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Silence Is Dangerous in the Current Age of Rising Fascism in the US

Social movements are creating powerful new languages for confronting tyranny. We must resist the plague of silence.

Former president Donald Trump speaks to the media outside a polling location at Londonderry High School in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on January 23, 2024.

Part of the Series

This week’s revelation that Donald Trump is already plotting new ways to try to put himself permanently above the law is just the latest reminder of the looming threat of lawless and emboldened right-wing forces in the United States. Trump’s new scheme to expand a Nixon-era policy memo to prohibit the Justice Department from prosecuting presidents, even after they leave office, is just a tiny hint of the greater threat. In recent months, several scholars have sounded the alarm that the United States is “sleepwalking towards authoritarianism.” The concern is not unfounded given that in his run for the presidency in 2024, Trump has boldly telegraphed his aspirations to impose an authoritarian future on the United States. He has repeatedly injected authoritarian language, extremist ideas and threats of violence into the mainstream. Moreover, he has done so to “create a climate of trepidation and powerlessness that discourages mobilization by the opposition,” in the words of scholar Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Forecasting his authoritarian intentions, Trump has openly stated that he intends to terminate portions of the U.S. Constitution, calls his political enemies “vermin” and boldly proclaims he will make himself a dictator “on day one.” On Truth Social, he claimed without irony that a president should have blanket authority and total immunity “even for events that ‘cross the line.’” He has repeatedly stated that if he regains the White House, “it will be a time for retribution” and revenge.

Taking pages from Hitler’s speeches, Trump has also said that the biggest threat to the United States “is from within.” In this instance, he reproduces a version of McCarthyite slander with his claim that the country is being overrun by “communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country, that lie and steal and cheat on elections, and need to be rooted out.” His constant attacks on what he labels as the “enemy within” are meant to incite his MAGA followers to wage violence against people of color, critics, progressives, LGBTQ+ Americans, news networks, immigrants, feminists, and any other group that does not buy into Christian nationalist, white supremacist views.

Trump’s discourse overflows with the genocidal language used in the Third Reich. The historian Heather Cox Richardson rightly notes that Trump’s “use of language referring to enemies as bugs or rodents has a long history in genocide because it dehumanizes opponents, making it easier to kill them. In the U.S., this concept is most associated with Hitler and the Nazis, who often spoke of Jews as ‘vermin’ and vowed to exterminate them.”

Trump has claimed that immigrants “are poisoning the blood of our country” and polluting his notion of white Christian culture, and he’s indicated that, if reelected, he plans to make them undergo “ideological screening” in order to enter the country legally (assuming here that he wants to make sure they would not vote for the Democratic Party). If his vision were carried out, millions of undocumented immigrants would be barred from the country while others would be rounded up, put into what amount to Gulag camps, and subjected to unimaginably harsh policies. Given Trump’s calls to shoot shoplifters, impose death penalties on drug dealers, and his suggestion that his former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, “deserves to be executed,” there is no reason to doubt Trump’s authoritarian designs.

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly echoes the language of autocrats such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who embraces the concept of “illiberal democracy,” and claims, as The Guardian points out, that the biggest threat to Hungary and other nations is “the ‘mixing’ of European and non-European races.” Trump and the GOP, like many of the authoritarian politicians they admire, believe that equality is a weakness endemic to democracy and destroys society. Trump’s contempt for the law and desire for absolute power is not only evident in his remarks about wanting to be a dictator; it was also on full display when his legal team argued before a D.C. Circuit Court that unless Trump is impeached, he could not be held responsible for “selling pardons, military secrets, or simply having people assassinated.” As Thom Hartmann put it, “Trump’s lawyer argued before the DC Appeals Court that if Trump became president again, he could order SEAL Team Six to assassinate Joe Biden or Liz Cheney and nobody could do anything about it.” While Trump’s lawlessness is central to his grab for unchecked power, there are also displays of the delusions and aspirations of a Nazi-infested politics.

What is especially disturbing about the emerging fascism in the United States is the lack of general public outrage that accompanies it. Such silence extends from almost the entirety of the Republican Party, the mainstream media, 84 percent of white Evangelicals, and a number of the wealthiest American billionaires and corporate tycoons. While the Democratic Party, including President Joe Biden, have called out Trump as a fascist, they have been silent about their support for decades of neoliberal economic policies, the ravages of deindustrialization, a staggering rise in economic inequality and cuts to social programs. Such policies have produced the conditions that have accelerated the rise of authoritarianism in the United States. Wedded to the interests of the banks, corporate ideology and the financial elite, their silence should come as no surprise. At the same time, such policies have produced enormous economic hardships and a diminished sense of agency that creates an enforced silence among the most impoverished populations and often results in their inevitable retreat from politics, especially in relation to voting in national elections.

In the current historical moment, language has increasingly forfeited its obligation to a politics of truth, justice, equality and freedom, and in doing so has turned cannibalistic and cruel. As political horizons and public life wither under the assault of an emerging fascism and a mainstream media that refuse to confront it, language appears to fail in the presence of what Zygmunt Bauman called “the emergence of modern barbarity.” A continuing series of crises — political, cultural, economic and ecological — are translated into emotional plagues of fear, lies and violence produced by right-wing spectacles that have undermined the ability of the U.S. public to address critically the endless attacks by tyrannical forces on democratic ideas, values and institutions. Matters of historical context, interconnections, informed judgment and critical analysis that refuse to divorce themselves, in the words of Winifred Woodhull, “from social institutions and material relations of power and domination” are either ignored or disappear from public view. Language in the age of gangster capitalism and fascist politics is under siege, functioning less as a vehicle of audacious truth and moral witnessing than as a tool to purge democracy of its ideals. In the face of a politics of enforced silence, the United States is experiencing an era marked by what Brad Evans calls “a closing of the political,” grounded in the assumption that “nothing can be done.”

The poisonous shadow of authoritarianism has entered the public imagination in spectacular fashion as a normalized political discourse. A boisterous creed of “annihilating nihilism” marked by a politics of vacuousness, resentment, historical amnesia, self-interest and freedom from responsibility has become a dominating force in U.S. politics. A right-wing vocabulary of hatred, bigotry, lies and conspiracy theories has produced a brutalizing politics whose rhetoric and polices echo a dark and horrifying period of history unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s in Europe. The mobilizing passions of fascism are now being produced, circulated and legitimated though all aspects of the mass media, which are increasingly under the control of a billionaire class. How else to explain not only Trump’s public courting of white supremacists and antisemites, such as Nick Fuentes and Kanye West, but also Nikki Haley’s claim that slavery was not the cause of the Civil War? Such comments reveal the GOP’s fascist tendency not only to whitewash and seek to erase the relevance of the history of racism, but also to endorse the poisonous ideologies of white nationalism and white supremacy. As Czech dissident Václav Havel once remarked, “the disorder of real history is replaced by the orderliness of pseudo-history.… Instead of events, we are offered non-events.”

Diverse social movements … produced a language that allows us to recognize ourselves as agents, not victims.

Extremist language that was once considered unimaginable and relegated to fringe groups has been elevated to the center of power, politics and everyday life. For instance, billionaire Elon Musk’s recent racist comments echo the racial eugenicist movements in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries, from which Hitler took inspiration. Yet, little is said in the mainstream press connecting Musk’s comments to a shameful past that gave us the Tuskegee experiments and provided a rationale for Jim Crow and racial segregation laws. Enforced silence is a tool for the repression of history and the wiping out of historical consciousness and memory, especially those moments in history we associate with segregation, exploitation, disposability and genocide. Fascist discourse is currently abetted and affirmed by ongoing public displays of the detritus of fascist politics, which makes visible that which the United States has forgotten and of which it should be ashamed — that is, a society in which collective morality and the ethical imagination appear to no longer matter.

Beyond bold and unapologetic public displays of fascist rhetoric, beliefs and policies, there are relentless right-wing assaults against democracy that are barely recognized in the media and in public discourse for the danger they pose to democracy. A short list includes book censorship, turning libraries into student detention centers, voter suppression laws, threatening election workers, assaulting reproductive rights, enacting cruel policies against queer and trans people and harassing critical educators. In addition, schools are turned into indoctrination centers, torrents of propaganda replace facts, history is whitewashed, dissent is suppressed and those who provide medical care to trans people and people in need of abortions are criminalized.

These authoritarian aggressions have become embedded in United States culture to the degree that they fail to garner any alarm or concern from the wider public. As fascist beliefs, values and language multiply, so do attacks by far right politicians, reactionary pundits and white supremacists against diversity, equality and inclusion, all the while promoting a white nationalist notion of who counts as a citizen. As Toni Morrison once noted, this is a language constrained by the “weary and wearying vocabulary of racial domination.” It is “a dead language” trapped in sordid silence regarding the racist ideology that drives its claims to “exclusivity and dominance.”

A dangerous silence now often accompanies a language at war with democratic ideals and the public imagination. This is an enforced silence among the larger public that purposely mutes matters of critical agency, moral responsibility, reason, justice and the demands of keeping alive a substantive democracy. It is a language where moral outrage disappears, is silenced or both, while concealing the danger that this fascist language portends. This is a depoliticizing silence that clouds lies and untruths in mindless theater, spectacles and a flood of evasions. Under such circumstances, community is emptied of any substance, reduced to notions of the social organized around the merging of lies and violence. The loneliness and social atomization produced under neoliberalism provide fodder for the dictatorial energies that offer forms of the false promise of community rooted in hate, bigotry and lies, often resulting in habitual ignorance to justice. Mainstream institutions such as schools, the media and online platforms that should trade in imaginative ideas and provide a critical culture are under siege. One consequence is the breakdown of civic culture, egalitarian values and politics itself. What many Americans fail to realize is that this reactionary mode of silence is a form of complicity that creates a political climate marked by cruelty, violence and lawlessness. How else to explain the lack of public outrage against an extremist Republican Party that rejects free summer lunch programs for food-insecure youth, weakens child labor laws and restricts voting rights?

Liberal and conservative Americans are immersed in a crisis of silence that ignores the fact that politicians such as Trump embrace totalitarian values — the language of dictators — and advocate for violence as a tool of political opportunism. This is not to suggest that all forms of silence function to erase the scourge of racism, white supremacy and the misery imposed by neoliberal capitalism.

Silence can be contemplative, offer consolation, and provide the space for close analysis, thinking critically and mobilizing modes of critical agency. However, in an era marked by a massive flight from ethical and political responsibility, a particular kind of administered silence emerges, one that subverts any sense of critical agency and abandons a more noble message regarding a warning of the dangers to come and the lessons to be addressed. Under such conditions, silence operates increasingly within oppressive relations of power. Tyrannical relations of power are now at the center of U.S. politics and radiate a contempt for dissent, integrity, compassion and liberty which, as Bauman notes in his book Babel, ejects “any sense of critical agency and [refuses] to recognize the bonds we have with others.”

In the face of injustice, silence has become ethically mute, and exhibits a dehumanizing indifference to human suffering in the midst of dangerous politics. Enforced silence, both as a subjective stance and as a political space of organized moral irresponsibility and self-deception, increasingly legitimates and helps to produce a society that has lost its moral bearings and wallows in a repudiation of civic courage and human rights. This current politics of enforced silence is happening at a time when many Americans seem oblivious to the threat posed to democracy by Trump, the GOP, far right foundations, reactionary cultural apparatuses and neoliberal educational institutions.

Silence today has become part of a politics of disappearance where critical ideas are buried along with dangerous memories, and the bodies of journalists, poets and those who lead the fight against oppression in its diverse modes. As Spanish painter Francisco Goya once warned of the degree to which truth and informed judgments are overcome by ignorance, superstition and falsehoods, “the sleep of reason produces monsters.” Martin Luther King Jr. gave a contemporary valence to Goya’s warning in his famous 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence.” His words alerted Americans to the dangers of refusing to speak out in the face of militarism, racism and massive poverty. Stating that “a time comes when silence is betrayal,” King was clear regarding how the refusal to speak out eviscerates both the idea of democracy and the promise of resisting the mobilizing passions of fascism, especially militarism, poverty and racism. The challenge posed by King’s call to resist a complicitous silence in the face of injustice is exceptionally relevant today. At the heart of this challenge is the need to not only make detectable the current threats to democracy but also to understand how silence in the face of tyranny legitimates authoritarianism along with the risks it poses to any viable notion of justice, equality and freedom.

It is important to note that fascism not only arrives through the language of hate, bigotry, dehumanization and military dictatorships as it did in Chile and Argentina in the 1970s; it also arrives through the everyday acceptance of an ethically debilitating silence. In the current moment, such silence accompanies authoritarian threats to democracy. A politics of silence facilitates a tsunami of manufactured ignorance advanced by the repression of dissent, the cowardice of the mainstream media, the unaccountability of social media platforms steeped in the astonishing toxicity of hatred, and a disdain for equality, freedom and truth in a society, notes Jonathan Crary, governed by the corrupting force of the billionaire elite.

Given the current threat posed to U.S. democracy, enforced silence should be analyzed within the uniquely current threats to liberty, basic human rights and equality that sabotage any viable notion of democracy. Such a challenge is especially crucial at a time when the habits of democracy are being replaced by what David Graeber called the “habits of oligarchy, as though no other politics are possible.” The politics of silence increasingly works through multiple sites and seemingly contrasting impulses, often aligning itself with a reactionary disdain for the public good. In part, it does so by refusing to address the growing (yet to some, seemingly unrelated) issues of Trump’s full embrace of fascist politics, the growing attacks on freedom of expression and the struggle for social justice.

This is all the more reason to reclaim the language of the common good; to protect public and higher education from a fascist takeover; to reject the privatization of public goods; expand the power of unions and the rights of workers, people of color, women, immigrants, queer and trans people, and all those others considered excess and disposable. The plague of silence has to be broken so as to inject the struggle for human rights back into the language of politics, and to fight for a socialist democracy built on the anti-capitalist values of equality, social justice, liberty and human dignity. The words of Frederick Douglass are prescient here and worth remembering. He writes:

If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its mighty waters.

If the plague of silence is to be overcome, Americans need to tap into a language that makes clear that they will not look away or refuse to stand up in the face of fascist aggression. The brilliant writer Maaza Mengiste argues for such a language with his call for a vocabulary that “will take us from shock and stunned silence toward a coherent, visceral speech, one as strong as the force that is charging at us.”

Fortunately, especially since the Occupy movement in 2011, a number of social movements have emerged to provide a language that both exposes and makes the ruthless power of the financial elite and other anti-democratic forces accountable through a discourse of critique and hope. The Occupy movement made the discourse of inequality and class differences a more central part of a national political narrative. In the last decade, workers have used the language of economic justice, solidarity and fair play to reenergize the labor movement. The resurgence of the labor movement provided a discourse that exposes how neoliberalism benefits the wealthy and privileged.

Silence has become the language through which people are either depoliticized or are willingly complicit with the economic and racial forces of totalitarianism.

Meanwhile movements such as the movement for Black lives have highlighted the language of structural racism along with making visible a history of slavery, racial abuse and police violence, and crafting a nuanced and multidimensional discourse of liberation.

The #MeToo movement created new discourses to make visible the pervasive extent of sexual assault, violence and harassment across a wide variety of sites and greatly advanced gender justice.

The abolitionist movement has provided a contextual and relational language highlighting the punitive nature of highly racialized criminal legal system and the carceral state while instituting a national movement to defund the police.

Trans and queer people have invigorated a movement and language that critiques the right-wing weaponization of marginalized and ostracized identities.

Climate activists have exposed the danger fossil fuels pose to the planet, and how the most vulnerable populations, especially Black and Brown communities, pay a heavy price for the abuses of the oil and gas industries. In doing so, they have inserted the language of climate justice into the public sphere and made clear how capitalism is creating a murderous future for human beings by destroying the environment.

Black and Brown theorists working with the idea of intersectionality have provided a new language highlighting how every social movement is “shaped by multiple intersecting inequalities and power dynamics,” which draw “attention to unmarked categories” of both oppression and resistance. All of these movements have imaginatively offered a new language of politics and continue to further expand and sharpen such discourses.

Equally promising is the increased political activism of young people, who are voicing a language and pedagogy of disruption, critique and possibility. As I stated more than a decade ago in Truthout, theirs is a language “that recognizes that there is no viable politics without will and awareness and that critical education motivates and provides a crucial foundation for understanding and intervening in the world.” Young people recognize that they have been written out of the script of democracy for too long and are now creating spaces and enacting a language in which to expand individual and social agency through collective forms of resistance as starting points to build a new democratic social order.

Fortified with the energy and language of these dynamic movements, it is incumbent upon the broader left and its various social movements to continue to develop a language that not only highlights social injustices but also includes a vocabulary that moves people, allows them to feel compassion for “the other” and gives them the courage to talk back. Beyond highlighting the wide range of social injustices, all of us on the left must continue to develop a vocabulary that speaks to people’s needs in a way that is moving, affirming, recognizable and enables them to confront the burden of conscience in the face of the unspeakable, and to do so with a sense of dignity, self-reflection and the courage to act individually and collectively in the service of a radical democracy.

One important contribution of these diverse social movements is that they all produced a language that allows us to recognize ourselves as agents, not victims. In doing so, they have expanded the discourse of radical democratic politics. Of course, there is more at stake here than a struggle over meaning; there is also the struggle over power, over the need to create a formative culture that will produce new modes of critical agency and contribute to a broad social movement that will translate meaning into a fierce struggle for economic, political and racial equality. While there is a new energy among youth and a number of powerful social movements, there is the ongoing challenge of confronting with renewed vigor a culture of silence and indifference that has become the most powerful educational force of the emerging fascism.

Writing about the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s, Martin Luther King Jr. was prescient in acknowledging that the tyranny and violence of authoritarianism feeds on silence, moral apathy and the collapse of conscience. Given the fierce urgency of the times, the struggle against an enforced silence is especially crucial when people refuse to speak up in the face of injustice. Silence has become the language through which people are either depoliticized or are willingly complicit with the economic and racial forces of totalitarianism. As King notes, it is the language of those “who accept evil without protesting against it.”

The new social movements in the face of an emerging fascism have done us a great theoretical and political favor in making clear that any viable mode of resistance must embrace a language that translates into power — a critical language that expands the power of education, agency and resistance. This is a language that imaginatively rethinks the forces of militarism, capitalism, racism and sexism in light of the dramatic changes taking place technologically, culturally and politically. There will be no justice or democracy in the United States unless a mass multiclass social movement emerges that combines political and individual rights with economic rights — that joins a movement for gender and racial equality with a movement for economic justice.

At the same time, many new social movements need to further a language that is not only theoretical and critical but also passionate. In many ways, they do this, but a politics of passion needs a greater place in their politics. Central to such a language is a politics of emotion that addresses what Ruth Ben-Ghiat refers to as communities of belonging. This is a language that invites joy while mobilizing emotions that embrace compassion, justice and hope. What might be called a politics of identification and emotion is particularly important at a time when many people living in a neoliberal society are atomized, feeling alienated, lonely, invisible, and subject to far right emotional appeals to forms of allegiance rooted in hatred, bigotry and a poisonous nationalism.

Anand Giridharads claims that today’s left is often too cerebral and too suspicious of what he calls empowering emotional appeals. He writes that much of the left today is “suspicious of the politics of passion” and “doesn’t do emotional appeals,” adding:

Can those who defend the rule of law and pluralism and economic justice and human rights not only articulate those ideas but also appeal to the more basic human needs to belong, to have anxieties soothed, to have fears answered, to feel hope, or just to feel something at the end of bleak and tedious days?… In an era [of anxiety and future dread] such as this, leaving the politics of emotion, of passion, to aspiring autocrats is a dangerous abdication.

It is worth emphasizing that the struggle against fascism and for a socialist democracy will not take place if education is not made central to politics. Any attempt to further the language of social, economic and racial justice will not be effective if it does not construct a language of critique, possibility and desire. We need a language that pedagogically moves people, makes power visible and creates communities of belonging, justice and compassion. We need to continue to fight aggressively the plague of silence with what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues is “the power to think the absent.” It is only then that a critical public consciousness can be awakened, and a multiracial working-class movement can begin to bring into fruition a democratically socialist society.

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