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America’s own

Even in these first days of the Trump presidency, the first light of an age of reaction is impossible to miss. It has been incubated in American liberalism.

Written by Praveen Swami |
January 27, 2017 12:02:50 am
donald trump, trump, trump presidency, us president, Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP, TPP deal, american liberalism, President Donald Trump, philip ratcliff, John Winthrop, Mikhail Gobachev, 9/11, indian express opinion, world news President Donald Trump invoked Winthrop’s famous metaphor for the utopia the Puritans sought to build in the New World — “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” — in his inauguration address. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

History has left us just one meagre trace of the life of Philip Ratcliff, who served Mr Craddock in the city upon the hill. From the diary of John Winthrop, English Puritan lawyer and governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony, one of the two settlements where the US began its life as a nation, we know he was convicted on June 14, 1631, “of most foul, scandalous invectives against our churches and government, [and] was censured to be whipped, lose his ears, and be banished from the plantation”. We know, from other trials, what would have happened next: Ratcliff’s ears would have been nailed to the pillory, to ease their being sawn off from the screaming, heaving prisoner.

President Donald Trump invoked Winthrop’s famous metaphor for the utopia the Puritans sought to build in the New World — “we shall be as a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us” — in his inauguration address.

Like so many utopias, Winthrop’s city on the hill was washed with blood: Richard Barnes, ordered to have his “tongue bored through with an awl” for “base and detracting speeches concerning the governor”; the hanging of Hackett convicted on the testimony of a single witness for bestiality. “As people increased”, Winthrop wrote approvingly, “so sin abounded, and especially the sin of uncleanness, and still the providence of God found them out”.

Those words, unlike the city upon the hill speech, are not taught to American children. But as we contemplate the US Trump seeks to build, we ought to consider the invocation of Winthrop with the greatest care. Trump’s project is profoundly Puritan: The raising of Jesusstan out of the ruins of liberalism.

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Even in these first days, the first light of an age of reaction is impossible to miss: United States funding will be cut off to NGOs that provide abortion information, the country has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership; hiring of non-military workers has been frozen. Trump has signed into being, incredibly, a “National Day of Patriotic Devotion”. “A new national pride stirs the American soul and inspires the American heart,” Trump’s proclamation reads, in words reminiscent of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.

His inauguration speech was extraordinary for its bilious rejection of the entire thrust of United States policy since 1941: Policy that shaped the international order, and laid the foundations of the country’s prosperity. “We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon,” the president said. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be — always — America First.”

Trump paused, and repeated the phrase: “America First.”

For generations of United States leaders, those words had been the epitaph for a powerful, but failed, countercurrent in modern history. In 1938, the charismatic aviation legend and millionaire Charles Lindbergh had moved to the tiny Breton island of Illiec. Their neighbour, French scientist Alexis Carrel, became his ideological mentor. In his 1935 book, Man, the Unknown, Carrel claimed the West was a “crumbling civilisation”, and called on science to prevent “the degeneration of [white] race”.


Lindbergh lamented “the superficiality, the cheapness, the lack of understanding of, or interest in, fundamental problems” he found in the United States. He lamented, too, the Jews: “A few Jews add strength and character to a country, but too many create chaos.” Adolf Hitler was the saviour of the Western civilisation he sought: The Führer was “undoubtedly a great man”; Fascist Germany’s excesses offset by a “sense of decency and value which in many ways is far ahead of our own [sic]”.

Trump, likewise, venerates power. In a 1990 interview to Playboy, he disparagingly contrasted Mikhail Gobachev’s “not a firm enough hand” handling of the Soviet Union with China, which he lauded for its Tiananmen Square crackdown. “They were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength,” Trump said.

“God Almighty in his most holy and wise providence,” Winthrop wrote in his journal, “hath so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.” Leaders like him, he suggested, should strike “first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them: so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor nor the poor and dispised [sic] rise up against and shake off their yoke.”


Fascinatingly, Trump used the same discursive tropes in his inauguration speech. “For too long,” he said, “a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth.” He promised only a share, though — not an assault on inequality, nor social justice.

It was not always so. One afternoon in July, 1946, J. Loy Harrison was driving African-American sharecroppers Dorothy and Roger Malcolm, and Mae-Murray and George Dorsey, to his farm in Walton County, Georgia. Malcolm was accused of having stabbed a white man; he had just been released from prison. Dorsey was a World War II veteran who had served in the Pacific, and his wife was seven months pregnant.

The car was stopped by a gang of armed, white men. “A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders”, Harrison later recalled. “He pointed to Roger Malcom and said, ‘We want that nigger’. Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you, too, Charlie’. I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George’. Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party’”.

No witnesses ever came forward to the murders that followed, though their identities were reported to be widely known; the case still remains unsolved. President Harry Truman, though, was outraged. He was unable to pass anti-lyching legislation in the face of opposition from southern democrats, but the President’s Committee on Civil Rights forced the desegregation of the military and government services, opening the way for historic changes.

From the earliest days of its being, the destiny of the US has been deeply shaped by liberal individualism — freedom, liberty, equality of opportunity, tolerance. The idea is so deeply ingrained in culture as to constitute a civic religion. This dogma, though, does not guarantee a politics that is liberal and rights-protecting: In its heart, American liberalism incubates a paranoid, violent monster.


“Precisely because Americans agree closely on the core values of political life,” Lane Crothers has written, “they lack experience in dealing with dissent, challenge, and fundamental political-cultural disagreements about the right ordering of society.”

Trump’s demagoguery is, thus, an inexorable consequence of America’s post 9/11 sense of being besieged by the world, and the crisis within — crises of race, of inequality, and of identity.

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First published on: 27-01-2017 at 12:02:50 am
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