A term frequently used to describe Donald Trump’s behavior during his unfortunate and hateful presidency was “unprecedented.”
And it wasn’t meant in a positive way.
Indeed, Trump’s flouting of political norms, his overt racism and sexism and general peddling of hate, his naked abuse of the presidency to enrich himself and his family and to seek vengeance on his political enemies, his incessant lying, attacks on the free press, and more, were behaviors that in their extremity and flagrancy merited the descriptor “unprecedented.”
As I chronicled in periodic pieces in PoliticusUsa over the last four years, Trump’s presidency was, on multiple levels, an ongoing genocidal endeavor, an assault on human life itself. From blatantly enabling Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people in northeast Syria in October 2019, to his caging of children at the border, to his failure to respond to or even acknowledge the coronavirus pandemic while over 500,000 Americans perished, to his racist rhetoric that motivated mass shootings and overall endorsed the view that the lives of people of color simply don’t matter, Trump’s presidency could certainly be characterized as a concerted effort to undermine human life, as a genocidal mission.
Trump’s rush to execute death row prisoners as his term neared its end exemplifies the work of his murderous administration, solidifying his legacy, in the words of Joanna Walters, writing in The Guardian, “as the most prolific execution president in over 130 years.”
As I’ve documented (here, here, and here), many of Trump’s behaviors and policies certainly fall under the definitional practices of genocide detailed in the United Nation’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide.
So when President Joseph Biden last week officially declared the Turk’s mass slaughter of Armenians in 1915 during the breakup of the Ottoman Empire an act of genocide, he not only gave a new and positive connotation to the adjective “unprecedented,” he also set an important course for a presidency whose guiding principle appears to be to affirm and support life, not traffic in death and peddle the hate that enables murderous behavior.
For fear of straining relations with the Turkish government, previous presidents have remained silent when it comes to naming the Turkish massacre of 1.5 million Armenians a genocide, including Barack Obama, whose ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power wrote a Pulitzer-prize winning book in 2002 titled A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which discusses a length the Armenian genocide.
Biden’s unprecedented declaration, we need to recognize, has as much to do with his domestic agenda of supporting American lives, of ensuring they matter, as it does with his foreign policy and his efforts to restore a basic moral compass to America’s global character.
As Jason Easley wrote in reporting on Biden’s official naming of the Armenian genocide, “Americans could be watching a very special presidency unfolding before our eyes.”
It is important to recognize that the genocidal rhetoric Trump applied to the border between Syria and Turkey, legitimating removal and even extermination of the Kurds in 2019, was really no different from the rhetoric he deployed in his domestic policy regarding the southern border to validate an equally genocidal behavior.
When Trump talked about peoples seeking to immigrate to the U.S. across the southern border, he notoriously referred to them as “criminals” and “racists” and spoke about those “caravans” of people fleeing mass violence and seeking asylum as “invasions” or “infestations.” He used similar language to talk about communities at home and abroad inhabited by peoples of color, referring to Baltimore as a “rat and rodent infested mess” and Haiti and African nations as “shithole countries.”
This language turns these groups of people, indeed entire nations of people, into problems that need to be “cleaned out.” Just as Trump insisted that “Turkey, in all fairness,” has “had a legitimate problem” on the border with “terrorists” and “a lot of people in there they couldn’t have” such that “they had to have it cleaned out,” he used the same language with regard to people of color in our inner cities, to people of color from the south seeking to enter the U.S. legally, and to people of color in nations abroad. They all represent “a legitimate problem” needing to be “cleaned out.”
And, of course, even when he didn’t execute policy, he inspired and mobilized his racist army to action, as we saw both in the mass shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue and in El Paso. In both cases the shooters deployed Trump’s language of “invasion” to rationalize the mass killing of Jewish people and Mexicans, respectively.
Biden’s naming of the Armenian genocide signals his willingness to confront history and reality, not just around the world but in the United States, where the nation struggles to address—and redress—its own violent history of racism and genocide.
If the nation is, indeed, to “build back better,” it must confront the genocidal on which it was built.
His appointment of Deb Haaland as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, among other appointments of people of color and people from other historically marginalized groups to his cabinet and other high-ranking positions, signals this willingness to confront America’s past in seeking to create a humane America that resets its foundation and realizes its principles of justice.
At the Democratic National Convention in 2020, Haaland forthrightly addressed America’s violent history of genocide and colonization. When’s the last time prior to that moment that when genocide was a topic of discussion at a Democratic convention?
Overall, Biden’s calling out genocide signals, we can hope, a presidency that will affirm life over death.
We see this already. While Trump pursue policies that destroyed the environment and pushed more people into poverty, Biden is pursuing policies that move to create an environment that sustains life and to raise wages to livable levels and address human need.
While Trump ignored the pandemic, calling it a hoax, Biden has in fact implemented a nation strategy and is now seeking to help nations around the globe.
While Trump and the Republicans seek to deny transgender people rights, Biden has moved to ensure their civil rights and their access to health care.
We could go on.
But the point is that where Trump’s policies furthered death, Biden has affirmed life in his policies, calling out and challenging genocide in unprecedented ways.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.