The American history Trump would rather forget

Medical invention, technological advancement, cultural creativity, and human progress are dreams Trump may erect walls against but human nature will reawaken and weaken those walls one day

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By Dr Tom Odhiambo

Donald Trump is a man one can’t just wish away. If you like him, he can easily become a cult that will swallow your whole life. His bullishness can be reassuring in a confusing world. If you dislike – not hate, mind – him, he could still eat away your soul as well. His scaremongering can make one’s life hellish.

But the appeal of Donald Trump isn’t Trump the man; it is Trump the drama. This is a man who has made much of the world that follows American politics to realize that actually Americans aren’t necessarily the only superpower left in the world, in the way the media has made it seem. This is the man who speaks like a CEO, a warmonger, a gossiper, an army general or a local lay about, all rolled into one. He is a spectacle that dazzles and confounds all at once.

Trump’s America looks strong in the morning and weak in the evening, depending on Trump’s Twitter mood and mode. If he isn’t threatening to wipe North Korea off the surface of the earth, he is cajoling the country’s strongman, planning a meeting somewhere in Asia. He will be decrying Chinese trade practices at a dinner party but hinting at a meeting with China the following day. Trump has made the much revered American presidency look as ordinary as some African strongman regime. The man is a master of kerfuffle, surprising, entertaining, shocking enemies and friends in equal measure, if you allow the cliché. 

But it is when he speaks about the wall, that wall, to out the Mexicans and other unwanted foreigners, that Trump is at his dramatic best. His declarations and threats come in fusillades. Trump declaims without irony, that the foreigners are harbingers and carriers of diseases, violence, drugs, social decay and death. The foreigners are a threat to America, especially white America, more so white male Americans. They will take away jobs from Americans. They will carry with them gang culture from their countries. They will multiply drug gangs and businesses. America will collapse under the weight of these unwanted foreigners. He claims without end.

It is not easy to refute most of Trump’s arguments. Such arguments are heard in many countries today that have to deal with arrivals of people looking for political asylum and work. Many European countries are grappling with anti-immigrant movements. As economies slow down and many jobs are lost to automation, many Europeans don’t want foreigners – Africans, Asians and Arabs – to ‘take’ their jobs or ‘benefit’ from a social welfare system that they haven’t contributed to, or ‘dilute’ their cultures. Nationalism is on the rise. Racism lurks, beginning at the airports where foreigners, particularly Africans, have to endure extra scrutiny.

So, Trump isn’t alone in the world in wanting to keep them foreigners away. However, Trump is happy to conveniently swat away the inconvenient truth about modern America as a land of foreigners, including his own ancestors. And in the majority of cases, these settlers arrived in America running away from some form of persecution or suffering. There are hundreds of books on how foreigners made America what it is today and still keep it running. One need not repeat the story of Africans forced from their native lands in their millions to go work on plantations, whose produce formed the basis of American capitalism. Mexicans continue(d) the cycle of exploitation by doing menial jobs, the ones many white Americans couldn’t do, including raising millions of middle class American children. And so did Filipinos. Indians followed, and so on.

Yet Trump and company refuse to read their history – one that would remind them that the foundations of the American society were laid on the ability of the society to welcome, accommodate, assimilate and Americanise foreigners. This is why for centuries America has always allowed individuals who can ‘contribute’ their skills, knowledge, capital or sheer labour to the country to be naturalized. Considering that American capitalism arose from farm labour, of men and women tilling the land, planting, harvesting, and trading, Americans always sold the world the idea that one can fulfil their dreams in America by their physical exertion and belonging to a larger dream. This is part of the story told by Daniel J. Boorstin in his book The Americans: The Colonial Experience (1958).

Boorstin’s book, published more than 60 years ago now, identifies a number of features that have defined the American, including the journey from England for the earliest settlers; the community of Christian believers; the plantation economy; pursuit of knowledge in the new world; the rise of the celebrated education system, chiefly the university; the significance of the professions, particularly law; the evolution of medicine and science; the power that language and books assumed over the population; the pre-eminence of culture, specifically popular culture as symbolised today by Hollywood, music and sports; the rise of the media, mostly the newspaper (and today the power that social media and the TV possess);as well as war and diplomacy, among others.

The Americans begins with a quote from Adam Smith: “England purchased for some of her subjects, who found themselves uneasy at home, a great estate in a distant country.” The author then says, “America began as a sobering experience. The colonies were a disapproving ground for utopias. … A new civilization was being born less out of a plans and purposes than out of the unsettlement which the New World brought to the ways of the Old.” Here then, the author suggests in these two preamble statements, was a world forged out of a desire to make new life; to start afresh, away from the Old world, which  had consigned many Europeans to a life of perpetual poverty, and political as well as religious persecution. This was a civilization, if one wants to call it so, forged out of blood, sweat and wit.

This is a world in which any dreamer wishing to wake up from the dream and work at making the fantasy come true could do so. Of course the land that the immigrants from Europe settled on wasn’t empty. It had native owners. But these were killed in their numbers and nearly eliminated as a race. The irony of these acts of forceful acquisition of land and murdering of whole communities of local populations wouldn’t bother Trump today. The fact that even after the land had been appropriated, many whites couldn’t work it – for its sheer size and the amount of labour needed to make it productive – and therefore the plantation owners needed extra hands to work it, isn’t an issue Trump and his friends want to discuss today.

The Americans are products of a fusion of peoples and cultures from all over the world. This is the undeniable fact. But these peoples and cultures arrived on the American shores to chase dreams or join in the realisation of such dreams. (

— The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi; Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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