A brief history lesson.
When I grew up, I learned to love America—Lincoln’s cabin, FDR’s vision, unions, the free press, our ideals. But we studied the Civil Rights movement, our oppression of the Native Americans, the internment of our Japanese citizens, Watergate. My love wasn’t a macho naïveté—it was a love for, as President Obama liked to say, our potential to bend the arc of history toward justice. ~ Waylon Lewis, editor.
When Native Americans were Ethnically Cleansed under a President like Trump.
The closest thing in American history to the upcoming Trump Presidency is probably that of Andrew Jackson, an Indian-hater from the back-country of Tennessee, who ran a populist campaign against the creation of a national bank. He entered the White House in 1829.
Several historians and commentators have noted the connection between Jackson and Trump. Each of them drew support from the same Appalachian and Deep South states, and each of them was openly racist. Each won campaigns premised on economic populism and made a mockery of elite civility. Each played a role in tearing the nation apart.
Alexis De Tocqueville paints a vivid picture of Jackson in his classic, Democracy in America:
“General Jackson is the slave of the majority: he yields to its wishes, its propensities, and its demands—say, rather, anticipates and forestalls them.”
Jackson was a populist, and—much like Trump in many ways—a demagogue.
The Presidency of Jackson marked the closing of the founders generation and a long string of brilliant presidents, like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He was the first rough and rude president, and many thought he would put an end to America’s fledgling experiment in democracy. And it was Jackson who brought the national government into what many consider America’s original sin of ethnically cleansing Native Peoples.
The antebellum period of slavery, which preceded the Civil War, lasted scarcely a generation. Atlanta itself, whose burning in the Civil War is considered so tragic, was not even founded until 1837. For the Deep South states were not settled until the native Creeks and Cherokees, Chickasaws and Choctaws, were ethnically cleansed. And in spite of the fact that many of these people were converting to Christianity, learning English and donning suits, Jackson made it happen.
While it is quite common to speak of the genocide of Native Americans, most actually died of disease. And while there were massacres on the frontier and a full-on genocide in mid-nineteenth century California, where a price was put on Native American scalps, the most brutal acts of the Federal Government itself arguably took place along the Trail of Tears.
The forced relocations of Native Peoples took place in waves, each of which involved the removal of poorly provisioned tribes, which were sent on badly planned journeys westward in which massive numbers died.
Theda Purdue and Michael Green detail the legislative battle leading to these removals in the Cherokee Nation and the Trail of Tears, pointing out that no single issue between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War was so contentious. The Trail of Tears tore the nation apart and brought the national government smack bang in the middle of a war against Native Peoples. And it laid the foundation for several Deep South states, whose own brutality would later tear the nation apart again in the Civil War.
Seldom do we tell the story of Jackson’s Presidency in this way—but we should, because it highlights the destruction wrought by leaders like Trump. Elites feared that Jackson would destroy the civility of the nation, and they were right. His Indian removals divided the nation and led to the flourishing of America’s most racist states.
And Trump has also come to office promising to deport unprecedented numbers of people. The legal deportation of 11 million Mexican-Americans would require holding facilities five times as large as America’s entire prison-industrial complex. That means five times the facilities, five times the guards, five times the food, the lawyers, the judges, the land, the concrete, the bars, the uniforms, the toilets. And it is simply unimaginable that an administration that promises to slash taxes at every turn could afford such an endeavor.
While we do not yet know what the plan might look like, we do know its likely architects. Chief-strategist, Steve Bannon will surely play a role. But he made his name overseeing what many consider a white-supremacist website. And if Senator Jeff Sessions is made Attorney General, he will also play a part, but he is so racist he once joked that he liked the KKK until he found out they smoked pot.
The danger is that Mexican-Americans will lack the connections outside their own communities to convey what they are undergoing, and that the rest of the country has become so inured to a prison-industrial complex that has long been inhumane in its under-funding, that few of us will even know what is happening to these deportees. It is no consolation that it was much the same on the Trail of Tears.
It is common for people to die in droves in poorly planned and provisioned concentration camps out of the public eye, and in ethnic cleansings, in which they are removed from their homes unexpectedly. The Armenian Genocide, the first major one of the 20th-century, consisted largely of forced death marches to the deserts of Syria.
The Khmer Rouge genocide under Pol Pot mostly involved the housing of poorly fed urban residents in rural camps, who died of hunger and exhaustion. While it is almost impossible to imagine anything so brutal happening in America today, we should prepare for stopping something so unimaginable we cannot even see when it comes.
Trump is already tearing the country apart. He has already gone far in destroying the dignity of the presidency. He has already made a mockery of the electoral process. There is now a danger he will go a step further and create a racial divide and a legacy of abuses that stain the conscience of our nation much as did Jackson’s Trail of Tears.
But if Trump carries out his promises—and he can come up with no better architects than people like Sessions and Bannon—it is quite possible America will not survive his presidency in tact.
Author: Theo Horesh
Image: Instagram @mark.a.s
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina