Lorenzo Veracini on how settler colonial studies may help interpreting the outcome of the 2016 US presidential election


This could be called an anti-Federalist election. The geography of the vote makes it so (the cities vs the backblocks, but the uncompromising antagonism that accompanied it makes a reference to the chaos of the 1790s especially pertinent). Widespread resentment against the cities took most observers by surprise; it seemed to emerge out of nowhere. It was not on the record, and it seems important to note that while Federalist positions were generally visible and documented, anti-Federalist sentiment typically left little trace.

Many have pointed out that Washington politics circa 2016 has run out of ideas. Like Hollywood. When the latter runs out of ideas, it thinks about remakes. This season’s political remakes included Sanders re-run of the New Deal. Clinton went way back. Her compact would have been one where important men would conduct important business as usual and away from the spotlight, while a strong woman would run a big white house with the help of some trusted people of colour. This type of arrangement is a very, very old one in America. I am not suggesting that it was not the best one on offer. Yet again, for many the prospect of business as usual was not acceptable. For many the crisis never went away. 2008 is 1929, Obama is Hoover with an enormous bailout for the banks and charisma, the people that have walked away from their homes following foreclosures are those who walked away from their farms in the 1930s (without John Steinback writing The Grapes of Wrath, literati these days are busy writing blog posts like this one). The guy who was thinking of a new New Deal was not allowed to compete.

As noted, the Trumpists also went back. Way back. In the imagination of many of them, Jim Crow back. In some ways, as many have also pointed out, they expressed a rejection of political economy, and this election saw the Hamiltonians of the Clinton camp face a type of anti-Federalist rage. This time the Shaysts have taken over; at least they think they’ll have their man in Washington. But a rejection of political economy is what settler colonialism is often about (I have written elsewhere about the political traditions of settler colonialism as ‘the world turned inside out’ and how they differ from the revolutionary traditions that Christopher Hill had called the ‘world turned upside down’). Facing contradictions, young men had to ‘strike west’. Edward Gibbon Wakefield, who was a serial founder of settler colonies in the British Empire broke the consensus of the liberal orthodoxy and was never forgiven. Those who voted for Trump rejected the outcome of capitalism as they embraced capitalism. They are often called insane because all those who reject what is hegemonic are by definition insane. It is supposed to be REALITY (even if we know that it is only an ideology effect), and denying reality is a sign of insanity.

Renowed philosopher Slavoj Žižek approved (see Slavoj Žižek ‘On Clinton, Trump and the Left’s Dilemma: to Paraphrase Stalin, they are both worse’, In These Times, 06/11/16, and , Channel 4, ‘Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek says he would opt for Donald Trump as the apparently less dangerous choice in the US election’, 03/11/16). He sees Trumpism as an anti-establishment phenomenon and therefore, at least potentially, a development that will lead to revolutionary possibilities. Similarly, former minister in the left-wing Greek government Yanis Varoufakis focuses on progressive possibilities that this election ostensibly portends (Yanis Varoufakis, ‘Trump victory comes with a silver lining for the world’s progressives’, Sydney Morning Herald, 14/11/16). Whether something good may come of this is REALLY hard to foresee. The point is to see where something bad has come from.

Žižek knows revolutionary traditions (that’s perhaps why he is so successful in these parts: he is telling American liberals exotic stories they do not know), and Varoufakis’s political project focuses on Europe. Neither has time for the political traditions of the world turned inside out. On the contrary, settler colonial studies can help making sense of a determination to change the world by changing worlds and of its political outcomes. Patrick Wolfe explains in his recent Traces of History that the racial formations that characterised the US during the twentieth century should be understood in the context of emancipation. It was a ‘response to the crisis occasioned when colonisers are threatened with the requirement to share social space with the colonized’ (Verso 2016: 14). A particular form of racism follows the end of slavery; it is one trace of history. Likewise, Trumpist racism should be seen as a response to a very similar crisis. The emergence of a Black middle class demands the same sharing of social space. Faced with crisis, settlers and their political descendants move out (they enact, for example, a white flight, which is as much a displacement as taking up a homestead somewhere in the prairie). Except that the Trumpists have nowhere to go.

Settlers usually displace to other locations or dream of doing so. There is a physicality about their displacements. The Trump constituency, however, has enacted a type of psychological displacement, not a spatial one (for an unforgiving account that evokes ‘white flight from political sanity, white flight from reality, and white flight from responsible citizenship’, see David Masciotra, ‘White flight from reality: Inside the racist panic that fueled Donald Trump’s victory’, Salon, 13/11/16). The Trump voters are activating displacement as a defense mechanism. The fantasy of being persecuted, which is especially typical of this constituency, is especially conducive to defense mechanisms.

The political descendants of settlers have gone insane. Expect to see things.

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