On Saturday, after Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts formally announced her campaign to oust President Trump from the White House, he took aim at her on Twitter.
“Today, Elizabeth Warren, sometimes referred to by me as Pocahontas, joined the race for President,” he said, making a strange, meta-textual reference to his previous tweets before launching into his usual mockery of Ms. Warren’s claims to Native heritage. “Will she run as our first Native American presidential candidate, or has she decided that after 32 years, this is not playing so well anymore? See you on the campaign TRAIL, Liz.”
Most observers took “trail” as a deliberate reference to the “Trail of Tears,” the forced relocation throughout the 1830s of several southeastern Native American tribes from their ancestral lands to what would become northeastern Oklahoma. The strongest evidence for this reading is the reaction from supporters. One pro-Trump tweeter directly mentioned the “Native American genocide.” Trump’s oldest son shared similar comments, calling the jab “savage.”
Lying behind all this is Trump’s fascination with Andrew Jackson. Jackson’s portrait hangs in the Oval Office. He seems to be a figure of admiration for a president who otherwise ignores history. “Inspirational visit, I have to tell you,” Trump said, when he visited Jackson’s mansion in Nashville. “I’m a fan.”
We don’t need further evidence of Trump’s cruelty or racism. But there are moments in his rhetorical flourishes when those qualities come into clear view. At those times it’s worth focusing on his comments, not as fodder for self-satisfied moral condemnation, but to have a better understanding of the ideas and pathologies he channels and brings to the surface of the national conversation. To that end, his expressions of anti-Native racism are worth a closer look.
As an army general, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz writes in “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” Jackson “led four wars of aggression” against Native tribes in Georgia and Florida. As president, he won passage of the 1830 Indian Removal Act and subsequently “engineered the expulsion of all Native peoples east of the Mississippi to the designated ‘Indian Territory,’” forcing some 70,000 people off their land.
This isn’t the first time the president has made light of violence inflicted on Native peoples. “If Elizabeth Warren, often referred to by me as Pocahontas, did this commercial from Bighorn or Wounded Knee instead of her kitchen, with her husband dressed in full Indian garb, it would have been a smash!,” he said last month, attacking one of Warren’s videos on Instagram with another oddly self-referential tweet.
It’s tempting to dismiss these comments as “Trump being Trump” — unworthy of additional attention or heightened scrutiny. But the substance of these particular references makes that calculus untenable. Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota was, in December 1890, the site of one of the deadliest attacks on Native Americans by United States military forces. As many as 300 people were killed, in a massacre that continues to weigh on the memories of many American Indian communities. The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 was an attempted eviction of Native tribes in present-day Montana, led by Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Outnumbered by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors, Custer and over 200 of his soldiers were killed in a battle that was memorialized as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
The Trail of Tears began with white American settlers claiming Cherokee and other tribal lands as their own, federal officials coercing tribal leaders into ceding their territory and the United States Army removing the tribes by force. During the infamous forced march of Cherokee people in 1838, harsh winter weather and poor conditions in detention camps led to an estimated death toll of 4,000 people out of the 12,000 expelled from their homes. Other tribes suffered similar death rates in their forced deportations.
When Trump jabs at Warren with “Pocahontas,” he’s using the name as an anti-Native caricature. But when he uses Wounded Knee or the Trail of Tears in his attacks, he’s grossly trivializing this nation’s history of genocidal violence against Native Americans, as if there aren’t still millions of indigenous people living in the United States facing continued discrimination and disadvantage.
Like his attacks on prominent African-Americans or his xenophobic smears of Hispanic immigrants, the president’s jokes about these shameful moments in American history are both a performance of racial contempt and an atavistic expression of white supremacist ideology. It’s those comments — more so than his election night promise to represent “the forgotten man” — that forge whatever resemblance Trump has to Andrew Jackson.
It was Jackson who first championed reactionary white majoritarianism, Jackson who shepherded this country toward a mass democracy so tied to chattel slavery, settler colonialism and white supremacy that we still struggle to disentangle ourselves from their legacies.
Jackson, himself a frontier planter and slave owner, embodied these ideas as he carried them forward. The same is true for Trump, who similarly embodies the drive to preserve hierarchies of race, gender and national origin even as they degrade life for most Americans, including many who think they benefit from them.
All of this gives additional meaning to the president’s much-invoked slogan. He will “make America great again” by reveling in its most shameful actions and miring it in its worst impulses.
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