There are many things that are cause for concern in Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly today. But it is important to keep in mind that it was primarily written by white nationalist Stephen Miller, who included major dog whistles to white supremacists.
The primary vehicle Miller used to do that is through the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty,” which Trump used at least 25 times. For example:
The success of the United Nations depends upon the independent strength of its members. To overcome the perils of the present, and to achieve the promise of the future, we must begin with the wisdom of the past. Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity, and peace, for themselves and for the world. We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties, to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.
There is nothing inherently nefarious about the word sovereign, but it’s use in this country has been particularly tied to white supremacy for decades. Here are some examples:
Americans founded their Revolution and government on popular sovereignty, but the term was also used in the 1850s to describe a highly controversial approach to slavery in the territories as propounded by senator Stephen A. Douglas. It meant that local residents of a territory would be the ones to decide if slavery would be permitted, and it led to bloody warfare in Bleeding Kansas as violent abolitionists and proponents of slavery flooded Kansas territory in order to decide the elections.
Mississippi Sovereignty Commission
The Commission was created by the Mississippi Legislature in 1956 in reaction to the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, in which the United States Supreme Court held unanimously that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. The “sovereignty” the state was trying to protect was against federal enforcement of civil rights laws, such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings.
In 1998, the secret records of the commission were finally made public.
After a 21-year court fight, the state of Mississippi today unsealed more than 124,000 pages of secret files from a state agency that used spy tactics, intimidation, false imprisonment, jury tampering and other illegal methods to thwart the activities of civil rights workers during the 1950’s, 60’s and early 70’s.
The strange subculture of the sovereign citizens movement, whose adherents hold truly bizarre, complex antigovernment beliefs, has been growing at a fast pace since the late 2000s. Sovereigns believe that they get to decide which laws to obey and which to ignore, and they don’t think they should have to pay taxes…
In the early 1980s, the sovereign citizens movement mostly attracted white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.
Over and over again we’ve seen that Stephen Miller is completely immersed in the language and culture of white supremacists. This is yet one more example. His boss, the president, seems completely comfortable with that. So we can add one more item to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s list of “You might be a white supremacists if…” The description fits if you use the words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” 25 times in a speech to the United Nations.