With Donald Trump‘s election as president of the United States, the scourge of authoritarianism has returned not only in the toxic language of hate, humiliation and bigotry, but also in the emergence of a culture of war and violence that looms over society like a plague.
Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a campaign rally in Prescott Valley, Arizona, on October 4, 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore)
When history repeats itself with a vengeance, it generally signals a crisis of memory, historical consciousness and civic literacy. The ghosts of the past disappear in a comforting somnolence and a deadening market-driven culture of consumption, privatization and individualization. As a mode of moral witnessing, memory withers, lost in forms of historical and social amnesia that usher in the dark clouds of authoritarianism, albeit in updated forms.
Albert Camus understood this as well as anyone, and viewed fascism as a deadly virus that could reappear in new forms. For Camus, the disease of fascism could only be fought with the antibody of consciousness — embracing the past as a way of protecting the present and the future against the damage now forgotten. The words that appear in the concluding paragraph of The Plague are as relevant today as they were when they were written. Camus writes:
[As] he listened to the cries of joy rising from the town, Rieux remembered that such joy is always imperiled. He knew what those jubilant crowds did not know but could have learned from books: that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen chests; that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.
With Donald Trump‘s election as president of the United States, the scourge of authoritarianism has returned not only in the toxic language of hate, humiliation and bigotry, but also in the emergence of a culture of war and violence that looms over society like a plague.
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War has been redefined in the age of global capitalism: it has expanded its boundaries and now shapes all aspects of society. As Ulrich Beck observes, “the distinctions between war and peace, military and police, war and crime, internal and external security” have collapsed. As violence and politics merge to produce an accelerating and lethal mix of bloodshed, pain, suffering, grief and death, American culture has been transformed into a culture of war.
War culture reaches far beyond the machineries that enable the United States to ring the world with its military bases, produce vast stockpiles of weapons, deploy thousands of troops all over the globe and retain the shameful title of “the world’s preeminent exporter of arms, with more than 50 percent of the global weaponry market controlled by the United States,” as reported by Denver Nicks.
War culture provides the educational platforms that include those cultural apparatuses, institutions, beliefs and policies with the capacity to produce the discourses, spectacles of violence, cultures of fear, military values, hypermasculine ideologies and militarized policies that give war machines their legitimacy, converting them into symbols of national identity, if not honored ideals. Under such circumstances, the national security state replaces any viable notion of social security and the common good. As a militarized culture is dragged into the center of political life, fear feeds a discourse of bigotry, insecurity and mistrust, adding more and more individuals and groups to the register of repression, disposability and social death.
Violent lawlessness no longer registers ethical and moral concerns, and increasingly has become normalized. How else to explain Trump’s comment, without irony or remorse, during a campaign rally in Iowa that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters”? Ruthlessness, narcissism and bullying are the organizing principles of Trump’s belief that only winning matters and that everything is permitted to further his own self-interests. These are the values that underlie his call for “law and order,” which is more properly understood as a call for the lawlessness of the police state.
Another register of lawlessness is evident in the presence of a ruthless market-driven corporate culture marked by an economic and political system mostly controlled by the ruling financial elite. This is a mode of corporate lawlessness that hoards wealth, income and power through the mechanisms of a national security state, mass surveillance, the arming of local police forces, a permanent war economy and an expansive militarized foreign policy.
Trump’s recent appointments of neoliberal elites, such as Steven Mnuchin, a long-time hedge fund manager and investment banker, to be his treasury secretary and Wilbur Ross, a billionaire investor, to head the Commerce Department make clear that he intends to allow the managers of big banks, hedge funds and other major financial institutions to run the economy. This is an upgraded version of neoliberalism which, as Cornel West points out, serves to “reinforce corporate interests, big bank interest, and to keep track of those of who are cast as peoples of color, women, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, Mexicans, and so forth…. So, this is one of the most frightening moments in the history of this very fragile empire and fragile republic.”
Trump’s appointment of warmongering, right-wing military personnel to top government posts and his ongoing rhetoric suggesting the need for a vast expansion of the military-industrial complex signal a further intensification of America’s war culture, one that inspired an article to be published in Forbes with the headline: “For The Defence Industry, Trump’s Win Means Happy Days Are Here Again.” William D. Hartung makes the latter point clear by citing a speech Trump gave in Philadelphia before the election in which he called for
tens of thousands of additional troops, a Navy of 35 ships, a significantly larger Air Force, an anti-missile, space-based Star Wars-style program of Reaganesque proportions, and an acceleration of the Pentagon’s $1 trillion “modernization” program for the nuclear arsenal…. [all of which] could add more than $900 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next decade.
Evidence for an updated and expansive war culture is also visible in Trump’s willingness to consider a mob of racist neoconservatives for inclusion in his administration — picks, such as John Bolton and James Woolsey, both of whom believe that “Islam and the Arab world are the enemy of Western civilization” and are strong advocates of a war with Iran. He has welcomed disgraced military leaders, such as David H. Petraeus, former four-star Army general and director of the Central Intelligence Agency; he has appointed as secretary of defense retired United States Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis who opposed closing Guantánamo, along with Obama’s nuclear treaty with Iran. Mattis was brusquely fired by the Obama administration as the Central Command boss.
Meanwhile, in a particularly worrisome appointment, Trump has chosen retired Gen. Michael Flynn to become his National Security Advisor. Flynn was fired for abusive behavior, has been accused of mishandling classified information, and is a firm supporter of Trump’s pro-torture policies. The New York Times reported that Flynn, who will occupy “one of the most powerful roles in shaping military and foreign policy…. believes Islamist militancy poses an existential threat on a global scale, and the Muslim faith itself is the source of the problem … describing it as a political ideology, not a religion.” In other words, Flynn believes that 1.3 billion Muslims are the enemy of Western civilization. He has also claimed “that Sharia, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States” (it is not). His dubious assertions are so common that when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, subordinates came up with a name for the phenomenon: They called them “Flynn facts.”
Trump’s love of the military suggests that he will expand rather than cut back on America’s infatuation with its wars, and will do nothing to alter a dishonorable foreign policy standard that has propelled the US into a permanent war status for the larger part of the 21st century. As Andrew Bacevich has pointed out, since the latter part of 2001 this has resulted in “something like 370,000 combatants and noncombatants [being] killed in the various theaters of operations where U.S. forces have been active.” This is how democracy ends.
Landscapes of a War Culture
As Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri emphasize in their book Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire, the veneration of war in the United States has now reached a dangerous endpoint and has become the foundation of politics itself. This is especially true as Americans entered into one of the most appalling and threatening periods of the 21st century. They write:
War has passed from the final element of the sequences of power — lethal force as a last resort — to the first and primary element, the foundation of politics itself…. In order for war to occupy this fundamental social and political role, war must be able to accomplish a constituent or regulative function: war must become both a procedural activity and an ordering, regulative activity that creates and maintains social hierarchies, a form of biopower aimed at the promotion and regulation of social life.
The violence produced by a war culture has become a defining feature of American society, providing a common ground for the deployment and celebration of violence abroad and at home. At a policy level, an arms industry fuels violence abroad while domestically, a toxic gun culture contributes to the endless maiming and deaths of individuals at home. Similarly, a militaristic foreign policy has its domestic counterpart in the growth of a carceral and punishing state used to enforce a hyped-up brand of domestic terrorism, especially against Black youth and various emerging protest movements in the US. The section on “End the War on Black People” in the “Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice” outlines this in detail. There can be little doubt that a racist repressive state apparatus will be expanded with Trump’s choice of Jeff Sessions for attorney general. Sessions was once denied a federal judgeship in the 1980s on the grounds that he was a racist. He supports capital punishment and is poised to intensify the racist expansion of the criminal justice system. As John Kiriakou makes clear, quoting the nonprofit news organization, The Marshall Project:
Things will likely change quickly under Sessions. The new attorney general “helped block broader drug sentencing reform in the Senate this year despite wide bipartisan support, saying it would release ‘violent felons’ into the street.” He will also be tasked with carrying out the new president’s policies on private prisons…. Just weeks before the election, Geo Group, the second largest private prison corporation in America, hired two former Sessions aides to lobby in favor of outsourcing federal corrections to private contractors.
Since the Nixon era, a hyper-punitive political culture has served to legitimate a neoliberal culture in which cruelty is viewed as virtue, and to fuel the racist system of mass incarceration. As Angela Davis argues in Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, the persistent killing of Black youth testifies to a long history of domestic terrorism representing “an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extralegal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.” The historical backdrop to the current killing of Black youth, men and women must be coupled with the shameful truth that “11 million Americans cycle through our jails and prisons each year.” Rebecca Gordon points out that the United States is home to only 4 percent of the global population and yet it holds 22 percent of the world’s prisoners. Moreover, 70 percent of these prisoners are people of color. These figures testify not only to the emergence of a police state, but also to a justice system that has a long legacy of being driven by racism.
Under such circumstances, important distinctions between war and civil society collapse as the police function as soldiers, cities are transformed into combat zones, shared responsibilities are replaced by shared fears and public safety is defined increasingly as a police matter. Neoliberal society has ceded any vestige of democratic ideals to a social formation saturated with fear, suspicion and violence. The line has become blurred between real acts of violence and mythical appeals to violence as cleansing and restorative, as is evident in Trump’s emotional appeal to his audiences’ rage and fear. Dystopian violence is now legitimated at the highest level of politics, both in its use as a spectacle and as a policy of terror initiated most specifically in the murderous rampage of drone warfare. Politics is now an extension of the culture of war, and violence is a generative force in the production of everyday life.
The normalization of violence in US society is not only about how it is lived and endured, but also about how it becomes the connective tissue for holding different modes of governance, policies, ideologies and practices together. All of these come to resemble military activities. And it is precisely such activities that serve to legitimate the war on terror, the use of mass surveillance, the weaponizing of knowledge and the merging of a war culture and warfare state. As Jonathan Simon has detailed in his book, Governing through Crime, in the aftermath of the transition from the welfare state in the 1960s to the current warfare state, the appeal to fear on many political fronts became paramount in order to legitimate a carceral state that increasingly governed through what can be termed the war on crime, especially affecting marginalized citizens.
Violence, however grotesque, has been relegated to the most powerful force mediating human relations and used to address pressing social problems. Violence is a habitual response by the state in almost every dilemma. Police violence is only one register of the landscape of everyday violence. The hidden structure of violence is not always on full display in the killing of Black people. It can also be found in a range of largely invisible sites of brutality that include debtor’s prisons for children, racist juvenile courts, schools modeled after prisons, a systemic debt-machine and municipal governments that function as extortion factories and inflict misery and penury upon the poor.
The registers of militarization produce armed knowledge through university research funded by the military-industrial-Pentagon complex. Meanwhile, a growing culture of political purity houses a discourse of “weaponized sensitivity” and “armed ignorance.” Empathy for others only extends as far as recognizing those who mirror the self. Politics has collapsed into the privatized orbits of a crude essentialism that disdains forms of public discourse in which boundaries collapse and the exercise of public deliberation is viewed as fundamental to a substantive democracy. This was made clear in Trump’s repeated use of language in the service of violence at his pre-election rallies.
Intolerable Violence in a Militarized Culture of Everyday Life
Intolerable violence has become normalized. Uncritical support for a militarized culture now finds expression in a range of everyday events extending from the nightly news reports and the simulated violence of screen culture, to sports events. One often-overlooked egregious instance is evident in numerous military ceremonies that have become central to sports events, a number of which are paid for by the Pentagon. For example, Eyder Peralta, a reporter for NPR, pointed out that a recent Senate report indicates that in the past few years, “the Pentagon spent $6.8 million to pay for patriotic displays during the games of professional sports teams.”
Intolerable violence is also elevated to an everyday occurrence and legitimated in less evident ways through what Michael Schwalbe has called instances of “micro militarism,” which he defines as “pro-military practices squeezed into small cultural spaces.” Such instances are low-key advertisements for militarism that, while largely unnoticed, saturate the culture with militaristic values that celebrate war as the primary organizing principle of society and a general condition of the social order.
This is the small change of militarism. Think, for example, of the ATM receipts that post a “Support the Troops” message under the customer’s bank balance. We encounter such messages when checkout clerks at gas stations and supermarkets ask for donations to “support our troops.” Such messages function as military recruiting advertisements on the side of buses, cabs and billboards. Higher education institutions sponsor ads for graduate programs with pop-up images on their websites, such as “Advance Your Military Career with an MBA.” As Schwalbe argues, inherent in all of these messages is the idea that freedom and democracy are dependent upon the use of military force, state violence, and military service, the essence of which is “obedience, not courageous independence.”
These “small cultural spaces” — when combined with various sites of militarism, ranging from public schools and sports events to popular cultural and policy-making institutions — normalize war and violence. In this way, they make it more difficult for the American public to question the merging of war and politics and the pathologizing of politics by a culture of violence. One consequence is that democratic idealism is replaced by the ethos of militarism, and violence becomes the axiom by which everyday problems are both defined and mediated. Accordingly, the dominance of war-like values “expands from the margins of society to become a powerful process by which civil society … organizes itself,” and coincides with what Catherine Lutz describes as “the less visible deformation of human potentials into the hierarchies of race, class, gender, and sexuality.”
Trump’s rhetoric in support of violence and discrimination threatens to further the transformation of the police into SWAT teams and the endless practice of arresting students for trivial behaviors in schools, subjecting Black people to fines for breaking rules that are petty and punitive and criminalizing Black people through policies of racial profiling that constitute practices of state harassment and violence. Aggressive policing is the underside of white supremacy because it is largely used in the service of whites against Blacks who have committed no crimes. And with racists, such as Jeff Sessions and Stephen Bannon holding top positions in the Trump administration, fantasies of America being transformed into a white public sphere will be at the center of politics.
War culture is legitimated ideologically by collapsing public issues into private concerns. This is a powerful pedagogical tool that functions to depoliticize people by decoupling social problems from the violence inherent in the structural, affective and pedagogical dimensions of neoliberalism. Capitalism is about both winning at all costs and privileging what Zygmunt Bauman calls a “society of individual performance and a culture of sink-or-swim individualism.”
This mode of individualized politics functions as a weapon of fear that trades off conditions of precarity in order to amplify the personal anxieties, uncertainties and misery produced through life-draining austerity measures and the destruction of the bonds of sociality and solidarity. Abandoned to their own resources, individuals turn to what Jennifer Silva describes in her book Coming Up Short as a “mood economy” in which they “turn to emotional self-management and willful psychic transformation.”
At the same time, it redefines the pathologies of poverty, patriarchy, structural racism, police violence, homophobia and massive inequities in income and power as personal pathologies and shortcomings to be overcome by support groups, safe spaces and other reforms that sometimes ignore the need to fight for what Robin D. G. Kelley calls “models of social and economic justice.”
Toward a Comprehensive Politics
[Martin Luther King, Jr.] argued that the war at home was an inextricable part of the war abroad and that matters of militarism, racism, poverty and materialism mutually informed each other and cut across a variety of sites.
Any attempt to resist and restructure the intensification of a war culture with its white supremacist, ultra-nationalist underside in the US necessitates a new language for politics. Such a discourse must be historical, relational and as comprehensive as it is radical. Historically, the call for a comprehensive view of oppression, violence and politics can be found in the connections that Martin Luther King, Jr. drew near the end of his life, particularly in his speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” King made it clear that the United States uses “massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted,” and that such violence could not be clearly addressed if limited to an analysis of single issues, such as the Vietnam War. On the contrary, he argued that the war at home was an inextricable part of the war abroad and that matters of militarism, racism, poverty and materialism mutually informed each other and cut across a variety of sites.
We need a new political vocabulary for capturing the scope and interconnections that comprise the matrix of permanent war and violence that shape a variety of experiences and spheres in American society, all of which will expand under the Trump presidency.
For instance, he understood that poverty at home could not be abstracted from the money allotted to wars abroad and a death-dealing militarism. Nor could the racism at home be removed from those “others” the United States demonized and objectified abroad, revealing in their mutual connection a racism that drove both domestic and foreign policy. For King, “giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” had to be resisted both through a revolution of values and a broad-based nonviolent movement at home aimed at a radical restructuring of American society. One ethical referent for King’s notion of a radical restructuring was his moral and political abhorrence of the killing of millions of children — at home and abroad — by a war culture and its ruthless machineries of militarism and violence.
Michelle Alexander has also argued that one thing we can learn from King is the need to connect the dots among diverse forms of oppression. A broader view of oppression allows us to see the underlying ideological and structural forces of the new forms of domination at work in the US. For instance, Alexander raises questions about the connection between “drones abroad and the War on Drugs at home.” In addition, she argues for modes of political inquiry that connect a variety of oppressive practices enacted in order to accumulate capital — such as the workings of a corrupt financial industry and Wall Street bankers, on the one hand, and the moving of jobs overseas, the foreclosing of homes, the increase in private prisons and the caging of immigrants, on the other.
Similarly, Alexander calls for “connecting the dots between the NSA spying on millions of Americans, the labeling of mosques as ‘terrorist organizations,’ and the spy programs of the 1960s and 70s — specifically the FBI and COINTELPRO programs that placed civil rights advocates under constant surveillance, infiltrated civil rights organizations and assassinated racial justice leaders.” More recently, we have seen the call for such connections emerge from the Black Lives Matter movement and a range of other grassroots movements whose politics go far beyond an agenda limited to single issues, such as the curbing of anti-Black violence. This type of comprehensive politics is exemplified in the policy document, “A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice,” created by the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of over 60 organizations.
Angela Davis has for years been calling for progressives to build links to other struggles and has talked about how what has happened in Ferguson must be related to what is happening in Palestine. This type of connective politics might raise questions about what the US immigration policies and the racist discourses that inform them have in common with what is going on in authoritarian countries, such as Hungary.
While the current focus on police killings, gun violence, mass shootings and acts of individual bloodshed are important to analyze, it is crucial not to treat these events as isolated categories.
Another example is illustrated when Davis asks what happens to communities when the police who are supposed to serve and protect them are treated like soldiers who are trained to shoot and kill? How might such analyses bring various struggles for social and economic justice together across national boundaries? In her book Freedom Is a Constant Struggle, Davis argues that such connections have to “be made in the context of struggles themselves. So as you are organizing against police crimes, against police racism you always raise parallels and similarities in other parts of the world [including] structural connections.” Davis embraces what she calls the larger context, and this is clearly exemplified in her commentary about prisons. She writes:
We can’t only think about the prison as a place of punishment for those who have committed crimes. We have to think about the larger framework. That means asking: Why is there such a disproportionate number of Black people and people of color in prison? So we have to talk about racism. Abolishing the prison is about attempting to abolish racism. Why is there so much illiteracy? Why are so many prisoners illiterate? That means we have to attend to the educational system. Why is it that the three largest psychiatric institutions in the country are jails in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles: Rikers Island, Cook County Jail, and L.A. County Jail? That means we need to think about health care issues, and especially mental health care issues. We have to figure out how to abolish homelessness.
We need a new political vocabulary for capturing the scope and interconnections that comprise the matrix of permanent war and violence that shape a variety of experiences and spheres in American society, all of which will expand under the Trump presidency. While the current focus on police killings, gun violence, mass shootings and acts of individual bloodshed are important to analyze, it is crucial not to treat these events as isolated categories. By doing so we lose a broader understanding of the ways in which American society is being held hostage to often invisible but formative modes of intolerable violence that are distributed across a range of sites on a daily basis. This is especially true as Americans enter into a historical moment in which the highest reaches of government will be run by a group of officials who support a president who has condoned torture, wants to increase the numbers of and power of the police, views Black neighborhoods as manifestations of a criminal culture, staffs his cabinet with racists, militarists and misogynists, and views violence as a legitimate tool for dealing with dissent. Noam Chomsky is right in calling Trump, his generals, and the Republican Party “the most dangerous organization in the world.”
Intolerable violence is most visible when it attracts the attention of mainstream media and conforms to the production of what Brad Evans and I have discussed as the spectacle of violence, that is, violence that is put on public display in order to shock and entertain rather than inform. However, such violence is just the tip of the iceberg and is dependent upon a foundation of lawlessness that takes place through a range of experiences, representations and spaces that make up daily life across a variety of sites and public spaces. Those spaces of lawlessness are on the rise, and the ominous shadow of authoritarianism is at our doorstep. Nevertheless, such forces cannot be allowed to cancel out the future and promises of a radical democracy.
Militant Hope and the Politics of Resistance
The first step in any form of collective resistance is to recognize the seriousness of the political, social and economic threat that a Trump administration poses to the United States’ fragile democracy. Secondly, while American society may be slipping away into the shadows of authoritarianism, it is imperative to think politics anew in order to wage more formidable struggles in the name of economic and social justice.
All societies contain sites of resistance, and progressives with structural power need desperately to join with those who have been written out of the script of democracy to rethink politics, find a new beginning and develop a vision that is on the side of justice and democracy. Hope in the abstract is not enough. We need a form of militant hope and practice that engages with the forces of authoritarianism on the educational and political fronts so as to become a foundation for what might be called hope in action — that is, a new force of collective resistance and a vehicle for anger transformed into collective struggle, a principle for making despair unconvincing and struggle possible.
Education must become central to any politics of resistance because it is fundamental to how subjectivities are produced, desire is constructed and behavior takes place. Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator, was right in insisting that subjectivity is both the material of politics and the platform where the struggle over consciousness and resistance takes place. Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist, was right in arguing that at the heart of political struggle is a war of position, a struggle in which matters of education, persuasion, language and consciousness are fundamental to creating the formative culture that makes radical change possible. This is a struggle in which inner worlds are made and remade not only under the weight of economic structures but also through the pedagogical mediums of belief, moments of recognition and identification.
While we may be entering a period of counterrevolutionary change, it must be remembered that such historical moments are sometimes as hopeful as they are dangerous. Hope at the moment resides in struggling to reclaim the radical imagination and bringing together an array of single-issue movements, while working to build an expansive, broad-based social movement for both symbolic and structural change. Central to such a task is the need to build alternative public spaces that offer fresh educational opportunities to create a new language for political struggle along with new modes of solidarity. At stake here is the need for progressives to make education central to politics itself in order to disrupt the force of a predatory public pedagogy. We must disrupt the “common sense” that is produced in mainstream cultural apparatuses and that serves as glue for the rise of right-wing populism. This is not merely a call for a third political party. Any vision for this movement must reject the false notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous. Democratic socialism is once again moving a generation of young people. We need to accelerate this movement for a radical democracy before it is too late.
Henry A. Giroux currently is the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and The Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent book is America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2016). Other books include The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City Lights, 2014), Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2015), coauthored with Brad Evans, and Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights, 2015). Giroux is also a member of Truthout’s Board of Directors. His website is www.henryagiroux.com.