As Trump closed out his State of the Union address on Tuesday, he made sure to nod to his largest, and most devout, voter base — white people.
“This is the country where children learn names like Wyatt Earp, Davy Crockett, and Annie Oakley,” he noted. “This is the place where the pilgrims landed at Plymouth and where Texas patriots made their last stand at the Alamo.”
He completely forgot to mention that before Earp, Crockett, Oakley, and the Pilgrims ever arrived on what we now know as America, there were Indigenous people, those who had been living on and caring for the land for thousands of years.
“The American Nation was carved out of the vast frontier by the toughest, strongest, fiercest, and most determined men and women ever to walk the face of the Earth,” Trump continued. “Our ancestors braved the unknown, tamed the wilderness, settled the Wild West.”
In his retelling of history, the president not only erased the millions of Native peoples prior to Columbus’s arrival in 1492, but suggested that their lands, livelihoods, and existence were something to be tamed and conquered. “Our ancestors,” as Trump referred to, were these settlers — white people from England and Europe. More recent immigrants were denigrated as “wicked human traffickers” and “illegals” in other parts of Trump’s speech. The nearly 40 percent of Americans who are not white apparently did not bear mentioning in Trump’s history.
In his revisionist telling of the “founding” of America, Trump also completely erased slavery. According to Trump, after taming the Wild West, and “lifting millions from poverty, disease, and hunger” (Indigenous people not among them), these ancestors also “laid down the railroads, dug out canals, raised up the skyscrapers — and, ladies and gentlemen, our ancestors built the most exceptional Republic ever to exist in all of human history.”
Many historians would argue that it was not the white colonists who built the foundations of this country, but those they had enslaved. The White House, the Capitol, Wall Street, and many of our Ivy League universities were built with enslaved labor. America became a global economy because of enslaved labor. It is an ugly history, but an undeniable one: The bodies of the enslaved — abused and routinely murdered — helped colonists build the country we know today.
Trump is notorious for these sorts of dog whistles — and more overt displays of racism. While campaigning in 2016, he retweeted white supremacists, called Mexicans “rapists,” and told black voters they lived in “poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs.” As president, he has condemned people from “shithole countries,” and after the Charlottesville rally in 2017, said “both sides” were to blame for the violence that ensued. Tuesday night, he awarded Rush Limbaugh — a man who has consistently made racist comments against black people — with the country’s highest civilian honor.
While the history portion of Trump’s speech might have been more subtly racist than messaging he has invoked in the past, it was still intended to show whose history matters.
“We settled the new world, we built the modern world, and we changed history forever by embracing the eternal truth that everyone is made equal by the hand of Almighty God,” Trump said as he ended his speech.
The “we,” of course, are the people he hopes will carry him to reelection: The 62 percent of white men and 52 percent of white women who voted for him the last time around.