What Malcolm X Would Say About Donald Trump

We asked an expert what the black icon might have thought of Trump's plan to build a wall, ban Muslim immigration, and make America great again.

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May 20 2016, 3:45pm

Photo of Malcolm X by Ed Ford

Donald Trump will be the Republican Party's 2016 presidential nominee, which means he could well become the most powerful man on Earth. Given his extreme stances on issues that impact black and brown people (young blacks need more "spirit"), immigration (he wants to build his famous wall to keep out "rapists"), and terrorism (he wants to ban Muslim immigration and possibly put Muslim citizens in a database), it's easy to understand why so many young people are baffled that the divisive real estate mogul and reality TV star's candidacy has made it this far.

Of course, Trump isn't the first modern Republican candidate to lead a mainstream campaign so xenophobic it snagged the support of white supremacists. Back in 1964, Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater was backed by segments of the Ku Klux Klan. The infiltration of white supremacists into the center of the national conversation was no surprise to black nationalist Malcolm X back then, who felt the rise of Goldwater was not some aberration, but instead a reflection of core American values. In fact, in an op-ed in the Saturday Evening Post just weeks before the general election, Malcolm cynically wrote that Goldwater was better than Lyndon B. Johnson, the Democratic incumbent who had just passed the most important civil rights law in US history, because "black people at least know what they are dealing with."

(Both Trump and Goldwater eventually disavowed the KKK, but that did not stop fringe white supremacists from continuing to champion their candidacies.)

According to Zaheer Ali, a scholar and expert on Malcolm X, the 20th-century black icon may well have viewed Trump's candidacy in a similar vein, and might have argued he's just laying bare bigotry essential to American culture. Although it's always a bit dangerous to extrapolate on what historical figures like Malcolm X might say or do in a modern context—something Ali warned me about repeatedly—I think Malcolm's insight can be useful in sizing up what's happening right now in US politics and what the potential presidency of man like Trump means for black and brown people.

If Malcolm X were still with us, he would be celebrating his 91st birthday this week. His life was cut short on February 21, 1965, when he was assassinated by three members of Nation of Islam (NOI), a religious and political movement for which he once served as national spokesperson. Before his death, Malcolm X managed to channel the rage he had over being terrorized by white supremacy, first into crime, then into black nationalism with the Nation of Islam, and finally into a sort of global-minded humanism. It was through those life transitions that he acquired the wisdom reflected in his scathing analysis on the black experience in America.

To properly apply the philosophy and ideas of Malcolm X to the Trump question, I forced Malcolm X expert Zaheer Ali to venture deeper into the realm of conjecture. Here's how Ali thinks Malcolm X might view the positions of prospective presidential candidate Donald Trump in 2016.

VICE: There seems to be extreme anxiety around Trump possibly taking office. In a general sense, what would a potential Donald Trump presidency mean to Malcolm X?
Zaheer Ali: Malcolm X did not view American politics in the same dire circumstances that many of us do today. Malcolm X had transcended his American national identity. He was not an American nationalist—to that extent, he did not feel that his fate rested in the hands of whoever sat in the White House. Malcolm X argued for a transnational identity and movement for black people in the United States. He wanted to shift the black civil rights struggle to a human rights struggle, which elevates it to an international concern. To that end, Malcolm X spent much of the last years of his life abroad. In general, he did not think it was wise for black people in America to hang all of our hopes on the outcome of a presidential election. So it is important to think of his work as transcending the election cycle and the histrionics of an election. To Malcolm X, it was a long game.

OK. So Malcolm X saw white right-wing politicians like Trump as being not all that different from the white politicians on the left, since America is fundamentally a white-supremacist nation. And he didn't think blacks should confine our identity to national politics, since we're in a much bigger struggle. Does that mean Malcolm X might think it'd be a big waste of time to even cast a ballot against Trump in the 2016 election?
Well, he says a ballot is like bullet, and you don't waste your bullets. In other words, he thought people should organize and be very purposeful in how they vote. He thought you should vote, but just remember that voting should not be the only political act that you do. Mobilizing all of our political capital, resources, and power in one election is not a wise political move.

"We need to expand the civil rights struggle to a higher level—to the level of human rights... " —Malcolm X

I guess I've sort of taken for granted the idea that Malcolm X would be in complete opposition to Trump. But there are some things that maybe they'd agree on, like reigning in gun control? Or would he be like many modern black leaders, who want to see more gun control, because of the high rate of gun violence in black communities?
In 1964, he advocated for African Americans to own guns in order to defend themselves when the government had failed protect their lives and property. This is the context for Malcolm X's gun advocacy. So, to the degree that modern advocates of gun ownership rest their argument in the context of self-defense, there might be some convergence.

He would probably be very concerned about how regulations on the Second Amendment are deployed, considering the disproportionate focus and targeting of black communities by the law enforcement. Remember, after Malcolm X was assassinated, we saw the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans. We saw how structural inequality shaped the discourse, prosecution, conviction, and sentencing of African Americans. And a lot of this took place around discourse about stopping gang violence and crime in the black community, an effort some black lawmakers supported. Of course, these black leaders weren't calling for the criminalization of black people. Unfortunately, that is what we got. Because of this criminalization of blackness, I think Malcolm X would be weary of how new gun control laws might be disproportionately enforced in black communities.

"[I]n the areas where the government has proven itself either unwilling or unable to defend the lives and the property of Negroes, it's time for Negroes to defend themselves." —Malcolm X

Donald Trump doesn't offer the same kind of comprehensive plans for fighting structural racism as Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton. But he is a businessman, and his supporters say he knows how to create jobs, something black folks need since unemployment is over twice as high in the black community than in for whites. How do you think Malcolm X would view all of this?
Early on, Malcolm X embraced what he called an "economic philosophy of black nationalism," which he argued was black people controlling the economies of their communities. We know now that this model works most effectively when there's a segregated market that is sort of captive. At the end of the day, black-owned businesses on a hyper local scale are not going to solve unemployment, the high incarceration rate, or disparate wealth and income inequality. Not saying it shouldn't happen—it should happen. The more economic activity African Americans can engage with on any scale is beneficial. But what we need is a structural transformation. And Malcolm X was thinking about that towards the end of his life.

Later in his life, Malcolm grew increasingly critical of capitalism. There is one interview, where he says capitalism and racism are intertwined. So if we really want to address the inequality that black people are experiencing in the US, we have to talk about the way capital is organized, accessed, and distributed. In that respect, Bernie Sanders's ability to highlight that nature of the problem is something that I think is consistent with the kinds of questions Malcolm was raising toward the end of his life.


Photo via Wikimedia Commons. Originally published in Ebony Magazine.

Malcolm X was a Muslim. It's probably very different to be a Muslim in the aftermath of 9/11 than it was in the 1950s and 60s. After all, a big part of Trump's appeal to voters is his so-called tough stance on Islam, since he frames all followers as a potential threat. How do you think Malcolm X would have viewed all that?
When Malcolm X was was well aware how much of a target the convergence of his black and muslim identity made him. He was under FBI surveillance. When he traveled, he believed he was under CIA surveillance. He was targeted because of the way he practiced and preached Islam—it was a way that increased, enhanced, and nurtured his black nationalist politics.

When he was in Mecca, he wrote that he thought Islam could help America in its race problem. Because while he was there, he saw white Muslims, and he saw how Islam could help deconstruct the racial identity that he felt was at the root of social and cultural racism. He thought that if white Americans could adopt Islam, it could break their socially constructed identities as white people, which were an impediment to equality. He saw Islam as an asset to his liberation problem as a black man in America and America's crises with race. So he would have seen the attempts to demonize Islam and Muslims as an attempt to demonize and marginalize and silence something that was beneficial to black Americans and America in general.

Of course, he could not have predicted the rise of extremists who use the religion to commit acts of violence against innocent people. What he would have said in this context, I don't know. But Malcolm X was always critical of the way America exercised its power in the world in ways that created inequalities and imbalances. So he'd probably be critical of America's role in helping foster the emergence of extremism within Muslim communities. I think he would have been very clear in his critique of the American empire. But there is no evidence that he would have embraced the violence perpetrated by someone like ISIS, who hurt other Muslims.

"The economic philosophy of black nationalism is pure and simple. It only means that we should control the economy in our community."—Malcolm X

Women aren't crazy about Donald Trump. And for good reason. A recent New York Times piece ran down some of his unwanted or aggressive advances toward women, highlighting his penchant for focusing on physical appearance. He's also perceived as having a sort of 1950s-style patriarchal perspective. And he's known for sometimes being disrespectful to women who challenge him, like Fox's Megan Kelly. Where did Malcolm X stand with women? Was he more woke than Donald Trump?
Malcolm X was not a feminist. But he was moving in a direction of seeing the valuable role women could play in the movement of liberation.

The Nation of Islam's framework for gender was pretty conservative. It was a patriarchy. And I think Malcolm X was, at times, a kind of benevolent patriarch. He felt that black women should be celebrated and black beauty should be celebrated. It was in an objectifying way, but it was done to counter the stereotypes that existed of black people. Black women had to carry the burdens of the community in many ways and had to do so without the support of the men in their lives. They had often been rejected by the men in their lives because of white-supremacist standards of beauty. Malcolm X supported black women by placing them in positions of authority after he left the NOI, and he argued to other international Muslim leaders to do the same. So, he was someone who was always rethinking views and evolving.

One of the things interesting about Donald Trump is that he's given more progressive lip service to LGTB issues than other Republican candidates. He recently said he opposed North Carolina's bathroom law, for example. Of course, he's also (at least this year) against gay marriage and has expressed support for the First Amendment Defense Act, which would allow business to discriminate based on sexual orientation. Where did Malcolm X stand on the gays?
He came out of a political religious tradition that was heteronormative. That said, Malcolm X knew James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin, and he respected them. He thought they had much value to contribute to black people. How much he knew of their sexual orientation is unclear. But I don't think they hid it. What we can say is that Malcolm seemed to be moving to the point where everyone had something to contribute to freedom, justice, and equality. How far he would have gone with that, I don't know. And how that would have come in conflict with his own personal religious ideas, I can't say. There are probably people who would say Malcolm X would be very much against the kind of public legalization and legitimacy granted to LGBT people. But whatever Malcolm X's personal views may have been about LGBT issues, it did not stop him from engaging in substantive and productive interaction with people like James Baldwin and Bayard Rustin.


"A ballot is like a bullet. You don't throw your ballots until you see a target, and if that target is not within your reach, keep your ballot in your pocket."—Malcolm X

As you said, Malcolm X looked at the black experience from a global perspective. And in terms of foreign policy, he was very critical of our interventions across the globe, including the Vietnam War. Donald Trump has this whole American First concept within his campaign. Some people label it as sort of isolationist, as it's supposed to be about about ceasing some of our interventions into the problems of other countries and turning our focus back onto the US. Do you think that's the kind of thing that would appeal to Malcolm X?
To the extent that anyone is talking about reducing America's footprint in the world—and let's be clear, that foot has typically landed on the throat of black and brown people—that is a conversation Malcolm X would have welcomed.

But this is complicated. Because if Donald Trump's view of non-interventionism is coming from a perspective of America First, Malcolm's is coming from a position of Black People First. To the degree that America First aligns with Back People First, cool. But if America First elevates black people within the US, but hurts black people abroad, I don't think that is something Malcolm X would support.

Malcolm X was not interested in Making America Great Again, he wanted to check the growth of the American empire. Trump's isolationism seems born out of a kind of nativism. Whereas the non-interventionism that Malcolm X might have embraced would have been born out of a transnational solidarity with people from other parts of the world.

How do you think Malcolm X would respond to this idea that America was ever great?
He would have appended "for white people" to that phrase. Look at the post-war economic boom in the 1950s. This is the time when America was feeling itself as a superpower. It had been the only nation to drop an atomic bomb, so it had demonstrated its military might. The level of economic activity that the war produced was astronomical. The 1950s are also a point of reference for "the good old days," because Malcolm X's 1960s represents a decade of rupture from that narrative.

The problem is that the 1950s bliss was not enjoyed by African Americans. So if you mentioned making America great again to Malcolm X, I think he would say of course America was great, but not for us.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

All pull quotes taken from Malcolm X's "The Ballot or the Bullet" speech delivered April 3, 1964, in Cleveland, Ohio.

Zaheer Ali served as project manager of the Malcolm X Project (MXP) at Columbia University and contributed as a lead researcher for Manning Marable's Pulitzer Prize-winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention (2011).

For more information on Malcolm X, check out"The Autobiography of Malcolm X," "Malcolm X Speaks," "Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention,""The Portable Malcolm X Reader."

An earlier version of this article mischaracterized Malcolm X's stance on the private ownership of military grade weapons. Malcolm X was photographed in the 60s with a M1 carbine, which was a military weapon at the time.

Follow Wilbert L. Cooper on Twitter.

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