I am a “sh*thole” too – discursive tactics of resistance during the Trump era

Source: http://maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com/Trump-Trump-Lying-Lying-Donald-Donald-Trump-1276068

By: Madison Haussy

Donald Trump, his incendiary tweets, his painful monologues, and his creepy cronies are shocking. Whether he is golfing on Martin Luther King Junior day, refusing to extend legal protection for Dreamers who came to the U.S. as minors, or castigating El Salvador, Haiti and “Africa” as “sh*thole” countries, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of righteous outrage. Rage, incomprehension, and indignation are all part of the dominant discourse regarding the recent upsurge in racist, xenophobic, sexist, homophobic, ableist rhetoric in U.S. politics. The media, analysts, and pundits alike would have the public believe that the Trump administration is an anomaly. That soon, white middle class America will be able to return to our tamer, safer politics, and that all one has to do is vote in the midterm elections and everything will be alright. It is, at best, misguided and, at worse, regressive to view the Trump administration and its support among a sizeable section of the US public as a relapse in the greater narrative of American progress. Instead, it is worth inscribing the rhetoric of Trump and his administration in the greater context of race relations in the United States.

Trump’s characterization of Latin American and predominantly black parts of the world as “sh*t-holes” has received significant media attention in the last weeks. Much attention has been paid to denial by prominent Republicans or their attempts to claim that the comment was misunderstood. Meanwhile, little attention has been paid to the discursive implications of the comment in the conceptualization of the American nation. In her work Gender Trouble, philosopher Judith Butler writes:

“The ‘abject’ designates that which has been expelled from the body, discharged as excrement, literally rendered the ‘Other.’ This appears as an expulsion of alien elements, but the alien is effectively established through this expulsion. The construction of the ‘not-me’ as the abject establishes the boundary of the body which are the first contours of the subject.” (1)

Rather than the explicit jab of an overgrown child, Trump’s comment fits Butler’s conjecture, as applied to the creation of a “true” American identity. Without the rhetorical skills of previous presidents to disguise his othering of individuals who do not fit the ideal U.S. citizen (white, male, straight, affluent), Trump’s rejection of these subversive individuals is blatant.

Literally, he equates what Mary Douglas would call the “polluted” (2) individuals who pose danger to the hegemonic powers in place, with sh*t.

The ‘sh*thole’ or the ‘excrement’ as the non-confirming individual is not a new advent in the United States. For example, Butler points to the revilement of individuals with HIV/AIDS in the late twentieth century; the pariah status of HIV-positive individuals went beyond the fear of contracting the disease, which was shown to be selectively contagious early-on (3). The rejection of individuals with “the gay disease” had more to do with excluding individuals whose sexual boundaries did not coincide with the “normal” from the American nation.

The imaginary construction of the “abject” as evidenced by Trump’s comment, is not constrained to sexual minorities. Iris Young has applied these concepts to analogous racist and sexist discourses (4). So considered, the category of “sh*tholes” can be considered in the wider American exclusionary discourse. Far from intellectual dithering, this process is useful as it ties Trump’s rhetoric to wider historical trends that, properly considered, may provide insight for the current situation.

For example, the blatant racism of the Trump administration is most accurately considered outside the trope that race relations have been steadily improving in the U.S. since the Civil War. Rather, the current upturn in overt racism can be considered in a more complex conceptualization of the often-fraught ups and downs of racial “progress”. The contemporary upsurge might be compared to what Rayford Logan refers to as the “nadir of race relations” in the U.S. from 1890 to 1920, a period during which a massive lynching campaign was carried out by a financially and culturally insecure white population against black Americans (5). 

An honest, critical consideration of the United States’ dark past is indispensable for the survival of an American nation that is more open and less hateful.

That is why, rather than succumbing to the righteous outrage that Trump induces in most, what is needed is a Renaissance: “a revival or renewed interest in” (6) the underlying discourse of Trump’s rhetoric and its place in U.S. history as a truly subversive form of resistance.

  1. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), 181.
  2. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), 182.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990), 182.
  5. Qtd. in James L Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me, (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 154.
  6. Google Dictionary
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