The storming of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., by a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters, Trump’s condemnation of Vice President Mike Pence for refusing to intervene in the election process, and the attempt by a number of Republican politicians to promote conspiracy theories and dangerous propaganda in order to invalidate President-elect Joe Biden’s election provided yet another example that we no longer live in the shadow of authoritarianism and have tipped over into the abyss. Under Trump’s rule, lies, ignorance, encouragement of white supremacy and a thirst for violence have taken on a more lethal direction. Within the last few years, it has moved from violence waged against immigrants, Black and Brown people, and the poor to the violence of a right-wing mob attacking the police, rampaging through the Capitol and occupying the House and Senate chambers. Trump not only advertised a call for a demonstration among his supporters, he also brought to the event a history of encouraging his supporters to express themselves through violence.
The mob’s actions followed a speech in which Trump once again claimed the election was fraudulent, and he urged the crowd to march on the Capitol. What Trump and the mob shared was their hatred of democracy, however fragile, and the discredited belief that the election was stolen. In the aftermath of the mob violence, Trump sent out a series of tweets supporting the actions of the violent mob, only to be later removed by Twitter. At the same time, the domestic terrorism that took place on January 6 was about more than Trump’s lies and his use of language in the service of violence. It is also about a new political formation called Trumpism, with its mix of white supremacy, voter suppression, market fundamentalism and authoritarianism. Trumpism will have an afterlife long after Trump leaves the White House.
This counterrevolution had been building for years in the dark recesses of conspiracy theories, lies, white rage and a hatred of those considered “enemies of the people.” Biden called it an insurrection, making it clear that Trump, through his language of denial and incitement, had poured gasoline on a fire, particularly evident in the speech he gave before the mob stormed the Capitol building. This was Trumpism in full bloom, with all of its ignorance, hatred and penchant for lawlessness on full display. But it also testified to the notion that fascism begins with language and ends with violence. The mob violence aimed at shutting down the counting of electoral ballots was reminiscent of the thugs that roamed the streets of Germany in the 1930s attempting to brutalize dissenters and those considered “other” in the absurd Nazi notion of racial and political cleansing. Trump has unleashed his fascist impulses consistently through the language of violence and divisiveness aided by the right-wing media, such as Fox News, Breitbart and others. Under the Trump administration, ignorance has turned lethal. Moreover, as David Theo Goldberg has argued, “politics today is nothing short of a civil war” marked by divisions and disunity in which life for most of the inhabitants of the United States becomes both unbearable and dangerous.
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This is not surprising given Trump’s support and display of affection (“We love you!“) and allegiance to an array of neofascists and right-wing extremists, many of whom marched on the Capitol building. More specifically, Trumpism is the culmination of a cultural and fascist politics that has been evolving and intensifying for years through the incitement of lies, conspiracy theories, and the heated rhetoric of racism and a brutal war on the welfare state and working-class people. The acts of domestic terrorism on display in the storming of the Capitol reach far beyond the toxic personal politics, incompetency and corruption of Trump himself. Such violence has a long history in the U.S. and has been normalized under the aegis of Trumpism as a right-wing populist movement, which Trump brought to the surface of American politics as a badge of honor. The violence in Washington, D.C., did not begin with the march by right-wing fanatics and white supremacists; it erupted more openly with Trump in 2016 when he seized upon and manipulated the fears of powerless whites and white supremacists who imagined themselves as under siege and as oppressed outsiders. For four years, he has incited violence through attempts to inspire and energize his white supremacist and fascist followers.
Every era produces a language and cultural markers that offer insights into its politics, values, and vision of the past, present and future. This is especially true regarding the economic, public, and cultural influence of the Trump presidency and mode of governance. Trumpism is not limited to the personal behavior of Trump. It refers less to a person than to a dangerous movement and social base that operates as a social pathology whose endpoint is the destruction of democracy itself. As a new cultural and political construct, Trumpism merges a ruthless capitalist rationality, widening inequality and a commitment to white supremacy. These forces have deep historical roots in the United States. However, what is distinctive is that they have congealed into a unique political and cultural formation under the Trump regime marked by an emotively charged, spectacularized and updated form of authoritarianism that echoes elements of a fascist past. In the current historical moment, Trumpism has intensified and quickened the dark forces of hate, racism, ultranationalism and white nationalism.
At the same time, Trump has merged the mobilizing passions of an updated fascist politics with the financial institutions and regressive values of capitalism in order to undermine democratic institutions and values. Trump’s presidency has its roots in the long-standing history of economic inequality, racial injustice, nativism and a war on the social state, while Trumpism as a social movement emerged from the shadows of history, revealing fascist elements that moved from the margins to the centers of power.
At the heart of Trumpism is a shocking political and ideological system of repression created by a hateful, heartless, lying president who, as journalist Masha Gessen argues, “taught Americans that no one will take care of us, our parents, and our children, because our lives are worthless, disposable … that this country is a dangerous place [and that] we are forever on the brink of disaster and that no one will protect us, whether from illness or economic hardship.” Trumpism has accelerated a culture of fear while using a variety of tools of repression — ranging from mass incarceration, surveillance and police brutality to a full-fledged attack on those who would bring reality into play and hold power accountable — to enforce a worldview in which lawlessness and political corruption have become the order of the day.
Trumpism is an ongoing historical and political interlude dominated by a language of forgetting, moral irresponsibility and the spectacle of cruelty and violence. It occupies what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called the interregnum between “the old world [which] is dying, and [a] new world [struggling] to be born.” Trumpism is the in-between or third space between the old and the new in which “a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” While it is not clear what is being born, it is obvious that the struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and new modes of collective resistance have taken on a new urgency. This is especially true as Trump, about to leave office, defends the legacy of the Confederacy; spews lies about the legitimacy of a free and fair presidential election, which he lost; pardons war criminals, corrupt politicians, loyalists and personal friends; and threatens to use martial law to force a new election.
As journalist Jennifer Evans observes, Trump may have lost the election, “but Trumpism is alive and well, along with the conditions that propelled him to power in the first place. At best, the post-election future might be one of regrouping and rebuilding; at worst, there will be more challenges to legal norms and truths by the outgoing president and the Republican Party.” As the enemy of democracy, Trumpism is a mix of a capacious authoritarian ideology, a right-wing propaganda machine and a fascist ethos. Its power and influence far exceed Trump’s presidency, and it will not come to an end with the election of Biden. In its afterlife, it will continue to sabotage democracy in the name of minority rule and its only endpoint is the tyranny of authoritarianism. As an anti-democratic ethos, it has opened a political chasm in which any attempt to unify the nation appears almost impossible. Trump’s relentless politics of divisiveness is a toxic platform for inciting violence, affirming a culture of cruelty, and promoting a politics of exclusion and racial purification.
Trump’s extremist supporters, like the Proud Boys, not only need someone to blame for their seething resentment of immigrants and Black and Brown people, they also value violence as the only cathartic remedy available to offer them any sense of resolve, emotional relief and gratification. There is more at work here than a long-standing assault on the truth, reality and democracy. There is also an embrace of the more dangerous elements of a fascist politics with its regressive authoritarian impulses and its embrace of politics as an extension of war, and violence as the ultimate register of battle in which there are only winners and losers.
Trumpism exhibited no concern for the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands infected and dying from COVID-19 — all the more appalling since the deadly effects of the raging pandemic were largely the result of the bungling leadership of an administration that chose conspiracy theories over science, replaced the authority of public health officials with Fox News incompetents, and lied about the severity of a virus that spread through the population and across the globe like an out-of-control wildfire. As a death-dealing form of cultural politics, Trumpism further removed the government from any sense of social responsibility. National leadership disappeared both with respect to controlling the spread of the virus and organizing the vaccination campaign. Instead, apathy, cruelty and moral indifference were elevated to a central mode of governance. In another example, Trump and his army of sycophants and cult followers remained shockingly silent in the face of the murder a young woman, Heather Heyer, who was killed protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia, against neo-Nazis. In addition, indifferent to human suffering, Trump and his white supremacist senior speech writer Stephen Miller delighted in enacting unjust travel bans, cruel deportation laws and the separation and caging of migrant children who have experienced conditions defined as “horrific” in a detailed report by Americans for Immigrant Justice.
Trump’s election and reign of power made clear not only that authoritarianism was once more on the march, but also that a new and revised form of fascist politics had emerged in the United States, mimicking a similar pattern abroad. Of course, the seeds for this updated model of authoritarianism had long been in the making under capitalism, especially since the 1970s, with its marriage of money and politics and its willingness to make corruption and inequality an instrument of control. While systemic racism has always been present in the U.S., Trump brought it out of the shadows and used it to spectacularize the call for violence, “law and order” and a defense of the shameful legacy of the Confederacy. Under Trump, the merging of power and repression no longer hid in the quiet whispers of a “polite” bigotry but became glaringly visible given Trump’s claim to holding what appeared to be a call for unchecked power and the right to exercise flagrant acts of lawlessness.
Under the reign of Trumpism, the merging of power, repression and corruption was mobilized increasingly in the political and cultural spheres in order to both shape public consciousness and to undermine, if not destroy, any institution that held authority to a measure of accountability. As The New Yorker’s Gessen writes in describing Trump’s presidency:
In plain view, Trump was flaunting, ignoring, and destroying all institutions of accountability. In plain view, he was degrading political speech. In plain view, he was using his office to enrich himself. In plain view, he was courting dictator after dictator. In plain view, he was promoting xenophobic conspiracy theories, now claiming that millions of immigrants voting illegally had cost him the popular vote; now insisting, repeatedly, that Obama had had him wiretapped. All of this, though plainly visible, was unfathomable, as Trump’s election itself had been.
Trumpism is focused on not only capturing institutions of the state for personal and political gain, but also redefining and controlling language, the social media and popular culture as a way of emptying politics of any substance by turning it into a spectacle. Language now operates in the service of violence, and all forms of criticism are relegated to the category of “fake news,” unworthy of serious reflection or critical analysis. Trumpism at its core is a cultural politics that shreds any viable notion of shared values, national unity, and in doing so, transforms essential human connections into bonds of distrust and fear. It views the space of the social, common good and democratic values as a register of weakness and resentment bristling with hatred if not a seething logic of disposability.
The distinctiveness of Trump’s reign, however debated, emerged as a new political formation, increasingly defined as Trumpism, and came to signify a merging of power, culture, politics and everyday life that combined the harshest elements of a cut-throat global capitalism with the lingering malignancy of neofascist forces that ranged from “white supremacist, white nationalists, militia, and neo-Nazis and Klans, to the Oath Keepers, the Patriot Movement, Christian fundamentalists, and anti-immigrant vigilante groups,” according to William I. Robinson’s The Global Police State. Molded in the language of populist, racist and authoritarian nationalism, Trumpism gave birth to a tsunami of repressive political, economic and social policies that moved from the margins of society to the White House and to state and local governments around the country. For instance, voter suppression and border terrorism were embraced as legitimate policy measures. The children of undocumented immigrants were put in cages, walls emerged as a normalizing symbol of nativism, state terrorism defined the role of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and became visible in the use of military forces to attack peaceful demonstrators in cities such as Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C. As the social state came under severe attack, the punishing state grew with its ongoing militarization of civil society and its increasing criminalization of social problems. War, dehumanization, divisiveness, hate and the language of racial cleansing and sorting became central governing principles and set the stage for the rebirth of an updated fascist politics.
Trumpism reached into every niche and crack of civil and political society and in doing so cross-pollinated politics, culture and everyday life with a range of right-wing policies, authoritarian impulses and the emerging presence of right-wing movements. Right-wing militia were now used to patrol the southern border of the United States, authoritarian forms of parliamentary state governments wrapped in the mantle of democratic elections waged wars on people of color through voter suppression laws, and, the Republican Party mobilized by an unmitigated hatred of democracy and support for minority government, became the political arm of Trumpism, embracing the dictates of white nationalism, white supremacy and an unapologetic right-wing version of American exceptionalism. Increasingly, near the end of Trump’s term, many members of the party voiced attempts to overthrow an American election based on bogus conspiracy theories and no evidence of fraud, which in some cases appears to come close to committing a criminal act of sedition. The violence, racism, bigotry and lawlessness that marked the assault on the Capitol represent the new face of a politics inhabited by “genuine fanatics and ideologues” who in their undying loyalty to Trump and their own need for power prove that “cowardice is contagious.”
Trumpism on one level emerged out of the crisis of transnational neoliberalism which could no longer lay claim to democratic values while concentrating wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class, all the while further accelerating wars and an unprecedented degree of economic inequality in wealth, income and power worldwide. While many critics have defined Trumpism in terms of its debasing, toxic language and cruel policies — all of which are important issues — few have analyzed it as a pedagogical practice whose impact on political culture redefined and reshaped the collective consciousness of millions who embraced Trumpism more as a cult than as an ideology fabricated in lies, false promises and authoritarian populism, according to Federico Finchelstein’s A Brief History of Fascist Lies. Trump’s egregious bungling of the COVID-19 crisis, which cost the lives of over 300,000 by the end of 2020, his “disdain for immigrants, for women, for disabled people, for people of color, for Muslims — for anyone who isn’t an able-bodied white straight American born male,” according to Gessen’s Surviving Autocracy, and his blunt embrace of ignorance have had lethal consequences. Yet, his actions did little to undermine his base of support. In mobilizing the support of over 74 million Americans, Trumpism made clear that changing consciousness through his use of social media and right-wing cultural apparatuses were more persuasive politically and ideologically than the use of military force.
What this suggests is that politics follows culture and the struggle over the hearts and minds of people is the first step in creating the social base to support a fascist politics in which justice dies, language loses its moral and critical bearings, and the right to lie becomes a virtue. Massive inequality has made the struggle to survive a central component of everyday life for millions. In this instance, what is at risk is not just the ability to fulfill basic needs, but the very nature of one’s identity, dignity and sense of agency. Trumpism created a culture that induced a moral and political blackout, legitimated by a sycophantic, Vichy-like Republican Party and normalized by a right-wing corporate-controlled mainstream social media. Trumpism is a giant pedagogical disinformation machine whose aim is to colonize culture, public consciousness, and undermine any viable form of robust and critical modes of agency, identification and solidarity.
Trumpism is a pedagogical tool and cultural force designed to reshape the public sphere by emptying it of democratic values along with destroying the institutions that nurture critical thought and civic courage. How else to explain Trump’s reactionary call for “patriotic education,” and his disdain for The New York Times’s “1619” educational project which attempted to place the history of slavery and the achievements of Black Americans at the center of history? In addition, there is his concerted effort to destroy public education with the appointment of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a publicly acknowledged sworn enemy of public schooling and higher education. Unsurprisingly, The New York Times editorial board described DeVos “as perhaps the most disastrous leader in the Education Department’s history.”
Under Trumpism, the centrality of education to politics became obvious with the growing use of 21st-century cultural apparatuses such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, along with media outlets, such as Fox News, Newsmax and Breitbart. These pedagogical apparatuses produced a distinctive cultural space that furthered the marriage of power and manufactured civic illiteracy and worked to eliminate the crucial question of what civic education and literacy should accomplish in a democracy. Favoring instant reactions and a culture of immediacy, the new media and new image-based cultural forms turned chaos, catastrophe and collapse into a spectacle that called forth instant gratification, along with a kind of “digital sublime” in which such platforms are “mythologized as both convenient and infallible.” Flooding the media ecosphere with lies, misrepresentations, and dangerous (if not deadly) falsehoods, these new cultural-pedagogical apparatuses packaged hate and undermined the critical role of intellectuals, journalists, experts, and other voices working on the side of truth, evidence and meaningful authority, according to journalist Matt Taibbi’s Hate Inc. Regardless of design, one outcome was to undermine and weaken traditional markers of freedom of expression and democracy.
Trumpism performs politics as a form of entertainment and digital drama. It does so by transforming the political realm and society into a form of spectacularized theater, not unlike what French Marxist theorist Guy Debord once called a “society of the spectacle.” As a right-wing cultural apparatus, spectacle of disintegration, and tribal ethos, Trumpian politics becomes an all-encompassing tool of propaganda and pedagogy of repression, functioning as a form of cultural politics under the control of a corporate elite. As a reactionary cultural and pedagogical conduit, Trumpism undermines critical dialogue, shared values, shared responsibilities and informed judgments, while promoting authoritarian narratives that disdain historical consciousness, critical thinking, and the idea, if not principles, of participatory democracy. Hard boundaries, precarity, a culture of fear, untrampled individualism, an all-encompassing ethos of self-help, and a profound unease constitute the currency of Trumpism. In this instance, economic justice, meaningful solidarities and the common good are removed from the discourse of politics and citizenship.