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Make no mistake - Donald Trump's victory represents a racist "whitelash"

In Britain and the US, politicians are succeeding not despite of racism but because of it. 

"We’ve talked about income, we’ve talked about class, we’ve talked about region, we haven’t talked about race…This was a whitelash. This was a whitelash against a changing country”. These were the salient words of political commentator Van Jones last night as it became clear that Donald Trump was set to become the 45th President of the United States. Racism, and its bedfellow, sexism, have played a large part in bringing Trump to power. To ignore this is to legitimise discrimination. Trump ran on a racist, misogynistic platform, and he won.

Trump’s overt racism is not the only reason for his triumph, but it is a central one. Despite having run on anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and anti-women platform, his victory is already being chalked up to working-class economic disenfranchisement. This doesn’t make sense on two counts. Firstly it ignores working-class people of colour, who largely rejected Trump. Economic anxiety is not the exclusive redoubt of the white working class - African Americans and Hispanic Americans experience the highest rates of poverty in the US. Secondly, this narrative entirely ignores the middle-class white Americans who seem to have turned out in support of Trump.

The President-Elect’s support base includes white nationalists who think African Americans are "criminal," "unintelligent," "lazy" and "violent" and who sat by while the KKK endorsed their candidate. To ignore racism as a motivation for many people voting for Trump is to overlook, for example, his calls to ban Muslims from entering the country, to deport 11 million migrants and build a wall between Mexico and the US. The underlying theme behind these policies: forcing people of colour out of America.

The election of a billionaire businessman is, in part, about protecting a racial order in which whiteness reigns supreme. The people who are celebrating Trump’s victory tells you a lot of what you need to know: Ukip’s Nigel Farage, who is on his way to the US to congratulate Trump; the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, who proclaimed that the American people are now “free”, and Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders, who congratulated the American people for taking back their country. In the US as in the UK, racist views are regularly explained away as “legitimate concerns” about the economy or over the erosion of an imagined national culture.

The decisive victory of a racist misogynist in the US Presidential race should prompt a reconsideration of the narrative that has led us to this point. There will be a temptation to further legitimise Trump’s white nationalist narrative by turning a blind eye to the structural racism and misogyny that swept him to victory. There will be a rush to defend Trump’s supporters as neither racist nor sexist – the comparatively small number of minority voters who backed Trump will be held up as an example of why this can’t simply be boiled down to race. But this will obscure what is hidden in plain sight: racism has played a significant part in this election. 

In the coming days, weeks and months, we need considered analysis about the construction of whiteness and politicians’ arguments that white identity under attack from supposedly inferior and threatening minorities. This matters because rhetoric has real life consequences. As we’ve seen in Brexit Britain, when people of colour and migrants have found themselves demonised as the enemy, and nationalists also declare they are reclaiming their country, violence and hate crimes becomes more possible. 

The situation in the US is by no means an exact mirror of what happened when the UK embraced Brexit. But in the initial aftermath of the presidential announcement one similarity is clear - politicians weren’t successful in spite of their racism. They were successful because of it.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.

Protesters interrupt a Corbyn event. Credit: Getty
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If Jeremy Corbyn opposes intervention in Syria, he should have more to say about Russia

The Labour leader’s quest for peace looks like something else: a willingness to repeat Russian propaganda.

“For the next three hours I urge members to just focus on Syria,” the Labour MP Alison McGovern asked of her colleagues at the start of Monday's debate, after the UK joined in airstrikes on Syria. “They deserve that.” It was no surprise to veteran Syria watchers that the leader of her party, Jeremy Corbyn, responded to this simple request by spending a quarter of his speech talking about Yemen.

Corbyn’s frequent calls for diplomacy over the conflict in Syria sound reasonable, and certainly have the support of many voters. Yet the Labour leader often treats Russia as a good-faith actor in the conflict, even as it pumps out propaganda in support of the Assad regime. Corbyn's executive director of strategy and communications, Seumas Milne, meanwhile, has a reputation for being, in his former life as a journalist, sympathetic to Russia. More recently, he is said to have suggested that Russia's involvement had stabilised the region. 

In light of this, Corbyn's quest for peace looks like something else: a willingness to repeat Russian propaganda and implicitly support its intervention in the conflict, but not intervention by the west. 

In his opening speech on Monday, Corbyn referred to the inspection of the Assad regime’s weapons facility in 2017. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons inspected two sites, Barzah and Jamraya, between February and March of that year (the Him Shinsar facility mentioned by Corbyn in his speech was not referred to in the 2017 OPCW report, but was a target of the most recent strikes). On 4 April 2017, chemical weapons were reportedly used against the civilian population in the the Khan Shaykhun area of southern Idlib, a rebel-held region, with children listed among the 80 dead. Three days later, the US launched an air strike on an Assad regime airbase. 

Corbyn quoted a line in the July 2017 OPCW report, which stated: “the inspection team did not observe any activities inconsistent with obligations”. The same line is repeated in a Russia Today article, alongside regime denials that the facility was a chemical weapons factory.

Look closer at the OPCW report, though, and it becomes clear that the regime refused to allow OPCW inspectors on site for an entire month. It also ignores the political restraints governing weapons inspectors: in late 2017, Russia used its UN security veto to block the OPCW’s Joint Investigative Mechanism, responsible for investigating responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

The Labour leader also used his speech to allege that chemical weapons have been used by “other groups” in the conflict, referring to an alleged chlorine attack in Aleppo in 2016 blamed on the Saudi-backed rebel group Jaish al-Islam. The single incident in question was reported by Amnesty International, although it has never been verified by the OPCW. The claim that Jaish al-Islam are responsible for using chemical weapons is murky at best, despite their many other crimes. There are only two actors in the Syrian war that have been confirmed to have used chemical weapons by the OPCW: the Assad regime and Isis

Corbyn also dedicated part of his speech to Yemen. While the conflict in Yemen is undoubtedly appalling, and Western governments have been one-sided in their intervention, perspective is needed. At 10,000 casualties, the death toll in Yemen is 50 times lower than the more than half a million dead estimated in Syria. Nor has any side in Yemen been found guilty of using chemical weapons, which is the charge levelled against the Assad regime - and the rationale for the strikes being debated in parliament. Why talk about another conflict altogether except to avoid the issue of chemical weapons use in Syria?

Is it really possible for the man that was once known as “the Left’s foreign secretary” to get basic priorities so wrong? Corbyn has been here before. In 2013, the then backbencher was chair of the Stop The War Coalition. Shortly after the regime’s chemical weapons atrocity in Eastern Ghouta, Stop the War invited a pro-regime nun, Sister Agnes, who claimed children in footage of the attack were simply “sleeping”, to present the regime’s case (Mother Agnes withdrew after the ensuing protest). 

On the face of it, his Stop the War credentials do suggest that Corbyn is consistently against intervention. Much has been said of his inability to think of a scenario in which he was willing to deploy British forces. Yet a 2015 interview published in the Observer reported that Corbyn opposed military intervention in Syria, but supported Russian troops being there, if they were there for peacekeeping purposes. (Labour sources say Corbyn’s intention was to speak in support of UN peacekeepers).

Corbyn’s 2015 view may be more nuanced than it was presented on paper, but there are reports of a similar view put more bluntly by his spokesman Seumas Milne. At a private event in London early last year, two witnesses report hearing Milne, during the course of a conversation, remark that “the situation had improved” since Moscow entered the fray and had brought “stability” to the conflict. (A Labour source said: “The claims about Seumas Milne's views and comments are nonsense.”) 

Public statements from the Labour party have on occasion sought to downplay Russian involvement in international conflicts. In October 2016, as public concern about the plight of civilians in Syria mounted, a senior spokesperson for the Labour leader declared: “The focus on Russian atrocities or Syrian army atrocities I think sometimes diverts attention from other atrocities that are taking place.” Milne was named by Labour MPs as the spokesperson responsible for a statement put out by the leader’s office which questioned the evidence that the Kremlin was to blame for the poisoning of a former Russia spy in Salisbury. 

On the surface, Corbyn has one constructive argument: that Britain should avoid unilateral or multilateral military action, and work through the UN. Yet this, too, is disingenuous. Russia continuously uses its security council veto to block any and all meaningful resolutions on Syria. Most recently, it vetoed the very OPCW investigation into the chemical weapons attack on Douma that Corbyn had been calling for. As the situation stands, the OPCW is restricted to merely confirming whether or not such an attack took place and what substance was used, not assigning blame. Even its limited task will be difficult enough task considering Russian forces have been at the attack site for days. 

Speaking to Andrew Marr the day after the airstrikes, Corbyn said: “I can only countenance involvement in Syria if there's a UN authority behind it.” This implies that he could, in theory, back UN-led intervention. Yet a close look at his record contradicts this: even when there was a UN resolution about Libya he did not support military action. In 2011, in a Guardian piece entitled “Libya and the suspicious rush to war,” Corbyn expressed his scepticism about the real intention of UN Resolution 1973 on Libya, which authorised military intervention to establish a no-fly zone, a proposal that was supported by 75 per cent of Libyans. On 21 March 2011, he voted against a parliamentary motion welcoming the use of UK military to establish a no-fly zone in Libya.

Defenders of Corbyn argue that he opposed the intervention because of the possibility of "mission creep" – and in this he was proved right. Yet when it comes to Syria, the hard truth is that the international community has been fruitlessly pushing for a political settlement for years. Diplomacy has failed repeatedly. Since Russia's military intervention, the Assad regime has regained territory, and it has no intention of negotiating a surrender in a war it is winning. Assad has openly mocked the UN process, which he says is a “game”.

This is illustrated by the plight of Eastern Ghouta. The region was supposed to be a “de-escalation” zone – a status agreed by the Russians, the regime and groups within Eastern Ghouta. Yet the Assad regime took advantage of the ceasefire to cleanse the area of opposition. It did so with impunity, precisely because there were no international mechanisms in place to safeguard a ceasefire. 

After the parliamentary debate, the verdict seemed to be that most MPs backed the Prime Minister’s actions, including many from Labour. Yet some Corbynite MPs chose to shun parliament in favour of the Stop The War demonstration outside. One, Chris Williamson, said of the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons “The motive is questionable, the evidence – where is the evidence? It just isn’t there.”

Meanwhile, in her closing remarks, Alison McGovern urged the government to listen to Syrians: “The world will be a safer place if we can rebuild the simple principle that no ruler has the right to brutally slaughter their own citizens, not in Syria and not anywhere.”