As if to open up the New Year in a blaze of controversy, the man who now sits in the US presidential office is said to have made some of his most flammable comments yet. No stranger to controversy, the Commander-in-Chief allegedly described Haiti and certain African countries as “shithole countries” in a meeting held to address immigration reform.
Spontaneously, and almost as one, the world’s media erupted in a firestorm of outrage and rebuke, not, of course, without good reason. The United Nations condemned US President Donald Trump‘s alleged comments in the strongest terms, while Patrick Gaspard, the US ambassador to South Africa under Barack Obama, reflected mournfully, “In the legion of absolutely outrageous things that this man has said and done, what occurred this past week has just tipped us over into a place of near insanity.”
One can empathise with Gaspard’s shock, in particular, as it is hard to imagine his former paymaster, Obama – a poised and polished speechmaker and an ardent and vocal advocate of global equality and integration – ever giving life to such vulgar and atavistic utterances.
And yet … While it is safe to assume Obama would never have described other countries as “shitholes”, the briefest perusal of his international record suggests he didn’t have much of a problem in treating them like it.
For every hour in his last year in office, he dropped on average of nearly three bombs on other countries. He expanded by 130 percent the number of military operators who were active internationally during the Bush administration. He launched attacks or military raids in country after country: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan. And, under his watch, the use of drone technology became endemic.
Indeed, there is something rather fitting about the use of the drone in the time of Obama: a smooth, efficient and utterly clinical form of murder and destruction which was, at the same time, eerily abstracted from the source, the people who had set it into motion. No longer soldiers on the ground, but professional analysts working in pristine, sanitised offices, gazing into the hypnotic glow of gently flickering screens, thousands of miles removed from the stench and spatter of exploded bodies and shredded bones.
The outrage towards the obscenity of the real, visceral acts of mass slaughter in the Obama era seems strangely muted, when compared with the recent response to the words of obscenity said to have been sputtered by bellicose, blundering, and tantrum-prone President Trump.
And perhaps this is key: Under Obama, all the routine murderousness of the establishment – whether it be overseas in impoverished countries, or the judicially sanctioned murder of so many disproportionately black youth back home – all of this was to some degree ameliorated by Obama’s progressive image. His smoothness, his intellect, his thoughtful charisma, that practised and polished, bourgeois sense of respectability – not to forget, of course, the obligatory and subtle nod he gave to the great civil rights movement, so some of its lustre might transfer itself to him.
Trump, on the other hand, brings all the ugliness to light in one vomitous belch after the next. To put it in Freudian terms, it is as if he has come to represent the “id” of ruling class power, and it seems to me that liberals of the Obama-Clintonite stripe despise him for this. They hate him not simply because he is such an awful specimen, but because, with heavy-handed arrogance and crass vulgarity, Trump reveals naked truths about the political establishment, about the deployment of its power, and the everyday, racist, misogynistic and murderous implications of that power.
He represents the darkest, most atavistic “id” of the political ruling wing, bubbling up from the underbelly, breaching the progressive veneer; he embodies the ugly, narcissistic, rabid self-interest of a deformed minority – the very same thing liberalism expends all its powers on rendering invisible.
The liberal tradition, however, has always been adept at keeping two sets of books. The man whom many consider its founding father, John Locke, would argue, with his breathless idealism, that the individual was “free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another”. At the same time, this paragon of liberty was himself an investor in one of the most grotesque and horrific projects of inhumanity and anti-freedom, that of the African slave trade.
Less than a century later, the Founding Fathers drafted the 1787 constitution as a way by which “the blessings of liberty” could be consecrated. When the document is scrutinised in detail, various, questionable sub-clauses, secreted away within the broader text, emerge. One sentence reads, for example: “No Person held to Service or Labour in One state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another … shall be delivered up on the claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due”.
Surely this is the language of liberalism par excellence: there is no mention of race, nothing overtly racist in it, and the dull, precise legalese seems unobjectionable, almost snooze-worthy, when taken at a glance. But, when placed in the context of the time, the same words seem to curl and writhe like snakes once you realise the blackness which lies behind them; that person “held to Service or Labour” is, of course, the slave, and the “party” who claims such “service” – the slave owner.
Such language is more than cynical; it is horrific, in terms of its banality and bloodless emotion. The word “slave” itself is never used, of course, for that would be too sharp, too vulgar, and too uncouth. Indeed, it would point to the truth.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.