Trump’s Isolationist Nationalism Is a Mask for White Supremacy

The Trump Administration did something on Saturday that would make intelligent immigration restrictionists wince: he cut off all aid, ostensibly totaling $500 million, to Central American nations Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The president’s rationale: “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money. And we’re not paying them anymore. Because they haven’t done a thing for us. They set up these caravans.” But, of course, as almost any policy analyst would tell you, reducing aid to a country will only increase misery and desperation, leading to even more emigration and asylum seekers.

It’s also not as if the Trump Administration cares about the money. Foreign aid is a drop in the ocean of the total federal budget, and $500 million to three of the most unstable countries near the nation’s border is a pittance compared to the $700 billion we spend on the military. If immigrant caravans from Central America are as big a threat to the country as Trump claims they are (and, of course, they are not), then the financial aid is a small price to pay.

But Trump’s instincts in this direction have nothing to do with smart policies. It’s about nursing a theory of nationalist white supremacy, one in which each nation represents a different race and civilization, in which each nation controls finite wealth to spend either on its own “people” or on someone else’s, and in which other nations should be forced to solve all their own problems on their own and keep all their own people within their borders. Donald Trump and his acolytes are not conducting foreign policy in the real world. They are treating foreign policy as if it were a video game simulation of national interests and empires a la Sid Meier’s Civilization series.

Some may argue that this is just “nationalism” and that white supremacy has nothing to do with it. But Trump’s form of nationalism is inextricably predicated on a foundation of white supremacy. When Trump calls nations run by non-whites “shit holes,” he isn’t talking about that as a temporary condition. Many of Trump’s confidants and associates have reported him making racist comments, many of them about communities and countries of color and their supposed incapacity to solve their own problems. That correlates with Trump’s insistent references to the superiority of his own genetics.

Trump consistently governs and speaks as if white conservative Americans are the only real Americans and the only ones who make the country work. And he consistently speaks about the rest of the world as if non-whites were culturally and biologically incapable of success. This is white supremacy at its core. At no point does Trump even consider the history of slavery, oppression, colonialism, and exploitation that has shaped the modern world, or the rich and storied histories of non-European civilizations. For him, they do not exist. With respect to Central America, Trump seems utterly ignorant of or indifferent to the history of American coups and sabotage, its support for paramilitary death squads that have crippled the region’s economic and political development—to say nothing of the drug war that continues fueling most of the violence. All that matters is preserving white wealth for white people, and not letting anyone else get access to it, either domestically or internationally.

This is fundamental to Trump’s views on trade and war and peace. On trade, Trump believes that the developing world is taking advantage of America by making the products that our corporations then sell. This is, in truth, a mutually beneficial arrangement—but if there is exploitation in that relationship, it is the other way around when wealthy white owners of capital use cheap and exploited labor in the developing world to create products that they then sell at markup to an increasingly overburdened and undercapitalized developed world middle class.

Left libertarians like Glenn Greenwald have warmed to Trump’s comparative isolationism in military policy as well. But it derives not from any inherent dovishness; rather, it comes from a refusal to spill any American blood or treasure on what he views as countries with people who aren’t worth saving or helping. And while it’s true that most American interventions haven’t been benign, Trump isn’t even close to being capable of making that level of critique against American foreign policy. His problem with the invasion of Iraq wasn’t exploitation and war to gain access to oil; Trump thinks America should have stolen all the oil. His objection was spending any American resources on people he sees as not fully human.

Trump doesn’t really care what happens to non-white people because he doesn’t see them as people. He doesn’t care if cutting off aid to Central America will lead to more misery and migration or not. He just sees the area as full of troubled people who should stay exactly where they are without relying on American aid.

It is a gross and reprehensible worldview.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.