Uncle Sam was born lethal


Burial of the dead after the massacre of Wounded Knee, 1891. PHOTO/Northwestern Photo Co./Truth Out

For revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.

– Frederick Douglass, July 4, 1852

One of the occupational and intellectual hazards of being a historian is that current events often seem far less new to oneself than they do to others. Recently a leftish liberal friend told me that the United States under the Donald Trump had “become a lethal society.” My friend cited the neofascist Trump’s: horrible family separations and concentration camps on the border; openly white-nationalist assaults on four progressive nonwhite and female Congresswomen; real and threatened roundups of undocumented immigrants; fascist-style and hate-filled “Make America Great Again” rallies; encouragement of white supremacist terrorism; alliance with right-wing evangelical Christian fascists.

Another friend received news of the recent mass-shooting of mostly Latinx Wal-Mart shoppers by racist and nativist white male Trump fan in El Paso, Texas by denouncing Trump’s “fascism” and linking to an essay he’d published about the white-nationalist president’s racist and authoritarian behavior.

I agree with my friends about the lethality of the contemporary United States. I largely share their description of Trump and much of his base as fascist or at least fascistic. “Durable fascist tendencies,” the prolific left political scientist Carl Boggs warns in his important book Fascism Old New: American Politics at the Crossroads, “run deep throughout present-day American society…In the absence of powerful counterforces and a thriving democracy, …those tendencies could morph over into something more expansive and menacing – and Donald Trump could serve, wittingly or unwittingly, as a great historical accelerator.”

It’s nothing to sneeze at. The institutional forms and technologies of militarized surveillance and policing and thought control that are available to fascism-prone elites in the United States are daunting indeed. The United States enjoys historically unprecedented global power on a scale the fascist Third Reich’s leaders dreamed of achieving but never remotely approached.

Still, I sometimes worry about reaching beyond American history to label horrors of its own making. Longstanding foundational aristo-republican U.S. white-settler nationalism and its state-military-capitalist, imperialist, and corporatist evolution has long been disastrous and dystopian enough without “charismatic” dictators, Baretta-toting squadristis, single party states, the suspension of elections, the end of bourgeois law, jackbooted brown-shirts, death squads, state propaganda, political executions, shuttered media, and the rest of the full-on fascist nightmare.

Savagely and Mercilessly Exterminating “the Common Enemy of the Country”

How new is racist lethality and white nationalism to the U.S.-American experience, after all? The white European “settlers” of North America wiped out millions of the continent’s original inhabitants. They populated their southern colonies and states with Black slaves they mercilessly tortured, raped, maimed, and murdered in forced labor camps that provided the critical raw material for the rise of American capitalism long before Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler rose to power.

Trump’s favorite president prior to himself, Andrew Jackson, first rose to prominence in the early 19th century as the head of the Tennessee militia who exterminated the Creek Nation by, in the words of the Yale historian Greg Grandin, “burning houses, killing warriors, mutilating their bodies (he ordered his men to cut off the noses of the Indian corpses, so as to more easily tally the dead), and enslaving their women and children…[thereby] previewing the misery he would later, as president, nationalize” (with the 1830 Indian Removal Act). Jackson later ordered the “Trail of Tears,” a giant and sadistic death march that finalized the ethnic cleansing of the Cherokee Nation from the nation’s Southeastern seaboard.

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