The ghost of Orwell has never been far from Trump’s misleading rhetoric, outright lies, dehumanizing invective and punitive policies. All of the latter were on full display in Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address. Trump’s speech moved between the kind of absolutes one expects from demagogues, including comments that ranged from how great America is (overlooking how millions live in poverty and millions have lost health care under Trump) and how the U.S. economy is in an unprecedented boom (when in reality it grew at its slowest pace since 2016). Trump’s speech also included outrageously false claims about the president’s supposed support for people who have preexisting conditions and protection of Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, when in reality he has taken steps to weaken or eliminate protections for patients with preexisting conditions, and he has proposed cutting funding for all three social programs.
Authoritarian societies protect the powerful — not the poor or vulnerable — and Trump made that clear in boasting about tax policies that largely benefit the ultra-rich and major corporations. He lied about supporting workers’ rights and “restoring manufacturing rights” even as he continues to implement regulatory roll-backs that endanger both the environment and the health of workers and many other people in the U.S. His claim that he has launched the great American comeback is laced with death-dealing policies that range from criminalizing social problems, demonizing and punishing undocumented immigrants and their children, and laying claim to ultra-nationalist and white supremacist rhetoric that echoes the social and racial cleansing policies of earlier fascist societies. When Trump says in his speech “our families are flourishing,” he leaves out the misery and suffering he has inflicted on the many people who don’t fit into his white Christian notion of the public sphere, as well as on the immigrants and other people of color whom he has deemed disposable.
His claim to be building the world’s most prosperous and inclusive society reeks with bad faith given not only Trump’s overt racism, but also his use of white nationalist Stephen Miller as his trusted adviser and major speech writer, and his awarding of the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Rush Limbaugh, a conservative radio host whose unchecked racism, misogyny and sexism is his calling card. Like most right-wing demagogues, Trump refers to national health care, which most advanced countries have, as “socialist” and absurdly seeks to portray such health programs as designed by Democrats largely to benefit undocumented immigrants.
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Trump’s ignorance, which is far from innocent, was on display when he stated that his administration is working to protect the environment by planting new trees. At the same time, he has rolled back numerous environmental standards designed to protect the environment, pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement, loosened regulations on toxic air pollution, opened public lands for business, and gutted the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, among other policies.
In his State of the Union speech, Trump unapologetically aligned himself with the war-mongering militaristic policies that one expects in fascist societies. His most fascistic statements centered around celebrating Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, conflating undocumented immigrants with “criminals,” and describing sanctuary cities as a threat to American security and safety. Meanwhile he bragged about stacking the federal courts with right-wing judges and expressed admiration for the two right-wing Supreme Court justices he has appointed, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
Trump’s State of the Union reeked with the mobilizing passions of fascism, including invocations of extreme nationalism and calls for the expansion of military power, as well as outright racism, lawlessness, contempt for dissent and anti-immigrant bigotry.
Amid all this, the Republican-controlled Senate was willing to overlook Trump’s authoritarianism, disdain for democracy and ruthless grab for power and acquit him of the impeachment charges, all the while making it clear that matters of evidence, facts, truth and justice were irrelevant to the Republican senators’ decision. Trump’s State of the Union was more than a highly charged campaign speech — it was also indicative of the state of decline and crisis the United States is experiencing under the grim shadow of authoritarianism.
In the current moment, with a possible war with Iran still in the making, the ongoing anti-democratic actions of a deeply authoritarian Trump government, and the refusal of both political parties and the corporate press to address the deeper economic and political crisis facing the United States, it is crucial to analyze the current crisis of governance in a broader context that analyzes fascism as a possible wave of the future. The contemporary elements of tyranny at work in the United States point not only to a crisis of leadership and the rise of demagogues such as Trump on domestic and global stages, but also to the conditions and crisis that produce the discontent of millions of people who are embracing a politics of fear in the face of economic instability and climate insecurity.
We live in an age of relentless crisis — an age marked by the collapse of civic culture, ethical values and democratic institutions that serve the public good. Language now operates in the service of violence, and ignorance has become a national ideal. Religious fundamentalism, white supremacy and economic tyranny now inform each other, giving rise to an updated recurrence of fascist politics. This is an age in which apocalyptic prophecies replace thoughtfulness and sustained acts of social responsibility. In this age of crisis, right-wing populist regimes fuel conspiracy theories, normalize lying as a way to degrade public discourse and elevate emotion over reason as a way to legitimate a culture of cruelty. As a result, more and more people feel the need for vengeance and the imposition of brutality and injury upon those portrayed as disposable. The impeachment process speaks not only to Trump’s ongoing criminal behavior and pernicious policies, but also to a mass crisis of civic literacy and the inability of the public to understand how society has broken apart, become crueler, and receded from the language of critique, hope and the social imagination. A culture of withdrawal, privatization and immediacy reinforces an indifference to public life, the suffering of others, and what Hannah Arendt once called “the ruin of our categories of thought and standards of judgment.” The space of traditional politics and a media-driven culture no longer provide the language for understanding the totality of the crisis that has produced both Trump and the impeachment process. In the absence of a comprehensive politics capable of defining the related parts and threads that point to a society in crisis, violence — especially as related to the joining of a predatory neoliberalism and a fascist politics of white supremacy — becomes the regulative principle of everyday life.
Evidence of the distinctive nature of today’s crisis on both a national and global level can be glimpsed in the political and cultural forces that shaped President Trump’s impeachment, the Brexit fiasco, and the rise of authoritarian demagogues in Brazil, Turkey and Hungary, among other countries. This is a general crisis whose roots lie in the rise of global neoliberalism with its embrace of finance capital, massive inequities in wealth and power, the rise of the racial punishing state, systemic state violence, and the creation of an age of precarity and uncertainty. This is a crisis produced, in part, through a full-scale attack on the welfare state, labor and public goods. Under such circumstances, democracy has become thinner, and the social sphere and social contract no longer occupy an important place in Trump’s America.
As Nancy Fraser points out, “these forces have been grinding away at our social order for quite some time” and constitute not only a crisis of politics and economics, which is highly visible, but also a crisis of ideas, which is not so visible. As the global economy has unraveled, the backlash against the so-called political elites and established forms of liberal governance has often produced movements for popular sovereignty that lack the crucial call for equal rights and social justice. The current historical crisis not only refigures the social sphere as a site of commercialism and infantilism, but also redefines matters of individual and social agency through the mediation of images in which self-alienation is reinforced within a culture of immediacy, disappearance and a flight from any sense of social responsibility.
Hard and Soft Disimagination Machines
The crisis of politics is now matched by a mainstream and corporate-controlled digital media and screen culture that heightens ignorance and produces political theater and fractured narratives. At the same time, it authorizes and produces a culture of sensationalism designed to increase ratings and profit at the expense of truth. This culture undermines a complex rendering of the related nature of social problems and suppresses a culture of dissent and informed judgments. We live in an age in which theater and the spectacle of performance empty politics of any moral substance and contribute to the revival of an updated version of fascist politics. Politics is now leaden with bombast: words strung together to shock, numb the mind, and images overwrought with a self-serving sense of riotousness and anger. What is distinct about this historical period, especially under the Trump regime, is what Susan Sontag has called a form of aesthetic fascism with its contempt of “all that is reflective, critical, and pluralistic.”
One distinctive element of the current moment is the rise of hard and soft disimagination machines. The hard disimagination machines — such as Fox News, conservative talk radio and Breitbart media — function as overt and unapologetic propaganda machines that trade in nativism, misrepresentations and racism, all wrapped in the cloak of a regressive view of patriotism. As Joel Bleifuss points out, Fox News, in particular, is “blatant in its contempt for the truth,” and engages nightly in the “ritual of burying the truth in ‘memory holes.’” Bleifuss adds, “This, the most-watched cable news network, functions in its fealty to Trump like a real-world Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984, where bureaucrats ‘rectify’ the historical record to conform to Big Brother’s decrees.” Trump’s fascist politics and fantasies of racial purity could not succeed without the disimagination machines, pedagogical apparatuses and the practitioners needed to make his “vision not merely real but grotesquely normal.”
The soft disimagination machines or liberal mainstream media, such as “NBC Nightly News,” MSNBC, and the established press function largely to cater to Trump’s Twitter universe, celebrity culture and the cut-throat ethos of the market — all while isolating social issues, individualizing social problems and making the workings of power superficially visible. Matters of power, corruption, poverty, state violence, and political corruption are rarely connected to a broader understanding of politics that connects such issues. More specifically, rarely are the threads of oppression, disposability, inequality, greed, and concentration of power associated with a toxic neoliberalism or for that matter connected to a past history of genocide, oppression, and colonization.
Politics as a spectacle saturates the senses with noise, cheap melodrama, lies and buffoonery. This is not to suggest that the spectacle that now shapes politics as pure theater is meant merely to entertain and distract. On the contrary, the current spectacle, most recently evident in the impeachment hearings in Congress, functions largely to separate the past from a politics that in its current form has turned deadly in its attack on the values and institutions crucial to a functioning democracy. In this instance, echoes of a fascist past remain hidden, invisible beneath the histrionic shouting and disinformation campaigns that rail against “fake news,” which is a euphemism for dissent, holding power accountable and an oppositional media. A flair for the overly dramatic eliminates the distinction between fact and fiction, lies and the truth.
Under such circumstances, the spectacle functions as part of a culture of distraction, division and fragmentation, all the while refusing to pose the question of how the United States shares elements of a fascist politics that connects it to a number of other authoritarian countries — such as Brazil, Turkey, Hungary and Poland — which have embraced a form of fascist aesthetics and politics that combines a cruel culture of neoliberal austerity with the discourses of hate, nativism and racism. Political theater in its current form, especially with respect to the impeachment process, embraces elements of a fascist past, and in doing so, creates a form of self-sabotage in which the public largely refuses to “pose the question why Hitler and Nazi Germany continue to exert such a grip on modern life.”
Forgetting History and the Legitimation of White Supremacy
Another lesson to be learned from the absence of history or what it means to even have a history in the discourse surrounding the impeachment hearings is not only how ignorance gets normalized, but also how the absence of critical thought allows us to forget that we are moral subjects capable of changing the world around us. Echoes of a dark past loom over the impeachment process and the crimes of the Trump administration. Not only are lessons not learned, but history is being rewritten in the image of the mystical leader, a culture of lies, and a perpetual motion machine that trades in racism, fear and bigotry.
The impeachment of Donald Trump is a crisis in need of being fully confronted both historically and in terms of a comprehensive politics that allows us to learn from alarming signs coming from the Trump administration. Such a crisis contains elements of a past that suggest we cannot look away or give in to the current assault on the past as a measure of intellectual respectability.
The refusal of the Republican Party-dominated Senate to remove Trump from office both legitimizes his lawlessness and makes clear that Trump is simply a symptom of a long-simmering fascist politics. This is a politics whose roots run deep in American politics and have produced a Republican Party that Noam Chomsky has argued is “the most dangerous organization in human history.” This is a political party that forgets historical narratives that it considers dangerous. At the same time, it couples its embrace of historical amnesia with a rewriting of history that draws on a mythical past to promote toxic masculinity, patriarchy and white supremacy. There is more at work here than a notion of history that celebrates an archaic and reactionary social order. There are also the seeds of a growing authoritarianism.
History offers a model to learn something from earlier turns toward authoritarianism, making it more difficult to assume that fascism is merely a relic of the past. Memories of terror are not only present in the white supremacist parade of hate and bigotry that took place in Charlottesville, but also in the current White House, which is home to white supremacists such as Stephen Miller, who is a high-level adviser to Trump and is viewed by many as the architect of his draconian immigration policies. Recently, over 900 of Miller’s emails were leaked by former Breitbart editor Katie McHugh. Among the trove of emails, Miller commented on and provided reference to white nationalist websites such as VDARE and celebrated the racist novel, The Camp of the Saints. He “also reportedly espoused conspiracy theories about immigration, backed racist immigration policies introduced by President Calvin Coolidge that were praised by Adolf Hitler, and deployed slang popular in white nationalist circles to reference immigration.” Judd Legum argues that Miller also “obsessed over the loss of Confederate symbols after Dylann Roof’s murderous rampage.”
In spite of a barrage of calls from a number of politicians for Miller’s removal from the White House, Trump held firm, reinforcing that widely accepted notion that Trump is a white nationalist entirely comfortable with white supremacist ideology. This is not surprising since Trump brought the language of white nationalism into the White House and mainstream politics. Of course, removing Miller would not change much. Miller is not the main white supremacist in the Trump administration. Nor can his presence hide the fact that white supremacy has been a staple of the Republican Party for decades — evident in the history and contemporary presence of high-profile Republican politicians, such as Senators Strom Thurmond and Jeff Sessions, and Representatives Steve King, Tom Tancredo and Dana Rohrabacher. Moreover, the long legacy of white supremacy in the United States should not undercut the distinctiveness of Trump’s white supremacist views, which he wears like a badge of honor while escalating and normalizing white supremacist sensibilities, practices and policies unlike any president in modern times. His scapegoating and demonization of politicians, athletes and other critics of color reflects more than a divide-and-rule strategy; it is an updated strategy for mainstreaming the death-haunted elements of fascism.
In addition, he has consistently waged war on the media and elevated the spurious notion of “fake news” to the level of a common-sense assumption. The latter derogatory term has a strong resemblance to Hitler’s demonization of the “Lügenpresse” — the lying press. Rick Noack states: “The defamatory word was most frequently used in Nazi Germany. Today, it is a common slogan among those branded as representing the ‘ugly Germany’: members of xenophobic, right-wing groups. This Nazi slur has also been used by some of Trump’s followers.”
Trump has legitimated a culture of lying, cruelty and a collapse of social responsibility. In doing so, he has furthered the process of trying to make people superfluous and disposable, all the while producing a fog of ignorance which gives contemporary credence to Hannah Arendt’s claim in The Origins of Totalitarianism that, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exists.”
Underneath this moral abyss, politics wages war on the truth and historical memory. This was made clear in the Senate’s refusal to hear witnesses, assess evidence and remove from office a president who has repeatedly abused the power of the office and relentlessly produced a pageant of menace and manufactured drama spectacularized through threats of violence, lies, fear and white rage.
If Nazi Germany offered an image of a politics cleansed of social and moral responsibility, Trump offers us a foretaste of what the total destruction of democracy and the planet looks like. The acquittal of Trump as the end point of the impeachment process provides a glimpse of a right-wing, white supremacist party that has rejected democracy for an authoritarian mode of governance, one that benefits the ultra-rich, the corporate elite, right-wing evangelicals, militarists, ultranationalists and white supremacists.
The Republican Party is now organized like a cult. It has given over to totalistic visions, narratives of decline and a politics of ethnic and racial “purification.”
While the Republican Party is far more extremist than the Democratic Party, it must be remembered that they both participate in, benefit from, and support what Robert Jay Lifton has called a “malignant normality,” which he defines in his book Losing Reality as “the imposition of a norm of destructive or violent behavior, so that such behavior is expected or required of people.”
At one level, this strikes me as a suitable definition of a rabid form of neoliberalism and finance capital that is now reproduced in different forms by both parties. At another level, it applies to the “murderous arrangements” that define the fascist politics practiced by the Trump administration. Lifton is worth quoting at length. He writes:
With Trump and Trumpism … we have experienced a national malignant normality: extensive lying and falsification, systemic corruption, ad hominem attacks on critics, dismissal of intelligence institutions and findings, rejection of climate change truths and of scientists who express them, rebukes of our closest international allies and embrace of dictators, and scornful deligitimation of the party of opposition. This constellation of malignant normality has threatened and at times virtually replaced, American democracy.
Fighting Fascist Politics With Civic Education
Historian David Blight has written that Trump’s “greatest threat to our society and to our democracy is not necessarily his authoritarianism, but his essential ignorance — of history, of policy, of political process, of the Constitution.” Blight is only partly right in that the greatest threat to our society is a collective ignorance that legitimates forms of organized forgetting, modes of social amnesia and the death of civic literacy. The notion that the past is a burden that must be forgotten is a centerpiece of authoritarian regimes. While some critics eschew the comparison of Trump with the Nazi era, it is crucial to recognize the alarming signs in this administration that echo a fascist politics of the past. As Jonathan Freedland points out, “the signs are there, if only we can bear to look.” Rejecting the Trump-Nazi comparison makes it easier to believe that we have nothing to learn from history and to take comfort in the assumption that it cannot happen once again. No democracy can survive without an informed and educated citizenry.
The pedagogical lesson the impeachment process offered far exceeded its stated limited aims as a form of civic education. It not only ignored the most serious of Trump’s crimes; it also failed to examine a number of political threads that together constitute elements common to a global crisis in democracy. The impeachment process, when viewed as part of a broader crisis of democracy, cannot be analyzed and removed from the connecting ideological, economic and cultural threads that weave through often isolated issues such as white nationalism, the rise of a Republican Party dominated by right-wing extremists, the collapse of the two-party system, and the ascent of a corporate-controlled media that functions as a disimagination machine and as a corrosive system of power.
Crucial to any politics of resistance is the necessity to analyze Trump’s use of politics as a spectacle and how to address it not in isolation, not just as a form of diversion and political theater, but also as part of a more comprehensive political project in which updated forms of authoritarianism and contemporary versions of fascism are being mobilized and gaining traction both in the United States and across the globe. Federico Mayor Zaragoza, the former director general of UNESCO, once stated, “You cannot expect anything from uneducated citizens except unstable democracy.” In the current historical moment and age of Trump, it might be more appropriate to say that in a society in which ignorance is viewed as a virtue and civic literacy and education are viewed as a liability, you cannot expect anything but fascism.
Trump’s State of the Union address made clear that he lives in a world of lies, spectacles and a complex machinery of manipulation that shreds any viable notion of civic culture and the institutions that are fundamental to a robust democracy.
The deceitful rhetoric and lies that Trump produced in the State of the Union speech need to be countered with the power of a civic literacy. In the struggle against manufactured falsehoods and the ecosystem of hate, civic literacy is a fundamental resource. Living within the truth, as Václav Havel once put it, demands modes of civic education within a variety of sites that use the “power of culture to energize and articulate political issues.” In this instance, civic education demands not only a struggle over ideas but also a struggle over the public institutions and critical spheres that produce, legitimate and sustain such ideas.
Any attempt to defeat Trump must expose the type of lies central to his relentless rallies, tweets, and speeches, while simultaneously building a politics wedded to questioning and holding power accountable. Civic education and a civically minded culture must become central to politics, following the assumption that democracy cannot exist without a democratic formative culture whose task is enacting democratic modes of governing and producing critical thinkers who can call existing institutions and dominant relations of power into question. Under such circumstances, as social critic Cornelius Castoriadis writes, civic literacy provides the cultural workstation in which “the question of justice” becomes central to “the question of politics.”
Civic literacy and civic education are an antidote to Trump’s culture of lying and manipulation and offer the first line of defense against Trump’s disimagination machines, which include the right-wing press and talk shows as well as reactionary protofascist digital media platforms. Depoliticization is a form of domination in which agency is rendered toxic and unreflective, while critical thinking is disparaged, and real hope is either trivialized or degenerates into cynicism.
Trump’s use of apocalyptic and exaggerated rhetoric in his State of the Union address maligned language, the truth, historical memory and the public good. His speech thus served as a reminder that fascism begins with language. What needs to be also remembered is that civic literacy also begins with language, not as a tool of violence, but as a means for developing collective modes of resistance wedded to real structural changes and planning.
Trump’s State of the Union address was simply another example of the descent into the constitutional and political abyss in which lawlessness and cruelty have become normalized and buttressed by grandiose claims that abandon any pretense to truth in the service of power. Shifts in language have now made it difficult to imagine the promise of a robust democracy. Let us not forget that civic literacy doesn’t chip away at reality, the truth or democracy; instead, it offers the building blocks for a civic formative culture in which the fascist world of manufactured drama and its underlying straitjacket of common sense can be challenged by individuals who can speak, write and act from a position of agency and empowerment.
Civic literacy is about the possibility of interpretation as an act of intervention that can bridge private troubles to broader systemic forces. Trump’s State of the Union was an ode to capitalism on steroids, a future controlled by the 1 percent, and a politics that substitutes a fascist politics for democratic narratives and struggles for emancipation and social equality. If Trump and his neoliberal counterrevolution are to be defeated, the first step is to expand and develop the formative cultures, critical institutions, modes of identification and forms of civic literacy capable of challenging the violent rhetoric and affective energies of fascism. Only then can we begin to build a popular movement willing to engage in forms of resistance that can overcome the proto-fascistic and racist neoliberal forces that produced Trump.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the Senate’s vote Wednesday afternoon to acquit Trump.