The ‘White Lie’ Connecting Trump’s Pardon of Arsonists, Immigration Fiasco, and Charlottesville

It is no secret that the mobilization of deeply entrenched racist ideological moves and the function of Whiteness have been central to Trump’s campaign and presidency. Ta-Nehisi Coates called him “the first White President” which distinguished him as the first president whose ascendency was not passively predicated upon his White inheritance by way of an “elegant detachment,” as it was for others in the past, but rather was achieved through making “the awful inheritance explicit.” In other words, he actively traded (and trades) on it.

This dimension of his “explicit” Whiteness has also been documented well, but Trump’s most recent pardons of Dwight and Steve Hammond, the father-son Oregon rancher duo whose arson convictions in 2012 inspired the White right-wing Bundy militia’s armed takeover and occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, offers a perspective from which to view the very specific way Trump has actively traded on the close kinship between Whiteness and the ritualistic (re)enactment of land, resource, and space dominion in American culture.

Perhaps more than any other scholar to date, George Lipsitz has explored what he calls the “the racialization of space and the spatialization of race,” and the ways in which the possessive investment in Whiteness functions to create a kind of White spatial imaginary that links land and space dominion with privatized property and coordinates American social history as a process of White resource and land control. In other words, Whiteness has a kind of spatiality as much as anything else, and that spatiality is oriented towards accumulation for Whites.

This tight kinship was vividly on display in 2016 when the not-guilty verdicts for the defendants of the Bundy occupation of the wildlife preserve were rendered at the same time that the government was engaging in ongoing militarized invasions of sacred First Nations lands in North Dakota at Standing Rock. This simultaneity serves as a nice (or, rather, horrific) object lesson in how close and well-preserved the relation between Whiteness and land is the United States.

Whiteness, in relation to space and land, just is the right to violently colonize and play vigilante on the land. In its melodramatic (which is not to say unserious or nonviolent) posturing, the Bundy occupation was almost like a ceremonial re-enactment of the heart of White possessiveness. That takeover violence, as well as the violence perpetrated against the First Nations peoples of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, in the affective-ideological currents Trump has traded on, functioned as a kind of needed reboot for Whites to know they still can take what they want; which is to say, illegal action isn’t really illegal when it’s part of the fabric of the nation. It’s just a sketch on our history. These simultaneous events also served as a stark reminder that it’s only when any non-White gets in the way that the tanks come out.

In metaphorical lock step, Trump has proven to be the presidential embodiment of the Bundy wildlife preserve takeover and just as vivid an object lesson in this tight kinship between Whiteness and land dominion. His denial of climate change and his corporate-romancing-unwillingness to live in planetary reality—the reality of creaturely fragility and interdependence—is peak Whiteness. It is peak denial, peak land dominion, peak ravenous consumption. His villainization of non-White immigrants and their “chain migration” is more of the same, spawning in White spatial imaginations horrific visions of floods of non-Whites pouring into to well-ordered, private White spaces.

Perhaps most importantly to his success, his vaunted posturing along these lines helps drum up and re-entrench these deep land dominating affects in his White base. His and the Bundys’ activities are, in a sense, a kind of nostalgic riff—a White civil religious ritual play—on the history of settler colonial land grabs.

From a related view, the border internment camps and the ideology of “the wall” marks precisely the reinforcement of White dominion of border lands, where borders and walls function as ritualistic markers demarcating controlled White spaces and the need for their sacred defense from (brown) intrusion attempts more so than as functionally feasible or demonstrably helpful protections.

Altars are sometimes supposed to be impractical; their function isn’t so much practical as significatory.

This tight kinship was also on display in White supremacist rally chants of “blood and soil” in Charlottesville and the myriad filmed assault videos of Whites trouncing about patrolling public spaces and harassing non-Whites. Just last week, for example, a drunk White man verbally assaulted a woman who’d rented a public park picnic area for wearing a shirt depicting the flag of Puerto Rico as a White officer watched and did nothing. Reclamation of public and common spaces by Whites is part and parcel with the project of racial subordination, as Robin D.G. Kelley has shown in the example of the destruction of public play areas in New York in the 1990s.

As these performative moves reveal, America is a White space, and public spaces are sites of impromptu and systematic ritualized take-backs—land grabs writ small—because Whiteness is anti-public, anti-commons, and privatizing. Indeed, even these “public” spaces are stolen spaces, as is the case in the Malheur preserve, which sits on the Burns Paiute Tribe’s ancestral land.

Trump’s full pardon of the Hammonds has doubtlessly shored up justification for such ritualized activities, further reiterating the toxicity of his presidency and the close link between Whiteness and land domination together with its near-ceremonial expression through otherwise illegal means.

As Megan Goodwin has noted on RD in her detailed account of the religio-political dynamics in the original Bundy occupation (and the pardons), sometimes this dominionism takes a literal scorched-earth policy, as it did in the Hammond’s case. She writes:

Some men just want to watch the world burn. Others light “Strike Anywhere” matches and drop them on public land to “light up the whole country on fire” and destroy evidence of illegally slaughtered game—and 139 acres of public land in the process. Steven Dwight Hammond is the latter sort of man.

All pragmatic track-covering intentions aside, the ritual significance of fire and its consuming power should not be lost on us. Nor should we fail to see the fiery way these convictions incensed the Bundy ranchers unto their bedlam on this protected land.

Burn it down: the rage of Whiteness whenever checked.

The language or ritual and re-enactment has many valences, of course, but anthropologist Clifford Geertz claimed that in ritual “the world as lived and the world as imagined … turn out to be the same world.” Roy Rappaport once wrote that he considered ritual “to be the basic social act.” From this vantage, Trump’s full pardons of the Hammonds can be seen as a ritualized exoneration and strategic re-affirmation of the toxic white social imagination at play in all of the these areas, which re-entrenches the close kinship between Whiteness, land, and power—a kinship toxic for both the land and those that sojourn upon it.