Trump and Settler Colonialism

The caricature of Donald J. Trump, sketched through bellicose gestures, is mesmerizing in its shock value. While this political turn holds and has meant immediate danger to already vulnerabilized populations, it is insufficient to see Trump’s rise as a one-off celebrity rupture of an otherwise democratic society. It is also insufficient to attempt to determine if Trump, his cabinet nominees, and/or those who voted for him are individually racist, misogynist, ableist, and on. Trump is reflective and refractive of a long-standing structure of heteropatriarchal and racial violence in this nation. The fact that he has handily gained traction with large swaths of the population demands an analysis that transgresses a single individual’s psychology. Trump’s popularity can be apprehended through the lens of settler colonialism, which relies on various technologies, including racism and heteropatriarchy, to accomplish its aims.

In the shortest-term memory, the political rise of Donald Trump began with the election of Barack Hussein Obama. Undeniably, Trump’s political assertion of himself began with his claims that President Obama is not a U.S. citizen. This started the birther movement that gained great momentum outside of any single individual, including Trump, precisely because it leveraged a long-standing settler suspicion of Black bodies being able to be fully human, within a Westernized idea of developed man.[1] To understand the logics that Trump is animated by and why they have such traction, one must have a longer view of settler colonialism as history and structure, as well as disavowing the romanticized idea that it is only with Trump that white settler anxieties have surfaced. This is not to diminish the unique damage that this political turn brings, but rather situates it within a trajectory of colonial violence.

Settler colonialism, as Patrick Wolfe has defined it, is a structure, not an event. Settler migrants invade a land to occupy it, claim it, and turn it into property. The settler structure depends, simultaneously, on the attempt to convert land into property, the need for Indigenous people to disappear, and to create chattel labor that both works the land and is property itself.[2] The occupation of land is never finished, Indigenous people must always be disappearing, and there can never be enough property, land and chattel, in the hands of a few. Since contact invasion, the structure of settler colonialism has been maintained by eradicating and punishing Indigenous, Black and brown peoples. The constant running fear of those peoples transgressing their labor and property functions within the settler structure is animated through many lurid attacks conducted in the name of the United States. Donald Trump’s political rise and traction is one stanza in how these fears and practices have been bundled together by a settler colonial logic.

Before his assertion and creation of the birther conspiracy theory about President Obama, Trump had leveraged settler fear of Black male bodies in pushing for a state execution of the Central Park Five. In 1989, after five Black teenagers were accused of raping a white woman in Central Park in New York City, Trump spent $85,000 to place full-page ads in four daily newspapers, calling for a re-instantiation of the death penalty in order to execute the five youths. The advertisements ran before a single testimony or piece of evidence had been lodged. In 2016, 14 years after DNA evidence had exonerated all five of the defendants, Trump publicly maintained their guilt, as have others along the years, citing confessions as evidentiary truth of their guilt. While many have rightfully critiqued his misunderstanding of the nature of forced confessions and contradictory recall in jurisprudence,[3] Trump’s loud stance echoes an even louder and long-standing criminalization of Black and brown people. When he insisted that “these young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels,” and added that they “must have done something,” Trump tapped into a perpetual collapsing of Blackness into criminal and the hinged need for a smaller number to contain those criminal bodies, either through incarceration or execution. The creation of excess bodies is a contemporary manifestation of the settler need for property and its oversight. Questioning the obvious fact of President Obama’s citizenship and the persistent criminalization of the exonerated Central Park Five tap into long-standing settler anxieties about political and physical uprisings by those cast on the underside of wellness. The allegations, in and of themselves, about President Obama and the Central Park Five, invoke and create a criminality while also invoking and creating the stratified power to determine and oversee those who need to be contained. This is what manifest destiny sounds like in 2017. As in earlier moments, the structure of settler colonialism has been deeply gendered and raced.

On December 26, 1862, 38 Dakota men were marched to their deaths, in the largest mass hanging ever to take place. An estimated 4,000 spectators gathered to line the street as the men were marched to the specially constructed hanging platform. The 38 were part of a larger initial group of 303 sentenced to death for having participated in an uprising in Mankato Territory. The Dakota people had resisted being put on the brink of starvation, due to both the U.S. government having broken treaties, and settlers flooding the land and foodways of the once-sparsely populated area. The uprising of the Dakota took place within a large-scale, armed settler encroachment. President Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, made the decision to hold the largest mass hanging to date to quell the uprising and, implicitly, calm settler anxieties. He reduced the number of Dakota men to be executed from 303 to 38.[4] Lincoln explained the decision in front of the U.S. Senate:

“Anxious to not act with so much clemency as to encourage another outbreak on one hand, nor with so much severity as to be real cruelty on the other, I ordered a careful examination of the records of the trials to be made, in view of first ordering the execution of such as had been proved guilty of violating females.”

However, before the hangings took place, Lincoln’s own examination of the transcripts and trials showed that only two men were convicted of rape. Lincoln then expanded his criteria of having participated in “massacres,” rather than the original language of “battles” and then charges of rape, to fit the purpose of strategically containing a rightful backlash to settler encroachment. As with Trump’s crusades against President Obama and the Central Park Five, the facts, which crime, where, committed against whom, are sampled and stretched to fit the purpose of calming settler anxiety and affirming settler entitlement. And as with Trump’s rise and actions, it is insufficient to annotate this mass hanging as an aberration of Lincoln’s leadership. The executions and corresponding rationales serve the structure of settler colonialism.

The settler logics of invoking criminality, protecting perceived threats to (white) women, and containment all exist for the interests of white property ownership, and they are by no means new. As Kim Tallbear noted in her plenary address given to the National Women’s Studies Association the week after the 2016 presidential election, “Past is present. America is that horror. If you thought different, I am truly, truly sorry for what you must feel now. In grief, I hope that people will turn to love and building good relations, sustain one another, and resist a redeemable U.S. state as the object of our affection.”[5]



[1] Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the coloniality of being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the human, after man, its overrepresentation—An argument.” CR: The new centennial review, 3.3 (2003), 257-337.

[2] Patrick Wolfe, Settler Colonialism, (New York: Cassel, 1999).

[3] Sara Burns, “Why Trump Doubled Down on the Central Park Five,” The New York Times (17 October 2016), (accessed on 10 January 2017).

[4] Isaac V. D. Heard, History of the Sioux War and Massacres of 1862 and 1863, (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1863).

[5] Kim TallBear, plenary address delivered to the National Womens Studies Association, November 2016, Montreal, Canada.


Leigh Patel is an interdisciplinary researcher, educator, and writer. Her work addresses the narratives that facilitate societal structures. With a background in sociology, she researches and teaches about education as a site of social reproduction and as a potential site for transformation and liberation.