Henry A. Giroux returns with another in-depth analysis of our most pressing problems. America at War With Itself explores the violence at work in the US from Donald Trump’s campaign to the death of Sandra Bland, and argues that only through widespread social investment in democracy and education can the common good prevail. Order your copy today by making a donation to Truthout!
The following piece is excerpted from America at War With Itself by Henry A. Giroux:
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Commercial media lit up like Vegas the day Donald Trump announced his presidential candidacy and said the following: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime, they’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Trump’s hate-mongering was perfect fodder for driving up TV ratings. Rather than presenting Trump’s comments in the context of America’s long legacy of racism and state violence, the mainstream media uncritically broadcast his remarks initially as those of a fearless billionaire who has achieved such supreme success that he speaks his mind without concern for consequences. Such a process, shorn of context and historical understanding of white hegemony, highlights not only commercial media’s flight from responsibility, but how corporate power itself, combined with the Terror Wars, have weakened the American population’s capacity to protect democracy, civil liberties, and multicultural society from the allure of fascistic forms of power.
Not only have mainstream media replayed Trump’s most outrageous statements over and over again without any serious criticism, they also fill the 24/7 news cycle with endless interviews in which Trump has defended and embellished his intolerance of immigrants, Muslims, and protestors. Treated more as an indication of Trump’s no-holds-barred personality than something more problematic, Trump’s remarks have been viewed by many as honest, brave, and off-the-cuff rather than symptomatic of the bigotry and bias smoldering beneath the surface of high-end presidential politics. Such commentary collapses into the realm of the personal because by privatizing racism, it ignores the history of violence, exclusion, and coercion that has plagued the land since the first white people sailed to shore.
During the 2015–2016 presidential contest, Trump pushed the political envelope further and further toward intolerance and an American-style form of proto-fascism. The media got red meat, Trump’s ratings soared, and his Republican rivals struggled to keep up. Senator Ted Cruz argued that he liked Donald Trump and was glad he was bringing attention to the illegal immigration issue. Rick Santorum joined Cruz in praising Trump for focusing on illegal immigration, without any serious criticism of his racist remarks. Other right-wing politicians such as Lindsay Graham and Rick Perry condemned Trump’s remarks, but nothing was said in the press about how they had played a key role in supporting legislation that was both vicious and racist.
Liberals have denounced Trump but have said woefully little about the history of how both major parties have supported unjustified military invasions, racialized tough-on-crime campaigns, and a mass-incarceration state that has decimated communities of color nationwide. For instance, Jonathan Chait seems less concerned about a Republican Party that has promoted numerous racist policies, such as trying to disable the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and militarizing the US-Mexico border zone, than he is about “conservative thought leaders [who] feel compelled to defend Trump’s nativist ramblings.” Chait’s confusion is evident in the title of his article, “Why are Conservatives Defending Donald Trump?” which should read “Should We Be Surprised that Conservatives Are Defending Donald Trump?”
The mainstream media, conservatives, and a number of liberal commentators seem to have allowed Trump’s brand of racial politics to cloud their understanding of recent history. After all, it was only a few decades ago that Kirk Fordice, a right-wing Republican, ended his victorious campaign for governor — orchestrated largely as an attack on crime and welfare cheaters — with a still photograph of a Black woman and her baby. Of course, this was just a few years after George W. Bush ran his notorious Willie Horton ad and a year before Dan Quayle, in the 1992 presidential campaign, used the racially coded category of welfare to attack a sitcom character, Murphy Brown. And the Washington Post has reported that in the early years of his political career, Rick Perry hosted “fellow lawmakers, friends and supporters at his family’s secluded West Texas hunting camp, a place known by the name painted in block letters across a large, flat rock standing upright at its gated entrance….’Niggerhead.'”
And, of course, the racist invectives aimed at President Obama by a number of Republicans are legion. When a gorilla escaped from a zoo in Columbia, S.C., a longtime Republican activist, Rusty DePass, described it on his Facebook page as one of Michelle Obama’s ancestors. Among the signs at a gathering of conservative protesters in Washington was one that said, “The zoo has an African lion and the White House has a lyin’ African.” These are bits and pieces from what has been an increasingly unrestrained torrent of racism that is fueled by hate-mongers on talk radio and is widely tolerated, if not abetted, by Republican Party leaders. It’s disgusting, and it’s dangerous. But it’s the same old filthy racism that has been there all along and that has been exploited by the Republican Party since the 1960s. A figure no less than conservative Robert Kagan claims that one register of the racism that has defined the Republican Party is evident in the party’s unadulterated hatred of President Obama, which he calls “a racially tinged derangement syndrome that made any charge plausible and any opposition justified.”
Liberal commentators such as Eugene Robinson have called Trump a “farce to be reckoned with,” while Juan Cole argued that Trump failed to use more discreet racial codes because “billionaires and fabulously wealthy people in general are surrounded by yes-men.” While Robinson and Cole may be right, their commentary appears to miss the mark. Adding to the chorus of liberal denunciations were the public announcements by a number of corporations that they were cutting their business ties with Trump because of the offensive nature of his remarks. Commentators praised such corporations for taking the high moral ground but most conveniently forgot that these were the same corporations battling unions, polluting the environment, underpaying their workers, and exercising an economic chokehold over the commanding institutions of American life.
As Trump’s campaign gained support and his commentaries became more vulgar, it became clear that he would win the Republican nomination. Commentators such as Roger Cohen, Andrew Bacevich, Mike Lofgren, and Juan Cole became increasingly alarmed over Trump’s endorsement of torture, his taste for bullying protesters, and his unwillingness to denounce support from David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, making it clear that he was “a magnet for authoritarian desires” and could pave the way for what Mike Lofgren termed “a fascist political system.” Many liberals have sensed something deeply disturbing about Trump’s politics but initially refused to describe it in terms of fascism or authoritarianism. New York Times op-ed columnist Timothy Egan argued that the media were complicit in Trump’s popularity and opened a space for the racist fringe to come to the surface by supporting a celebrated candidate who reflected their views. For Egan, the beast resides in the deep-seated racism of a sizable swath of the American populace, but what the beast represents in political terms he refused to name. Paul Krugman went so far as to claim that as bad as Trump was, he was a better candidate than either Cruz or Rubio, who were not just con artists but dangerous. In a shocking admission of political failure and moral irresponsibility, Krugman wrote: “As I see it, then, we should actually welcome Mr. Trump’s ascent. Yes, he’s a con man, but he is also effectively acting as a whistle-blower on other people’s cons. That is, believe it or not, a step forward in these weird, troubled times.”
In response to all of this fanfare over Trump’s remarks, I argue that the widespread focus given to his displays of racism, narcissism, and arrogance misses the point. The real issue that needs to be examined is what kind of society produces a Donald Trump. Why have Americans flocked to his rallies and roared in support for his bigoted epithets and militant intolerance? Given how the legacies of white colonialism, enslavement, and Jim Crow politics have influenced the nation for generations — influences that scholars like Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Mumia Abu-Jamal relentlessly critique — Trump is just the latest manifestation of a social order that has always been dominated by whites and that has always been deeply racist. Trump exemplifies a no-holds-barred form of intolerance that shares the ideology of hate espoused by armed vigilante groups that bomb Planned Parenthood offices, ambush immigrants on the border, and burn mosques. How else to explain that extremists such as Christian nationalists, the Ku Klux Klan, and white militia groups are flocking to support Trump? The national approval ratings that soar following Donald Trump’s most outrageous statements offer clear testimony to the degree to which forces of intolerance are seething just beneath the glittering corporate surface of a democracy in deep decline. In addition, Trump provides a more direct and arrogant frontman for a society operating increasingly as a plutocracy — a society that glorifies money, excess, and celebrity, and that denigrates kindness, community, justice, and equality.
Trump is the symbol of a new authoritarianism, which is to say, the sign of a democracy unable to protect and sustain itself. Trump represents corporate domination set free, a political and economic engine that both fuels and feeds on fear and intolerance. He is also the endpoint of a long-standing political system that is “part bread-and-circuses spectacle, part celebrity obsession, and part media money machine.” Trump is the symbol of a frightened society that is increasingly seduced to choose the swagger of a vigilante strongman over the processes of collective sovereignty, the gun over diplomacy, and the wall instead of the bridge. Trump’s public rants and humiliating snipes make for great TV, and are, as Frank Rich once argued, “another symptom of a political virus that can’t be quarantined and whose cure is as yet unknown.” What the American public needs is an ongoing analysis of Trump’s messaging in the context of the historical legacies of white bigotry and intolerance, and an analysis of how right-wing politics have tapped such bigotry to further the self-serving interests of a small economic elite. Such an analysis would situate Trump in the context of the historical racism that has smoldered as a form low-intensity warfare in the United States since its inception, and that has arguably worsened for communities of color since the rise of neo-conservativism in the 1980s. Trump has simply discarded the euphemisms and deploys the ruse of national security to take bigotry, sexism, xenophobia, and political bullying to more aggressive levels.
Trump’s rise indicates the increasing confluence of religious fundamentalists and economic extremists who insist that social, racial, economic, and environmental justice are wrong, lead to big government, and are malignant to the nation. Chris Hedges captures the authoritarian and militaristic nature of the Christian right:
The cult of masculinity, as in all fascist movements, pervades the ideology of the Christian right. The movement uses religion to sanctify military and heroic “virtues,” glorify blind obedience and order over reason and conscience, and pander to the euphoria of collective emotions. Feminism and homosexuality, believers are told, have rendered the American male physically and spiritually impotent. Jesus, for the Christian right, is a man of action, casting out demons, battling the Antichrist, attacking hypocrites and ultimately slaying nonbelievers. This cult of masculinity, with its glorification of violence, is appealing to the powerless. It stokes the anger of many Americans, mostly white and economically disadvantaged, and encourages them to lash back at those who, they are told, seek to destroy them. The paranoia about the outside world is fostered by bizarre conspiracy theories, many of which are prominent in the rhetoric of those leading the government shutdown. Believers, especially now, are called to a perpetual state of war with the “secular humanist” state. The march, they believe, is irreversible. Global war, even nuclear war, is the joyful harbinger of the Second Coming. And leading the avenging armies is an angry, violent Messiah who dooms billions of apostates to death.
Trump is just one boisterous voice speaking for a sector of white America that feels threatened by people of color, Muslims, immigrants, and people of conscience who form communities of solidarity and resistance. The end-time religious wars that many in the Republican Party embrace are not much different than those professed by ISIS and other fanatics. It is also the party of political fundamentalists who hate democracy, attack women’s rights, destroy or underfund healthcare programs that benefit the poor, turn back hard-won voting rights, and believe governance is a tool of the financial elite.
Trump is simply the most visible and vocal member of a fractured party made up of frightened Americans, religious fundamentalists, and self-serving economic extremists who believe that the market should arbitrate and dominate all aspects of government and society. Trump represents a new form of social disorder — intolerant, authoritarian, and violent — that sees preventable inequality as part of the natural order of things. Guns, walls, laws, surveillance, prisons, media, and wars are there to serve the interest of the wealthy winners, and to keep the rest of the population in check. Bankers who commit theft, fraud, and acts of economic mass destruction never feel the cold steel of handcuffs tighten on their wrists. Corporate suspects never get shot down accidently in the streets, as do unarmed Blacks, by white cops who feel threatened by skin color. Trump’s rise reinforces these injustices and gives anxious whites a boastful businessman and TV celebrity to rule as their strongman.
More than any other recent politician, Trump speaks to the existential fears and anger of many Americans who have every right to be distressed over their lives and their futures. These are people who live on the edge of financial ruin, people who have few resources for retirement, who are either unemployed or work in dead-end jobs. Not all in Trump’s base are racist. Many of them are fed up and angry over establishment political parties whose allegiance is to the rich, not to them, and it shows in the increasing anxiety and despair of middle-aged white Americans who are dying early, and who “are committing suicide with guns, drugs and alcohol at shocking levels.” Trump has tapped into this anger by exposing the class-specific fault lines that dominate the Republican Party while directing it into a discourse of hate, fear-mongering, xenophobia, racism, and violence. Trump has proven to be a formidable foe in revealing the elitist pretentions and class boundaries of the ruling-class wing of the Republican Party, and his appeal may rest less on ideology than on his struggle to wrest power from the GOP establishment. Frank Rich is worth repeating at length on this issue. He writes:
What GOP elites can’t escape is the sinking feeling that a majority of Republican voters are looking for a president who will repudiate them and, implicitly, their class. Trump refuses to kowtow to the Establishment — and it is precisely that defiance, as articulated in his ridicule of Romney and Jeb Bush and Megyn Kelly and Little Marco, that endears him to Republican voters and some Democrats as well. The so-called battle for the “soul” of the Republican Party is a battle over power, not ideology. Trump has convinced millions of Americans that he will take away the power from the pinheads on high and return it to people below who feel (not wrongly) that they’ve gotten a raw deal. It’s the classic populist pitch, and it will not end well for those who invest their faith in Trump. He cares about no one but himself and would reward his own class with extravagant tax cuts like any Republican president. But the elites, who represent the problem, have lost any standing that might allow them to pretend to be part of the solution.
As the language of community and the public spheres collapse, people are increasingly atomized and isolated, and believe that they have little control over their lives. Republicans have taken this sense of anger and helplessness and have used it for the last thirty years to tell their supporters that they should be angry about Blacks, immigrants, big government, Muslims, terrorists, and a host of other issues that have nothing to do with the problems they face daily. As Robert Kagan points out, “it has been Trump’s good fortune to be the guy to sweep them up and become their standard-bearer. He is the Napoleon who has harvested the fruit of the revolution. [Trump is] the party’s creation, its Frankenstein’s monster, brought to life by the party, fed by the party and now made strong enough to destroy its maker.”
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Trump now personifies a party that makes intolerance a priority while viewing evidence-based arguments with open disdain. This is the party that censors textbooks, imposes mindless pedagogies of memorization and test-taking on students (along with the Democratic Party), denies climate change has anything to do with human activity, supports creationism, and floods the mainstream media with a never-ending stream of civic illiteracy. Jeb Bush, considered a moderate politician, while serving as Governor of Florida, signed a bill that declared, “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed. That factual history, the law states, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable.” For all intents and purposes, this bill did more than undermine any form of teaching that recognized history is subject to interpretation; it imposed a suffocating ideology on teachers and students by declaring that matters of debate and interpretation undermine the very process of teaching and learning. This is more than conceptual ignorance; it is an attack on reason itself, one that provides security for the apostles of state power who, as Noam Chomsky has argued, are intent on dismantling dissent in order to “protect themselves from the scrutiny of their own populations.”
Richard Hofstadter once warned that anti-intellectualism was a strong undercurrent of American life. Not only was he right, but he would be shocked to discover that today anti-intellectualism has gone mainstream and has been not only normalized but validated by right-wing extremists governing the Republican Party, which Trump willingly embraces. Trump’s comment: “I love the poorly educated” is not a gaffe but an honest recognition of the degree to which successful political campaigns are now dependent on an uninformed public. For Trump, bullying replaces any viable notion of dialogue, and emotion vanquishes reason, understanding, and thoughtfulness. Of course, Trump’s embrace of ignorance and his willingness to make stupidity a trademark of his identity points to a number of forces in American life. As Susan Jacoby has argued, these would include:
fundamentalist forms of religion in current America… the abysmal level of public education ….the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience….the dumbing-down of the media and politics [and] the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment.
Trump is representative of a publicity-branding machine that funds and promotes conservative institutes that produce anti-public intellectuals whose role is to snarl at the victims of social injustice, to disdain public institutions in the service of the public good, and to do everything possible to promote a culture marked by a depoliticizing moral and political vacancy. Trump is simply the manifestation of a new type of authoritarianism, one that revels in thoughtlessness and the survival-of-the-fittest ethic marketed in his former TV game show, “The Apprentice.”
Corporate media love Donald Trump. He is the perfect embodiment of the spectacle that drives up their ratings. That Trump is a white nationalist, a racist, and a spewer of hate against Muslims, Mexicans, and the Pope all adds to the shock that feeds the spectacle. Karl Grossman argues that the media is intimidated by Trump. He misses the point. In the age of celebrity culture, the media love Trump and he loves them. They chase audiences and he delivers them. Trump is not a media clown, he is an expert at getting the media to promote and fund his self-marketing strategy. His campaign is unique in that it is modeled after the commercial superficiality of game-show TV. Sean Illing is right in stating:
Trump’s a TV man; he understands the landscape. He knows interesting is preferable to informed or reasonable or lucid. Which is why he eschews talking points or scripts and instead riffs on stage like a stand-up. Trump’s free-wheeling approach means he could say literally anything at any moment, and that’s the kind of thing people want to watch.
Neal Gabler goes further and argues that not only did the Republican Party with their “hate-spewing, poor-bashing, government-stopping and corporation-loving for decades” pave the way for Trump, it produced him, because it created what Gabler calls the first “pseudo-campaign.” A pseudo-campaign is one that supports theatrics and personalities over substance. This is a campaign model that imitates movies and embraces images rather than issues. The novelty here is that Trump was not treated as a political candidate by the media. On the contrary, he was treated almost like Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian, a celebrity for whom it was not necessary to interrogate history, policies, and statements, except to stir the kinds of controversies that make for good TV. Gabler brings the point home by citing CBS head Les Moonves, who reveals the true motives behind CBS’s coverage of the Trump-dominated campaign. He writes:
CBS head Les Moonves gave away the game earlier this week when he admitted, “It may not be good for America….but it is damn good for CBS,” meaning the ratings. And then he kept doubling down: “The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” “I’ve never seen anything like this, and this is going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. Donald’s place in this election is a good thing” — presumably for CBS stockholders. To which I can only say that the networks were granted licenses to the public airwaves, our airwaves, by promising to provide a public service. Moonves just blew that pretense all to hell.
Both Illing and Gabler are only partly right. Celebrity culture confers power, but at the same time it empties politics of any viable substance.
Trump is certainly aware of the power of celebrity culture and boasted that he knew how to “work the media” to a group of Republicans who asked him in 2013 to run for Governor of New York. As Illing notes:
To their surprise, he declined but added that they would be useful when he ran for president. “I’m going to walk away with it and win outright,” Trump told the group, “I’m going to get in and all the polls are going to go crazy. I’m going to suck all the oxygen out of the room. I know how to work the media in a way that they will never take the lights off of me.” Trump knew all along that his celebrity and media savvy were sufficient to support his campaign. Although they didn’t believe him, Trump told the Republicans in that room in 2013 that he would dominate the race without spending much on paid advertising.
Celebrity culture points to a powerful fusion of power, culture, and politics, but the ideological form it takes and the politics it now serves have to be named, however difficult the task. Trump is the logical result of decades of assaults on democracy by both the Republican and Democratic Parties, which have been skewed by the enormous economic influence of financial and corporate elites. Trump’s popularity in the political arena is about more than the power of politics as entertainment or his ability to direct the narrative; it is also “the distilled essence of a much larger disturbing reality,” the rise of authoritarianism in the United States and the death of democracy. Trump may know how to manipulate the media, but the interests that benefit from the commercial media are the product of the darker elements of elitism, racism, bigotry, demagoguery, and authoritarianism that the Republican Party helped to create. The current crisis is not simply about the power of the corporate-entertainment complex, it is about a divide between those who believe in democracy as a protected home for diversity, equality, and social justice, and those who don’t.
Donald Trump’s growing embodiment of the fascistic and hateful came into sharper relief when he began making statements calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” and began speaking about “killing Islamic terrorists with bullets dipped in the blood of pigs.” Trump said that such a ban is necessary “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” When the great businessman proposed the ban at a rally at the USS Yorktown in South Carolina, his plan drew loud cheers from the crowd. Many critics have responded by making clear that Trump’s attempts to place a religious test on immigration and travel are unconstitutional. Others have expressed shock in the face of a proposal that violates the democratic ideals expressed in America’s founding documents. Fellow Republican Jeb Bush called Trump “unhinged.” While the Republican Party leadership was quick to condemn Trump’s poisonous remarks about banning Muslims from entering the United States, most conceded that if he won the nomination they would support him. Put another way, they would endorse Trump even though they are ashamed of him. Chris Christie opportunistically cut to the front of that line first. What almost none of the presidential candidates or mainstream political pundits have admitted, however, is not only that Trump’s comments form a discourse of hate, bigotry, and exclusion, but also that such expressions of authoritarian intolerance resonate deeply in a landscape of American culture and politics crafted by forty regressive years of conservative influence on US society. One of the few politicians to respond initially to Trump’s incendiary comments was former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) who stated rightly that Donald Trump is a “fascist demagogue.” To NBC’s credit, Tom Brokaw did a segment on the nightly news contextualizing Trump’s call to ban Muslims within the history of demagoguery both in the United States and in fascist Germany.
Surprisingly, former Ohio Governor John Kasich released an online ad suggesting that Trump’s rhetoric correlated closely with that of Nazi Germany. Kasich brought the point home with an ad that featured Tom Moe, a retired Air Force colonel. In the ad, Moe uses a famous anti-Nazi quote from Protestant pastor Martin Niemöller in one of his lectures just after World War II. Moe paraphrases the quote to criticize Trump’s hateful rhetoric and its dangerous implications.
Says Moe, to an ominous sound track:
You might not care if Donald Trump says Muslims should register with their government, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump says he’s going to round up all the Hispanic immigrants, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump says it’s okay to rough up black protesters, because you’re not one. And you might not care if Donald Trump wants to suppress journalists, because you’re not one. But think about this: If he keeps going, and he actually becomes president, he might just get around to you. And you better hope there’s someone left to help you.
There are few politicians willing to admit that there is a long history of Islamophobia in the Republican Party. This is evident in the glut of anti-Muslim rhetoric that characterized the Republicans’ 2015–2016 presidential campaign in general. Before calling for a ban of Muslims entering the United States, Trump called for the creation of a database on Muslims — echoing a dangerous parallel when Jews in Nazi Germany were forced to wear a yellow patch in the shape of the Star of David. Ben Carson later announced that a Muslim should not be allowed to assume the office of President. Jeb Bush refined this religious litmus test by insisting that only Christians and orphans fleeing from ISIS should be admitted to the United States from war-torn Syria. Marco Rubio stated that he would consider not only shutting down mosques, as Trump says, but also shutting down “any place where radicals are being inspired.” Before he dropped out of the presidential race, Scott Walker stated that only a handful of Muslims are moderates. The prominent Republican congressman Steve King echoed the deeply bigoted sentiments of many of his fellow party members by stating that the only Muslims he would allow into the United States are those “most likely to be able to contribute to our society and our economy and assimilate into the American civilization.” He then proffered a demonstrable lie by concluding that “Muslims do not do that in significant numbers.”
In November 2015 Trump’s intolerance took aim at Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times investigative reporter with a disability, whom Trump mocked at a rally in South Carolina. The contemptuous reference to Kovaleski’s physical disability was morally odious and painful to observe, but not in the least surprising: Trump’s hate-mongering clearly keeps him in the limelight, and he seems to relish engaging in it in almost every public encounter. In this loathsome instance, Trump simply expanded his invective in a new direction.
Trump’s mockery of Kovaleski and his blatantly discriminatory policies against Muslims are of a piece with his portrayal of Mexican immigrants as violent rapists and drug dealers, and with his calls for the US to put Syrian refugees in detention centers and create a database to better monitor and control them. These comments sound eerily close to Heinrich Himmler’s call for camps to hold detainees under orders of what the Nazis euphemistically called “protective custody.” To quote the Holocaust Encyclopedia:
In the earliest years of the Third Reich, various central, regional, and local authorities in Germany established concentration camps to detain political opponents of the regime, including German Communists, Socialists, trade unionists, and others from left and liberal political circles. In the spring of 1933, the SS established Dachau concentration camp, which came to serve as a model for an expanding and centralized concentration camp system under SS management.
Moreover, Trump’s demeaning attitude toward people with disabilities points to an earlier element of Hitler’s program of genocide in which people with physical and mental disabilities were viewed as disposable because they allegedly undermined the Nazi notion of the “master race.” The demonization, objectification, and pathologizing of people with disabilities was the first step in developing the Nazis’ “euthanasia” program aimed at those declared unworthy of life. This lesson seems to be lost on the mainstream media, which largely viewed Trump’s intolerance and aggression as simply a bit over the top, as when the presidential candidate publicly said he wanted to punch a person in the face for protesting at one of his campaign stops. Trump and those who benefit from his politics of intolerance are the brownshirts of our time; their cruelty, insults, and threats unburden the public of the necessity for debating complex issues. Against the backdrop of militant confrontations, and the celebration of a market in which hyper-competitiveness becomes the rule, Trump endlessly employs the rhetoric of casino capitalism, arguing that a capitalist business model is the obvious solution to every problem faced by the United States both domestically and abroad.
What is truly alarming is how corporate media benefit from Trump’s raucous excess and seem to encourage him to run his campaign like “The Jerry Springer Show.” As a candidate for President of the United States, Trump represents more than the anti-democratic practices and social intolerance of Joe McCarthy;44 he illustrates how totalitarianism can take different forms in specific historical moments. Rather than dismissing him as “careless and undisciplined,” or not a true member of the Republican Party, as Ross Douthat has written in the New York Times, it is crucial to recognize that Trump’s popularity represents what Victor Wallis has described as a dangerous “political space… in both the wider culture and in recent history.” This is evident not only in his fear-mongering and race baiting, his degrading comments about women, or his call to round up and deport 11 million immigrants, but also in the mob mentality that is produced at his rallies. Trump’s racism is rooted in the authoritarian effort to curate spaces designed to keep out all those who do not reflect and reinforce his image of power. As the playwright John Steppling sees it, such efforts serve as filtering devices for the ruling class.
The force with which Donald Trump flaunts his intolerance through sexism, racism, and gestures of violence is unprecedented in recent national political races. “We’re going to have to do things that we never did before,” promises Trump, “and some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule…. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.” What might Trump have in mind here? What might we expect from this man if he somehow manages to assume the full suite of power at his disposal as commander-in-chief of the world’s most destructive nuclear arsenal? Trump’s anticipation of doing “the unthinkable” is a fundamental principle of any notion of totalitarianism, and openly prepares the US population for the possibility that he will not just attack his enemies, but hunt them and destroy them with bullets that he has dipped in filth.
While Trump’s demagoguery represents something new in American politics, his discourse resembles previous fascists, particularly in what has been called by Patrick Healy and Maggie Haberman, Trump’s “dark power of words.” As they point out in a recent New York Times article, Trump’s use of language is characterized by “divisive phrases, harsh words and violent imagery characteristic of demagogues of the past.” Moreover, Trump, like many past agitators, presents himself as a prophet incapable of being wrong; he disdains any sense of nuance and uses a discourse of intolerance populated by words such as “hate,” “kill,” “destroy,” “attack,” “fight,” and “smack,” showcasing a strongman mentality characteristic of the style of demagogues such as Pinochet, Mussolini, Hitler, and other tyrants. Trump is an anti-intellectual who appeals to anxiety, not possibility; he prioritizes insults and emotions over facts, evidence, or analysis. In reference to journalists, he said at a rally in Grand Rapids, Michigan, on December 21, 2015: “I hate some of these people but I’d never kill them.” But would he violate international human rights agreements and torture them if the accusations against them could be framed as a threat to national security? Trump trades in insults and uses the punitive rhetoric of humiliation as a weapon to deflect any criticism of his ideas and policies. How else to explain the following comment that Trump made about the comedian and actress Rosie O’Donnell: “If I were running ‘The View,’ I’d fire Rosie O’Donnell. I mean, I’d look at her right in that fat, ugly face of hers, I’d say ‘Rosie, you’re fired.'”
At a rally in South Carolina in 2015, Trump stated that he would use not only waterboarding but also similar interrogation techniques that “are much worse,” and that waterboarding is “not nearly tough enough.” Trump’s line that “torture works,” flies in the face of the 2014 Senate torture report that stated that coercive interrogation techniques do not work in securing information. Trump’s call to implement torture as needed burnishes his self-image as an uncompromising strongman. His discourse echoes the totalitarian regimes of Europe in the 1930s and the Latin American dictatorships of 1970s. Heather Digby Parton is right when she writes that Donald Trump “may be the first openly fascistic frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination but the ground was prepared and the seeds of his success sowed over the course of many years. As I have pointed out earlier, we’ve had fascism flowing through the American political bloodstream for quite some time.” There is a long, smoldering history in the United States in which fear, racism, resentment, precarity, and anxiety fueled a discourse all too similar to previous authoritarian regimes. For example, Trump’s hate-laced rhetoric of aggression and intolerance is unleashed to support his claims of an embarrassing national decline, and his disdain for democratic procedures and the rule of law; this rhetoric is also used to legitimate his eagerness to address problems with violence and coercion as well as his shameless appeals to group purity, all of which have been part of previous fascist and authoritarian political manifestations. This is a discourse that betrays dark and treacherous secrets not simply about Trump and the Republicans, but about the shifting boundaries of what the nation is willing to countenance — and even rally around — as the new American normal: acceptance of the “unthinkable” horrors to come.
The rise of acceptable forms of right-wing fascism in the United States today demonstrates the extent to which corporate evisceration of democracy and the long-term impact of the Terror Wars have weakened American society, and we should pay close attention to promises for more wars and walls, mass expulsions, censorship, and aggressive repression of protest and dissent. Trump’s brutal racism, cruelty, and Nazi-style policy recommendations are more than shocking; they are emblematic of totalitarianism’s hatred of multiculturalism, its call for racial purity, its mythic celebration of nationalism, its embrace of violence, its disdain for weakness, and its anti-intellectualism. This is the discourse of terror. And yet, these elements are increasingly a part of the new American normal. The conditions that produced the torture chambers, intolerable violence, extermination camps, and the squelching of dissent are still with us. Totalitarianism is not simply a relic of the past. It lives on in new forms, and its potential to dominate is just as terrifying and dangerous today as it has ever been.
Mark Summer is right in arguing that the ghost of fascism runs through American society, indicating that fascist sympathies never went away and that the threat of fascism has to be taken seriously. He writes that while fascism didn’t win on the battlefield, it won ideologically.
It won because the same fears, the same greed, the same hatred that fueled its growth in the first part of the twentieth century never went away. The symbols of fascism became anathema, but the causes … went deep. And gradually, slowly, one step at a time, all those vices became first tolerated, then treated as virtues, and then as the only acceptable view. … [For instance] our long, stumbling lurch to the right; the building force of corporate power; the relentless need for war; a police whose power of enforcement is divorced from law; a preening nationalism that rewards the full rights of citizenship only to those who fit an ever-narrower mold. … I’m not saying we’re moving toward fascism. I’m saying we started that drift a long time ago, and now we’re well across the line.
Trump is not an aberration. Rather, he is the successor of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles. The United States has reached its endpoint with Trump, and his presence should be viewed as a stern warning of the possible nightmare to come. Trump is not an isolated figure in US politics; he is simply the most visible and popular expression of a number of extremists in the Republican Party who now view democracy as a liability. Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio all support an ideology that reduces certain populations to “anonymous beings.” Think about their prevailing attacks on immigrants, refugees, and economically disadvantaged people. Primo Levi, the great writer and survivor of Auschwitz, called this use of dehumanizing abstractions one of the core principles of Nazi barbarism. Fast forward to Trump’s incitement of violence at his rallies, coupled with his overt bigotry, his call for mass surveillance, his discourse of mass hatred, his willingness to arm other nations with nuclear weapons, and his embrace of politics as an extension of war.
This is not the discourse of Kafka, but of those extremists who have become cheerleaders for totalitarianism, especially in the present make-up of the Republican Party. As my colleague David L. Clark points out in personal correspondence, the frankness of Trump’s call for violence coupled with his unapologetic thirst for injustice position him as the “latest expression of a fascism that has poisoned political life throughout modernity. He is unabashedly vicious because he is both an agent and a symptom of a barren political landscape in which viciousness goes insolently unhidden.” Trump is a monster without a conscience, a politician with a toxic set of policies. He is the product of a form of finance capitalism and a long legacy of racism and violence in which conscience is put to sleep, democracy withers, and public values are extinguished. This is truly a time of monsters, and Trump is simply the most visible and certainly one of the most despicable.
Trump is the most detailed manifestation of a new form of authoritarianism identified by the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin. According to Wolin, all the elements are in place today for a contemporary form of authoritarianism that he calls “inverted totalitarianism.” He writes:
Thus the elements are in place: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one part, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens, and domestic dissidents.
Totalitarianism destroys everything that makes democracy, civil rights, and openness possible. It is both an ideological poison and a brutal mode of social, economic, and martial control. But Trump also reminds us of totalitarianism’s seductive appeal, the allure of the strongman who promises to clean things up, kill the enemy, and deliver the nation to greatness. What is crucial to acknowledge is that the stories, legacies, and varieties of coercion that are part of totalitarianism’s history must be told over and over again so that recognizing them, understanding them, and resisting them becomes more widespread. The call for greater national security in authoritarian societies is code for illicit spying, criminalizing disadvantaged populations, militarizing law enforcement, consolidating the surveillance state, and ultimately expelling or neglecting all those who do not fall into the accepted racialized caste system. The fervor that Trump has stirred up should be a wake-up call for resistance against the tyranny of totalitarianism in its new and proto-fascist forms.
Trump’s excesses, buffoonery, and incendiary remarks are welcome fodder for the mainstream media spectacle in which news is replaced by entertainment, violence, and idiocy parading as serious commentary. The exclusive focus on his outlandish aspects is also a political and depoliticizing diversion engineered to misrepresent reality rather than engage with it critically. What should be addressed when reporting about Trump is not how offensive he is politically, intellectually, and morally, but how he has come to symbolize something dangerous in American society — a society increasingly haunted by the ghost of Augusto Pinochet and the legacy of other dictatorships — as it quickly moves toward becoming an unapologetic authoritarian state.
In fact, Matthew MacWilliams, a student of authoritarianism, argues that “America’s inclination to authoritarian behavior” is the primary factor behind Trump’s success. According to MacWilliams, Trump’s supporters are “individuals with a disposition to authoritarianism and demonstrate a fear of ‘the other’ as well as a readiness to follow and obey strong leaders. They tend to see the world in black-and-white terms. They are by definition attitudinally inflexible and rigid. And once they have identified friend from foe, they hold tight to their conclusions.”
Authoritarian tendencies are deeply rooted in American history. It is important to note that Donald Trump is just a symptom of a much larger reality, one in which a large segment of the American population has been mobilized by a legacy of intolerance for “outsiders” such as Muslims and immigrants, “threats that come from abroad, such as ISIS or Russia or Iran,” and disruptive social change — such as the growing prevalence of same-sex marriage and racial diversity. Amanda Taub writes:
[Such threats] could come in the form of evolving social norms, such as the erosion of traditional gender roles or evolving standards in how to discuss sexual orientation. It could come in the form of rising diversity, whether that means demographic changes from immigration or merely changes in the colors of the faces on TV. Or it could be any changes, political or economic, that disrupt social hierarchies. What these changes have in common is that, to authoritarians, they threaten to take away the status quo as they know it — familiar, orderly, secure — and replace it with something that feels scary because it is different and destabilizing, but also sometimes because it upends their own place in society. According to the literature, authoritarians will seek, in response, a strong leader who promises to suppress the scary changes, if necessary by force, and to preserve the status quo.
Rather than despair or laugh over the spectacle of Trump’s media-fueled rise, a more promising beginning might be to recognize the utter intellectual, moral, and political bankruptcy of the extremists now running the US government that has set the stage for Trump. This suggests the possibility of rethinking politics in the way the Black Lives Matter movement is doing: connecting different groups under a banner of solidarity for real ideological and structural change at home and internationally. I believe that Trump’s candidacy offers the possibility for a new discourse of hope, of sustained criticism and the possibility to imagine what the next decade could be like with the advent of a massive innovative social and political formation willing to unite a fragmented Left around a call for a resurgent and insurrectional democracy. The good news is that the type of hateful ideology and harsh economic policies that Trump embraces cannot support a democratic society and, if he assumed the presidency, would make visible an oppressive social system, which would prompt massive resistance on many fronts. Ruptures and contradictions happen under neoliberalism, but they must be seized as a matter of informed consciousness, as a detour through new framing mechanisms, as an investment in new concepts, ideas, and thoughts that unsettle common sense, offer new alternatives, and infuse the present with a sense of a future that is ripe with new possibilities.
Footnotes for this chapter can be found in the book.
Copyright (2016) by Henry A. Giroux. Not to be printed without permission of the publisher, City Lights Books.