Former President Donald Trump has achieved a unique status in United States history. He is the first president to be indicted for conspiring to overturn a presidential election, defraud the U.S. and obstruct official proceedings by attempting to subvert the peaceful transfer of power.
It’s now a matter of public record that Trump faces four indictments and 91 felony counts for his criminal behavior. As Alan Feuer and Maggie Haberman point out in The New York Times, the charges clearly depict how “Trump promoted false claims of fraud, sought to bend the Justice Department toward supporting those claims and oversaw a scheme to create false slates of electors pledged to him in states that were actually won by Joseph R. Biden Jr.” And Special Counsel Jack Smith has shown that Trump’s lies played a central role in his “unprecedented assault” on the U.S. Capitol and democracy; indeed, he argues, Trump’s criminal actions were “fueled by lies.”
In addition to legitimating false claims about a stolen presidential election, Trump’s vitriolic and dehumanizing rhetoric has also contributed to an unprecedented culture of misinformation and truth-denying that has become so widespread since 2016 that it’s now a central feature of politics and a defining condition of the widespread violence, lawlessness and militarization shaping U.S. society. Trump’s spreading of misinformation is well known and documented. The Washington Post has diligently tracked his lying, documenting that, from 2016 to the end of his presidency, he made “30,573 … false or misleading statements … averaging about 39 claims a day in his final year.”
The lies embraced by demagogues such as Trump do more than distort meaning, turn truth to ashes and spread misinformation. As Ariel Dorfman observes, they also “exhibit a toxic mix of ignorance and mendacity,” while legitimizing and reproducing a vocabulary and culture that revels in unrestricted power, cruelty, terror and “homicidal extremes.” This is a language through which power is enacted; a language in which agency is made manifest “as an act with [often deadly] consequences.” This is a rhetoric that emerges from living corpses whose mouths are filled with blood. As novelist and civil rights activist Toni Morrison pointed out in her Nobel Prize-winning speech, this is a dead language, “though not without effect.” She writes that, at its core, it is a language that:
actively thwarts the intellect, stalls conscience, suppresses human potential.… It cannot form or tolerate new ideas, shape other thoughts, tell another story, fill baffling silences.… It is the language that drinks blood, laps vulnerabilities, tucks its fascist boots under crinolines of respectability and patriotism as it moves relentlessly toward the bottom line and the bottomed-out mind.
Trump’s lies cannot be separated from the language of violence and its ongoing attempts to instill fear, promote threats against alleged opponents and inspire violence from his MAGA followers. His lies are inseparable from the creation of a language that promotes a lethal formative culture that wallows in the blood of those viewed as disposable, and that produces deranged anger and unchecked despair. Trump’s use of an inflammatory violent rhetoric to obtain political power feeds the GOP call for civil war and accelerates the arming of political extremists such as the Proud Boys, the Patriot movement and a heavily militarized police force.
Trump’s relentless use of the language of fear, bigotry, racial hatred and menace does more than accentuate a deeply polarized U.S. public; it also contributes, as Andrea Mazzarino observes, to a militarized culture of violence obvious, in part, in the plague of gun ownership. How else to explain the fact that “one in five American households have a weapon, nearly 400 million of them, and that weaponry is only growing more deadly.”
Under such circumstances and within a social order in which violence has become an organizing principle of politics and society, members of the Republican Party and other MAGA followers have become more willing to accept violence in the service of political power, most evident in the events leading to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. They are also willing to normalize mass shootings in the name of gun rights, accept the incorporation of extremist groups into the highest levels of power and normalize the use of violence to obtain political power regardless of the cost. Some members of Congress show their support for gun violence (under the false pretense of defending the Second Amendment) by wearing lapel pins in the shape of AR-15 rifles. This is an act of moral and political degeneracy that embraces the perfect symbol for a political party that is ethically and politically nihilistic and embodies a fascist politics, displaying an unfathomable disrespect to the children and individuals killed by such guns in the United States. As Anisha Kohli reminds us in Time Magazine, the “AR-15-style semi-automatic rifles have been used in most of the high profile mass shootings in recent years, including at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas; Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Conn.; and the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.”
Trump’s embrace of lies and violence have produced an unrelenting series of shocks to the body politic and its democratic ideals. Violence that was once considered inconceivable and relegated to the margins of society now passes for normal. As Trump’s violent rhetoric accelerates, actual acts of violence “have become a steady reality of American life, affecting school board officials, election workers, flight attendants, librarians and even members of Congress, often with few headlines and little reaction from politicians.” David French notes that death threats have surged across the U.S. He writes:
Death threats have surged across the country. As terrorists realize death threats work, they are using them more often — including against Republicans who voted for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package. Death threats to congresspeople doubled by May of last year, compared to the year before. “These are not one-off incidents,” according to Vox, “Surveys have found that 17 percent of America’s local election officials and nearly 12 percent of its public health workforce have been threatened due to their jobs during the 2020 election cycle and Covid-19 pandemic.” Reuters tracked more than 850 individual threats against local election workers by Trump supporters last year, up from essentially zero in previous elections.
Right-wing extremists have escalated their use of death threats against those who either oppose or criticize Trump, with a special bile reserved for threatening immigrants and Black people. The targets of the death threats include politicians, health workers, local election workers, journalists, teachers and members of the justice system engaged in holding Trump accountable for his crimes. In a culture that barely tolerates dissent and increasingly confuses the truth with falsehoods, it’s not surprising that Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago who studies political violence, found that “between 15 million and 20 million American adults believe that violence would be justified to return Mr. Trump to office.”
The plunge into a culture of irrationality fueled by Trump’s lies has upended assumptions regarding the rejection of violence as a governing principle and the necessity of recognizing that a democracy cannot exist without informed citizens. In the MAGA world, ignorance has become the new civic standard, and justice and injustice collapse into each other.
In Trump’s worldview, the opposition is not to be debated, it is to be destroyed, eliminated. This friend/enemy distinction reinforces the notion that a pledge of loyalty to Trump is comparable to becoming part of a militarized army engaged in war. In this discourse, violence is equated with power, and brutality becomes a measure of loyalty. Reason is now replaced with loyalty, and loyalty becomes the medium to “deploy sadism by bullying and humiliating others.” How else to explain the increasing use of threats of war coupled with violent language and imagery by Republicans attacking politicians, justice officials and prosecutors who have held Trump accountable for his crimes. According to GOP extremists such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, former political candidate Kari Lake and Trump associate Roger Stone, such actions mean, as former Trump adviser Steve Bannon puts it, that “we’re at war.”
Moreover, Trump continues to broadcast the message that if he’s held accountable by the criminal legal system for spreading his relentless lies and threats, he will, if elected, enact revenge, punishment and violence. He has repeatedly told the U.S. “that if he doesn’t get his way — regardless of democratic norms like elections or the rule of law —” then the consequences will be violence.
Such rhetoric does more than pour fuel on the fire of extremism. In the face of Trump’s ongoing lies about a stolen election and his ensuing violent discourse, the nation increasingly inches toward a point where the lie of a stolen election can easily lead to increasing support for an expanding military-industrial-surveillance complex and “a massive increase in its militarized policies.” While Trump has repeatedly distanced himself from surging acts of violence against people of color and others by his followers, his rhetoric serves as a source of inspiration for these perpetrators, encouraging them to engage in violence that is too heinous to ignore. For example, an exhaustive study by ABC News identified “at least 54 criminal cases where Trump was invoked in direct connection with violent acts, threats of violence or allegations of assault.” Mike Levine provides some concrete examples of some of these Trump inspired acts. He writes:
After a Latino gas station attendant in Gainesville, Florida, was suddenly punched in the head by a white man, the victim could be heard on surveillance camera recounting the attacker’s own words: “He said, ‘This is for Trump.'” Charges were filed but the victim stopped pursuing them. When police questioned a Washington state man about his threats to kill a local Syrian-born man, the suspect told police he wanted the victim to “get out of my country,” adding, “That’s why I like Trump.”
Needless to say, Trump has a long history of using dehumanizing language which is often connected to encouraging violence. While Ishaan Tharoor has rightly labeled his language as polarizing, it’s more accurate to describe Trump’s racist rhetoric as both potentially violent and part of his broader political project of waging a race war, if not a broader civil war. A central element of his war rhetoric and race-baiting is a belief in white nationalism and the toxic assumption that only white people can occupy the mantle of full U.S. citizenship. At work in this discourse are pathological levels of demagoguery and white anger that fuel dangerous levels of racial terrorism “based on the fear — the terrifying eternal fear — of living with difference.”
Journalist Roger Cohen is right in stating that Trump “has inured people to the thread of violence and meanness lurking in almost every utterance; or worse he has started to make them relish it. He has habituated Americans to buffoonery and lies.” Most importantly, Trump’s language of denigration does not merely serve to mistreat people, it’s also code for eliminating them.
Indeed, under Trump’s leadership, violence under the cover of systemic lies has become a mediating force in shaping social relations, particularly in eroding democratic values and social bonds. Put differently, violence has become the preferred weapon of the isolated, ignorant, bigoted, corrupt and white supremacist. At work here is a cynical sneer at racial justice, equality and freedom that Judith Butler calls a “righteous coldness” in her 2009 book Frames of War. The current historical moment valorizes cruelty and suffering, which art has turned into a form of spectacle, political performance and a poisonous set of policies, all of which are rooted in a long history of systemic racism and violence.
Words have consequences, and Trump’s language echoes a fascist pedagogy of racial purity that enables people to think and act on the unthinkable and unactionable. He has not only called immigrants rapists; he has further suggested that they be shot in the legs in order to prevent them from crossing the border. He has urged the police to engage in physical violence when arresting people and encourages violence both at his campaign rallies and in his online messages on both X (formerly known as Twitter) and his Truth Social platform. Michael Gerson sums up well some examples of Trump’s legacy of threats, menace, brutality and dehumanization. He writes:
Trump has made a point of encouraging violence against protesters at his rallies (“knock the crap out of them”), excusing violence by his supporters (people “with tremendous passion and love for their country”) and generally acting like a two-bit mob boss. He publicly supported Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager charged with homicide in the killing of two people in Kenosha, Wis. (Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty.) He embraced Mark and Patricia McCloskey for brandishing guns at peaceful marchers in St. Louis. He deployed federal security forces to break heads in Lafayette Square.
Not only do the mainstream media pay little attention to the connection between Trump’s serial lying and the growing violence emerging in the U.S., they also underemphasize the racism and white supremacy at the heart of Trump’s defense of his lies and the accompanying threats he has directed at Black politicians, lawyers, prosecutors and election workers, all of which serve to give fascism a smooth edge. These threats are particularly worrisome in a climate in which Trump and his MAGA allies have convinced two-thirds of Republicans that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
In addition, the power of such threats is intensified in a society in which Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, and their allies spread the white supremacist conspiracy theory that whites are being “replaced” by immigrants and people of color (a lie used to fuel their calls for a U.S. that is white, indifferent to racism, massively unequal and characterized by widespread human misery). While this racist discourse is not new, Trump and his colleagues have given racism and extreme violence a new visibility. They have deepened and expanded what Etienne Balibar in his 2015 book Violence and Civility has called “death zones of humanity” fueled by the capitalist machineries of social irresponsibility and zones of social abandonment.
This view of the past is part of the discourse of historical erasure and social amnesia. Not only does historical memory disappear in this resurging narrative, but history is also rewritten in the language of domination and repression which reproduces an inchoate nostalgia for a time in which Black people, women, immigrants, and others considered disposable or deviant are imagined to have known and willingly accepted their place, and whiteness was not only a mark of privilege but also a defining principle of power, citizenship and governance.
The unchecked irrationality and threats that inform Trump’s lies and his attempt to defend them reveal not only his authoritarian tendencies, but also his deep-seated racism and his attempts to model politics as a form of governing through crime. Governing through crime translates into the criminalization of social problems, marginalized cultures and dissent itself, all of which, as racial justice activist Angela Y. Davis notes in her 2005 book Abolition Democracy, provides “a haven for the inheritances of racism.”
Trump’s aggressive racist attacks on Black prosecutors and lawyers resurrects the language of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan, which portrayed Black people as being not fully human. In part, Trump’s racist tirades and attacks on display in the Georgia case against him serve as a backlash against his attempts to disenfranchise people of color. It’s no secret that Trump’s lies about voter fraud were largely aimed at major cities with substantial nonwhite populations: Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Detroit, Phoenix and, of course, Atlanta. As Carol Anderson argues, Trump’s attack on voting rights in Georgia and other states was part of an attempt to say that “the votes of minorities were illegitimate, like they weren’t real Americans. It was the same kind of assault that we saw in the Jim Crow era, that those weren’t real Americans and their votes didn’t count.” In the face of charges of racism, Trump has resorted to spewing lies and racist comments about a number of highly visible Black district attorneys, prosecutors and electoral workers. Janell Ross provides examples of a number of these racist attacks on officials of color. She writes:
Trump has called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who is prosecuting him for allegedly paying hush money to an adult film star, a racist, an animal, and a thug…. He has characterized Judge Juan Merchan, the acting justice of the New York State Supreme Court overseeing the hush-money case, and Judge Tanya Chutkan, the federal jurist in Washington, D.C., overseeing the Jan. 6 case, as irreparably biased rule breakers with some flourishes suggesting incompetence and anger. He has deemed New York State Attorney General Letitia James, the official behind a civil probe of his business and charities, “a radical” and a “racist.” And on other occasions, he’s referred to Willis as “rabid” and reared by a family “steeped in hate,” an extreme description of her retired lawyer father who was also, for a time, a Black Panther.
It gets worse. Trump has made malicious claims about the Black prosecutors’ personal lives, “deployed terms that rhyme with racial slurs,” and called New York Attorney General Letitia James, a “Racist A.G. Letitia ‘Peekaboo’ James,” deploying a nickname similar to a term used to insult Black people.” His attacks on Georgia attorney Fani Willis have been so vicious that she was assigned increased protection at her home and office.
Trump has also unleashed this mix of lies and threats of violence against ordinary individuals who hold minor government jobs. For example, Trump and Giuliani spread vicious lies about Ruby Freeman and her daughter Shaye Moss, two Black election workers in Fulton County, Georgia. The false claims, endlessly repeated by Guiliani and later retracted, stated that the two Georgia women mishandled ballots while counting votes, passed around “USB ports” that resembled “vials of heroin or cocaine,” and helped swing votes in Georgia in favor of Joe Biden.
As Fintan O’Toole reported in The New York Review of Books, “Trump claimed that Freeman was ‘a professional vote scammer and hustler,’ that ‘she stuffed the ballot boxes,’ and that … ‘Freeman, her daughter, and others were responsible for fraudulently awarding at least 18,000 ballots’ to Joe Biden.” Fintan notes that “It was no accident that many of the pro-Trump attacks on Freeman and Moss on social media not only used racist epithets but explicitly called for them to be lynched: ‘YOU SHOULD BE HUNG OR SHOT FOR YOUR CRIMES.’”
As a result of the false charges made by Trump and Guiliani, Georgia opened a criminal investigation into Freeman and Moss, greatly threatening their identities, jobs and reputations. After two harrowing years, both women were completely exonerated.
Racism and violence are the core elements at work in Trump’s endless barrage of lies. As Eli Zaretsky notes, “Trump’s racism is linked to his willingness to deploy violence in order to foster identification.” Trump’s lies became the vehicle for bringing “together large numbers of people who would have liked to lash out but didn’t have the courage. He made them feel that their anger and contempt [especially toward people of color] — whatever its source — was legitimate. And, very importantly, he convinced people viscerally that the norms of civilized society were part of a rigged system.” Trump’s cultivation of mob instincts and his repeated lies and violence now shape and define much of the Republican Party.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that his legal troubles are the fault of Black prosecutors, whom he has called “racists,” “horrible people” and “mentally sick.” Riding the politics of white grievance, Trump has stoked white supremacist claims that people of color are taking power and will exact revenge on white people. To fully understand Trump’s claim “that there were fine people on both sides,” regarding the 2017 neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia, it’s crucial to connect Trump’s lies, white nationalist rhetoric and call for violence to an earlier period in fascist history. To adequately address Trump’s lies, it’s crucial to understand how the culture of lying, racism and violence sustain each other. This is both a historical and political issue.
Federico Finchelstein, in his 2020 book A Brief History of Fascist Lies, reminds us that “one of the key lessons of the history of fascism is that racist lies led to extreme political violence.” He argues persuasively that, “If we want to understand our troublesome present, we need to pay attention to the history of fascist ideologues and to how and why their rhetoric led to the Holocaust, war, and destruction.”
In the current historical moment, those in power have normalized lying in a way that closely resembles how previous fascist regimes adopted a racist language that targeted marginalized groups while unsettling the public’s faith in both politics and democracy. Fascist lies, both historically and today, according to Finchelstein, “rest on the affirmation of the devotion to violence.”
Under both previous fascist regimes and the Trump presidency, truth was reduced to what was supported by power, myth replaced history, and reason was relegated to a sneering contempt and degeneracy. In addition, reality collapsed into a form of willful ideological ignorance, and racist lies took direct aim at equality, social justice and dissent. The merging of lying, racism, and violence in U.S. politics cannot be understood outside of a legacy of fascist lies, domination and the destruction of democracy itself. Trump and the modern Republican Party couple their belief in absolute truth and the primacy of violence as crucial to their claim on power. At work is a radical renewal of the legacy of fascism and racial purity with its destruction of human values, critical education, and a collective collapse into the death-driven belief that equality and democracy are synonymous with decadence and must be eliminated. Trump and his allies represent a form of brutalizing education that legitimates lying and violence as part of a broader politics designed to subvert freedom, agency and the formative culture that sustains a meaningful democracy.
The language of fascism, as several scholars have argued, cannot be comprehended outside of the machinery of capitalism and its basic structures of economic and ideological oppression, which reinforce the conditions of exploitation, privatization, violence and inequality. Unable to satisfy the human needs it produces, it eventually adopts a political and ideological position in which it no longer attempts to legitimate itself with promises of social mobility, well-being, equality and social justice. Since neoliberalism can no longer offer the public a better future, and merely claims that “the future is just more of the present,” it increasingly aligns itself with a culture of fear, doom and an appeal to endless threats, activating the potential for a fascist politics. In order to cover its legitimation crisis, it blames the growing destabilization of social institutions, precarity, alienation, misery and collective anxiety on those it labels as the U.S.’s enemies: Black people, foreigners, immigrants, refugees, dissidents, Jews, and other marginalized groups. In doing so, it aligns itself with a fascist politics that creates the formative culture for the likes of Trump and his allies and followers. As Pete Dolack observes:
Violence is now funded by corporate billionaires and what has emerged politically both looks and acts like fascism. He writes, times and conditions can change, and the very fact that a fascist movement exists — one that Trump currently heads but Florida governor Ron DeSantis wishes to assume the leadership of — should be taken with utmost seriousness, especially as it is a movement that shows no sign of dispersing.
Understanding how the current politics of lying, racism and violence echoes both the failure of neoliberal capitalism and a fascist history is crucial in order to mount an effective opposition to far right attempts to erase history, impose mass ignorance, destroy democratic institutions and normalize an updated version of fascist politics. Such a political and historical analysis should make clear how Trump and most of the Republican Party embodies a fascist politics that poses both a danger to the future of democracy and the rest of the globe. Like earlier fascist demagogues in Italy and Nazi Germany, Trump’s eruptions and displays of anger and rage against his alleged enemies both sanction violence and encourage his neo-Nazi followers, the police, and others to use violent behavior, as Mussolini once justified it, “for the good of the nation.” The dark side of history is with us once again, and with it comes a warning about the present — a warning captured by Primo Levi in his 2005 book The Reawakening. He writes:
In every part of the world, wherever you begin by denying the fundamental liberties of mankind, and equality among people, you move toward the concentration camp system, and it is a road on which it is difficult to halt.… A new fascism, with its trail of intolerance, of abuse, and of servitude, can be born outside our country, and be imported into it, walking on tiptoe and calling itself by other names, or it can loose itself from within with such violence that it routs all defences. At that point, wise counsel no longer serves, and one must find the strength to resist.
Central to the current fascist culture of lying, racism and violence is a cult of demagogues, growing inequalities of wealth and power, a tsunami of class, gender and racial injustices, and philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s war of all against all. All of these forces are choking “the arteries of democracy” as Tony Judt writes in his 2011 book Ill Fares the Land. As the language of democracy is hollowed out by neoliberal fascism, we are witnessing an emerging terror of the unforeseen and the inexorable force of a history ripe with mass anxiety and unimagined catastrophe — produced by a fascist politics governed by lies, myth, and a perpetual fear and crisis machine. If we cannot grasp that such a history is with us once again, the struggle to resist will wither and the seeds of fascism will bury existing democracies with ashes.
Mouths full of blood will usher in a history filled with the smell of genocidal violence, suffering and death. Under such circumstances, it is crucial for the broad left and progressives to release the potential for justice, freedom and equality. That is, it’s crucial to address not only historical remembrance and moral witnessing but also the political and pedagogical necessity to merge memory, civic values, and social responsibility with the power of mass movements and aggressive collective action in the fight against a burgeoning fascism. In the contemporary U.S., we need a new language and politics to fight against the nightmare of fascism. We need a language that rejects an era of foreclosed hope, refuses to address the present as a model for the future, and condemns the rhetoric of fear and violence that contains the present in the nightmarish shadow of a fascist past.
Needless to say, there is more at work in the fight against fascist politics than the need to recast the public conversation about the meaning of democracy; there is also the necessity to reject a politics of normalization in which capitalism and democracy are equated. Fascism and capitalism cannot be separated. Any viable mode of collective resistance must begin by exposing how capitalism is the breeding ground for fascism. Only by developing an anti-capitalist consciousness can the brutalizing forces of neoliberal fascism be made visible and resisted. Only then will it be possible to both redefine the language of power, critical education, direct action and cultural politics to develop the collective forces necessary to think and act differently as part of a wider collective struggle for a socialist democracy.
The legacy of fascism may have shown us what the future and end of humanity would look like. But such a future is not inevitable. As Alain Badiou once noted in his 1998 book Ethics, “the space of the possible is larger than the one assigned,” suggesting that history is open, making the call for building solidarity and social change all the more urgent, and the demand for mass resistance all the more necessary. The times in which we live are too dangerous to be giving up on civic courage, the radical imagination and a vision of a society that is never just enough.