By Jeffrey D. Sachs
NEW YORK – In celebrating the liberation from Donald Trump’s misrule, we must not forget that Trump’s presidency embodied the raw politics of US white supremacy. He often spoke like a segregationist Southern governor of the 1960s, and, after losing the 2020 election, like a secessionist senator on the eve of the Civil War. To sustain the victory over Trump’s destructive politics, we must overcome the racism that brought him to power. That urgent challenge faces not only the United States, but many multiethnic societies around the world.
Trump sold a segment of American society – white, older, less educated, Southern and Western, suburban and rural, evangelical Christian – on the idea that they could reclaim America’s racist past. That group of voters, some 20-25% of American adults, became Trump’s ardent base in the 2016 election. That base was large enough for Trump to capture the Republican Party and then to squeak to victory in the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote by three million.
Other quirks of American politics enabled Trump’s 2016 win. If a high proportion of Americans voted, as in countries where registration is automatic and voting is encouraged or even mandatory, Trump would not have come close to victory in 2016. But impediments to voting that burden African-Americans, the poor, and the young are a long-standing part of American politics, their purpose being to maintain the political and economic supremacy of wealthy white people. In short, their purpose is to enable the election of the likes of Trump.
Trump’s vulgar politics demonstrated the persistence of his racist appeal to older white evangelicals, and to some younger voters as well, such as those who stormed the Capitol on January 6 and threatened to lynch Vice President Mike Pence for not blocking the certification of Joe Biden’s victory in the Electoral College. Too few pundits emphasized the continuity of Trump’s racist nostalgia with the similar politics of Ronald Reagan, who used the nearly identical slogan – “Let’s Make America Great Again” – for the very same purpose.
Yet racist politics is not only an American problem, though America has been exceptionally affected by it since originating as a slaveholding society. Trump’s political style finds counterparts in other multiethnic countries where racism similarly shapes the structures of power.
Consider Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, another corrupt and manipulative politician. Netanyahu has held on to power by denigrating Israeli Arabs and denying the most basic justice to the Palestinian people. American white evangelicals have held a deep kinship with the Israeli right, and Trump and Netanyahu have shared the same exclusionary politics.
Or consider Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, widely known as the “Trump of the Tropics.” Here, too, the connection with Trump is more than just style and temperament. US white evangelical groups saw in Bolsonaro one of their own and worked assiduously to help him win.
Or consider Trump’s close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some claim that Putin has kompromat (compromising material) on Trump. Others see shared financial interests. But another part of the story is obvious political affinity. A major ingredient of Putin’s success has been to remind ethnic Russians that they are the true leaders of Russia’s multiethnic society. Putin’s political embrace of Russian Orthodoxy mirrors Trump’s political embrace of white evangelicalism.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been another fulsome admirer of Trump, and the two lavished praise on each other during Trump’s visit to India in 2020. Modi’s base includes far-right Hindu nationalists who preach hate against India’s Muslim-minority population. The Modi government’s military occupation of Muslim-majority Kashmir in 2019 generated little international concern, but offers a stark example of violent ethnic repression for domestic political gain.
Alas, ethnic chauvinism can be found in almost every multiethnic society. It is no accident that Trump actually praised China’s repression of the mainly Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province. Likewise, Myanmar’s violent expulsion of the Muslim Rohingya population elicited mainly silence from the Trump administration. And in Brazil, Bolsonaro now governs by attacking Afro-Brazilian culture and Brazil’s indigenous populations.
If there is one constant in racist politics around the world, it is this near-universal persecution of indigenous populations. Around the world, indigenous peoples have been robbed of their lands, forced into servitude, brutally killed, and pushed into poverty by late-arriving settlers. Yet this dispossession was never enough for the conquerors. In addition to the infliction of harm, and even genocide, the conquerors also blamed the indigenous peoples for their woes, maligning them as lazy, untrustworthy, and dangerous as their lands were being stolen.
Yet there is also good news. Trump’s defeat, and the overwhelming US public opprobrium that met the Capitol insurrectionists, holds the lesson that we can move beyond our worst instincts, fears, and biases. White racists in America are losing their grip on power, and they know it. The times really are changing. The American people voted Trump out of power. The day before the insurrection, Georgia’s voters elected an African-American and a Jew as US senators – both firsts for the state that came at the expense of two pro-Trump incumbents.
Trump’s departure is therefore an opportunity for a new beginning, not only in the deeply wounded US society, but in multiethnic divided societies everywhere. There is no excuse anywhere to govern by racial hatred and ethnic chauvinism. In the post-Trump era, governments everywhere should expel the hatemongers.
The world should also look back in history to help us move forward. In 1948, in the shadow of the atrocities of World War II, all member states of the new United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This magnificent declaration is based on the principle of universal human dignity, “without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.”
The Universal Declaration must be our lodestar. Its 75th anniversary in 2023 is approaching, and we have the means to say no to the haters, the demagogues, and the dividers. Trump left America in a shambles, with 400,000 dead from COVID-19. Now that we have dispensed with Trump, we can get on with the task of ending the pandemic and healing our deeply divided societies.
Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development and Professor of Health Policy and Management at Columbia University, is Director of Columbia’s Center for Sustainable Development and the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.