Just over a month since taking office Donald Trump’s early administration has been defined by anti-immigrant sentiment and widespread bigotry both in and out of the political system. Across the country xenophobe and racists have become emboldened by an establishment that is normalising hate speech and intolerance against immigrants and refugees.
Earlier this week white terrorist Adam Punton targeted Asian men in an attack in which he shouted ‘go back to your own country’ before opening fire in a Kansas bar. The attack, which was dismissed by many as a ‘drunken mess’, is indicative of the kind of rising hate speech that is being normalised under Trump’s administration.
Trump’s administration is allowing hate crimes such as this to place marginalised groups in a place of fear and hatred. In allowing marginalised groups to be the target of bigotry Trump’s government is attempting to create a narrative in which black and brown people are to blame for their country’s problems. Each action like this plays into the hugely powerful ‘us vs. them’ notion that is central to the current regime’s agenda.
The maligning of migrants and refugees under Trump’s government has never been seen in modern America at such levels. At the same time however the backlash against anti-immigrant sentiment is also seeing a powerful revival. Protests in solidarity with migrants were seen across North America and Europe, and a growing anti-Trump movement is beginning to take hold. In Massachusetts the art world protested too, with the Wellesley College Davis Museum creating an “immigrant-free” exhibition in protest of Trump’s Muslim travel ban.
The protest showed incredibly the contribution that immigrants have had (and continue to have) on American culture. And while it may seem like a fairly shallow criticism of Trump’s policies the need for a culture-based protest of the current government is hugely important.
Trump and his establishment are using culture as a tool to normalise their far-right agenda. Every day a new story emerges involving some attack on the press, or some incident of so-called “fake news”. Trump’s government is constantly attempting to manipulate the US’s cultural zeitgeist; creating enemies where there are none, or fabricating current affairs from thin air. Through figures such as Steve Bannon the government is attempting to change the way in which Americans view the world, by shifting its national culture away from the established mainstream press and towards a sympathetic new media.
From ‘some seriously bad dudes’ to false claims over attacks in Sweden Donald Trump himself is weaving a complex national fairytale that enforces his nationalist and xenophobic ideas. What might sound like the incoherent ramblings of a drunk in a bar you’d never wish to visit are becoming the mythologies and notions of a new age for The United States.
Culture is as much a part of the struggle for a better America as laws, education and political will. The stories we see and hear on television and film inform how we think, act and vote. Trump is as much a product of America’s cultural zeitgeist as he is of a broken democratic system.
From the Harlem Renaissance to Abstract Expressionism; pop art to hip-hop, the culture of The US has constantly been led by the work of migrant and diaspora communities. Some of the most highly celebrated artists from the country are migrants themselves. Jewish-Russian Rothko, Slovak-American Warhol, Dutch-born de Kooning, African-American Edmonia Lewis, Irish-Hungarian-American O’Keefe and French-American Bourgeois are just some of the examples of prominent visual artists who have helped define the American school through their work.
All of America’s greatest contributions to world culture have been brought to life through the work of migrants. Indirectly or otherwise migration has led to a culture which has placed The US at the centre of the world, and allowed its social ideals to spread out beyond its borders. Neoliberalism has largely become the world’s foremost ideology thanks to a culture of liberalism and free markets that was in part enforced by America’s cultural output.
Under Trump’s rule however the significant input migrants have had on creating America, the cultural concept and the actual nation, is being constantly downplayed. Instead a different kind of pure Americanism (read: white) is being elevated by the government. A United States that benefits from the cultural efforts of hundreds of diverse communities is being supplanted by the false notions of blue jeans, rock n roll and Hollywood.
This is of course not the first time Fascists have attempted to manipulate cultural narratives to their advantage. Public art works, and state-sponsored culture were a mainstay of regimes led by figures such as Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin. They understood, as much of Trump’s inner circle does, that the public is influenced by the art and media around them. In influencing the culture of a nation concepts such as racism, bigotry and fascism can be normalised – made even to sound appealing to the mainstream.
With less than two months of Trump we are already beginning to see the emergence of a deeply worrying cultural zeitgeist. A narrative is forming around the toxic notions of ‘us vs. them’ that is being bolstered by Trump’s own cultural output. As minorities continue to be marginalised the struggle over the United States’ culture will become more and more important. In four years Trump’s administration has the power to completely alter how the US views itself and others. This power is largely through manipulation of the media – but also through the control of the creative arts too.
Cultural institutes across the world, not just in the United States, must fight against the rising influence of fascism and far-right bigotry. It is our responsibility as artists, curators and educators to resist the narratives that are normalising the assault and marginalisation of minority groups, and instead work towards influencing our culture towards a tolerant and accepting society. The arts can do so much more than just make the middle classes pontificate and gush – the arts are the battlefield in which the ever-important culture from which our politics stems is born.
Trump is as much a failure of the United States’ sick culture than he is of its politics and divided populous. He has been elevated to the highest authority through the slow normalisation of nationalistic and bigoted art. He is every racist trope on TV, every whitewashed film in Hollywood, every bland white man awarded for his generic work when a greater artist of colour is ignored. It is important that we understand the power the arts and media can have, and ensure that we create and support a new form of art that ensures Trump and his international allies are regarded as disgusting and abnormal as they should be.