Peter Thiel, the silicon billionaire and one of the six ultra-rich financial elite to speak at the Republican National Convention once wrote that he did not “believe that freedom and democracy were compatible.” This blatant anti-democratic mindset has emerged once again, without apology, as a major organizing principle of the Republican Party under Donald Trump. In addition to expressing a hatred of Muslims, Mexicans, women, journalists, dissidents, and others whom he views as outside the pale of what constitutes a true American, Trump appears to harbor a core disdain for democracy, bringing back Theodor Adorno’s warning that “the true danger [of fascism] lay in the traces of the fascist mentality within the democratic political system” (a warning quoted in Prismatic Thought). What has become clear is that the current political crisis represents a return to ideologies, values and policies based upon a poisonous mix of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism, opening up a politics that “could lead back to political totalitarianism.”
Throughout the 2016 Republican National Convention the hateful discourse of red-faced anger and unbridled fear-mongering added up to more than an appeal to protect America and make it safe again. Such weakly coded invocations also echoed the days of Jim Crow, the undoing of civil rights, forced expulsions and forms of state terrorism sanctioned in the strident calls for safety and law-and-order. Commenting on Trump’s speech, columnist Eugene Robinson argued that his talk added up to what few journalists were willing to acknowledge — “a notorious white supremacist account.” What is shocking is the refusal in many mainstream media circles to examine the role that white supremacy has played in creating the conditions for Trump to emerge as the head of the Republican Party. This structured silence is completely at odds with Trump’s longstanding legacy of discrimination, including his recent and relentless derogatory remarks concerning President Obama, his race-based attacks on US District Judge Gonzalo Curiel (who is trying a case against Trump University), his denunciation of Muslims as terrorists and his attempt to paint Mexican immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists.
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Neo-Fascism in the US
The visibility of such racist accounts and the deep investments in the ongoing mobilization of fear by political extremists in the United States surely has its roots in a number of factors, including dire economic conditions that have left millions suffering and proliferated zones of social abandonment. These economic conditions have resulted in an exponential increase in the individuals and groups condemned to live under machineries of inscription, punishment and disposability. The current mobilization of fear also has its roots, rarely mentioned by those critical of Trump, in a legacy of white supremacy that is used to divert anger over dire economic and political conditions into the diversionary cesspool of racial hatred. Racial amnesia was one consequence of the heralding of what David Theo Goldberg has called in his book Are We All Postracial Yet?, a “postracial” era in American history after the first Black president was elected to office in 2008. This collective racial amnesia (coded as postracialism) was momentarily disrupted by the execution of Troy Davis, the shootings of Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin and others, and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. Yet, even today, in spite of the cell phone videos that have made visible an endless array of Black men being killed by police, much of the American public (and particularly, the white American public) seems immune to communications of the reach, depth and scope of institutional racism in America. As Nathanial Rich observes:
Today, like sixty years ago, much of the public rhetoric about race is devoted to explaining to an incurious white public, in rudimentary terms, the contours of institutional racism. It must be spelled out, as if for the first time, that police killings of unarmed black children, indifference to providing clean drinking water to a majority-black city, or efforts to curtail the voting rights of minority citizens are not freak incidents; but outbreaks of a chronic national disease. Nebulous, bureaucratic terms like “white privilege” have been substituted for “white supremacy,” or “micro-aggressions” for “casual racism.”
Across the globe, fascism and white supremacy in their diverse forms are on the rise. In Greece, France, Poland, Austria and Germany, among other nations, right-wing extremists have used the hateful discourse of racism, xenophobia and white nationalism to demonize immigrants and undermine democratic modes of rule and policies. As Chris Hedges observes, much of the right-wing, racist rhetoric coming out of these countries mimics what Trump and his followers are saying in the United States.
One consequence is that the public spheres that produce a critically engaged citizenry and make a democracy possible are under siege and in rapid retreat. Economic stagnation, massive inequality, the rise of religious fundamentalism and growing forms of ultra-nationalism now aim to put democratic nations to rest. Echoes of the right-wing movements in Europe have come home with a vengeance. Demagogues wrapped in xenophobia, white supremacy and the false appeal to a lost past echo a brutally familiar fascism, with slogans similar to Donald Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” and “Make America Safe Again.” These are barely coded messages that call for forms of racial and social cleansing. They are on the march, spewing hatred, embracing forms of anti-semitism and white supremacy, and showing a deep-seated disdain for any form of justice on the side of democracy. As Peter Foster points out in The Telegraph, “The toxic combination of the most prolonged period of economic stagnation and the worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War has seen the far-Right surging across the continent, from Athens to Amsterdam and many points in between.”
State-manufactured lawlessness has become normalized and extends from the ongoing and often brutalizing and murderous police violence against Black people and other vulnerable groups to a criminogenic market-based system run by a financial elite that strips everyone but the upper 1% of a future, not only by stealing their possessions but also by condemning them to a life in which the only available option is to fall back on one’s individual resources in order to barely survive. In addition, as Kathy Kelly points out, at the national level, lawlessness now drives a militarized foreign policy intent on assassinating alleged enemies rather than using traditional forms of interrogation, arrest and conviction. The killing of people abroad based on race is paralleled by (and connected with) the killing of Black people at home. Kelly correctly notes that the whole world has become a battlefield driven by racial profiling, where lethal violence replaces the protocols of serve and protect.
Fear is the reigning ideology and war its operative mode of action, pitting different groups against each other, shutting down the possibilities of shared responsibilities, and legitimating the growth of a paramilitary police force that kills Black people with impunity. State-manufactured fear offers up new forms of domestic terrorism embodied in the rise of a surveillance state while providing a powerful platform for militarizing many aspects of society. One consequence is that, as Charles Derber argues, America has become a warrior society whose “culture and institutions… program civilians for violence at home as well as abroad.” And, as Zygmunt Bauman argues in his book Liquid Fear, in a society saturated in violence and hate, “human relations are a source of anxiety” and everyone is viewed with mistrust. Compassion gives way to suspicion and a celebration of fear and revulsion accorded to those others who allegedly have the potential to become monsters, criminals, or even worse, murderous terrorists. Under such circumstance, the bonds of trust dissolve, while hating the other becomes normalized and lawlessness is elevated to a matter of commonsense.
Politics is now a form of warfare creating and producing an expanding geography of combat zones that hold entire cities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, hostage to forms of extortion, violence lock downs and domestic terrorism — something I have demonstrated in detail in my book America at War with Itself. These are cities where most of those targeted are Black. Within these zones of racial violence, Black people are often terrified by the presence of the police and subject to endless forms of domestic terrorism. Hannah Arendt once wrote that terror was the essence of totalitarianism. She was right and we are witnessing the dystopian visions of the new authoritarians who now trade in terror, fear, hatred, demonization, violence and racism. Trump and his neo-Nazi bulldogs are no longer on the fringe of political life and they have no interests in instilling values that will make America great. On the contrary, they are deeply concerned with creating expanding constellations of force and fear, while inculcating convictions that will destroy the ability to form critical capacities and modes of civic courage that offer a glimmer of resistance and justice.
Trump and the Culture of Cruelty
Nicholas Confessore rightly argues that Trump’s “anti-other language” and denigration of Mexican immigrants as “criminal rapists, murderers and drug dealers” has “electrified the world of white nationalists,” who up until the Trump campaign had been relegated to the fringe of American politics. No longer. All manner of white nationalist groups, news sites (The Daily Stormer) and individuals, such as Jared Tayler (a self-described “race realist”) and David Duke (a racist and anti-Semitic Louisiana lawmaker and talk show host) have embraced Trump as a presidential candidate. And in a less-than-subtle way, Trump has embraced them. He has repeatedly tweeted messages that first appeared on racist or ultra-nationalist neo-Nazi Twitter accounts and when asked about such tweets has refused to disavow them directly.
In short, this emerging American neo-fascism in its various forms is largely about social and racial cleansing and its end point is the construction of prisons, detention centers, enclosures, walls, and all the other varieties of murderous apparatus that accompany the discourse of national greatness and racial purity. Americans have lived through 40 years of the dismantling of the welfare state, the elimination of democratic public spheres, such as schools and libraries, and the attack on public goods and social provisions. In their place, we have the rise of the punishing state with its support for a range of criminogenic institutions, extending from banks and hedge funds to state governments and militarized police departments that depend on extortion to meet their budgets.
Where are the institutions that do not support a rabid individualism, a culture of cruelty and a society based on social combat — that refuse to militarize social problems and reject the white supremacist laws and practices spreading throughout the United States? What happens when a society is shaped by a poisonous neoliberalism that separates economic and individual economic actions from social costs, when privatization becomes the only sanctioned orbit for agency, when values are entirely reduced to exchange values?
How do we talk about the way in which language is transformed into a tool of violence, as recently happened at the Republican National Convention? Moreover, how does language act in the service of violence — less through an overt discourse of hate and bigotry than through its complicity with all manner of symbolic and real violence? What happens to a society when moral witnessing is hollowed out by a shameless entertainment industry that is willing to produce and distribute spectacles of extreme violence on a massive scale? What happens to a society when music is used as a method of torture (as it was at Guantanamo) and when a fascist politics of torture and disappearance are endorsed by a presidential candidate and many of his supporters? Instead of addressing these questions — as well as the state-sanctioned torture and lynching that form the backdrop for this violence — we have been hearing a lot of talk about violence waged against police. This is not to suggest that the recent isolated acts of violence against police are justified — of course, they are not — but the real question is why we don’t see much more of such violence, given how rampant police violence has long been in the service of white supremacy. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observes, the killing of police officers cannot be addressed outside the historical legacy of discrimination, harassment, and violence against Black people. He writes:
When the law shoots down 12-year-old children, or beats down old women on traffic islands, or chokes people to death over cigarettes; when the law shoots people over compact discs, traffic stops, drivers’ licenses, loud conversation, or car trouble; when the law auctions off its monopoly on lethal violence to bemused civilians, when these civilians then kill, and when their victims are mocked in their death throes; when people stand up to defend police as officers of the state, and when these defenders are killed by these very same officers; when much of this is recorded, uploaded, live-streamed, tweeted, and broadcast; and when government seems powerless, or unwilling, to stop any of it, then it ceases, in the eyes of citizens, to be any sort of respectable law at all. It simply becomes “force.”
The call for even more “law and order” feeds even more police violence rather than addressing how it can be eliminated. What is often forgotten by such calls is that, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Brad Evans point out, “When human beings are valued as less than human, violence begins to emerge as the only response.” Under such circumstances, as Patrick Healy and Jonathan Martin argue, the call for law and order is in actuality a call to sanction even more state violence while telling white people that their country is spiralling out of control and that they yearn for a leader who will take aggressive, even extreme, actions to protect them. But the consequences of hate are marked or covered over with well-intentioned but misguided calls for love and empathy. These are empty calls when they do not address the root causes of violence and when they ignore a ruthless climate and culture of cruelty that calls poor people moochers; a culture that’s increasingly militarized, that increasingly criminalizes and marginalizes people and social problems, and where a discourse of hate is normalized by the Republican Party and covered up by the Democratic Party.
Differences Between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
What cannot be ignored is that Hilary Clinton has supported a war machine that has resulted in the death of millions, while also supporting a neoliberal economy that has produced massive amounts of suffering and created a mass incarceration state. Yet, all of that is forgotten as the mainstream press focuses on stories about Clinton’s emails and the details of her electoral run for the presidency. It is crucial to note that Clinton hides her crimes in the discourse of freedom and appeals to democracy while Trump overtly disdains such a discourse. In the end, state and domestic violence saturate American society and the only time this fact gets noticed is when the beatings and murders of Black men are caught on camera and spread through social media.
Where are the mainstream public outcries for the millions of Black and Brown people incarcerated in America’s carceral state? When the mainstream media can write and air allegedly objective stories about a fascist candidate who delights white nationalists and neo-Nazis, without highlighting that he advocates policies that are racist and constitute war crimes, it makes visible how America has forgotten what it should be ashamed of: the fact that we’ve built a society in which collective morality and the ethical imagination no longer matter. Comparisons to the 1930s matter but what counts even more is that they have been forgotten or are held in disdain. Much of the American public appears to have forgotten that totalitarian and white supremacist societies are too often legitimated by a supplicant mainstream media, cowardly politicians, right-wing and liberal pundits, academics and other cultural workers who either overlook or support the hateful bigotry of demagogues, such as Trump. What is also forgotten by many is the racist legacy of policies implemented by the Democratic Party that have resulted in a punitive culture of criminalization, incarceration and shooting of untold numbers of Black people.
Rather than engage in the masochistic practice of supporting Trump’s nativism, ignorance and bigotry, and his warlike fantasies of what it will take to make America great again, white workers who have been driven to despair by the ravaging policies of the financial elite and their shameless political and corporate allies should be in the streets protesting — not only against what is called establishment politics, but also the rise of an unvarnished neo-Nazi demagogue.
Evidence of such complicity comes in many forms, some of which are wrapped in the discourse of a supine liberalism that bows down in the face of an authoritarianism largely driven by the ethos of white supremacy. One example can be found in an article by Sam Tanenhaus in The New York Times: “How Trump can save the G.O.P.” This stuff is hard to make up. In the article, Tanenhaus compares Trump to former presidents Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson and praises him for the pragmatism of some of his economic policies — as if the spirit behind Trump’s policies had any relationship to the spirit that animated Eisenhower’s resistance to the military-industrial complex or to Johnson’s deep concern for eliminating poverty and dismantling racism in American society. Does it matter to Tanenhous that Trump is a bigot and potential war who wants to expel 11 million Mexicans, hates Muslims and speaks glowingly about instituting torture as president of the United States? Does it matter that Trump supports violence with a wink of the eye and is unapologetic about his huge following of neo-Nazis who are enthusiastic about waging a war against Black and Brown people? How is it possible to forget that, overall, Trump is a demagogue, misogynist, racist and bigot who is unequivocally dangerous to the promises and ideals of a democracy? Apparently, it is possible. Yes, the fascists and Nazis were also efficient, particularly in the end when it came to building a war machine and committing acts of genocide. So much for pragmatism without a conscience.
Trump is a real danger to the species, the country and the world in general. His views on war and climate change — along with the promise of violence against his enemies and his unapologetic racism, bigotry and hatred of constitutional rights — pose some of the greatest dangers to democracy and freedom the US has ever faced.
As Adam Gopnik says in an excellent article in The New Yorker, democracies do not simply commit suicide, they are killed by murderers, by people like Trump. Most expressions of support for Trump vastly underestimate the immediate danger Trump poses to the world and minorities of class, race and ethnicity. In contrast, while Hillary Clinton is a warmonger, a cheerleader for neoliberalism and a high-ranking member of the Democratic Party establishment, she is not threatening to take an immediate set of actions that would throw people of color, immigrants and working-class people under the bus. Instead, if she wins the election, she should be viewed as part of a corrupt financial and political system that should be overthrown. While posing danger on a number of economic, political and foreign fronts, Clinton would also expose by her actions and policies the mythological nature of the idea that democracy and capitalism are the same thing. Hopefully, all those young people who followed the dead-end of a Bernie Sanders movement — and the false suggestion that a political revolution can be achieved by reforming the Democratic Party — would seize on this contradiction. Sanders revitalized the discourse about inequality, injustice and the need to break down the financial monopolies, but he failed in choosing a political avenue in which such real and systemic change can come about.
Fighting for a Democratic Future
We live in a time in which people are diverted into a politics that celebrates saviors, denigrates democratic relations of power and policy, and provides a mode of escape in which heartfelt trauma and pain are used to mobilize people not into democratic movements but into venting their anger by blaming others who are equally oppressed. This signals a politics that kills both empathy and the imagination, a politics that uses pain to inflict further pain on others. Atomization on a global scale is a new form of invisible violence because it shackles people to their own experiences, cutting them off from a shared awareness of the larger systemic forces that shape their lives. Anger, indignation and misery need to take a detour through the ethical, political and social models of analysis that connect individual issues to larger social problems. Only then can we resist the transformation of grievances into a Trump-like version of American fascism.
Americans need to continue to develop broad-based movements that reject the established political parties and rethink the social formations necessary to bring about a radical democracy. We see this in the Black Lives Matter movement as well as in a range of other movements that are resisting corporate money in politics, the widespread destruction of the environment, nuclear war and the mass incarceration state. With hope, these important social movements will continue to break new ground in experimenting with new ways to come together and form broad-based coalitions between fragmented subgroups.
In the end, it’s vital to foster anti-fascist, pro-radical democracy movements that understand short-term and long-term strategies. Short-term strategies include participating in an electoral process to make sure a fascist or religious fundamentalist does not control a school board or gain leadership roles regarding public governance. Such practices do not represent a sellout but a strategic effort to make immediate progressive gains on the way to tearing down the entire system. Strategies built on the divide of being in or out of the system are too simplistic. Progressives must forge polices that do both as part of a larger movement for creating a radical democracy. Such actions are not the same as giving into a capitalist world view, especially when the long-term plan is to overthrow such a system. There seems to be a certain kind of theoretical infantilism that dominates some segments of the left on this issue, a form of political purity stuck in an either/or mind set. Such ideological fundamentalism (which might assert, for example, that those who vote are “giving in” or “selling out”) is not helpful for successful short-term planning or for long-term strategies for developing the institutions, cultural apparatuses and social movements necessary for radical change in the US and elsewhere.
If we are to fight for a democratic future that matters, progressives and the left need to ask how we would go forward if the looming authoritarian nightmare succeeds in descending upon the United States. What can we learn about the costs of allowing our society to become lawless in its modes of governance and to lose its historical understanding of the legacy of slavery, lynching and bigotry that have given rise to mass incarceration and the punishing state? What does it mean when money rules and corrupts politics, disavows economic actions from social costs, and wages war against public trust, values and goods? These are just some of the questions that need to be addressed in order to break free from a neoliberal system that spells the death-knell for democracy. All societies contain new beginnings — we need desperately to find one on the side of justice and democracy.
The US is in a new historical moment in which the old is dying and the new is waiting to emerge. Such periods are as hopeful as they are dangerous. At the same time, there are young people and others intent on turning despair into hope, struggling to reclaim the radical imagination, and working to build a broad-based collective struggle for real symbolic and structural change in the pursuit of political and economic justice. We need to accelerate such movements before it is too late.