No president in recent memory has displayed such blatant disregard for human life, abolished the distinction between truth and fiction, surrounded himself so overtly with white nationalists and religious fundamentalists, or exhibited what Peter Dreier has described as a “willingness to overtly invoke all the worst ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds in order to appeal to the most despicable elements of our society and unleash an upsurge of racism, anti-Semitism, sexual assault, and nativism by the KKK and other hate groups.”
By Joan Pedro-Carañana Truthout | Interview April 11, 2017
Trump’s brand of populism and politics are a tragedy for democracy and a triumph for authoritarianism. Using manipulation, misrepresentation and a discourse of hate, he is pushing policies designed to destroy the welfare state and the institutions that make a democracy possible. Trump’s first few months in office offer a terrifying glimpse of an authoritarian project that combines the ruthlessness of neoliberalism with an attack on historical memory, critical agency, education, equality and truth itself. While the US may not be in the full bloom of the fascism of the 1930s, it is at the tipping point of a virulent, American-style authoritarianism. These are truly dangerous times as right-wing extremists continue to move from the margins to the center of political life.
I asked renowned public intellectual and social activist Henry Giroux — who has written extensively on cultural studies, youth studies, popular culture, media studies, social theory and the politics of higher and public education — to discuss the new developments that are taking place in the United States and the possible strategies and tactics to engage successfully in processes of resistance and egalitarian social transformation during the Trump era. In this interview, he analyzes the underlying forces of authoritarianism at work in the United States and Europe, and argues that resistance is not simply an option but a necessity.
Let’s begin by discussing the current state of US politics and then move on to looking at the alternatives for change. What is your evaluation of the first two months of Trump’s presidency?
The first two months of Trump’s presidency fit perfectly with his deeply authoritarian ideology. Rather than being constrained by the history and power of the presidency as some have predicted, Trump unapologetically embraced a deeply authoritarian ideology and politics that was evident in a number of actions.
First, at his inaugural address he echoed fascist sentiments of the past by painting a dystopian image of the United States marked by carnage, rusted-out factories, blighted communities and ignorant students. Underlying this apocalyptic vision was the characteristically authoritarian emphasis on exploiting fear, the call for a strong man to address the nation’s problems, the demolition of traditional institutions of governance, an insistence on expanding the military, and an appeal to xenophobia and racism in order to establish terror as a major weapon of governance.
Second, Trump’s support for militarism, white nationalism, right-wing populism and a version of neoliberalism on steroids was made concrete in his various cabinet and related appointments, which consisted mostly of generals, white supremacists, Islamophobes, Wall Street insiders, religious extremists, billionaires, anti-intellectuals, incompetents, climate-change deniers and free-market fundamentalists.
What all of these appointments share is a neoliberal and white nationalist ideology aimed at destroying all of those public spheres, such as education and the critical media that made democracy function, and political institutions, such as an independent judiciary. They are also united in eliminating policies that protect regulatory agencies and provide a foundation for holding power accountable. At stake here is a united front of authoritarians who are intent on eroding those institutions, values, resources and social relations not organized according to the dictates of neoliberal rationality.
Third, Trump initiated a number of executive orders that left no doubt that he was more than willing to destroy the environment, rip immigrant families apart, eliminate or weaken regulatory agencies, expand a bloated Pentagon budget, destroy public education, eliminate millions from health care insurance, deport 11 million unauthorized immigrants from the United States, unleash the military and police to enact his authoritarian white nationalist agenda, and invest billions in building a wall that stands as a symbol of white supremacy and racial hatred. There is a culture of cruelty at work here that can be seen in the Trump administration’s willingness to destroy any program that may provide assistance to the poor, working and middle classes, the elderly and young people. Moreover, the Trump regime is filled with war mongers who have taken power at a time in which the possibilities of nuclear wars with North Korea and Russia have reached dangerous levels. Furthermore, there is the threat that the Trump administration will escalate a military conflict with Iran and become more involved militarily in Syria.
Fourth, Trump repeatedly exhibited a shocking disrespect for the truth, law and civil liberties, and in doing so he has undermined the ability of citizens to be able to discern the truth in public discourse, test assumptions, weigh evidence and insist on rigorous ethical standards and methods in holding power answerable. Yet Trump has done more than commit what Eric Alterman calls “public crimes against truth.” Public trust collapses in the absence of dissent, a culture of questioning, hard arguments and a belief that truth not only exists but is also indispensable to a democracy. Trump has lied repeatedly, even going so far as to accuse former President Obama of wiretapping, and when confronted with his misrepresentation of the facts, he has attacked critics as purveyors of fake news. Under Trump, words disappear into the rabbit hole of “alternative facts,” undermining the capacity for political dialogue, a culture of questioning and civic culture itself. Furthermore, Trump not only refuses to use the term “democracy” in his speeches, he is also doing everything he can to establish the foundations for an overt authoritarian society. Trump has proven in his first few months in office that he is a tragedy for justice, democracy and the planet and a triumph for an American style proto-fascism.
You have argued that contemporary societies are at a turning point that is bringing the rise of a new authoritarianism. Trump would only be the tipping point of this transformation?
Totalitarianism has a long history in the United States and its elements can be seen in the legacy of nativism, white supremacy, Jim Crow, lynchings, ultranationalism and right-wing populist movements, such as the Ku Klux Klan and militiamen that have been endemic to shaping American culture and society. They are also evident in the religious fundamentalism that has shaped so much of American history with its anti-intellectualism and contempt for the separation of church and state. Further evidence can be found in the history of corporations using state power to undermine democracy by smashing labor movements and weakening democratic political spheres.
The shadow of totalitarianism can also be seen in the kind of political fundamentalism that emerged in the United States in the 1920s in the Palmer raids and in the ’50s with the rise of the McCarthy period and the squelching of dissent. We see it in the Powell Memo in the 1970s and in the first major report of the Trilateral Commission called The Crisis of Democracy, which viewed democracy as an excess and threat. We also saw elements of it in the FBI’s COINTELPRO program, which infiltrated radical groups and sometimes killed their members.
In spite of this sad legacy, Trump’s ascendency represents something new and even more dangerous. No president in recent memory has displayed such blatant disregard for human life, abolished the distinction between truth and fiction, surrounded himself so overtly with white nationalists and religious fundamentalists, or exhibited what Peter Dreier has described as a “willingness to overtly invoke all the worst ethnic, religious, and racial hatreds in order to appeal to the most despicable elements of our society and unleash an upsurge of racism, anti-Semitism, sexual assault, and nativism by the KKK and other hate groups.”
Conservative commentator Charles Sykes is right in arguing that the administration’s “discrediting independent sources of information also has two major advantages for Mr. Trump: It helps insulate him from criticism and it allows him to create his own narratives, metrics and ‘alternative facts.’ All administrations lie, but what we are seeing here is an attack on credibility itself.” In a terrifying signal of his willingness to discredit critical media outlets and suppress dissent, he has gone so far as to label the critical media as the “enemy of the people,” while his chief strategist, Stephan Bannon, has called them the “opposition party.” He has attacked — and in some cases fired — judges who have disagreed with his policies. Meanwhile he has threatened to withdraw federal funds from universities that he thought were largely inhabited by liberals and leftists, and he has embraced alt-right conspiracy theories in order to attack his opponents and give legitimacy to his own flights from reason and morality.
What must be acknowledged is that a new historical conjuncture emerged in the 1970s when neoliberal capitalism began to wage an unprecedented war against the social contract. At that time, elected officials implemented austerity programs that weakened democratic public spheres, aggressively attacked the welfare state and waged an assault on all of those institutions crucial to creating a critical formative culture in which matters of economic justice, civic literacy, freedom and the social imagination are nurtured among the polity. The longstanding contract between labor and capital was torn up as politics became local. Power ceased being bounded by geography and became embedded in a global elite with no obligations to nation states. As the nation state weakened, it was reduced to a regulatory formation to serve the interest of the rich, corporations and the financial elite. The power to get things done is no longer in the hands of the state; it now resides in the hands of the global elite and is managed by markets.
What has emerged with the rise of neoliberalism is both a crisis of the state and a crisis of agency and politics. One consequence of the separation of power and politics was that neoliberalism gave rise to massive inequalities in wealth, income and power, furthering a rule by the financial elite and an economy of the 1%. The state was not able to provide social provisions and has rapidly been reduced to its carceral functions. That is, as the social state was hollowed out, the punishing state increasingly took over its obligations. Political compromise, dialogue and social investments gave way to a culture of containments, cruelty, militarism and violence.
Trump must be viewed as the distilled essence of a much larger war on democracy brought to life in late modernity by an economic system that has increasingly used all the ideological and repressive institutions at its disposal to consolidate power in the hands of the 1%.
The war on terror further militarized American society and created the foundation for a culture of fear and a permanent war culture. War cultures need enemies and in a society governed by a ruthless notion of self-interest, privatization and commodification, more and more groups were demonized, cast aside and viewed as disposable. This included poor Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, unauthorized immigrants, transgender communities and young people who protested the increasing authoritarianism of American society.
Trump’s appeal to national greatness, populism, support for state violence against dissenters, a disdain for human solidarity and a longstanding culture of racism has a long legacy in the United States, and was accelerated as the Republican Party was overtaken by religious, economic and educational fundamentalists. Increasingly, economics drove politics, set policies and put a premium on the ability of markets to solve all problems, to control not only the economy but all of social life. Under neoliberalism, repression became permanent in the US as schools, the local police, were militarized and more and more, everyday behaviors, including a range of social problems, were criminalized.
In addition, the dystopian embrace of an Orwellian control society was intensified under the umbrella of a National Security State, with its 17 intelligence agencies. The attacks on democratic ideals, values, institutions and social relations were accentuated through the complicity of apologetic mainstream media outlets more concerned about their ratings than about their responsibility as constitutive of the Fourth Estate. With the erosion of civic culture, historical memory, critical education and any sense of shared citizenship, it was easy for Trump to create a corrupt political, economic, ethical and social swamp.
Trump must be viewed as the distilled essence of a much larger war on democracy brought to life in late modernity by an economic system that has increasingly used all the ideological and repressive institutions at its disposal to consolidate power in the hands of the 1%. Trump is both a symptom and accelerant of these forces and has moved a culture of bigotry, racism, greed and hatred from the margins to the center of American society.
What would be the similarities and the differences in regard to past forms of authoritarianism and totalitarianism?
There are echoes of classical fascism of the 1920s and 1930s in much of what Trump says and how he performs. Fascist overtones resound as Trump taps into a sea of misdirected anger, promotes himself as a strong leader who can save a nation in decline and repeats the fascist script of white nationalism in his attacks on immigrants and Muslims. He also flirts with fascism in his call for a revival of ultranationalism, his discourse of racist hate, his scapegoating of the “other,” and his juvenile tantrums and tweet attacks on anyone who disagrees with him. His use of the spectacle to create a culture of self-promotion; his mix of politics and theater mediated by an emotional brutality; and a willingness to elevate emotion over reason, war over peace, violence over critique, and militarism over democracy.
Trump’s addiction to massive self-enrichment and the gangster morality that informs it threatens to normalize a new level of political corruption. Moreover, he uses fear and terror to demonize others and to pay tribute to an unbridled militarism. He has surrounded himself with a right-wing inner circle to help him implement his dangerous policies on health care, the environment, the economy, foreign policy, immigration and civil liberties.
He has also expanded the notion of propaganda into something more perilous and lethal for a democracy. A habitual liar, he has attempted to obliterate the distinction between the facts and fiction, evidence-based arguments and lying. He has not only reinforced the legitimacy of what I call the “disimagination machine,” but also created among large segments of the public a distrust of the truth and the institutions that promote critical thinking. Consequently, he has managed to organize millions of people who believe that loyalty is more important than civic freedom and responsibility. In doing so he has emptied the language of politics and the horizon of politics of any substantive meaning, contributing to an authoritarian and depoliticized culture of sensationalism, immediacy, fear and anxiety.
Trump has galvanized and emboldened all the antidemocratic forces that have been shaping neoliberal capitalisms across the globe for the last 40 years.
Unlike the dictators of the 1930s, he has not set up a secret police, created concentration camps, taken complete control of the state, arrested dissenters or developed a one-party system. Yet, while Trump’s America is not a replica of Nazi Germany, it expresses elements of totalitarianism in distinctly American forms. Hannah Arendt’s warning that rather than being a thing of the past, elements of totalitarianism would more than likely, in mid-century, crystallize into new forms.
Surely, as Bill Dixon points out, “the all too protean origins of totalitarianism are still with us: loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.” The conditions that produce the terrifying curse of totalitarianism seem to be upon us and are visible in Trump’s denial of civil liberties, the stoking of fear in the general population, a hostility to the rule of law and a free and critical press, a contempt for the truth, and this attempt to create a new political formation through an alignment of religious fundamentalists, racists, xenophobes, Islamophobes, the ultrarich and unhinged militarists.
What are the connections between neoliberalism and the emergence of neo-authoritarianism?
For the last 40 years, neoliberalism has aggressively functioned as an economic, political and social project designed to consolidate wealth and power in the hands of the upper 1%. It functions through multiple registers as an ideology, mode of governance, policy-making machine, and a poisonous form of public pedagogy.
- As an ideology, it views the market as the primary organizing principle of society while embracing privatization, deregulation and commodification as fundamental to the organization of politics and everyday life.
- As a mode of governance, it produces subjects wedded to unchecked self-interest and unbridled individualism while normalizing shark-like competition, the view that inequality is self-evidently a part of the natural order, and that consumption is the only valid obligation of citizenship.
- As a policy machine, it allows money to drive politics, sells off state functions, weakens unions, replaces the welfare state with the warfare state, and seeks to eliminate social provisions while increasingly expanding the reach of the police state through the ongoing criminalization of social problems.
- As a form of public pedagogy, it wages a war against public values, critical thinking and all forms of solidarity that embrace notions of collaboration, social responsibility and the common good.