The Bald Eagle Stripped Bare Is An Alt-White Frontiersman


Donald Trump supporters are not poor. They are, however, quite scary writes Dr Liz Conor.

Donald Trump’s famous coiff was ruffled and his hand pecked by a bald eagle during a photoshoot with Time Magazine in December last year. As the official seal and emblem of the United States of America the Huff Post seized upon this eagle scoop as ‘an all-too-real metaphor for the current state of American politics’ – as though their America knows a real enemy when it sees him.

Maybe. More likely a wild animal, even one thoroughly falconried, got tetchy indoors. Possibly animals have evolved refined radars for dangerous humans. We haven’t been terribly nice to them over millennia.

The trouble with national symbols is they become alibis for any complexity of meaning. Like the shackled bear Theodore Roosevelt refused to shoot in 1902 – giving rise to the Teddy Bear craze – the hapless bald eagle owes its very existence to our more sporting impulse towards animals.

Conservation efforts reversed their dramatic decline due to the pesticide DDT, sprayed like toxic alt-right trolling from the mid-1940s. DDT was banned in the US in 1972 and bald eagle populations ‘soared’ from endangered to threatened.

Trump has vowed to shut down the Environmental Protection Authority. He has pronounced, “Any regulation that imposes undue costs on business enterprises will be eliminated.” This might leave him rather bereft of an unwitting jingoism to perch on his arm – like, I dunno, a trophy wife.

Republican US presidential candidate, Donald Trump.
Republican US presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Similarly, his championing of the fossil fuel industry will literally sink the coastal properties on which his business empire was largely built.

This may be the least of his worries.

Trump has unleashed a following of ‘alt-right’ white nationalist alphablokes, armed to the teeth. He has encouraged them to perceive his likely defeat as ‘rigging’ and an attack on their democratic freedoms. They are planning to ‘monitor’ polling places in black precincts. His volunteers are handing out flyers saying, “Hillary Clinton is coming for your guns”. Plausible fears grow of a civil war on his defeat.

White, armed and paranoid Trumpsters have risen to his bait. They form ‘the biggest uptick of white power activity in American politics since the Ku Klux Klan’s invisible empire in the 1920s’. Their key propagandists such as Richard Spencer, Andrew Anglin and Matthew Heimbach are perfectly frank that Trump has revived this upsurge in ethno-nationalism.

Trumpsters have been characterized as downwardly mobile and alienated from liberal-capitalism by the fallout of failed neoliberal ‘trickledown’ policies and the GFC. Yet the commonly accepted idea that they are disproportionately poor or even working-class has been roundly disproven. They are on average on $US72,000 a year, around $10,000 more than Hispanics, who overwhelmingly support Clinton.

In their assiduous campaigning these brownshirts are charting the map of Trump bastions to target areas where known white nationalism will likely be incited by their fear mongering of ‘white genocide’. They have consciously rebranded white nationalism as the ‘alt-right’.

But the problem might not simply be that they defend Trump on a Clinton win, even with violence. Trump has no formal control over these clusters of volatile personality disorders. Who does? Like the far-right organisations they comprise, they are notoriously unstable with a tendency to balkanize, splitting into ever more extreme versions of themselves.

Trump may presently be their bald eagle, a potent, enabling, yet hollow symbol of their unhinged delusions of grandeur – which include an ethnostate or ethnoempire extending across North America and Europe.

Donald Trump
Republican US presidential hopeful Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

But if he’s elected how soon before he ceases to be their appointed renegade and becomes the establishment they so abhor. Will they be sated by mass deportations and big walls, or will they lose patience with the practicalities, timespan and expense of these entirely impulsive, ill-conceived and unfeasible master schemes?

In the reams of analysis on these xenophobes their whiteness looms like a moon over a thorny briar patch. They’re noted in passing to be men: Trump’s vote is predominantly under-educated white men. Can that particular formation of masculinity be merely incidental to the bizarre trajectory of Trump’s rise?

What kind of masculinity is Trump unbridling? One in which Mexicans, or any convenient racial other, are rapists. The American white men who subscribe to Trumpism were incited in that statement to reimagine themselves on a race frontier, to circle the wagons and protect their womenfolk from the rampaging race revenge of brownskinned men of any type.

This is a white masculinity that originates on the settler-colonial frontier and in slavery.

Like us the US could have no national identity without dispossession. Conjoined with slavery othering is written into the DNA of a nation-state that violently misappropriated land and labor, then meticulously disavowed that theft. It then blamed their impacts not on the racial terror of these regimes of atrocity, but on the dependency they created in the people they displaced and impoverished.

Elaborate, erratic and surreal mythologies, from scientific racism to smiling ‘piccaninnies’, justified the misappropriated wealth that undergirds white supremacy. The historical continuity of white men’s fortune and privilege is reified with the jingoism of burning swastikas and other pitiful displays of sooky-boy tantrumming and cuckpetulance.

Racism is undoubtedly their conscious driver. Their systemic othering goes beyond Muslims, Blacks and Hispanics to Jews. Their particular artifice of masculinity flies under the radar of social analysis, yet it is central.

As their privilege is threatened from multiple fronts, the manifest destiny of whiteness intersects with the sexual overlordship that entitled white men, and no other men, access to the bodies of enslaved and colonized women. The protection of their own women from the rapaciousness they projected onto coloured men justified the segregation and lynching of the Jim Crow era and beyond.

US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
US Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

Whether elected or not, Trump can, like colonial administrators, depend on this frontier rabble who will throng his agenda with flaming torches into the churches and neighbourhoods of Hispanic and black Americans. He will disguise them as anomalous, but they will be indispensable to his overarching project of reinstating white men’s privilege.

Then they might dump him like cold Turkey and appoint a scarier, smarter, more disciplined psychopath. My bet is he’ll be male. My feeling is part of their panic is about taking orders from a woman commander-in-chief (Clinton is an oligarch but I’m almost praying she wins).

Had Benjamin Franklin seen the eagle snapping at Trump’s wee little hand he might’ve changed his disproval of the bald eagle as the national symbol. He thought the eagle was a “rank coward” and a “bird of bad moral Character” who “did not get his living honestly”. Or he might’ve spotted the likeness.

Franklin thought the turkey a more fitting national symbol since it was “a more respectable bird” which “though a little vain & silly, [is]a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards”.

With Gobbler or Raptor, the rank neurosis of too many white men is fouling the American nest.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.