigeria’s Christian Zionists” https://www.theafricareport.com/3858/nigerias-christian-zionists/. Perhaps they would listen to Lee Atwater on the racial politics of the Republican Party’s extreme right wing? Atwater, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and adviser to former presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, was the architect of the infamous Southern Strategy for exploiting the anger of many white southerners in the aftermath of the hard-won civil rights of African-Americans. They had traditionally leaned towards the Democrats and Atwater saw an opening in the resentment that flowed from defeat in the Civil War to the triumph of the Civil Rights protests of the 50s and 60s. In a 1981 interview, Atwater explained it all: “You start out in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now (that) you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is (that) Blacks get hurt worse than Whites.” Could there really have been any real doubt, even with the most cursory attention to his words and actions, about what Trump was doing?
While the juvenile schoolyard insults he spat by reflex at opponents and his unabashed misogynistic belittling of women (with the sole exception of the one woman he adores, daughter Ivanka) may have made all normal adults cringe, his mission was the total desecration of the extant norms and values of the American society of the 21st Century which he saw as so politically correct, so accommodating of difference, so welcoming to immigrants from “shithole countries,” so dedicated to the rule of law, so supportive of multi-lateral institutions and so, in his warped view, rendered weak that only his insufferable odiousness could return America to greatness. It was why he turned his back on America’s historical allies and genuflected before tyrants and dictators, why he would take the word of Vladimir Putin of Russia, America’s arch-enemy, over the meticulously distilled reports of his country’s intelligence agencies. Volumes can and will be written on how he set about radically transforming America into his unsightly self-image of an extreme present narcissist, racist, white supremacist, misogynist, xenophobe, homophobe, religious opportunist, sociopath, vulture capitalist and unconscionable amoralist. This is quite a long rap to hang on one man’s neck but you won’t have to look far for evidence to back up any of the charges, starting with his own words and actions: in addition to the preceding instances, we can briefly mention his boast of grabbing women by the pussy, mocking war veterans and calling those who serve in the military “losers” and “suckers,” setting up Trump University to scam students, refusing to denounce white supremacist groups but ordering them instead to “stand back and stand by,” claiming to have done more for African-Americans with “the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln” who ended slavery, making light of the Coronavirus pandemic and encouraging the mass flouting of containment protocols of mask-wearing and social distancing even in the face of nearly a quarter million citizens dead and ten million infected, the almost irreparable damage he has done to the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine, etc. And the testimony from those who know him best — his eldest sibling, the retired federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry and his niece, the clinical psychologist, Dr Mary L. Trump, who would give the world a chilling portrait of her uncle in the book, Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man.
Or the scathing words of the many top cabinet level officials, from retired General John Kelly who served as Trump’s first Chief of Staff to former National Security Adviser John Bolton, not to mention the now revealed Anonymous whose New York Times op-ed essay alerting America to the danger that Trump constituted to civilized society by 2018 was expanded a year later into a book-length alarm entitled A Warning. But even if to the hard-to-persuade these do not constitute enough evidence of the fundamental threat that Trumpism posed to America and the world, then consider the collection of informed opinions published in 2017, at the very beginning of the menace, entitled The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President. I confess that I bought this book in search of corroboration of the amateur observations and conclusions I had formed, to wit: that the president of the United States was not well, that he was mentally unstable, and so ill-suited to the most powerful political office in the world.
Trump chose a tried and tested means of achieving his goal of revolutionary transformation of American society: divide and rule. He pitched white against black America, the latter term comprising not just African-Americans but also all so-called coloured or brown persons. Tapping deep into the nervous anxiety caused by the sobering demographic of white Americans becoming a minority ethnic group in under fifty years, Trump stoked every fear known and unknown (including that but for him, suburban women would be menaced by crime and protesters of police killings and systemic racism would not be content with toppling statues of racist confederate generals and colonisers but also statues of Jesus). While he vehemently denounced Black Lives Matter and Antifa, movements for social justice and democracy that the Federal Bureau of Investigation said were not domestic terrorist groups, he coddled and enabled white supremacist groups, such as the Proud Boys and the neo-Nazis that organized the Unite the Right march in Charlottesville. He hailed Kyle Rittenhouse, a seventeen-year-old lad who could not legally own a gun, as a hero of law and order after he had crossed state borders from Illinois to Wisconsin and shot two unarmed protesters dead. Yet he couldn’t ever bring himself to say that the black lives that were being felled like flies under his watch by bigoted police officers matter.
The clear and present danger posed by Trump’s Make America Great (White) Again revolution was already leading to fascist tendencies that bode ill for all: undercover agents taking away protesters in unmarked cars in Portland, Oregon; an extreme right militia, the Wolverine Watchmen, attempting to kidnap Michigan State governor Gretchen Whitmer, targeted no doubt due to Trump’s vitriolic attacks against her); armed MAGA zealots who invaded an election centre in Maricopa County, Arizona, to enforce Trump’s wish that ballot counting should stop and he be declared winner of the election. Preceding all that was his constant demonization of the mainstream press as peddlers of “fake news,” journalists as the enemies of the people, and his crusade for replacing responsible journalism with the fact-free swamp-world of conspiracy theories-driven social media chatrooms. If nothing else, the fear and panic that gripped America on the eve of the election, causing businesses to board up front windows and doors in anticipation of Armageddon the night of 3 November, demonstrates how far advanced was Trump’s goal of revolutionary transformation of American society in his image. His definition of a free and fair election as only the one he wins was just one more means of his personal transformation into president-for-life, or at the very least, of becoming a strongman who wins every election in which he is a candidate, like his greatest idol Vladimir Putin and false Chinese enemy, Xi Jinping, whom he secretly admires. Should the world have had Trump blossom into a full-blown fascist like Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini or General Francisco Franco before the massive effort that stopped him could be deemed revolutionary?
It is a lovely irony, I think, that black Americans, the very citizens Trump cast as the primary “them” against his white American “us,” should have been the force that gave life to Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr’s third bid for the White House doomed at the time of the South Carolina primary to end just like his previous two attempts. And an equally delicious irony that Senator Kamala Harris, whom Trump unsurprisingly described as “angry and nasty,” as a “monster,” should become the first black woman to be Vice President of the United States. And that she should have been chosen as running mate at the insistence of Representative Clyburn, the black man who saved a nice white man’s bid to be president of America. It may have been third time is the charm for Mr Biden but for all of concerned humanity, joy and relief that the most powerful political office currently known to earth has been wrenched out of the hands of a lunatic. That is “an adequate revolution for me to espouse,” to borrow the words of Chinua Achebe meant for a different context!
Ifowodo is a lawyer, scholar, poet and public commentator and principal partner at Remedium Law Partners.