Donald Trump is mercurial even in his racism. A bigot but also a flibbertigibbet, Trump has a tendency to move rapidly from expressions of contempt for people of color to offering them overtures of solicitude. Over the weekend, Trump rage-tweeted against Congressman Elijah Cummings, who had the temerity to criticize the mistreatment of migrants. “Cumming [sic] District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” Trump complained. “If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.” Trump added that that the district Cummings represented is “considered the worst run and most dangerous anywhere in the United States. No human being would want to live there.” The language of “infestation” comes easily to Trump when talking about people of African descent, and the screed against Cummings echoed the recent go-back-to-where-you-came-from tirade against the Squad and earlier mudslinging aimed at Congresswoman Maxine Waters.
But in between lashing out against nonwhite lawmakers, Trump took up the cause of rapper A$AP Rocky, recently arrested in Sweden on an assault charge. Trump’s version of minority outreach is a byproduct of his friendship with Kanye West, who persuaded the president that A$AP Rocky’s arrest warranted a high-level diplomatic intervention. “Sweden has let our African American Community down in the United States,” Trump tweeted last Thursday. “I watched the tapes of A$AP Rocky, and he was being followed and harassed by troublemakers. Treat Americans fairly!”
The contrast between Trump’s utter disdain for nonwhite lawmakers and his willingness to chastise an American ally on behalf of a jailed musician is partly traceable to the president’s special warmth for celebrities, especially if they praise him. It’s a bluntly personal response: If you criticize Trump, as Cummings and others have, you’re his enemy. If you are Trump’s pal, he’ll go the extra mile to help you out.
The priority Trump gives to transactional relationships gives some credence to Senator Lindsey Graham’s argument that the president is a narcissist rather than a racist.
But Graham’s formulation is too simple. It’s more accurate to say Trump’s racism and narcissism are both facets of his desire to rule like a feudal lord. If we see Trump as a would-be baron or an aspiring king, then his varied reaction to people of color makes sense: He loves those who pledge loyalty to him and hates those who defy him in any way.
Writing in the November/December issue of New Left Review, University of California sociologist Dylan Riley challenged the popular view, found across the political spectrum, that Trump is a fascist. Using the ideas of Max Weber, Riley argued that Trump was rather a practitioner of patrimonialism, the style of governance built on personal loyalty that was found in “the later Roman Empire and medieval Europe.”
It is patrimonialism that links Trump to oddball cronies like Wilbur Ross, Jared Kushner, Thomas Barrack, Stephen Miller, and Matthew Whitaker. As Riley observes, “Bonds of purely personal loyalty bind the seedy milieu of lumpen-millionaires (Ross and Kushner inside the Administration, Thomas Barrack outside) and hangers-on of various sorts (Miller, Whitaker) to Trump.” Patrimonialism also explains Trump’s use of the presidential pardon power on behalf of his political supporters such as Dinesh D’Souza, Conrad Black, and Joe Arpaio.
Structurally, the American presidency has always been an elected monarchy. But Trump has ruled more like a king than most presidents, transforming the traditional bonds of partisanship or ideology into relationships of personal fealty.
Trump’s essentially feudal conception of politics is surely traceable to his long-standing connections to the Mafia, perhaps the modern organization that most closely resembles the patrimonial governance of the premodern world. In the mob, the godfather is a de facto lord, who offers protection in exchange for respect and tribute.
Trump gained an intimate familiarity with the ways of the Mafia through his many years in the New York real estate world, where working with mobbed-up businesses is hard to avoid even for those who are more scrupulous than Trump. As journalist David Cay Johnston wrote in Politico in 2016, “Trump’s career has benefited from a decades-long and largely successful effort to limit and deflect law enforcement investigations into his dealings with top mobsters, organized crime associates, labor fixers, corrupt union leaders, con artists and even a one-time drug trafficker whom Trump retained as the head of his personal helicopter service.”
In a 2015 speech, Trump cited Mafia protection rackets as a good model for American foreign policy to use, arguing that the USA should exact tribute from allies like Germany and South Korea. “We defend the whole world,” Trump complained, adding there should be some reward for this service. “Somebody said, ‘Oh, that’s like the Mafia defense.’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about it, okay. The Mafia is not so stupid, all right.’”
Trump’s desire to rule like a feudal lord or Mafia boss takes on a special salience when it is applied to African Americans. Typically, patrimonialism is a system that emerges in a lawless world, where rights don’t exist so the weak must rely on the protection of the strong. African Americans, have, of course, experienced feudal powerlessness, both under slavery and the subsequent regime of Jim Crow racism, in a way that white Americans haven’t.
Historians like Eugene Genovese have noted that the slave system depended heavily on paternalism, which might be called the natural ideology of feudalism. A poisoned paternalism remains the default ideology of American racism, the belief that black people are incapable of self-governance and need a strong hand to keep them in line.
While Trump tries to forge feudal relations with everyone, his domineering tendencies become particularly crude and nasty when he deals with African Americans. Trump can’t abide the idea of African Americans existing as citizens, with equal rights and the protection of the law rather than a strong man. Hence Trump’s heartfelt rage at any instance of black political expression that seeks to assert equality, whether it be the bending of the knee in protest by Colin Kaepernick or the rebukes of Elijah Cummings. Trump in fact wants a bent knee, but not on behalf of curbing police violence. Rather, genuflection must be in subservience of Trump.
With his recent tweet, Trump is trying to give African Americans an offer he thinks they can’t refuse. If they kiss his ring, they’ll come under his protection. If they defy him, he’ll unleash raw racist hatred against them.