A Failure of Imagination: Donald Trump, the US-Brazil’s White Nationalism and the Need for an African Diasporic Abolitionist Program

by Jaime Amparo Alves


[Image: the night of Brazilian president Rousseff’s impeachment, evangelical-white-male dominated deputies celebrate the approval – via Grande Rio]

When a conservative white-male-evangelical coalition ousted Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on May 12, 2016, the Obama administration did not condemn the ‘parliamentary coup’ and instead saw the controversial impeachment as an example of the strength of the Brazilian democracy. In a trip to the bordering country of Argentina, when Brazil was already in the middle of its current political turmoil, President Obama only said that “Brazil has a mature democracy, with a strong system that will allow it to prosper and be the leader that we need.”[1] Less than one month after the impeachment of Ms. Rousseff, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with the new Brazilian President Michel Temer to reaffirm their commitment to “work together to promote good governance, security, and prosperity throughout the hemisphere.”[2] Apparently, the Worker Party’s socially oriented administration was not the regional leader the Obama administration envisioned for the south of Rio Grande. Within one hundred days in power, the new president of Brazil has dismantled most of the Workers Party (PT)’s social programs and has shut down the National Secretary of Human Rights, the Ministry of Racial Equality, and the Secretary of Public Policies to Women. Now, to reduce the budget deficit, the government proposes a twenty-year freeze in public investments for education, public health, and infrastructure, which will reverse the social programs put in place after Lula da Silva’s administration. The new budget law will throw millions into poverty, and many of Brazil’s citizens will go hungry. Between 2001 and 2013, Brazil impressively reduced poverty (from 13.6% to 4.9%) mainly thanks to Da Silva’s cash transfer and food stamps programs.[3] Needless to say that in a country where race determines one’s access to socio-economic opportunities, the black population will undergo the burden of these fiscal policies.

At the same time, Brazil is currently facing an eruption of white supremacist and white nationalist groups advocating for the independence of the southern states and perpetrating physical assaults and lynchings of blacks and other minorities. In the state of Sao Paulo alone, 7587 hate crimes have been reported within one year (from November 2015 to Nov 2016).[4]  Adding to that, political persecution and arrest have been on the rise. This police-state is boosted by a group of young, white public prosecutors, who have been making successive ‘trips’ to Washington in the name of a crusade against corruption in the state-owned petroleum company Petrobras. The company, in turn, now sells its public assets to international petroleum companies breaking Petrobras’s control of Brazil’s strategic deep-sea oil reserves. Regarding security, the new government appointed Sao Paulo’s former secretary of public safety Alexandre de Moraes as the Minister of Justice. In Moraes’s tenure as secretary of public safety, the Military Police killed 798 individuals in a single year.[5] He is now exporting Sao Paulo’s model to the rest of the country. It is expected that his tough policies on drugs will increase the already astonishing levels of the incarceration of black and poor youth. Nowadays, Brazil has the fourth largest prison population in the world (610,000), and the majority of those incarcerated (67%) are blacks arrested for crimes against property and drug-offenses.[6]

Image: at a white-dominanted protest against president Rousseff, a black domestic servant accompanies a white family – via 50SON.

For the years to come, Afro-Brazilians may expect a deepening in the state’s urban warfare against predominantly black territories, more killings by the police, increases in political arrests, and escalating mass incarceration. There are reasonable signals that such dynamics of racial violence will be fueled by the messages the Trump administration is already sending to the world. In fact, these policies are already in place since the Obama and Rousseff administrations held a ‘deadly affinity’ in security matters. While the Brazilian black population could not find solidarity with the Obama administration, President Obama not only supported a coup that dismantled the incipient social achievements of the Workers Party but he also signed several agreements with the ousted Brazilian president. Among the US-Brazil deals was the exchange of military technology in counter-insurgency practices to patrol Brazilian shantytowns and to police the ‘troubling’ waters of the South Atlantic/African continent coast under the United States-Brazil Defense Cooperation Agreement together.[7]

Obama’s geopolitical interest is, of course, part of a long-held US security policy toward Latin America, regardless of whom occupies the White House. From Lyndon Johnson’s “our bastards” policy – the way he referred to US-backed dictators – to the Clinton-Bush-Obama’s drug-policies and foreign military-training[8], the continent continues to be a strategic “battlefield” for US geopolitics no matter the human costs of its (neglectful) presence. Colombia, US’s top ally in the region, is the most lethal country for identity-based and social justice activism. From 2011 to 2015 human rights organizations have reported 534 targeted assassinations of activists. Among those meeting death in the hands of right-wing paramilitary and guerilla groups are Afro-Colombian leaders who oppose mining and defend their right to territorial autonomy.[9] Now, as we see the return of the right-wing to power in countries like Brazil, Paraguay and Honduras – where the Obama administration diligently recognized the new governments born out of parliamentary coups, dissident voices are silenced, prisons are filled up and human rights activists are gunned down.

The assassination of Berta Cáceres, an indigenous leader of the Lenca people of Honduras, killed on March 4, 2016, sadly illustrates the interconnections of geopolitical interests, global white supremacy, and human rights abuses. Berta Cáceres was a vocal critique of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who openly supported the Honduras coup in 2009 when democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya was ousted. In an interview to Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now Cáceres warned that the coup “was going to be very dangerous and that it would permit a barbarity, not only in Honduras but in the rest of the continent.”[10] As white nationalism reaffirms democracy’s racial mission, black urban life continues asphyxiated [“I can’t breathe”] and black/indigenous traditional territories are turned into crucial geopolitical sites, Berta’s prediction becomes disturbingly true.


A Post-Racial/Gendered Moment

Now that the black and female presidents in both the U.S. and Brazil, respectively, are gone, the current manifestation of white nationalism may provoke a much-needed synergy between both African Americans and Afro-Brazilians in the struggle for freedom. From the north side of the Americas, that will first require an understanding of what the Trump administration will add to the U.S. domestic and global imperial order.  Trump may withdraw the U.S. from its role as a police of the world and instead put its military-war-machine in full display at home, bringing Obama’s prison-industrial complex to an even greater level of brutality. The military-industrial complex may be used to “make America [economically] great again” by redesigning the U.S. imposed free-market ideology, bringing jobs (and the troops to police black lives at) home, and exporting the surplus of U.S. military technology to be used against black and brown bodies elsewhere.

Let’s be fair, Trump’s approach is hardly original.[11] And still, exporting surplus military technology is where his administration perhaps will do ‘better’ than any other predecessor. Former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s prominent role in the transition thus far is indicative of what to expect from the new administration in terms of criminal justice and law-enforcement practices.  That should be a real concern for black abolitionists in the African Diaspora. The racialized and gendered outcomes of Giuliani’s landmark Zero Tolerance program are well known: his “get-tough” policies disproportionally targeted young black and Hispanic youth, who would fill up New York prisons. [12]  Giuliani’s approach is famous worldwide as well. Consider the following example from Brazil. In the 1990s, the Sao Paulo Military police, by far the most lethal police force in the country, imported Giuliani’s program.  Sao Paulo city’s periphery became a laboratory for a ‘new police’ practice that aimed to ‘secure’ the city for international investors in an era marked by violent neoliberal policies. As blacks struggled to secure employment, the neoliberal government responded to the state-produced crisis with “get-tough” policies that skyrocketed the prison population from 65,000 in 1994 to 160,000 in 2006. Currently, the prison population in Sao Paulo is nearly 200,000.[13] Sao Paulo’s police did its work so “well” that it superseded Giuliani’s achievements. Not surprisingly, Sao Paulo’s counterpart targeted black youth from the outskirts of the city.[14]  Indeed, Giuliani himself was a security adviser for the Brazilian government during the preparation for the 2016 Olympic Games. Now, in the new administration, he can advise President-elect Trump to turn Zero Tolerance policies into an international export.


A Failure of Imagination?

Trump’s election, as much as the Brazilian parliamentary coup, are not signals of democracy’s dysfunctionality, but rather quite the contrary. Trumpism is the product of democracy’s vitality, not its bankruptcy. If that is the case, the route to black liberation begins by giving up faith in liberal democracy. The abolitionist praxis would have to be translated into pedagogical strategies in the classroom, in the workplace, and on the streets to demystify the political establishment as inherently anti-black. We would also have to deal with our troubling politics of choosing the lesser of two evils. In Brazil, such belief came in the form of black solidarity to rescue President Rousseff’s administration in the name of Brazilian democracy, her security agenda notwithstanding (she signed, for instance, a controversial anti-terrorism legislation with a catch-all definition of what qualifies as terror). Indeed, I found myself among those making political calculations to ‘protect’ democracy against the white-male-evangelical-corrupt coalition.

In the U.S., the angry responses to President-elect Donald Trump’s remarks that African Americans should vote for him—because they had nothing to lose since they were living in conditions “worse than slavery”—was another moment in which the failure of radical imagination came into sharp focus. Although clearly rhetorical, those against Mr. Trump’s point knew it holds disturbingly true for the U.S., for Brazil, and for the African Diaspora as a whole. While black commentators occupied news stations to express outrage over Mr. Trump’s remarks, seen as an insult to the history of black oppression in the United States, an opportunity was lost to reframe the national and international debate toward the antiblack nature of democracy. Is Amerika too seductive to prevent an African diasporic political solidarity?

I do not wish to underestimate the current despair and fear of millions of ‘Americans,’ particularly those in the most vulnerable situations. Even I myself, in a relatively privileged position as a ‘documented immigrant’ in the US, am hesitant to write this piece. Still, Donald Trump’s election and the Brazilian parliamentary coup suggest that a collective transnational resistance against the current restructuring of global white supremacy depends on our collective capacity to understand the ‘deadly symbiosis’ of electoral politics, global geopolitics, and black captivities. We need to understand democracy’s antithetical relation to blackness not just in terms of black disenfranchisement from the ballot vote, but, more fundamentally, because, as Joy James has taught us, this is a political project founded on racial violence. In her own words, “there is no free space without penal or slave space.”[15]


About the Author: Jaime Alves is an assistant professor of Anthropology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York and a researcher affiliated at the Centro de Estudios Afrodiasporicos de la Universidad Icesi. He is also a member of UNEAFRO-BRASIL.


[1] Correio Braziliense.  Obama fala sobre a crise politica no Brasil. Available at http://www.correiobraziliense.com.br/app/noticia/mundo/2016/03/23/interna_mundo,523831/obama-fala-sobre-a-crise-politica-do-brasil-durante-visita-a-argentina.shtml  Accessed Nov 10, 2016.

[2] The White House press release. https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/09/22/readout-vice-president-bidens-meeting-president-michel-temer-brazil


[3] Alessandra Correa. BBC-Brasil. Brasil reduz fome, diz Banco Mundial. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/portuguese/noticias/2015/10/151009_reducao_pobreza_banco_mundial_ac_lgb Accessed October 20, 2015.

[4] Estadao. Sao Paulo registra um crime de odio por dia. Available at http://vejasp.abril.com.br/materia/sao-paulo-registra-1-crime-de-odio-por-hora

Accessed Nov 20, 2016.

[5] Gil Alessi. Entrevista Alexandre de Moraes. El Pais. Available at http://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2016/02/24/politica/1456347564_924918.html Accessed October 12, 2016.


[6] InfoPen. Levantamento Nacional de Informacoes Penitenciarias. Ministerio da Justica, Junho, 2014.


[7] See Council of Americas. Roundups: US-Brazil deals. Available at  http://www.as-coa.org/articles/roundup-us-brazil-deals-forged-during-rousseffs-washington-visit Access April 10, 2015.


[8] Human rights activists have insistently denounced the umbilical relations between the US School of Americas (now under the name Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and human rights violation in the continent. See SOA Watch http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/history/reports-citing/793-human-rights-implications-of-soawhinsec-training  Accessed September 10, 2016.


[9] Besides paramilitary groups, Afro-Colombians are also victimized by the Farc. Gilmer Genaro Garcia, head of community council of Alto Mira, in the Pacific coast was one of those killed by the Farc on August 3, 2015. For a comprehensive list of activists killed, please see  ‘Silenced: The murder of political activists in Colombia.’ Justice for Colombia. Available at: http://www.justiceforcolombia.org/resources/Silenced%20-%20Digital.pdf Accessed Nov 10, 2016.


[10] Democracy Now. Available at https://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled Accessed Nov 20, 2016.


[11] A discussion of the US-Brazil military cooperation and its racialized/gendered dimension is found in Joy James and Jaime Alves. Zones of “No-Being”: Favelas, Urban Blackness and Bi-national Geographies of Police Terror. (Unpublished Manuscript).


[12] See for instance Christian Parenti. Lockdown America: Police and prisons in the age of crisis (New York: Verso, 2000), p.106-110.


[13] Secretaria da Administracao Penitenciaria. Sao Paulo Prison Population. Available at http://www.sap.sp.gov.br/common/dti/estatisticas/populacao.htm Accessed Nov 10, 2014.

[14] Jaime Alves. Blackpolis: State Delinquency, Spatial  Governmentality and the Struggle for Black Urban Life in Brazil. (forthcoming,, U Minessotta Press).


[15] Joy James. States of Confinement: Policing, Detention and Prisons (New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000), pp.xxxv.