The Violent Defense of White Male Supremacy
What americans did and defended this summer will be inscribed into history forever. The summer began before the summer officially began. The summer ended before the summer officially ended.
The summer began on May 25, when the police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in Minneapolis, Minnesota, suffocating his pleas for life. Largely peaceful demonstrations followed, and Trump tweeted: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen.” He added, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The summer ended on August 25, when Kyle Rittenhouse borrowed an AR-15-style assault rifle from a friend and allegedly fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony M. Huber and injured Gaige Grosskreutz. These three people had been demonstrating in Kenosha, Wisconsin, against the police shooting of Jacob Blake two days earlier. Trump suggested that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. “He was trying to get away from them,” Trump said. “And he fell and then they very violently attacked him … He probably would have been killed” if he didn’t defend himself with lethal force.
The violence of Chauvin and Rittenhouse bookended the summer of Trumpism. The three long, hot months from May 25 to August 25 compressed 413 years of American history into a cellphone video in which anyone could easily see the history for what it has always been: the violent “self-defense” of white male supremacy. Colonialism, capitalism, slavery and slave trading, Indian removal, manifest destiny, colonization, the Ku Klux Klan, Chinese exclusion, disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, eugenics, massive resistance, “law and order,” Islamophobia, family separation—all were done in the name of defending life or civilization or freedom.
Trumpism is the latest—or last—chapter in the story of this America. Like its antecedents, Trumpism is the violent defense of white male supremacy. Adherents of Trumpism think they are facing a choice between white male supremacy and “anarchy.” And right now, Trump’s federal agents, Trump-supporting paramilitary domestic terrorists, and Trump-supporting police officers from Kenosha to Austin believe they are fighting against anarchy. Which is to say, they are fighting to maintain white male supremacy. Which is to say, they are defending law and order. Defending their America—where white men can rule and brutalize without consequence.
Trump’s supporters have been defending their America against this summer of anti-racism. From May 25 to August 25, there were at least 7,750 anti-racist demonstrations in 2,400 locations across all 50 states and the District of Columbia. By Independence Day, when as many as 26 million people had participated in the demonstrations, the anti-racist movement had already been recognized as the largest movement of any kind in American history. The American people marched and rallied for Breonna Taylor, for Ahmaud Arbery, for all the Black and brown and Indigenous people disproportionately dying of state violence and COVID-19, for all the people suffering under the weight of racist power and policy. About 93 percent of these demonstrations remained peaceful, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Only 7 percent of the demonstrations turned violent through clashes with counterprotesters or police—too often sparked by officers—or through property damage on “specific blocks,” the report stated.
But these renegade women, men of color, and white men defying the law and order of inequality and injustice look like “anarchists” to Trump. Since June 3, the Trump campaign has run more than 2,000 ads fearmongering against what it calls “Dangerous MOBS of far-left groups,” according to Media Matters for America.
All those officers and militiamen protecting the law and order of inequality and injustice are “patriots” to Trump. They are at war. In Trump’s alternative reality, the grand battle is at hand between anarchists who want to destroy America and patriots who want to defend America.
“Our country wasn’t built by cancel culture, speech codes, and soul-crushing conformity,” Trump proclaimed in his address to the Republican National Convention on August 27. “We are not a nation of timid spirits. We are a nation of fierce, proud and independent American patriots … Whenever our way of life was threatened, our heroes answered the call.”
Kyle Rittenhouse lived 20 miles away from Kenosha in Antioch, Illinois, where he was arrested and charged with murder the next day. During his visit to Kenosha on September 1, Trump did not condemn Rittenhouse. But he did condemn anti-racist demonstrators. “These are not acts of peaceful protest but, really, domestic terror,” he said, substantiating Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense, that he was defending “law and order.” By September 1, a Christian crowdfunding site had already raised nearly $327,000 for Rittenhouse’s legal defense team.
“This was classic self-defense and we are going to prove it,” Rittenhouse’s attorney, John Pierce, said in a statement. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson asked his viewers, “How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” Alan Endries, a Milwaukee resident and Trump supporter, said about Rittenhouse: “He’s a hero. He stuck up for the population, for property owners. He didn’t come up here just to shoot people. He came up here to defend himself.” The self-proclaimed militia that took to the streets of Kenosha did act in self-defense: the violent defense of white male supremacy.
White male supremacy has granted the president the power to accost women and “grab ’em by the pussy”; the power to “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters; the power to call the first female major-party nominee for president “such a nasty woman” on live television and still win more white women’s votes than she did; the power to say the first Black president was not born in the United States and still have Black men say at his convention that he is “not racist.” White male supremacy has allowed the president to have a foreign power intercede in a presidential election on his behalf, to call neo-Nazis “very fine people,” to urge his supporters to vote twice, to build a monument of lies, to obstruct justice while freeing friends and punishing foes, to describe Americans who died at war as “suckers” and “losers,” and to look away as hundreds of thousands of American COVID-19 victims’ bodies pile up at cemeteries—and not face any consequences.
And Trump does not want his white male supporters facing any consequences either. Like him, they are always innocent. They are always the victims. Even violent strongmen like Vladimir Putin get a pass.
So do heavily armed groups of white male supremacists in the United States. According to a Politico report, the first draft of a recent Department of Homeland Security “State of the Homeland Threat Assessment 2020” named “White supremacist extremists” as “the most persistent and lethal [terrorist] threat” to the American people. But Trump refuses to acknowledge, let alone protect Americans from, the greatest domestic terrorist threat of our time. Instead he incites carnage, and the victims include people of color demonstrating their humanity, and white people demonstrating against racism, like Heather Heyer.
White male supremacy has long presented itself as acting in defense of innocent white womanhood. The Trump campaign is drawing on its tropes in an effort to capture enough white suburban women voters to win reelection. “You Won’t Be Safe in Joe Biden’s America,” claimed a Trump campaign video released on July 15. The voice-over on the ad ends: “Who will be there to answer the call when your children aren’t safe?” On August 12, Trump tweeted, “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want safety.”
But Trump’s insistence that he is protecting innocent white women and children from the “anarchists” is veiling the ultimate myth of American innocence: the notion that white men are the real victims. Were the red hats who participated on August 30 in the “pro-Trump procession” through Portland, Oregon, and who shot paintballs and pepper-sprayed anti-racist demonstrators innocents? Was Detective Brett Hankison, dismissed by the Louisville Police Department for “wantonly and blindly” firing 10 rounds into the apartment of Breonna Taylor on March 13, an innocent? Was former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, convicted of contempt of court for refusing to comply with court orders to stop detaining migrants not otherwise accused of a crime, and then later pardoned by Trump, an innocent? Is Trump, who repeatedly called the impeachment investigation and trial a “witch hunt,” an innocent? Was former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who resigned in February 2018 after allegations of domestic abuse, an innocent? “He says he’s innocent,” Trump said at the time, “and I think you have to remember that.”
In June, when two police officers in Buffalo, New York, shoved an elderly white male protester to the ground and caused a brain injury, the president leaped to attack the protester. He “could be an ANTIFA provocateur,” Trump tweeted five days later. “I watched, he fell harder than was pushed.” The officers, who maintain their innocence, were later charged with assault. And when Brett Kavanaugh was accused of sexual assault at his confirmation hearing but insisted on his innocence, Trump’s sympathies and apologies were not with his accusers. Instead, at Kavanaugh’s swearing-in ceremony, Trump apologized to him “on behalf of our nation … for the terrible pain and suffering you have been forced to endure.” Kavanaugh was just a boy being a boy, like when Americans wrap white mass shooters in innocence by presuming they are mentally disturbed.
The presumption of innocence is largely reserved for wealthy cisgender heterosexual white men like Trump, and it remains until disproven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The presumption of guilt is for all practical purposes attached to femininity, to Blackness, to queerness, to Indigenousness, to poverty. To be a poor queer woman of color is to embody guilt. The closer one is to whiteness and masculinity and wealth, the closer one is to innocence. But for people like me, people like Breonna Taylor and Sandra Bland, for all the Latino immigrants facing deportation, for all the victims of homophobic hate crimes, for all the starving people being evicted, for all the missing and murdered Native women, for all the murdered Black trans women, there are always doubts. There are always doubts.
How does trump seem to get away with everything with his own supporters? Because he embodies white-supremacist masculinity for them. He is innocent. They are innocent. He is defending their innocence.
Whenever white male supremacy shoots, assaults, violates, devastates, exploits—no matter what, there is the projection of innocence. Gun residue on his hands. Innocent. Blood on his hands. Innocent. Stolen life savings in his hands. Innocent. Living on stolen land. Innocent. And as the world saw at the Republican National Convention, too many white women and people of color have been turned into defenders of white male supremacy, wielding their identities to profess expertise on Trump’s “not racist” and “not sexist” innocence.
This is about Trump, but it is not only about Trump. White male supremacy is a governing force as old as America, as new as Trumpism. And it is wholly threatened by anti-racism, by feminism.
Those who embrace Trumpism demand, like police officers, qualified immunity for their racism and sexism. When they hear “Me too,” when they hear “Impeach him,” when they hear “Black lives matter,” when they hear “No justice, no peace”—they hear the sounds of violent attacks on their supremacy, they envision their property burning, they see their America under attack. In their minds, slavery did not end.
And so, they violently defended white male supremacy all summer long—just as they have all America long.
Ibram X. Kendi is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. He is the author of several books, including the National Book Award–winning Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America and How to Be an Antiracist.
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