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Henry Giroux: Will Trump’s Deliberate Racist Rhetoric Lead Us to Fascism?

Henry Giroux dissects how the potential path to fascism is laid bare in Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

Part of the Series

Henry Giroux dissects how the potential path to fascism is laid bare in Trump’s rhetoric and policies and how the voices of four new progressive Democratic congresswomen in the U.S. House of Representatives speak to another American future.


MARC STEINER Welcome to “The Real News Network.” Good to have you with us. I’m Marc Steiner. We’re about first to watch some clips from two press conferences that were held yesterday. One by Donald Trump, and the other by the four congressional representatives that he attacked.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These are people that hate our country.

CONGRESSWOMAN AYANNA PRESSLEY: This is a disruptive distraction from the issues of care, concern and consequence to the American people.

CONGRESSWOMAN ILHAN OMAR This is a president who has said “grab” women “by the pussy.”

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: When I hear the anti-Semitic language they use, when I hear the hatred they have for Israel, and the love they have for enemies like al-Qaeda.

CONGRESSWOMAN ILHAN OMAR: He’s launching a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of color.

CONGRESSWOMAN ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: I am not surprised when the president says that four sitting members of Congress should “go back to their own country” when he has authorized raids without warrants on thousands of families across this country.

CONGRESSWOMAN ILHAN OMAR: This is a president who’s called black athletes “sons of bitches.”

CONGRESSWOMAN RASHIDA TLAIB: We know this is who he is. And we know that he and his administration are constantly engaged in actions that harm residents and American people in our country.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: They hate our country. They hate it, I think, with a passion. Now, it’s possible I’m wrong. The voter will decide.

CONGRESSWOMAN AYANNA PRESSLEY: I encourage the American people and all of us — in this room and beyond — to not take the bait.

MARC STEINER: What we just saw was Donald Trump and then, of course, our four congressional representatives — Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib — responding to him, coming out swinging. And if you add this to what we just saw here in the last couple days, to the internal struggle within the Democrats, the push on right-wing media like Fox from people like Senator Lindsey Graham and others and their hosts, the use of racist language, the threats of deportation of elected officials along with undocumented immigrants from Trump, adding to his years of racist rhetoric, and his most recent attacks calling for the citizenship question on the census, hosting white nationalists in the White House for a social media strategy meeting, and changing the asylum laws, which he just did. He appeals to the worst instincts and fears of Americans about their jobs, about their future, about their way of life.

Some have posited that we are moving toward a version of 21st century fascism in our own country. Is that being alarmist? Too rhetorical? Is there a reality there? What does that mean? Well, I don’t know. Many of us don’t know where it’s all going, but that’s what we’re going to explore with our guest, Dr. Henry Giroux, who is the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, author of America’s Addiction to Terrorism, America at War with Itself, and his most recent book, which is The Terror of the Unforeseen. Henry, welcome back. Good to have you with us.

HENRY GIROUX: It’s good to be back, Marc. All right.

MARC STEINER: So given all the books you’ve written, I think you’re one of the perfect people to, kind of, jump into this. Let me throw another piece up before we start. And this is from Donald Trump as part of his press conference. And let’s just watch.

JOHN ROBERTS, FOX NEWS REPORTER Does it concern you that many people saw that tweet as racist, and that white nationalist groups are finding common cause with you on that point?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It doesn’t concern me because many people agree with me. And all I’m saying — they want to leave, they can leave. Now, it doesn’t say, “leave forever.” It says, “leave if you want.” But what it says, what, and what that, John, what that says is if they’re not happy with the United States, if they are doing nothing but criticizing us all the time — you see these people walking down criticizing the United States — then you know what? I will tell you that I do not believe this is good for the Democrat Party. Certainly, it’s not the party that I’ve known over the years.

MARC STEINER: So Henry, for me, when he talks about the very beginning of what he wrote, he doesn’t care who supports him. He doesn’t care about the white nationalists, that they can leave the country if they need to, just get out of United States. I mean, this — I can’t. I mean, any other president who would have said this would have been, kind of, pushed out of office, laughed out of office, attacked vehemently. But here we’re watching this man do this, and it’s been taken very seriously by those who support him, and he’s taking it very seriously as he says it. Your thoughts?

HENRY GIROUX: Well, my thought is that it’s really important to, sort of, bring together a range of things that Trump is doing, much of which is in that two-and-a-half-minute clip that you played. I mean, he’s exhibiting a toxic masculinity. He’s exhibiting an appeal to ultra-nationalism. He’s talking about the support for white nationalism. He’s, in a sense, exhibiting a notion of racism coupled with a notion of patriarchy that then suggests that any form of dissent is comparable to treason, and that people should leave the country. I mean, you know, you add this all up and it’s right — We’ve seen this before. This is right out of a fascist playbook. I mean, he’s a guy who really believes in performance. He’s a guy who believes that what he says can be justified simply because people might support him. It has nothing to do with questions of ethics, social responsibility, or common decency. He trades in viciousness and cruelty.

What you’re seeing here are all the elements of what I call a “war culture.” And that is a culture that’s become highly militarized by virtue of both its language and its politics. And at the heart of that culture is the discourse of racial cleansing, and social cleansing, and what I call a “logic of disposability.” There are people now in the United States, if they’re non-white, if they’re undocumented immigrants, if they’re people that Trump doesn’t particularly like because of the color of their skin or their ethnicity, then they don’t belong in the United States. I mean, this is a very dangerous discourse. And what’s even more dangerous is the fact that you have these Vichy Republicans who are supporting him. And you have members of the Democratic Party who can’t even rise to the occasion of using the word that we should be using, and the word is white supremacy.

That’s what this is about. It’s about coupling the misery and anxiety and the anger that many people feel in the United States, and diverting it into blaming others, which is all part of a larger discourse of disposability. And one that basically is about militarizing the society, invoking a war culture, and basically getting rid of people who don’t belong here. This is the discourse of state terrorism. Let’s be honest. This is not just simply harmless. You couple that language with the fear that it produces in the policy it creates, in the absolute accomplices who support him, and in the Congress who are shameful human beings. The Republican Party is shameful in terms of where it’s going. It’s a party of extremists. Couple that with the Democrats who don’t have the courage to name Trump for what he is — basically, a neofascist. And all of a sudden, we find ourselves at a point in history where it’s hard to believe that we’ve arrived here, given the history that we’ve experienced in the 1930s and the 1940s.

MARC STEINER: Well, let’s talk about that. I mean, the rhetoric especially here. I mean, A, people are loath to use the word fascism because of the historical issues loaded with fascism when they’re using the word. And people are always, kind of, except for some folks, people are loath to use that, thinking that it’s going to turn people off, it’s not real, you can’t use that word. And B, white supremacy, which is deep and real. People are worried about winning this next election. And I think that what I said there earlier in the opening about the internal squabbles within the Democrats added to that and his rhetoric, kind of, do add fuel to the fire of fear as to what this could lead. And how we describe it is important, so talk a bit about the use of the word fascist here for most people.

HENRY GIROUX: I think, look, we have a whole range of historians — from Hannah Arendt to Sheldon Wolin and others — who argue that, you know, fascism isn’t just interred in the past. Fascism reproduces itself in different forms in different ways under different historical context. And I think if you look at everything from this pathological nationalism to the question of racial cleansing, to the militarization, to the celebration of emotion over reason, to the suppression of dissent, the calling of the press the “enemies of the American people,” the dissident press — I mean, all of these elements add up. This contempt for weakness that he seems to suggest this toxic masculinity, this incredible patriarchy that it seems unbridled in terms of how he exercises it, these are all elements that we’ve seen before. And the question is, how are they emerging in a different form in the United States in a way that suggests something about what we should learn from history?

Simply because we don’t have concentration camps of the exact nature that we had in the 1930s and 40s, doesn’t mean that fascist politics is simply a relic of the past. As Jason Stanley and a whole range of other people have argued, Chris Hedges has argued, we’re in a very dangerous moment and that moment has very eerie echoes of the past. And where that path suggests we’re going is to massive degrees of state violence, massive degrees of cruelty, massive degrees of inequality, and massive degrees of basically writing people out of the script of citizenship, writing a whole range of people out of the script of what it means to have a voice, to be have a voice in order to exercise some sort of control over the conditions of their own lives. A very dangerous moment. I have no apologies whatsoever for using the word fascist politics. And I think that people who are afraid to do that become complicit with the very politics they condemn. Because if you can’t learn from history, then it seems to me that you end up in the dark.

MARC STEINER: So let’s explore that a bit more. There’s a couple of clips I’m going to play here because I think they tie together. I’m going to read you a quote from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez she made after she visited the camps, the detention centers where children were being held. This first one I want to play, I have cued up — There’s two of them. One is coming from Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and what she had to say about being accused of being with al-Qaeda. And the second clip we’re going to watch has to do with Trump’s economic message. And to me, they’re tied along with this third quote I’m going to read, and then we can dive into it. Let’s watch these.

CONGRESSWOMAN ILHAN OMAR: This is a president who has said “grab” women “by the pussy.” This is a president who’s called black athletes “sons of bitches.” This is a president who has called people who come from black and brown countries “shitholes.” And to distract from that, he’s launching a blatantly racist attack on four duly elected members of the United States House of Representatives, all of whom are women of color. This is the agenda of white nationalists, whether it is happening in chat rooms or it’s happening on national TV. And now it’s reached the White House garden. This is his plan to pit us against one another. This is how he can continue to enrich his friends and distract us from the detrimental policies that his administration is pushing for.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If these people that I watch in those debates ever got their hands on the United States government, 401Ks, the values of your company, everything else that we talk about we’re so proud of, it’s down the tubes. People will lose their money. They’ll lose their wealth. You’ll have a crash like you’ve never seen before and I’m really good at this stuff. I know what I’m talking about.

MARC STEINER: So let me add to this one thing, Henry, here and this was a quote from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez not long after she saw the detention centers. And this is a quote we picked out of Yahoo earlier today. And she said, “Are we headed to fascism? Yes, I don’t think there’s a question.” Then she went on to say that after she toured these detention facilities, “If you actually take the time to study, and to look at the steps, and to see how government transforms under authoritarian regimes, and look at the political decisions and patterns of this president, the answer is yes.” So you have these four women who I’d love — This is a slight digression. I’d love to see them debate Trump in person. They would destroy him, but, I mean, [laughs] as bright and powerful as these women are — But the question is though, so add these things together when you have this rhetoric about the economy, the rhetoric about what’s happening to our country and how it’s changing, and “Make America Great Again,” and people now raising the issue of fascism. This portends a huge political struggle ahead of us. So I’m curious how you link these things together that I just played and quoted.

HENRY GIROUX: Yeah. I mean, look — In my new book, The Terror of the Unforeseen, I talk about something called neoliberal fascism. And what I argue is that casino capitalism has created such massive degrees of inequality, such huge suffering, the deindustrialization of the heartland. 40% of all Americans have to struggle from week to week just to simply make basic needs meet — 40%. And yet, you hear Trump talking to the corporate elite saying, hey look, you know, I have to do all the things that I’m doing even though they’re sexist, they’re racist, produce huge tax breaks to the rich, because you’re going to make money. And if you don’t vote for me, then basically the economy is going to collapse. Well, yeah. It’s going to maybe hurt the rich. It’s certainly not going to hurt the poor and not going to hurt the middle class.

Couple that, it seems to me, with his constant discourse of fear, the fear and the suppression of dissent. Coupled with the suppression, coupled with the discourse about hate, that’s a toxic mixture. I mean, at one level, he is the apostle of neoliberalism. He’s not a populist. He’s a guy who loves the rich. He says he loves the rich. He brags about being rich and he’s corrupt. At another level, he’s a guy who knows how to stage theater. And as a matter of fact, I mean, in the Third Reich, theater was a central element of fascism. And it seems to me that what he does, he’s about pageantry and political theater. He attacks women, he attacks women of color, he calls black people as people who really can’t think, they’re unintelligent, it goes on and on. We know the script, but I think the real issue here is you have to connect the dots.

If we begin to isolate these issues and if we don’t look at the larger narrative that is emerging, and how it resembles the playbook of something we’ve seen in the past, then we’re going to miss the importance of the, how to call, might I say, the danger and the abyss and the threat to American democracy that we now face. This is not a struggle between, it seems to me, those who are against racism and those who were not. This is a struggle over democracy — those who are for it, and those who are not. This is a struggle over whether or not we want to allow a fascist politics to emerge in this country in which we have a guy who hangs around with dictators and thinks they’re wonderful. While at the same time, attacking four women of color because they’re trying to make the world a better place, because they’re dealing with questions of social injustice and social equality, and in a sense trying to talk about the real ideals of democracy. It doesn’t take much to figure this out.

What is shameful is that the press often downplays this stuff. The don’t even, they can’t even use the language “white supremacy.” They can’t even use the language of racism. They’ll say, well, other people have suggested this may be racist. This is awful. I mean, you have a media now completely controlled by the financial elite, except for programs like this and the alternative media. And it seems to me that it represents a very dangerous moment in what it means to have a public too uninformed to be able to actually be attentive to what it means to be a citizen who really needs to be engaged, and to be critical, and to be able to fight for the democracy that they have.

MARC STEINER: And I think that you hit a number of really important points here. And I think that the racism itself in this country could divide us to a point where this could actually win.

HENRY GIROUX: Absolutely.

MARC STEINER: Because white supremacy is very real and it’s very deep. We’re about to watch a little, short piece from Sean Hannity. And this is his vehicle. This is his way he gets to tens of millions of people at one time. And that’s what I think people had forgot how to go against. We’ll come back and do a very quick analysis, and then we have to go. But let’s look at this.

SEAN HANNITY [FOX NEWS]: The so-called squad of far-left freshmen congresswomen are now using identity politics even against members of their own party. The end goal is to fundamentally reshape America and move the economy away from capitalism and free market opportunity and a society that pays off risk and reward towards socialism where the government controls all the means of production. As we speak, the base of the Democratic Party is so powerful that every 2020 hopeful has adopted their fringe socialist policies. And if they don’t adopt it completely, they are trashed by many of the four. And by the way, everything is guaranteed — universal basic income, a job, higher education, retirement. You name it, they’ll provide it. The list goes on and on. And with each crazy new policy, these candidates are just digging a deeper and deeper hole for the general election in 2020.

MARC STEINER: So you can see from this and from the rhetoric over the last three or four days that have happened in this country from the president and Graham and others, you can see what their lines are going to be in this election, and what they’re going to push to rally their troops to win — in an attempt to win, let me say.

HENRY GIROUX: I mean, there are a couple of things that I have to say here. One, we have to take seriously the fact that education is central to politics. That the greater educational apparatus is now no longer in the schools and universities. They’re basically in the digital media, in the mainstream media, and of course the ultra-far right-wing media. But I think the real issue here is that this is a war for the corporate elite against any kind of social provision or any kind of welfare state that would make the country a better place for 90% of the people. I mean, listen to that rhetoric, and then pit it against the obvious. 400 families in the United States control as much wealth as half the population. Three men in the United States control as much wealth as half the population in the United States.

You’re talking about massive levels of inequality. This is not a free market. This is casino capitalism. This isn’t about meritocracy. This is about, you know, the kind of family that you’re born into. This is about class. This is about social inequality. This is about economic injustice. And it’s about a system that’s completely corrupted by money. So I think that what you hear there is nothing more than a, kind of, Goebbels-like ventriloquism. That’s all that is. I mean this guy’s a fool, but he’s a fool with a huge audience because we’ve allowed corporations to take over the media in ways that have no relevance whatsoever to the truth. These are ideological disimagination machines. That’s all they are, but they’re very powerful, and we need to take them seriously.

MARC STEINER: And we are going to take it seriously here at “The Real News.” We’ve been talking to Henry Giroux. And we’ll continue this look because while this may sound alarmist to some people, what we’ve been playing today, this is not about defeat. This is about what we need to know so that we can continue to save the democracy that we have. And Henry Giroux, thank you so much for joining us. It’s been a pleasure to have you with us.

HENRY GIROUX: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me on.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here at “The Real News Network.” Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.

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