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Trump and the Native American vote

Trump and the Native American vote
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Improbably, there are Native Americans who support President TrumpDonald John TrumpJudge rules to not release Russia probe documents over Trump tweets Trump and advisers considering firing FBI director after election: WaPo Obama to campaign for Biden in Florida MORE’s reelection bid. Navajo Nation Vice President Myron Lizer praised Trump on the second day of the Republican National Convention. The Native Americans for Trump Facebook group have more than 3,500 likes, including one from a law school friend, Gavin Clarkson (Choctaw). A former law professor who briefly worked for the Trump administration, Clarkson lost to Mark Ronchetti in the New Mexico Republican primary to be a U.S. Senator. Still, throughout the campaign, Clarkson staunchly supported Trump and Trump’s policies.  

It is worth noting that Lizer and Clarkson are not reflective of where most Native Americans are politically. Most likely, most Native Americans will vote for Biden. Though Navajo Nation Vice President Lizer spoke at the Republican Convention, his boss, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. But what is remarkable is just how hard President Trump is making it for Nativ people to support him. 

On Oct. 9, President Trump issued a “Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2020,” that should lay to rest any notion that the President supports Natives or even sees them as people whose history matters. The proclamation celebrates Christopher Columbus as a “great Italian,” “a legendary figure,” and an “intrepid hero.” It attacks “radical activists [who] have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions.” For Trump, it is impossible to have two things at once. Any acknowledgment that he was a bad person in addition to an explorer is wrong. Columbus must be the hero who opened up the new world to European settlement, to those “who blazed the trails, settled a continent, tamed the wilderness, and built the single-greatest nation the world has ever seen.” 

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Though Trump labels those who question the celebration of Columbus as “radical activists” and “extremists,” it is worth pausing to consider Columbus’ “failings . . . atrocities . . . [and] transgressions.” The best place to start perhaps is Laurence Bergreen’s beautifully written book, "Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504." As Bergreen shows, the cruelties inflicted against the native inhabitants began almost immediately upon Columbus’ arrival to the new world. Over the period covered by Bergreen and as described in a Vox.com summary, Columbus kidnapped women so that his men could rape them, enslaved more than a thousand people, killed those who did not collect enough gold for him, and was complicit in the sale of nine and 10-year-old girls into sexual slavery. Columbus was a bad man who was known at the time. As The New York Times notes: “Columbus was roundly condemned by his own contemporaries, most damningly by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who . . . denounced the false promises and unbridled greed of Columbus and his colonialist followers, and recounted the near-total annihilation of the native population of Hispaniola within 50 years of the Europeans’ arrival.” 

Trump’s proclamation is an effort to put history back in the bottle, to pretend either that history should remain frozen in a sort of 1950s caricature of itself or that history and truth doesn't matter, that what matters is that we tell ourselves the right lies. The proclamation fits well with President Trump’s Sept. 22, “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” that decries “misrepresentations of our country’s history” and the teaching of “divisive concepts” related to race and gender subordination. 

But as offensive, as the proclamation is, it is on-brand. Trump thinks of President Andrew Jackson as his hero, has repeatedly used Pocahontas as a racial slur to attack a political rival, and stated, “they don’t look like Indians to me” in testimony before Congress as part a self-serving anti-Indian casino argument in 1993. 

Of course, it is possible to support Trump’s reelection, but for Natives doing so involves looking away from his hateful rhetoric — there is enough history there that one cannot pretend that Trump has not enhanced the racist rhetoric in our country. As long time conservative columnist George Will noted, “there is no such thing as rock bottom” when it comes to Trump. I am sure Native Americans who support Trump have reasons for their support, but the bad clearly outweighs the good. The latest salvo, Trump’s celebration of Columbus, is an example of Trump doubling down on a white-washed vision of the country that Indians especially should reject. 

Ezra Rosser is a law professor at American University Washington College of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @EzraRosser.