Violence has reached an almost unthinkable upsurge in the United States. In the past year, violent language and imagery have become defining characteristics of U.S. society. Acts of violence erupt in even the most protected spaces, engulfing almost every facet of American life. The horror of COVID and the iniquitous treatment of its victims have revealed the violence of a health system driven by profits and staggering inequalities in wealth and privilege. Gun violence and mass shootings have become so routine that most of them escape any public attention, even though the leading cause of death among children is gun violence. Racist police-perpetrated violence persists in spite of the massive protests after the murder of George Floyd. Right-wing extremist violence is on the rise in ways that make it the leading domestic threat to Americans.
Every aspect of society is increasingly militarized, producing a war culture in which violence becomes a defining discourse of politics. Political violence once on the fringe of society is now at the center of power and political life. David French, writing in The Atlantic, states that in the past year, especially in the aftermath of the January 6 attack on the Capitol, “Death threats have surged across the country. As terrorists realize death threats work, they are using them more often.” Such threats are waged against election officials, public health workers, teachers, librarians, and even “Republicans who voted for President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package” or supported Donald Trump’s impeachment, such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Death threats to the Capitol Police and lawmakers are the highest they have been in decades. It appears that for right-wing Republicans, everyone who defies Trump’s and the GOP’s anti-democratic ethos is an enemy. Threats of violence have become a defining feature of governance, politics, communication and everyday life.
It gets worse. In the aftermath of the FBI raid on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Palm Beach home, threats of violence accelerated to an alarming degree against judges, politicians, media pundits, and almost anyone else who might have played a role in initiating or justifying the necessity of the raid. NBC reporters Ben Collins and Ryan J. Reilly stated that threats emerging from anonymous sources on “pro-Trump internet forums told their followers to ‘lock and load,’ and “agitated for civil war.” Kenny Stancil reported in Common Dreams that, “It wasn’t just anonymous posters threatening to mow down their perceived political enemies. For instance, highly influential reactionary Steven Crowder tweeted, ‘Tomorrow is war,’ followed less than 12 hours later by, ‘Today is war.’”
In addition, a number of Republican politicians and those running for office also engaged in threatening rhetoric. For example, right-winger Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor of Arizona, stated after the FBI search at Trump’s residence, “Our government is rotten to the core. These tyrants will stop at nothing to silence the patriots who are working hard to save America.” “If we accept it,” she added, “America is dead.” Alan Feuer writing in The New York Times noted that a number of Republican figures reacted to the search at Mar-a-Lago with not only calls to dismantle the FBI, but also the claim that such actions “had triggered ‘war.’” A number of Republican politicians, such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (no surprise), made references to “civil war” on social media. This ramping up of threats with the implied recourse to civil war and violence was also echoed by Joe Kent, a Trump-backed candidate in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District who stated on a podcast run by Steve Bannon, “We’re at war.”
The threat of violence has become a standard GOP response to almost any issue, including against those fighting for reproductive rights, those who oppose gun restrictions, and educators and librarians who oppose banning books. Sen. Lindsey Graham on Fox News stated that, “If there is a prosecution of Donald Trump for mishandling classified information … there will be riots in the streets.” It is hard not to interpret Graham’s remarks as both a retaliatory threat of violence in the service of political opportunism and the veiled claim that Trump, regardless of his lawlessness, is above the law.
Laura Italiano, writing on Insider, noted that immediately following the FBI raid on Trump’s Florida residence, references to violence and “civil war” on online spaces increased by 106 percent. She stated that the rise in violent rhetoric, including death threats, occurred on “unmoderated websites such as 4Chan, Stormfront, Patriots.win and MyMilitia.com, extremist chat channels on Gettr, Gab and Telegram, and even certain hashtags on mainstream sites like Twitter and YouTube.” In light of this accelerated surge in right-wing violent rhetoric, numerous menacing threats against federal agents and their families appeared on multiple online and social media platforms. In addition, the federal judge who issued the Mar-a-Lago search warrant was also threatened. Unsurprisingly, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, who stated that he “personally approved the decision to seek a search warrant in this matter,” has been the subject of numerous death threats by various online users, with some writing that he “needs to be assassinated” along with the call to “kill all feds.”
A variety of analyses have appeared in the mainstream press, attempting to explain the rise of violence in U.S. society. These explanations range from what David French calls a “miserable political culture … that tolerates no dissent” to the increasing predominance of bellicose, dehumanizing and apocalyptic language by right-wing politicians (including Trump himself), prominent conservative pundits such as Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and far right cable TV outlets, such as such as OAN and Newsmax. All of these sources contribute to a formative culture of lies, hate, misinformation and white supremacy. And the pervasiveness of violence goes beyond right-wing media. Violence passes as news, entertainment, sport and dominates the culture — and it is also normalized as more and more Americans believe that it is an acceptable tactic to drive politics, culture, government and even school policies. The pervasiveness of such views is in part confirmed by Professor Robert Pape, a political scientist from the University of Chicago, whose studies of political violence found that violent populism is on the rise in the United States. According to Pape, “The equivalent of 21 million American adults believe two radical beliefs. One, that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president because he stole the 2020 election, and two, that the use of force to restore Donald Trump to the presidency is justified.”
The language of the Republican Party and its supporters not only displays a visceral hatred for truth, democracy and justice, it also makes a corpse out of everyone who does not believe in its right-wing ideology. And it does so in a language that is spectacularized, emotive, and bereft of reason and any sense of justice. In this case, language has not only been weaponized as an expression of apocalyptic rage, it has also embraced violence as a means of bonding, offering its followers the muscular allure of a spectacularized fascism mediated through and enlivened by the false claim that white masculinity is in crisis, aggrieved and under assault by people of color. Violence is no longer hidden behind a wall of silence; it is now encouraged, sensationalized and placed on display by most of the Republican Party as a badge of honorable political discourse. Furthermore, such violence now inscribes itself in a language that attempts to appear normal — relegated to the realm of commonsense where it escapes rational analysis and is taken for granted.
The spectacle of violence and its dehumanizing language have become central features of an upgraded form of neoliberal fascism, revealing itself as “a capitalistic principle.”
Yet, in spite of a massive increase in bellicose rhetoric, the deeper racial, political, class and gender registers producing violence within U.S. society are largely ignored in mainstream media. One consequence is that language has both succumbed to the spectacle and become a central part of the microphysics of power. How else to explain the drama surrounding the cult-like admiration of Trump, irrespective of his lawlessness, corruption and racism? Drained of any democratic substance, language has become a complicitous force in the acceleration of violence and white supremacy in the U.S. One example can be found in the militant imagery embraced by far right extremists that maximizes the pleasure of racist violence and in doing so gives it a fascist edge. This is a language immersed in a violence that celebrates white nationalism along with a regenerating cult of aggression as a legitimate tool of political power. We have seen this celebration of politics as theater before in Nazi Germany. Reich Minister for Propaganda Joseph Goebbels stated this view clearly in 1933 with the comment: Politics is “the highest and most comprehensive art there is, and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists … the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”
The philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues rightly that “society today is gripped by a general process of decline of the social, the common and the communal.” As language is shaped by a neoliberal logic in which it is privatized, individualized, commodified and stripped of any social responsibility, public spheres collapse and are under attack by a fascist politics that both atomizes and depoliticizes people. Mainstream and right-wing language turn violence into a spectacle, though for different political reasons. In both cases, the decoupling of violence from larger political, economic and social issues removes critical thought and political action from normative debates. This failure to provide a broader comprehensive political analysis is purposeful on the part of right-wing extremists. Reducing violence to a spectacle encourages its use in the service of increasing a high pleasure quotient among its followers and in so doing neutralizes their ethical sensibilities while shattering any meaningful bonds of solidarity. Under such circumstances, language is aligned with capitalism’s death drive and the forces of brutality, annihilation, the mass production of human misery and the destruction of the planet itself. Culture is now defined largely as a site of war, as violence is aligned with forms of political opportunism and a pragmatism that appears to have no limits. In the current geographies of culture, language and violence, there is little room for the privileged space of agency, except as the location of rage, revenge and macho ebullience.
Culture and politics now resemble a war zone of ambient fear and denial that functions to erase the real social, economic and political conditions that destroy people’s lives. Instead of embodying shared values, much of cultural politics has turned deadly and functions as an educational force in the service of fascist politics and white supremacy. Saturated with the language of violence and degrading images, this manifestation of culture numbs people to the plight of others, lessening the care, attention and moral sensibility that is a necessary ingredient for a democratic society. The language of violence promotes voyeuristic identifications and a debilitating consumerism that undermine the critical faculties, making us insensitive to cruelty and the loss of one’s political agency. Fascism has boldly extended its fight into the realms of culture, education and aesthetics, and in doing so, feeds off isolation, loneliness, anger and outrage at work in the United States. At the same time, it creates new fertile ground with its hermetically sealed disinformation machines for the colonization of mass consciousness, the undoing of the civic imagination and the production of forms of learned helplessness that undermine any critical form of resistance. There is more at work here than the infantilization of violence and its destruction of civic life — there is also its sanitation, rendering it normative and a commonplace part of the everyday.
Rebranded fascism in the United States poisons language by weaponizing it as a political apparatus that mobilizes a culture of fear, denigrates human beings considered disposable through a language of dehumanization, and legitimates violence as an act of war. In the current post-Trump era, fascist rhetoric has become apocalyptic as words are emptied of substantive meaning; reason is overtaken by lies and the forces of irrationality; and modern conscience collapses, overcome by doctrines of hate, white supremacy, revenge and the death of ethical standards. In this upgraded era of fascism and accelerated violence, new and oppressive pedagogical relations and modes of persuasion are developed in the cultural realm that extend from social media to numerous online platforms. These new regimes of indoctrination and propaganda take on an unparalleled significance in the production of knowledge, identities, agency, values and social relations. Under such circumstances, language no longer functions as simply a repository of meaning and facts, it has turned toxic and takes on a new pedagogical and communicative significance in its ability to shape values, social relations and actions.
In this new era of violence, it is crucial to grasp not only the political, institutional and cultural conditions at work in turning politics into a form of civil war, but also to identify the sites, policies and regimes of power that exploit the fears, anxieties, loneliness and rage that have been produced by a capitalist society that has become synonymous with a culture of cruelty, war, aggression and death. Under neoliberalism, domination has become internalized, politics has collapsed into the personal, meaningful registers of the social and public sphere have largely disappeared. In this historical period of social atomization and loneliness, social problems are now defined through the regressive neoliberal language of individualism in which all troubles are reduced to pejorative categories, such as a lack of ambition, personal failings, individual deficits, laziness and lack of resilience.
Critical education, if not critical thinking itself, both as a form of schooling and in the larger cultural realm, are under attack by white supremacists, religious fundamentalists and right-wing anti-intellectual reactionaries. Those who oppose Trump and his fascist politics are now viewed as enemies to be humiliated, attacked, doxed, subject to death threats, and in some cases, assassinated. At work in this new era of violence and white supremacy is a form of depoliticization that prevents individuals from translating private troubles into systemic considerations and eliminates any meaningful notion of community as a crucial form of collective resistance. The policies now embraced by the modern Republican Party have worsened communal violence and accelerated threats of political violence while lessening the public’s resistance to the impending threat of fascism.
Violence in the age of the spectacle breaks down the threshold between the living and the dead, and offers those who view irrationality, anti-intellectualism and whiteness as forms of redemption a right to express themselves through a sense of community forged in the apotheosis of war. Many Republicans now unite in subscribing to an ideology, in which, as Walter Benjamin described, war and violence become the central tools used to destroy democracy, justice, equality and hope. Yet there is more at stake here in this emerging fascist politics than a mortal threat to democracy; there is also a “frenetic hatred of the life of the mind” coupled with menacing threats of violence against those individuals and populations considered racially impure and politically dangerous. The death march of neoliberal capitalism has alienated people by locking them into a privatizing and commodifying worldview that makes them insensitive to the suffering of others. It also creates a language, a set of legitimating institutions, and cultural apparatuses that turn the revolutionary potential of overcoming a crisis of capitalism into a catastrophe for which the only solution is the drum beat of fascist politics.
Aided and abetted by conservative echo chambers and multiple media platforms, mass anger, hatred and despair are channeled into the spectacle of violence. Violence as legitimate political discourse is now coupled with fascist iconography consisting of Twitter storms, torchlit rallies, military pageantry (loved by Trump) and endless replays of right-wing thugs storming the Capitol. While the Republican Party celebrates vigilantes such as Kyle Rittenhouse as “heroes,” the mainstream press denounces his action while decontextualizing his appalling violence and showers him with alleged media attention without connecting him to a long legacy of racist vigilante violence in the United States. Representations of violence both celebrated and portrayed without context expand the logic of the fascist “spectacle into the field of politics” in order to misdirect the possibilities for real social change.
How these elemental machineries of death function at global, national, and state levels are crucial to understand if they are to be challenged and resisted. Neoliberal capitalism, even as it is going through a major crisis, has morphed into a fascist politics that is now embraced and proclaimed openly in a language and set of policies that are rooted in U.S. history and culture. Domination in the United States has always merged the economic and pedagogical. The rise of fascism in the United States and in other parts of the world has accentuated this form of domination, suggesting the emergence of new forms of criminalization. Fascist politics now work to punish more aggressively, if not criminalize, those teachers, journalists, critical intellectuals, and others who use language, education, and the new digital and media technologies to advance matters of freedom, equity and justice.
Under such circumstances, the reach of oppression has been accentuated, colonizing the body and the mind. Material forms of domination are now legitimized through a language and other symbolic forms that are increasingly aligned with violence. This is a language that flattens culture, degrades critical thought, and produces pedagogical and symbolic forms of repression. This is a language that both criminalizes dissent and a range of social problems and increases the reach of the punishing state. That is, the criminogenic nature of neoliberal capitalism works through a predatory economic system while it increasingly poisons and undermines language, beliefs, and the social imagination through cultural apparatuses such as public and higher education, the media and other cultural institutions of the wider society. This suggests both a crisis of not only economics and politics, but also of education and agency.
Once again, it is important to stress that fascism appropriates the lethal call to violence as theater, a form of entertainment in which the masses can express intense emotions while forfeiting their ability to think critically. Under an upgraded fascist politics, pageantry and theater is not used to educate people or empower them with the tools of self-determination. On the contrary, it simply offers them a chance to express themselves — part of what Ernst Bloch once called the swindle of fulfillment. The logic of violence has now expanded into the crisis of consciousness and identity. In this instance, violence is not simply normalized, it is habitualized via the use of cultural apparatuses and pedagogical practices used by the Republican Party and the corporate elite. This is a type of fascist politics that must be analyzed and challenged through a new understanding of the marriage of politics, culture, power, language and agency.
In the new age of violence and fascist politics, culture has become a central domain for producing the ideas, identities and values conducive to drawing people into authoritarian social relations. Under gangster capitalism, powerful educational cultural apparatuses constantly work to mobilize anger in the interests of a reactionary politics that convert diverse spaces into war zones. Nowhere is the centrality of culture as an educational force more evident than in its elevation of violence as a viable political strategy along with its ability to convince large segments of the public that civic institutions and public spheres that nurture a critical sensibility are no longer crucial to preventing democracies from sliding into authoritarianism. Thin conceptions of democracy under neoliberalism have given way to a worldwide rejection of liberal democracy. Under the rule of the modern Republican Party, fascist anti-democratic rhetoric is being translated into policy. This is evident in voter suppression laws, the banning of books, attacks on teachers and LGBTQ students, and policies criminalizing librarians who refuse to censor and remove material from school and public libraries.
It is crucial for those who believe in a radical democracy to analyze the role that educational, ideological and cultural domains play as both a force for domination and as sites of resistance and contestation. Power is not simply about domination, and domination is not simply about economics and other institutional structures. Moreover, resistance is not limited to economic issues or to a singular reliance on repression. Pierre Bourdieu was right in stating “that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical and lie on the side of belief and persuasion.” For theorists such as Bourdieu, Antonio Gramsci, Stuart Hall, Angela Davis and Jürgen Habermas, it was crucial to understand how totalitarian ideas generated loyalties, what legitimation strategies they used and what role culture and education played as forms of legitimation. Furthermore, the politics of legitimation raise important questions about how culture, technology and power now merge into new pedagogical and cultural apparatuses that produce powerful hegemonic strategies to get people to support authoritarian regimes and surrender their political agency to a dystopian vision. Central to any critical notion of resistance would be an analysis of the tools authoritarian regimes use to maintain their authority. In addition, there is the fundamental question of how they can be analyzed in terms of their methods of production, circulation and reception. These issues are important to address if these new cultural formations are to be both resisted, and at the same time redirected in order to enable a critical understanding of the ideological and material relations that support gangster capitalism and its slide into a fascist politics.
The Republican-backed and corporate-controlled cultural sphere weakens civic life and confirms fears of a vanished future while keeping existing class, racial and gendered hierarchies in place. Therefore, central to the fight against fascism and the existing culture of violence is the need for a new language, understanding of politics, and the development of a revitalized strategy to unite people across class and racial lines. This suggests the need for a vibrant cultural politics that wages a robust pedagogical struggle against an oppressive language, ideas and set of policies that are part of a fascist playbook among Republican Party legislators. The latter is a politics of organized irresponsibility that is part of a formative fascist culture that plays a fundamental role in erasing historical memory, enforcing a loathing for the truth, resuscitating a politics of whiteness wedded to racial cleansing and violence, and legitimating the use of the state as an agent of force and conquest.
Any viable form of resistance to this new era of violence must address how the role of language, mediated through an image culture and a pedagogy of gangster neoliberal capitalism, works to legitimate repression, dehumanize human beings, manufacture ignorance, disseminate lies and misinformation, and deny people their crucial needs while pushing them into a desperate attempt to merely survive. In this context, the language of right-wing violence does not simply legitimate white nationalism and white supremacist ideology, it also guides and expropriates experience, thus making it all the more necessary for the left to make education central to a politics that struggles over matters of agency, desire and the longing for community.
As I have said elsewhere, what the left needs to make clear is that “the political, medical and economic crises many Americans are experiencing has not been matched by a crisis of ideas — that is, by a critical understanding of the conditions that produced the crises in the first place.” The profound horror waiting to be unleashed in a fascist politics has not corresponded with a serious crisis of belief. Fascist politics no longer hides behind the call for market freedoms, small government and individual expressions of rights. For example, Trump’s hatred of dissent not only reveals itself in his view of the free press as an “enemy of the people,” but also in his disdain for any institution that does not promote the willful narrative of white nationalism. How else to explain his call for a commission to establish what he embarrassingly labeled “patriotic education,” a term one associates with dictatorial and fascist regimes? By ignoring these issues, any doable form of resistance engages in a form of self-sabotage.
The language of fascist politics expects those who still believe in the promises of a socialist democracy to live in silence, to look away, to exercise history as a curse, and as James Baldwin once stated, collaborate “with the authors of one’s degradation.” Its pedagogical purpose is to make dominance seem natural for the oppressed while securing the levers of domination for the financial elite and those who adhere to white supremacy. Against this updated and accelerated culture of spectacularized violence, theater of cruelty, and criminalization of social problems and dissent itself is the need for developing a vision that weds the core values of justice, equality and solidarity to a working-class mass movement that is both anti-capitalist and offers a vision of what democratic socialism looks like. Such a movement has to begin by introducing immediate reforms such as expanding the child tax credit and forgiving student loans, and then address long-term changes fundamental to a socialist platform, such as universal health care, eliminating poverty, redistributing wealth and power, instituting a living wage, dismantling of the carceral state, free quality education, environmental justice, protection of unions, and the ensuring of long-fought rights of minorities of class, religion, ethnicity and race.
The call to address the material conditions that promote social and economic oppression must be matched by a call for a new set of values, which offer new forms of agency, solidarity, dignity and freedom. The precondition for creating a mass movement in defense of a socialist democracy demands a project in which matters of consciousness, agency and identity are connected not only to enlarging political and personal rights but also economic rights. The latter suggests a new embrace of a cultural politics capable of overcoming the crisis of depoliticization, historical memory and agency that have become the precondition for gangster capitalism and its rebranded version of fascist politics. Against this anti-democratic neoliberal ethos with its relentless cycles of violence, war, misery, despair and emotional plagues, the left needs to further accentuate and embrace a language that is critical, filled with possibility, and capable of developing a cultural politics that is both forward-looking and offers the possibility for real fundamental change — “a program that gives people something to fight for, not just something to fight against.” We see indications of such a project among the Black Lives Matter movement, youth struggling against gun violence, the ongoing push for unionization, diverse movements fighting systemic racism, the battle for reproductive rights, and the mass youth-led movement for climate justice. But this is just the beginning.
President Biden is only partly right in stating that the GOP has become a “semi-fascist” party that “embraces political violence.” I fear he is being too diplomatic in his rhetoric. The U.S. has a full-fledged fascist problem that must be addressed if it is to think its way to a different politics and future. But the U.S. is not alone. Across the globe, the struggle over politics faces the threat of becoming less a rivalry between political parties than a struggle between a rebranded fascism and democracy itself. We live in dangerous times that demand a revitalized vision, language, strategies, social formations, sacrifices, and even more unified and powerful modes of collective resistance.