You may be forgiven for forgetting that President Donald Trump on Tuesday held a press conference about his plans to rebuild American infrastructure. The presser became instantly notorious for his comments on a seemingly different topic, when he snarled that both sides were to blame for what had transpired in Charlottesville, Virginia, that past weekend, equating white supremacists with anti-racist activists. He also defended those who had gathered to protest the removal of a statue glorifying Robert E. Lee while chanting “Jews will not replace us,” claiming they were “fine people” who were “there to innocently protest.”
But his rant wasn’t the deviation it appeared to be. These two subjects are, in fact, intimately linked. The core of Trump’s economic agenda is protectionism and America First policies. And they go hand in hand with an ethno-nationalist agenda that is about protecting white jobs and white people.
In his opening statement, he touted an executive order changing permitting processes for projects like highways and bridges so that, in his words, we’ll have “the world-class infrastructure that our people deserve and frankly our country deserves.”
“We will rebuild our country with American workers, American iron, American aluminum, American steel. We will create millions of new jobs and make millions of American dreams come true,” he declared. “Our infrastructure will again be the best. We will restore pride in our community, our nation, and all over the United States we’ll be proud again.”
He even managed to stay on the economy when the conversation first turned to Charlottesville. When asked about CEOs leaving his advisory council over his failure to condemn neo-Nazi and KKK violence, he responded, “We want jobs, manufacturing in this country. ... They’re outside of the country, they’re having their product made outside. We want products made in the country.”
“I want manufacturing to be back into the United States so American workers can benefit,” he said.
Buy American campaigns and pledges aren’t new to Trump. They date back as far as the American Revolution, but the first big wave was launched in the early 1930s. Newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst started a Buy American and Hire American campaign that he said would put “America First” as it came back from the Great Depression.
It was explicitly racist, aimed particularly at Japanese immigrants, who he called the “Yellow Peril.” It wasn’t just that buying American products would block foreign exports, but that the campaign would also block foreign people. “We have as much RIGHT TO EXCLUDE CERTAIN IMPORTS, DANGEROUS to our AMERICAN STANDARDS AND IDEALS, as we have the right to EXCLUDE certain IMMIGRATION which is a MENACE TO OUR AMERICAN STANDARDS AND IDEALS,” one of his newspaper stories declared. His fear-mongering about Japanese people helped lay the groundwork for their forced internment during World War II.
The same themes cropped up when Buy American resurfaced in the 1970s. The enemy was again Japanese people and the cars they were exporting to the U.S., hurting the domestic manufacturing industry. The campaigns characterized Asians, both immigrant and native-born, as “sneaky” and dangerous. There was even violence against Asian-Americans; one Chinese-American, Vincent Chin, was killed by two white autoworkers.
“Buy American presumes an imagined economic nation that pits working people in the United States against those of other countries, casting them as the enemy,” writes historian Dana Frank. “From there, it’s often been a quick step to racial distinctions and attacks.”
Trump’s trade agenda is no different. It is explicitly modeled on protecting American jobs from foreign aggressors. He’s attacked trade deals like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership as creating “carnage” and economic suffering on our shores, allowing other countries to “rip us off.” He says he’ll renegotiate these deals while also promising to levy huge tariffs on imports from countries like China and Mexico, nations that he argues have undermined American jobs.
Support for such protectionist policies is steeped in race. According to the research of Alexandra Guisinger, trade does not directly impact most Americans. But there is still strong support for a tough stance on the issue because it is seen as protecting white workers. Unlike redistributionist policies like welfare, in which the beneficiaries are imagined to be black and support is therefore weak, the redistribution involved in trade—from consumers who risk paying higher taxes to manufacturing workers—garners support because everyone assumes the beneficiaries are white.
These policies aren’t necessarily in and of themselves racist, nor are people who want these things for our country white supremacists by default. Plenty of politicians and economists have long called for the protection of American manufacturing in order to create jobs. But it’s the way that they are framed by the Trump administration and the problems they are supposed to solve that indict them as such.
Look at the way Trump has paired them with other policies. One of his first moves once in office was to institute a ban on immigration from a number of majority-Muslim countries. He has cracked down not just on undocumented immigrants, but even legal immigrants seeking to enter the country. Protecting Americans and American jobs, for Trump, is coupled with keeping these “others” out.
His economic populist ideas are the brainchildren of White House adviser Steve Bannon. Bannon’s ties to white supremacy are hard to dispute. He boasted that Breitbart News, where he was long a chairman, was “the platform for the alt-right,” an outlet that published the likes of Richard Spencer, one of the organizers of the Charlottesville rally. In a 2015 interview, he suggested that “when two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia” it could undermine “civic society.”
In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter shortly after November’s election, Bannon declared, “I’m not a white nationalist, I’m a nationalist. I’m an economic nationalist.” But then he went on to describe a view very much in line with white nationalism: “The globalists gutted the American working class and created a middle class in Asia. The issue now is about Americans looking to not get fucked over.” Citing Andrew Jackson, the slaver whose policies led to the death of thousands of Native Americans, he said they were building an “economic nationalist movement.” It’s become painfully clear what color that movement is.
Even Trump’s talk about rebuilding “our” country’s infrastructure so that “our” people can be proud again echoes these sentiments of us versus them. The “them” is people who are not white Americans, but foreigners and outsiders. His vision of the country is not one in which we are proud of our diversity, but of the spoils that we rebuild and then keep for “ourselves.”
Trump’s comments on what happened in Charlottesville shocked many for being blatantly sympathetic to white supremacists. But even his supposedly populist economic agenda has been steeped in white supremacy since the beginning. This is the core agenda of the White House: protecting white Americans from the threat of people who are not like them.