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Mainstream Media Obscure the Threat Posed by Trump’s Authoritarianism

The ruling elite use major media apparatuses as disimagination machines for tools of indoctrination.

Donald Trump attends his criminal trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 29, 2024, in New York City.

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If recent swing-state polls are to be believed, Donald Trump could be on his way to potentially being reelected president. He embodies the overt, brutal, punishing symptoms of the racism, class warfare, and attacks on youth and women that have marred the United States since its inception. Beneath these not-so-hidden authoritarian undercurrents lies neoliberalism’s erosion of and attacks on critical and civic education. This ideology is characterized by a staggering indifference to human needs, systemic racism, intensified class warfare, the fear of living with difference, and a profound obsession with instrumentalist methods, such as racially discriminatory and class-based “zero tolerance” policies, and teaching that focuses on standardized testing outcomes.

These issues have been exacerbated by a culture of “disimagination machines,” in which the ruling financial elite control all major media apparatuses. These tools of indoctrination relentlessly churn out manufactured ignorance and a shallow notion of self-interest, promoting a depoliticized notion of individualism. Additionally, these machineries of misinformation undermine the moral imagination’s power to empathize with the claims of others while undercutting the courage of individuals to see beyond the socially induced fog of a culture of immediacy. In this context, critical inquiry and thinking are divorced from the public imagination as sources of resistance. One consequence is that individuals and the larger public are thwarted from envisioning a future that advances democratic values of social and economic justice.

The educational force of U.S. society is now dominated by cultural and political institutions such as Fox News and conservative talk shows that erode any sense of shared citizenship, historical consciousness and common vision. No longer part of a moral, civic and ethical project, cultural politics has increasingly degenerated into a repressive corporate-controlled pedagogical apparatus. Functioning as a right-wing war machine, far right cultural platforms battle critical ideas, language, social relations and values that highlight the promise of radical democracy. Under such circumstances, cultural politics are dominated by observation posts of pedagogical repression, transforming what historian Robin D.G. Kelley labels “freedom dreams” into freedom’s nightmares.

Propaganda has become the political weapon of the 21st century, corrupting every form of education and every institution associated with the production of ideas, values and knowledge. This has undermined both the capacity for critical thinking and the concept of truth itself. The past does not simply live in the present; it is now being used to cancel out reason and justice as harbingers of a more democratic future. Furthermore, imagining a better world is no longer related to learning from the past. On the contrary, historical knowledge is now being erased as far right legislators ban ideas and subjects that reveal the legacy of slavery, Indigenous genocide, and repression. What Ralph Ellison once called “the shadows of our historical knowledge” are now being purged from public and higher education. No longer a crucial archive and “treasure trove of resources” that “gives shape and contour to present imaginings,” history and remembrance are being suppressed by the new McCarthyite assassins of memory, who engage in censorship, misinformation and political repression. What far right politicians and right-wing media make clear and want to suppress, as historian Tiya Miles observes, is that “U.S. history would not make sense without the study of slavery. Period.”

The powerful influence of manufactured ignorance isn’t confined to the morally and politically vacuous right. The liberal mainstream media rarely summon up the truth or journalistic integrity by attacking gangster capitalism or inviting truly informed commentators who have addressed the roots of U.S. fascism, criticized Israel’s war on Palestinians, addressed the plague of global neoliberalism, or analyzed the war on higher education. Nor do they uplift voices of those critical of the onslaught against reproductive rights, the attacks on oppositional journalists, the threat of nuclear war, the war on the ecological system, the far right war on democracy, the rise of the carceral state, and racial capitalism and systemic racism.

Functioning as a right-wing war machine, far right cultural platforms battle critical ideas, language, social relations and values of radical democracy.

The punishing state now wraps itself in mindless entertainment and cruel invective parading as political theater. Americans are bombarded with the babble of liberals who are too cowardly to name Trump as a fascist or as a racist, treating him as either a normal candidate or a bullying clown rather than as a symptom of a deeper malaise of fascism, echoing a pernicious and frightening past.

The culture of Google, Instagram, Facebook and X is the enemy of historical consciousness. It is a place where history as a repository of resistance and record of violence dies, along with the power to learn from the past. Historical consciousness, civic courage, and historic movements of resistance are diluted, if not erased, in a culture awash in misinformation and the cult of the self — a culture of willed and commodified ignorance. In such an environment, informed thinking vanishes amid a relentless image-based tsunami of advertisements, reality TV, game shows, and a regressive tide of commodification, atomization and privatization. The spectacle swallows any viable notion of critical agency, turning out zombies consumed with the emotional release and satisfaction that comes with the embrace of bigotry. MAGA hats are the new symbols of a death culture.

While there has been a historical tradition in the U.S. of civil rights advocates making education central to politics — especially with the emergence of Freedom Schools and the Highlander Folk School, among other popular cultural pedagogical institutions — too many on the left have neglected the importance of acknowledging the centrality of education to politics for years. In doing so, they have underestimated the pedagogical dimensions of struggle, the power of persuasion, and the pedagogical strategies necessary for challenging forms of domination and for shaping mass consciousness.

The culture of Google, Instagram, Facebook and X is a place where history as a repository of resistance and record of violence dies, along with the power to learn from the past.

The recognition that forms of domination are not merely structural but also intellectual and educational has once again emerged within the movements for Black lives, reproductive justice, LGBTQ rights and planetary justice. However, we must make the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical at all levels of society and in a wide range of institutions. With the exception of the vast work done in the field of cultural studies and critical pedagogy, many on the left have for too long downplayed matters of culture while focusing on structural analysis, often using jargon that sabotages their politics by functioning as a firewall of obscurity.

I am not suggesting that the broad left use language and modes of analysis that are overly simplistic. On the contrary, it is crucial for us to hold the bar of analysis high while still being rigorous and accessible, so that people can recognize themselves in the rhetoric of persuasion and calls for economic and social justice.

The U.S. is now home to a significant number of utterly reactionary, ignorant people who are complicit with a politics and social order that will ultimately destroy their dignity, welfare and agency — not to mention democracy itself. Authors George Orwell and Aldous Huxley could not have imagined a scenario where the merging of power and culture today works so insidiously to usher in fascism under the guise of electoral integrity. Trump and his followers have run the authoritarian gambit, supporting election fraud, aligning themselves with dictators, such as Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, calling for racial cleansing, threatening violence against Muslims and immigrants, embracing antisemitism, expressing a contempt for dissent, endorsing white Christian nationalism, calling for the jailing of alleged “enemies,” and expressing a contempt for democracy.

Novelist Sinclair Lewis’s purported statement made 80 years ago, “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross,” speaks presciently to a current brand of U.S. fascism that blends white Christian religious fundamentalism, ultranationalism, and a culture of lies and ignorance. This observation challenges the claim that fascism is limited to a specific historical period, suggesting that it offers no insights into the present. In The Black Hole of Auschwitz, Italian writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi rejects that view, asserting that the seeds of fascism are not only present in every society but are spread in a variety of ways, including through the use of a repressive culture and educational system. He writes:

Every age has its own fascism, and we see the warning signs wherever the concentration of power denies citizens the possibility and the means of expressing and acting on their own free will. There are many ways of reaching this point, and not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.

The forces of fascism at work in the U.S. have grown from an endless series of assaults on democracy. The memory of fascism and its consequences are disappearing with the erosion of historical memory and a politics of erasure, most evident in the GOP’s banning of books, repression of dissent and whitewashing of history. Racism, nativism and a culture of cruelty now shape the mission of schools at various levels while broadcasting an insidious pedagogy of bigotry, hatred and white nationalism through various circuits, platforms and channels of culture.

The forces of fascism at work in the U.S. have grown from an endless series of assaults on democracy.

Equally insidious is the presence of Vichy-like politicians and celebrities condemning young people in the U.S. fighting for Palestinian freedom while facing police violence. These same individuals ignore (if not perpetuate) some of the most serious problems facing the globe. As the blood flows and tens of thousands die in Gaza, with reports of mass graves of Palestinian civilians becoming more public, the mainstream media dismiss and disparage campus protesters as uninformed and antisemitic. These accusations often serve to cover up the genocide in Gaza while highlighting the alleged moral indignation of far right antisemites in the GOP, such as the bullying New York Rep. Elise Stefanik.

Attacks on campus protesters have also come from Trump, who claimed in a speech to wealthy donors that if elected in 2024, he would expel student demonstrators from the United States, asserting that many of them are foreign students. He also praised the New York City Police Department for forcibly removing the protesters from Columbia University. Instead of condemning Israel’s genocidal war against Palestinians, Trump stated that he supports Israel’s “war on terror,” while boasting of his support for Netanyahu’s Israel. Trump’s rhetoric of punishment and deportation is especially dangerous given his relentless admiration for dictators, support for authoritarian governance, and repeated calls for using state violence against his enemies, including Black people, immigrants and the dissident media. Moreover, Trump and his billionaire enablers despise democracy, aligning perfectly with Trump’s vision, as presented in a recent video, of a “unified Reich.”

Those that attack higher education institutions as bastions of radical leftists are often the same ones that believe that Trump won the 2020 election and remain silent about his indictments, his lying, his endless threats of violence and his embrace of the language of dictators. They’re also the same people who support the violent and racist rhetoric embraced by Trump and who claim, with no irony intended, that the people who ransacked the Capitol and carried out violence on January 6 are hostages instead of violent perpetrators. Individuals and groups who support this politically and morally bankrupt view of politics and education, including the indoctrination factories being produced in Florida and elsewhere, have nothing to be proud of. As enemies of democracy, they are either complicit in or willing to implement a counterrevolution in the U.S. against what they have rightly labeled (albeit for the wrong reasons) as the radical spirit of democracy embraced by various social movements in the 1960s.

The moral and political degeneracy depicted in the film The Zone of Interest is no longer merely a subject of entertainment or far right distortion. It is a stark reality that no longer hides in the shadows of history. The film focuses on the horror of Auschwitz, which takes place removed from the suffocating cocoon of moral and political indifference defining everyday life. It prompts the viewer to analyze the brutality of the concentration camps through conditions not readily seen or visible. Death and massive suffering are explored through the lens of invisibility. The film makes clear that those who remain silent, look away, or find solace in comforting lies have become akin to the “good Germans” who looked the other way in the 1930s. The brutality of a fascist past is with us once again, bolstered by a merging of manufactured ignorance, the collapse of civic consciousness, and a plague of historical and social memory loss that invites a future too horrible to contemplate.

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