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By Joe Pullen
Since before Donald Trump was Donald Trump, it’s been a fairly simple proposition: Groom them aggressively, taking a little more each time, and you can take whatever you want from them. Money. Rights. Pussy. Anything.
This is the model of masculinity Trump performs expertly in word and deed. At this point, it’s who he “is.” It preceded him so he only had to step into it and not question it. It created him. He in turn re-creates it and re-broadcasts it. And it’s based on everything he is free and empowered as a white male to do and be in a settler colony called amerikkka.“They let you do it,” he once bragged to Access Hollywood crew in a line that will forever more be the basis of many discussions of rape culture. “Grab ’em by the pussy.” He learned that lesson in the “locker room banter” of his white male circles and probably tested it out on white females in the back seats of the kinds of cars that only a few people could even afford.
He takes liberties just because he can. We tend to focus on the fact that he does, but the fact that he can—and the conditions that make it possible—are what we need to be far more concerned about.
And so, looking at all that he’s already done, why wouldn’t he also have the gall to remove the law enforcement official who led the investigation into his corruption?
On May 9, 2017, Trump fired FBI director James Comey. The clearest motive Trump had for firing Comey is that Comey was the point person for a federal investigation into the influence from foreign governments, particularly that of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, may have had on Trump’s election and policy. Apparently, Comey had recently requested more resources for carrying out this investigation. Two days later, Comey learned while watching a newscast that he was out of a job.
By firing Comey, Trump is brazenly covering up his suspicious activities the way any dictator would. Perhaps just as crucially, Trump positions himself to appoint an FBI director who will remake the agency into what Trump will need for future power and pussy grabs.
He has already kissed up to “his” military about as much as he can, appointing current and former generals to top positions, proposing a $54 billion increase in funding to the already bloated U.S. imperial military, unleashing them from rules of engagement intended to limit civilian casualties, and even donating his salary to maintain national battlegrounds, monuments to the violent white masculinity that made amerikkka “great.” Once he installs his people at the FBI, most of the U.S. empire’s force apparatus—law enforcement and the military—will be headed by and beholden to people personally loyal to Trump.
Add to this the fact that white men, the overwhelming majority of Trump’s electoral base and most extreme of his supporters, are armed to the teeth. They not only comprise the vast majority of those who are or have been police or military, but they also have already shown a penchant for using physical and cyber violence to silence dissent against Trump’s policies and to police other performances of white masculinity into holding the line. You can see the beginnings of an organized neo-freikorps-type paramilitarism, with racist prosecutors, judges, and laws like “stand your ground” on their side. It’s not just the neo-nazis. A strong and well-armed contingent of white males have an ideological commitment to Trump. They identify with him. In case elements of the force apparatus of the state should abandon him, this contingent must be contended with.
Who, then, will stop Trump from anything?
“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters,” he once famously said.
Make no mistake: everything we see him do is a function of his performance of masculinity, his prerogative as a white male in a heteropatriarchal global order. His power as the rapist- and murderer-in-chief only amplifies the capacities he has. His standpoint as a white man has the power to create rape culture, and we need to study that standpoint. No matter what he does, it seems it’s all gendered. It doesn’t require a degree in psychoanalysis to find its connection to sexual violence.
“We’re going to win so much,” he said at a 2016 South Carolina campaign rally, “you’re going to get tired of winning. You’re going to say, ‘Please Mr. President, I have a headache. Please, don’t win so much. This is getting terrible.’ And I’m going to say, ‘No, we have to make America great again.’ You’re gonna say, ‘Please.’ I said, ‘Nope, nope. We’re gonna keep winning.’”
That’s right. “We” are going to “win” because he wants to “win,” no matter if we consent to his idea of “winning” or not, no matter if it hurts us or not, no matter if we plead with him or not. Trump elides raping with winning. Just groom your victims to think raping them is “winning.” They let you do it.
If he admitted that he had sexually assaulted women, that prepared us to bear witness to his assaults on women’s vaginas in ever more ways, “resonating through various centers of human and social meaning.” These include restrictive and punitive laws, policies, court appointments, and wars. The Republican American Health Care Act, narrowly passed by the U.S. House of Representatives on May 4, 2017, could make victims of sexual assault and domestic violence ineligible for certain health care coverage under the “pre-existing condition” loopholes in insurance law. If passed by the Senate, this policy will surely be signed by Trump because it would effectively depress the number of women filing the very claims that have been made against him by several women, including his first wife, Ivana Trump.
Through massive bombing campaigns that leave toxic chemical residues, like depleted uranium, and possibly radioactive fallout, Trump (like all his previous commanders-in-chief and like Hillary Clinton would have done) and “his” generals (veterans of U.S. imperial quagmires from Iraq and Afghanistan) will cause everything in, on, and coming out of the vaginas of women and girls to be subject to contamination and pain and suffering.
As the first to drop “the mother of all bombs”—a bomb with a one-mile blast radius—on an area that is home to 180,000 people, he did not concern himself about the fates of the present and future mothers under that “mother.” Happy Mother’s Day.
If we want to understand why he gets away with it, why he not only gets a pass but is encouraged, why he won white men’s votes and even won the majority of white women’s votes over a highly qualified white woman candidate, we have to study how he came to be positioned within the racist structure to enjoy the prerogatives and entitlements of a conqueror.
Trump’s grabbing ways are essentially a byproduct of a paradigm shift as old as amerikkka itself. They come from a certain kind of power that goes very far back and very deep into the marrow of amerikkka (Central, Caribbean, South, North) and the shape that the modern world, and the people comprising it, began to take more than 500 years ago and continue to take today.
What I mean, in the first place, is how in the hell did this blonde aryan master race motherfucker (literally) even get to be in the land of the People of the Sun, talkin bout he was going to “make America great again” by banishing those same people from it and building a wall to keep them out of it?
It all began when Christopher Columbus said, in so many words, the same damn thing Trump said in the Access Hollywood video: they let you do it.
With fifty men I could subjugate them all and make them do everything that is required of them. (Christopher Columbus October 14, 1492)
…your Highnesses may believe that this island (Hispaniola), and all the others, are as much yours as Castile. Here there is only wanting a settlement and the order to the people to do what is required. For I, with the force I have under me, which is not large, could march over all these islands without opposition. I have seen only three sailors land, without wishing to do harm, and a multitude of Indians fled before them. They have no arms, and are without warlike instincts; they all go naked, and are so timid that a thousand would not stand before three of our men. So that they are good to be ordered about, to work and sow, and do all that may be necessary, and to build towns, and they should be taught to go about clothed and to adopt our customs. (December 16, 1492)
The Boisterous Sea of Liberty: A Documentary History of America from Discovery through the Civil War, edited by David Brion Davis, Steven Mintz (2000, Oxford University Press)
Not to put too fine a point on it: they won’t resist, and even when they do resist, your military and technological power advantage renders their resistance so futile that it’s laughable, even enjoyable, to crush them and proceed to do even more.
They let you do it. You can do whatever you want. All is permitted. Might makes right.
This has been the motto of white masculinity since whiteness was founded over 500 years ago. It was founded on the deck of the slave ship, raping Black girls and women, while Blackness was founded in the cargo hold, being raped, enchained, beaten, and killed. It was founded on the trigger side of the conquistador’s gun, when Hernan Cortez raped the Nahua princess called Malinche, and when Columbus (known as the Admiral) gave his associate, Michele de Cuneo, a “girl” (age unknown) to rape:
When I was in the boat, I took a beautiful Cannibal girl and the admiral gave her to me. Having her in my room and she being naked as is their custom, I began to want to amuse myself with her. Since I wanted to have my way with her and she was not willing, she worked me over so badly with her nails that I wished I had never begun. To get to the end of the story, seeing how things were going, I got a rope and tied her up so tightly that she made unheard of cries which you wouldn’t have believed. At the end, we got along so well that, let me tell you, it seemed she had studied at a school for whores.
As we are seeing, everything Trump does is a plant growing from the same soil from which Columbus and his cronies grew. You could substitute one plant for another, but the soil is the same soil and the pot is the same pot. Even a conservative apologist for Columbus Day said, “If there was no Columbus to rape and pillage the New World, then surely there would have been someone else to take his place.” In other words, Columbus occupied a structural position of settler in relation to those who already occupied the so-called “new world.” A genocider by any other name would smell as foul.
Another way of saying all of this: Trump occupies a position—like point guard or middle linebacker. That position is settler/slavemaster. It has the same demands and freedoms, like raping and killing with impunity, whether Trump, Christopher Columbus, Brock Turner, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, John R.K. Howard, David Becker, Austin Wilkerson, future National Football League Hall-of-Famer Peyton Manning (Note: one NFL team recently retired his jersey and built a statue in his honor), or some (white) other person holds it. That position—the pot that stays the same, even when the plant is different—is what many students of struggle call a subject position.
A subject position is, first and foremost, a creation of power, a violence of such concentrated extremity that it can destroy and (re)create whole worlds. Those men (and still more to come) all committed rape, sexual assault, and/or sexual harassment; they acted with virtual impunity and no doubt felt a deep sense of entitlement. Their subject position, indeed, was created by raping, enslaving, and murdering Black and Indigenous peoples with impunity.
Frantz Fanon said this violence deeply affected Black people’s subject positions because:
Their metaphysics, or less pretentiously their customs and the agencies to which they refer, were abolished because they were in contradiction with a new civilization that imposed its own.
[Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (2008, New York, Grove Press) 90]
But it is Black feminist theorist Hortense J. Spillers who most explicitly says the effects of this violence cut to the very core of Africans’ cosmology—our capacity to name ourselves and maintain the integrity of our own cultures, our own performances of masculinity and femininity and other genders, our own meanings—in other words, our capacities to make no mean no.
This profound intimacy of interlocking detail is disrupted, however, by externally imposed meanings and uses: 1) the captive body becomes the source of an irresistible, destructive sensuality; 2) at the same time– in stunning contradiction– the captive body reduces to a thing, becoming being for the captor; 3) in this absence from a subject position, the captured sexualities provide a physical and biological expression of “otherness”; 4) as a category of “otherness,” the captive body translates into a potential for pornotroping and embodies sheer physical powerlessness that slides into a more general “powerlessness,” resonating through various centers of human and social meaning. [Hortense J. Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987) 67]
The violence of the middle passage doesn’t just “destroy culture” in the sense of a performative event, like the burning of a library. We’re talking about a destruction of the “various centers of human and social meaning”—anything that sustained our capacity to make culture and have it count. Violence with no limit and for any reason or no reason at all.
And at the same time that this violence is pulverizing African and Indigenous subjectivities into the object status of “Black” and “Native,” the ones committing this violence are molding and fortifying their own subject position: the Master/Settler, or “white” [Frank Wilderson, Red, White, and Black: Cinema and the Structure of U.S. Antagonisms (Durham, NC, Duke University Press), 25].
Trump does not have to be as boastful, deeply insecure, and full of vengeful bravado as he is. He could choose another performance of white masculinity. But even that performance would be rooted in the same pot, in the same subject position. Even “good” white men and boys know what they could be, what they could do—and get away with—even if they never or rarely do it.
Trump’s will to autocracy is not just a function of his growing up rich and accustomed to getting what he wants in a material sense. It also stems from the very possibility of his German immigrant grandfather—an actual pimp—to immigrate to a land already cleared of its inhabitants and cultivated with the many uses of the African human property stolen from another land. And it always stays rooted in the continuation of those conditions.
What kind of person does such a “new world” condition create? When everything you have is rooted in theft—of the land, of the flesh—what do you become? What kind of person is created when you can do absolutely anything to the people whose land you stole and the people you stole and they cannot do the same to you?
Even a “nice” one of such people—and Trump is not nice—is still shaped by the fact that he could rape and enslave and kill with absolute or relative impunity. And his subjectivity is founded in a desire to keep the power that goes with that position.
No, not all white people are mean. A subject position is not a set of personality traits or an identity. It gives rise to those things, even though many of those things are possible within the same subject position. No, not all white people are evil. But they invest in their whiteness and the power that goes with it, and that power grows from an unethical global order built violently around serving their material needs and psychic desires.
Trump is simply a vanguard model of a certain kind of subjectivity created out of the unique power relations of the last 500 years. He hasn’t been around that long, of course. But the subject position from which he speaks and acts has been around at least that long. He’s just one performance of it.
It was 500 years ago that Columbus landed on Turtle Island and changed everything from what it had been before for both those whom he would call Indians and those he would call Blacks. This violent invasion also created him and those who followed him into the subject position of whiteness, including white masculinity. “Indians” were the peoples displaced by him and the violent waves of settlers that followed him; “Blacks” were those who were destroyed as people so our deaths as subjects could give meaning to the lives these settlers sought to build. And he, Columbus, was the first white amerikkkan man, the prototype for all that Trump and his supporters would be free to become.
We need to dwell on this violent context in order to understand Trump and the fact that, as he so frequently says, “nobody cares” and “they let you do it.”
We are indeed faced with an amerikkka that is consciously stepping into the autocratic persona that it has long shown to the world of dark-skinned people, from Flint, Michigan, to Standing Rock, South Dakota, to Madison County, Mississippi, to Wilmington, North Carolina (pictured above), to Sand Creek to Honduras to The Philippines to West Papua to Yemen to Pakistan. It appears to be stating the obvious now, but Black and Indigenous people articulated that this is what amerikkka is long before white liberals, progressives, and conservatives cared about amerikkkan autocracy.
The way to action that moves the struggle for liberation forward will have to come from a deeper engagement with Black thought, including understanding the ways that Trump occupies a subject position that itself must be ended so humankind of all colors, genders, and sexualities can be saved.
If anything, “They let you do it” is a statement that grows like a twisted vine out of soil in a pot. That pot has a long and violent history—and present—and will take concerted effort to smash.
Joe Pullen is a worker and student of Black radical thought and praxis in all its feminist, queer, Muslim, diasporic complexity. They teach, write, and live with their family in California.