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The Biggest Lie of All: White Supremacy

January 11, 2021

capitol riot 1

Amidst all of the commentary on the assault on the Capitol and American democracy, we should not lose sight of one important thing: This was an insurrection by white Americans to preserve white dominion in this country. White supremacy has always been the bedrock beneath Trump and Trumpism. Sometimes it lurks beneath the surface, sometimes it crops up in plain sight, but it is always there. 

The Big Lie of white supremacy is implicit in Trump’s preposterous claim that he “won the election in a landslide”. What do the battle cries of “take back your country” or “stop the steal” really mean? Take it back from whom? Stop the steal by whom? Who is “stealing” the country and the election? Obviously, it’s the Democrats, but who are they but a mongrel coalition of black and brown people, immigrants, and their perfidious white liberal allies who want to trample all over the rights of Real Americans, i.e., white people.

The message was clearly on display during the Republican National Convention in August, where one after another, Trump’s acolytes took the podium to scream alarm that if Joe Biden won the election those people from the crime-ridden war zones of Democrat-run cities [i.e., black people] would be coming to destroy America’s idyllic [white] suburbs. There would be uncontrolled rioting in the streets, “mob rule”, and “no one will be safe in Biden’s America”, as Trump himself proclaimed. Rudy Giuliani could barely contain himself, calling–literally–for locking more people up and portraying New York City as a cartoonish Gotham City where criminals rule the streets and chaos reigns.

Trump’s claim that he would win by a landslide unless the election was rigged rests on the belief that the champion of white people can’t lose. And millions of Americans–overwhelmingly white people–have bought into that idea. No evidence can shake that belief. Trump and his minions traffic in fear, and their lies fall on ears primed to believe them. As columnist Leonard Potts, Jr. correctly observed:

But for all the other things that riot was, it was also an expression of fear — the panic of those who find themselves outnumbered. One cannot overemphasize a simple fact: In only one of the eight presidential elections since 1993 — Bush v. Kerry in 2004 — has the Republican Party won the popular vote. Seven times, the majority of voters have sided with the Democrats. GOP leaders — and the resentful white voters who are their core constituency — understand what this means. They know they’ve lost the debate over LGBTQ rights, immigration, race and all the other issues marking the line between left and right. They realize the nation’s population of angry white people is dwarfed by its rainbow coalition of white, Black, Asian, Hispanic, Islamic, Jewish, LGBTQ and others who demand, in the words of the pledge we learned as children, liberty and justice for all.

It certainly wasn’t lost on the virtually all-white mob that invaded the Capitol–or on Trump and the rest of those whipping them up–that they had just lost two senate seats in Georgia the previous day by a bigger margin than Trump’s own loss in that state. Or that Georgia had elected its first ever black senator, a man who holds the pulpit in Martin Luther King Jr.’s church. It’s also no coincidence that Trump’s first public appearance after cowering for five days in the White House will be to inspect The Wall he built on the Texas-Mexico border–his monument to white fear of Latino immigrants.

From its earliest days, America was built on the lie of White Supremacy. It justified displacement and genocide of Native Americans. Our Founding Fathers enshrined it in the Constitution. Our Civil War was fought because of it, and even the victors more or less believed it. The defeated South created an entire “Lost Cause” myth based on it, imbuing it with specious nobility and religious sanction. It rationalized legal apartheid and terrorism against black Americans to keep them from full citizenship, as well as the myriad more subtle instruments of institutional racism that still pervade American society. And that lie elected Donald Trump, who again in 2020 got a majority of the votes cast by white Americans–both male and female.

Reduced to its essence, the rationale for Trump’s absurd claim to have “won by a landslide” rests on the idea that the votes of black people are inherently illegitimate and shouldn’t count–a notion that until fairly recently in our history was reality in the United States. Without any evidence whatever, the legal challenges thrown out by court after court made unfounded allegations against specific urban counties with large black populations, not against the same entire states which were operating under identical rules. The Republican congress members who “objected” to counting the state-certified electoral votes on January 6 certainly knew that their arguments were lies and nonsense, but they are ready break the system if that’s the only way they can win. 

As historian Timothy Snyder wrote in the New York Times Magazine, “Thanks to technological capacity and personal talent, Donald Trump lied at a pace perhaps unmatched by any other leader in history. For the most part these were small lies, and their main effect was cumulative. To believe in all of them was to accept the authority of a single man, because to believe in all of them was to disbelieve everything else. Once such personal authority was established, the president could treat everyone else as the liars; he even had the power to turn someone from a trusted adviser into a dishonest scoundrel with a single tweet.” Some of those lies were big enough to matter a great deal, however. And when he delivered the big one, millions were ready to believe it. “The claim that Trump was denied a win by fraud is a big lie not just because it mauls logic, misdescribes the present and demands belief in a conspiracy. It is a big lie, fundamentally, because it reverses the moral field of American politics and the basic structure of American history.”

I think I understand what Snyder is getting at here, i.e., that the “moral field” and “basic structure” of US history has been towards respect for rule of law and increasing inclusiveness for all Americans–the “moral arc” of Dr. King, if you will. Where I would take issue is that in fact Trump’s Big Lie is firmly embedded in the even bigger lie that runs counter to that “moral arc” throughout American history, namely the Great Lie of white supremacy.

What we saw at the Capitol on January 6 is just the latest manifestation of that Great Lie. It won’t be the last. 

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