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Born Disposable: Trump’s War on Youth

The Trump administration views children not as the promise of a future, but as a threat to the present.

The Trump administration views children not as the promise of a future, but as a threat to the present.

Part of the Series

We live in an age in which the welfare of children is no longer a measure of the degree to which a society lives up to its democratic ideals. In an age of growing fascism, those in power no longer view children as the promise of a future but as a threat to the present.

In particular, poor Black and Brown children are being treated as what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies.” Rather than being educated, many are being imprisoned; rather than living in communities that are safe and clean, many are relegated to cities where the water is poisoned and the police function as an occupying army.

In the age of Trump, children of undocumented workers are stripped of their humanity, caged in internment camps, sometimes sexually abused and subjected to the unethical grammars of state violence. Sometimes they lose their lives, as did two children from Guatemala who died while in custody of Customs and Border Protection: seven-year old Jakelin Caal and eight-year-old Felipe Gómez. In this way the dual logic of disposability and pollution becomes the driving force of a machinery of social death.

Removed from the sphere of justice and human rights, undocumented children occupy a ruthless space of social and political abandonment beyond the reach of human rights. This is a zone in which moral numbness becomes a central feature of politics, power and governance. How else to explain Republican Congressman Peter King responding to the deaths of these two children by praising ICE’s “excellent record,” stating that since there are “only two children that have died,” the death count is a testament to how competent organizations like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actually are. This is a fascist discourse marked by the rhetorical tropes of hate, demonization and violence.

As this incident shows, in the era of Trump, people are now turned into objects not only to others but also to themselves. This suggests a crisis not only of politics and representation, but also one of individual and collective identity. As a form of domestic terrorism, the state produces and legitimates forms of material and symbolic violence in which people are rendered less than human, treated as excess, and subjected to zones of social abandonment and terminal exclusion. It does so both in its policies and its alignment with corporate-controlled media. Such terrorism is at the heart of the Trump administration and is evident in its anti-immigration policies, its militarization of the southern border, its expansion of the surveillance state, and its war on Muslims. It is also evident in mounting police violence against Black youth, the revocation of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), the state’s attack on workers’ rights and safety protections, its creation of internment camps near the US-Mexico border, its scorn for reproductive rights, and its elevation of the police state as a central force for organizing society, to name only a few examples.

The Politics of Disposability

Disposable populations now labor under what sociologist Richard Sennett has called the “spectre of uselessness” and are catapulted out of the moral universe central to any notion of humanity. Such populations have their children forcibly taken away from them by immigration officials, are chased out of their homes, forced into exile, pushed into homelessness and poverty, excluded from the rights that grant them full-fledged citizenship. Too many of the poor and other vulnerable populations are frequently left to fend for themselves in the face of often devastating political and social costs caused by the financial elite and exploitative corporations such as the pharmaceutical companies partly responsible for the opioid crisis in the United States. These vulnerable populations are also removed from their material goods, denied crucial social provisions, and lack control over their bodies. Under the reign of neoliberalism, such populations are viewed with scorn and disdain. At best they experience the burden of a social death, and at worse they fall prey to the looming danger of real death.

Disposability, pollution and dispossession have another destructive register in that they attempt through a range of cultural, social and pedagogical apparatuses to make people unknown to themselves as potentially critical and engaged citizens. As public spheres increasingly become sites where politics thrive on the energies of a racially coded fascist politics, critical modes of subjectivity and identification are under siege. That is, new powerful cultural pathways work to choke democratic values, modes of agency, values and social relations normally rooted in the virtues of social and economic justice, compassion for others, and also the public goods and institutions that make such values and relationships possible. In the age of a culture of immediacy and hypersensationalism, critical thinking, civic courage and collective resistance are diverted into the private orbit of therapy, the isolated space of emotional management, the atomizing logic of wilful self-change, and a landscape of fractured identities.

This assault on democratic modes of agency and values is particularly aggressive and widespread under a political formation that merges neoliberal ideology and the structures of white supremacy. The public sphere now becomes a phantom empty space, a barren presence next to neoliberalism’s celebrated ethos of unbridled individualism. Neoliberal fascist politics is strengthened through the domestic machineries of inscription that extend from schools and the social media to the world of celebrity culture and corporate-controlled sports events. The corporate-dominated circuits of culture depoliticize people by defining them as both consumers and as isolated individuals for whom all the problems they face are both self-induced and only subject to change through the register of individual responsibility. This narrative of individual freedom and responsibility is constructed through the false notion of unlimited choices detached from any realistic material constraints. As such, this fictional idea of individual freedom is both overburdening and politically debilitating given its refusal to provide a language for individuals to be able to translate private problems into broader social and systemic considerations.

It is in the midst of a culture steeped in a growing plague of social atomization, loneliness and a race-based right-wing populist nationalism that the false dreamscape of a fascist politics gains ascendency. This bogus dreamscape provides individuals with a misleading sense of community and simple answers to complex problems, mobilizing anger against the neoliberal global economy into totalitarian impulses. In this instance, agency becomes unmoored from democratic communal relations and disconnected from a legitimate critique of existing power relations. Immiseration on both the material and psychic levels along with a state-sanctioned culture of fearmongering and bigotry is producing political and pedagogical landscapes that mobilize the highly charged emotive appeals of a fascist politics. This is a politics, as the writer Ian Hughes points out, that is embraced by tyrants who function as entrepreneurs of hate. He writes:

For each of these tyrants, their first goal was to exacerbate the feelings of separateness and otherness felt towards their chosen target out-group, whether they were Jews, kulaks, ‘capitalist railroaders’ or other ‘enemies of the people.’ Their second goal was to inflame feelings of anger and fear towards that out-group. And their third goal was to spread stories that explained, in false and simple terms, why that outgroup was a deserving target of people’s hate. These stories varied widely but they had certain elements in common: ‘the enemy is repulsive in looks and habits;’ ‘the enemy is contaminated and is spreading disease;’ ‘the enemy is part of a conspiracy seeking to control us;’ ‘the enemy is a criminal;’ ‘the enemy is a seducer and a rapist;’ ‘the enemy is an animal, an insect or a germ;’ ‘the enemy is the enemy of God;’ ‘the enemy is a murderer who delights in killing;’ ‘the enemy is standing in the way of our making our country great again.’

This tale of turning a “fabricated enemy” into an object has a long heritage in both the horrors of genocide against Native Americans, the reign of terror and disposability during the period of American slavery, and the apartheid system of incarceration that repudiates the claim that the reign of white supremacy and fascist politics is safely interred in the past.

It is also monumentally evident in Trump’s call for funding a border wall and his use of a partial shutdown of the US government as a bargaining chip to have Congress meet his racist-inspired demands. Trump has attempted to justify the wall by demonizing undocumented immigrants while criminalizing an entire culture of women, men and children, most of whom are seeking asylum in the United States. Moreover, Trump’s self-serving fictional political crisis has created a major crisis at home for thousands of children whose families are being held hostage to the partial government shutdown. While the press often cites that 800,000 people will not be paid as a result of the shutdown, the reality is that many of these workers also have dependents who will now face a severe financial crisis and have to endure a great deal of misery and suffering. This is an attack first and foremost on human rights, justice and democracy, and it is part of a larger war on people of color, children and others who are deemed by those in power to be throwaways, disposable and excess. The border wall began as a crowd pleaser for Trump, and it has now revealed itself as a symbol for the discourse of disposability, pollution and exclusion that is at the core of a neoliberal fascist politics.

This discourse is designed to segregate and exclude, and it has also been used to create a culture divided between winners and losers, friends and enemies. In doing so, it has produced a social order in which all that is left is fear for the people who are actually the real victims of state terrorism, plus the self-serving notion of anxiety and hatred on the part of those whites who falsely imagine themselves as victims threatened by the increasing presence of those whom they falsely deem threatening, contaminating and disposable. The language of objectifying people operates in the service of a toxic politics that, as Hannah Arendt puts it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “guide[s] the behavior of its subjects [as] a preparation to fit each of them equally well for the role of executioner and the role of victim.”

Repeated endlessly by the Trump administration and the political parties of the post-1980s era, the logic of objectifying the precariat by means of notions such as that of disposability became a tool of violence used against alleged marginalized others and a rhetorical weapon used by those whose racial, class and gender privilege were viewed as at risk of losing power. Disposability as weapon of objectification and social exclusion has not only been used to undermine the bodies, capacities, and modes of identification crucial to creating engaged, informed, critical citizens, it has also become normalized as a story of victimhood. As the false promises of neoliberal capitalism become clear failures, the fear of powerlessness fuels a sense of victimization among many poor and middle-class whites who feel displaced in a demographically changing world. Written out of the discourse of social and economic mobility and security, the vulnerable accept the dominant culture’s seductive and venomous affirmation of hatred, white supremacy and white nationalism.

In this instance, the rhetoric of objectification by way of pollution and disposability has a doubling function in that it both creates real victims while reinforcing the false assumption on the part of right-wing populists that those considered other “pollute” the United States and pose a threat to white Americans. In this instance, the rhetoric of pollution both names those considered a threat to an alleged white public sphere, and feeds the fantasies of an apocalyptic nationalism. If Trump has proven adept at one thing, it is stoking the fears of those white Americans who comfortably inhabit mythic tales of race-based conspiracy theories of victimhood. The relentlessly asinine Fox News host Tucker Carlson echoed these sentiments when he claimed that immigration makes the US “poorer and dirtier.” Many liberal commentators were quick to condemn Tucker’s racist rhetoric, but what they did not do was acknowledge it as a tactic to further legitimate the fear and anger that often erupts in violence against those considered disposable.

Fascist Neoliberalism Thrives on Depoliticization

The footprints of a fascist politics are now found not only in the registers of racial purity, the chants of blood and soil, and a culture of cruelty, but also in the neoliberal stress on unchecked individualism, the collapse of social obligations, the uprooting of civic culture, and the effects of social atomization, all of which work to both depoliticize and render agency susceptible to modes of identification that embrace shared fears and hatreds rather than shared values and social obligations. Exclusion is no longer simply an economic issue that reinforces class divisions between workers and capitalists. On the contrary, it is more capacious under neoliberal fascism and is about not allowing more and more people the right to both enter the United States and participate in public life. The latter issue is most evident in Trump’s stated intention to end birthright citizenship for children born to undocumented immigrants in the US. Trump’s disregard for the constitutionality of birthright citizenship says as much about his racism as it does for his repeated disregard for the law.

In the current historical moment, agency is being emptied of its democratic possibilities in a neoliberal order in which identities and desires are defined through a market logic that enshrines consumerism, unending competition, unbridled individualism, a survival-of-the-fittest ethos, and the celebration of unbridled self-interest. All of these forces are a breeding ground for unleashing a hatred for the common good, the social contract, and democracy itself. Within this new social and political formation, the people-objectifying discourses of disposability and pollution are aligned with the resonant discourse of bigotry, nativism and misogyny and configured as part of a condition for the production of accommodating and unquestioning modes of identification and selfhood. In this instance, isolation, as Hannah Arendt once argued, becomes crucial to the production of tyranny and is grounded in perpetuating the conditions for powerlessness and the inability of individuals to act as critical and informed participants in shaping the forces that bear down on their lives.

Neoliberal ideology becomes a justification for lawlessness when responsibility is shifted to the most vulnerable individuals, with women being disproportionally burdened as they are marginalized by class and race. Even though the problems faced by the dispossessed are not of their own making, the poisoned discourse of neoliberalism insists that their fate is a product of personal issues ranging from weak character, bad choices, or simply a moral deficiency. Isolation breeds political inaction, fear and intimidation, which work to instill toxic convictions. In this discourse, everyone is defined as an island and all connective forms of economic and social justice vanish from the public imagination.

As misfortune is emptied of any broader political, economic and social content, it is indeed depoliticized and viewed as a weakness, hence making it all the easier for the punishing state to criminalize social problems. As the late Frankfurt School theorist Leo Löwenthal once noted in his essay on the “Atomization of Man,” terror functions as a form of dehumanization and “fate itself becomes so enigmatic as to lose all meaning…. The creative faculties of fantasy, imaginations, memory become meaningless and tend to atrophy where they can no longer bring about any desired change in the individual’s fate.”

One consequence is that those individuals who are relatively powerless to address broader social issues are forced to partake in a system that encourages them to embrace their own oppression as though it were a normal part of their everyday existence.

Operating under the false assumption that there are only individual solutions to socially produced problems, the atomization of the individual thus becomes normalized rendering human beings numb and fearful, immune to the demands of economic and social justice increasingly divorced from matters of politics, ethics and social responsibility. This amounts to a form of domestic terrorism evident as individuals descend into a moral stupor, susceptible to political shocks, and seduced by the pleasure of the manufactured spectacle. In this instance not only does the political become relentlessly personal, it also reinforces the ongoing process of depoliticization. In this case, agency is reduced to a dystopian narrative limited to how to survive, and reduces the notion of autonomy to acts of consumption, allowing any aspirations that regain some sense of sovereignty to be hijacked by right-wing parties and populist movements.

Against the erosion of democratic ideals of equality and popular sovereignty, right-wing populists produce narratives in which democracy is removed from the discourse of equality and is wedded “to nationalistic authoritarian forms of neolib­eralism that, in the name of recovering democracy, in fact drastically restrict it,” in the words of Chantal Mouffe from For a Left Populism. Underlying this regressive notion of populism are pedagogical practices in which the desire on the part of people to gain control over their lives has, in Mouffe’s words, “been captured by right-wing populist parties that have managed to construct the people through a xenophobic discourse that excludes immigrants, considered as a threat to national prosperity.”

Within this new fascist neoliberal populist political formation, language functions to repress any sense of moral decency and connection to others, and as a result, personal communication rooted in democratic values loses all meaning. Individuals are pressured increasingly to act exclusively in their own self-interest, and in doing so are reduced to what Löwenthal describes as “ruthless seekers after their own survival, psychological pawns and puppets of a system that knows no other purpose than to keep itself in power.” All vestiges of critical agency now dissolve into a form of political regression and infantilism — not unlike what we see in many of the individuals and groups who give Trump undying and unquestioned loyalty.

This is a politics in which the ongoing process of depoliticization makes it easier for the financial elite and other right-wing extremists to argue that the objectifying logic of disposability and the curse of pollution mutually reinforce each other, making it easier to believe that those who suffer deserve to suffer.

As the connections are loosened between language and the common good, education and democracy, politics and civic responsibility, and truth and fiction, fascist terror reasserts itself as part of the largely unquestioned neoliberal diktat that there is no alternative to the current state of affairs. This speaks to a crisis of agency, representation, education and politics itself.