Sometimes it all sounds very elementary.
History is a story. Opinion. Subjective. A framing of the past that both situates events of yesteryear and charts the course for the future.
Intuitively, I think we know this. We sense it. But in the application of historical studies and education, history is too often told with a concreteness that betrays the complexities of narrative and politics and, most importantly, power. In the United States, that story is particularly sacred and untouchable. One only has to watch how the 1619 Project has inspired violent rage and teeth-gnashing among the Right, which has gone as far as to spew out its own half-assed retort and threaten funds for any school daring to teach it.
In my own experience, out of all of my work, both covering the extremist Right and the fascistic rise of the Trump Movement, beat-for-beat, an equal amount of hatred and threats have emerged from the release of my book American Rule: How A Nation Conquered The World But Failed Its People, a book that only seeks to correct many of the misunderstood and blatantly hidden moments in American history.
Why, in America, is the telling of history such a threat? Why does is inspire violence and outrage?
The answer is very clear. The history of America is the history of white supremacy, and white supremacy, in order to maintain its hold on power, relies almost exclusively on a mythology that washes its ascent to power and influence of its blood, exploitation, and shame.
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To really investigate the mythology the Right depends on, it’s only necessary to listen to what passes as “discourse” these days. As the Right declines in popularity and their stranglehold on American power disintegrates, they are relying more and more on anti-democratic efforts to disenfranchise voters, intimidate protesters, all while pushing blatantly white supremacist conspiracy theories like “the Great Replacement” lie which is intended to legitimize preemptive violence to maintain power.
Former Republican senator Rick Santorum, who still maintains an offensive presence on CNN as a commentator, made waves recently when he told a young conservatives meeting “We birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there’s nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” a stupefying and offensive statement that he has tried, impotently, to walk back in recent days as his job has come under fire.
Let’s be very clear. Santorum isn’t just propagating white supremacist fantasies here, he’s also wrong. Part of the expansionist and colonist projects carried out by European powers, a repulsive legacy that the United States inherited and then escalated, was a lie that indigenous populations were “backward” or “barbaric,” that their cultures, wherein the people shared resources and rejected the idea of private property, lacked substance and were nonexistent, meaning the “cultured” Europeans could claim their stake to their land, their resources, and their labor.
This also denies provable, historical facts. Native Americans were engaged in complex and far-ranging societies, including multiple nations that constituted what would later be called the United States of America. European colonists would not have even survived if it weren’t the assistance of the native people. And, if Santorum wants to get specific, our own constitution and form of government were inspired DIRECTLY by the legacy of the Iroquois, who tutored us in their institutions.
The story Santorum is telling is as old as white supremacist exploitation itself, and that legacy is very, very ugly and tragic.
The myth of the civilizer is the story Europeans told themselves in order to quell their consciences, betray the trust of native people, and sell their cruelty to their own countrymen. It is a lie. Maybe one of the worst lies told in human history.
In this lie, Europe and its developing nations represented the pinnacle of human achievement at the time. Despite their constant wars and crises, they had come to believe they were the most advanced society in human history and that, in order for the world to become a utopian paradise, a literal heaven on Earth, they would need to spread the word of their faith and advancement, all while “tutoring” people of color and shepherding them into the modern world.
Christianity was an incredible weapon and component of this strategy. The Catholic Church gave sanction and legitimacy to the conquering and destruction of people of color under the auspices of introducing them to “the yoke of the church,” thereby entering them into the faith as submissive and taxable prisoners. Once this was established, the church and state conspired to colonize lands, collect their resources, including spices and valuable minerals, all while using religion to teach fealty and the powers of the nation to enforce discipline.
Because native people were considered “barbarians,” the exploitation of their land and resources and labor was legitimized, necessary even. European powers and the church paired their theft with instruction in societal and religious ideas that only reinforced their project, reasoning that “We give them doctrine…and they give us silver, gold.” Essentially, the story revolved around the white race teaching people of color to be more like them, to evolve, to progress, to become “civilized,” and, for this burden, the white man was rewarded with power and wealth the likes of which had never been seen before.
Joining Santorum in this drivel, radio show and TV failure Mark Levin recently stepped in it by claiming that there was no way America was a racist country because capitalism is incapable of being racist, a confluence of maddeningly stupid and untrue ideas that was only matched in its absurdity with how quickly the Right embraced and ran with them.
To follow the history I’ve laid out so far is to understand that the beginnings of capitalism, both in the accumulation of capital and the birth of the modern corporate reality, are rooted firmly in the oppression of people of color through systematic exploitation, colonization, slavery, forced labor, genocidal violence, and cruel indoctrination and destruction of culture, all of it predicated on weaponized lies and continued enforcement. Time did not stop after these maneuvers and, in truth, they only continued and worsened and hid themselves as the years rolled on.
The reality we live in now, present day, is built on the architecture of human suffering and exploitation. There is a direct line from the wealthiest individuals and companies to the business of this cruelty. Yes, in recent years, blatant racism has been intentionally hidden behind “colorblind” strategies, all of which are designed to facilitate hypercapitalism and obstruct the clear view of prejudice, but that does not mean we have “cured” racism or are anywhere beyond it. It only means racism is so ingrained in American culture, and Americans so desperate to avoid reckoning with it, that it has been able to root itself in our systems.
And capitalism, or the market, is most definitely one of the main tools and residences for prejudice. We could spend all day talking about the very real and obvious applications of racism in modern capitalism, but for the purposes of this exercise and topic, it is only necessary to point out that the market has become synonymous with progress and the ills and suffering caused by it are parallel and an exact replica of the myth of progress spun by white supremacy in the beginnings of capitalism’s rise. The market is sanitized white supremacy in its very essence. It continues to shuffle accumulated capital through generations of exploitation and cruelty forward under the auspices of a totally nonexistent meritocracy that shields prejudice.
Of course, that brings us to Donald Trump.
The rise of Trumpism, a slobbering, incoherent, movement built on rage, self-aggrandizement, and neo-fascism, was only made possible by a changing culture rife with the toxins and poisons of white supremacy that had yet to be addressed or even properly diagnosed. Donald Trump, as the inheritor of his family’s fortune, as a complete failure as a businessman, as an untalented, unintelligent, grifter whose self-confidence could change the orbit of a planet, was the perfect vessel for its emergence.
What Trump personified, besides the fulfillment the white-identity church’s partnership with hypercapitalism, resulting in an apocalyptic death cult, was a reemergence of open racism after decades of “colorblind” rhetoric, the rebirth of unrepentant white supremacy. The change, this time, was that the movement did not advocate white supremacy as a worldview, not in totality anyway, but the rebranding of racism as “realism” instead of prejudice. Trump, and others like him, pointed at the mythology that had been in place their entire lives - that of white supremacy as benevolence and history as the triumph of the white race over the barbarism of people of color - and claimed it was not only accurate, but those attempting to tell a different story had ulterior motives.
This swaggering ignorance relied on psychological and emotional abuse as a weapon by dismissing any discourse or criticisms as either stupid, emotional, or underhanded attempts to destroy the country and rewind the “progress” made in “Western Civilization.” It was protection of the gains made over the millennia. A hamfisted, clumsy attempt to belch up a new fascism to bust the skulls of anyone standing in the way of continued exploitation under the banner of white supremacist benevolence.
And this is where we find ourselves. Locked in a battle over history with a movement that cares only for weaponized history, a lie that has no real relationship with the truth, only in how that story can benefit them, profit them, and hide the blemishes, the carrying out of genocide, and the very real cruelty of slavery and oppression. Like most everything with the Republican Party, it is a maddening exercise of bad faith and self-delusion, all of it transpiring in a hallway of mirrors smeared with blood.