The Terror of the Unforeseen: Rethinking the Normalization of Fascism in the Post-Truth Era, by Henry A. Giroux

In a searing takedown of the populist authoritarian vision of America, The Terror of the Unforeseen tackles the resurgence of fascism in the age of Donald Trump’s presidency. Through the mendacious exchange of facts for “fake news,” Henry A. Giroux examines the language of hatred that activates neoliberal fascism, complete with state-sanctioned racism, casino capitalism, and fear-mongering at federal and local levels. 

By Henry A. Giroux The Seminary Co-op 57th Street Books  May 2021

Editor’s Note: Giroux quotes: “William Faulkner once remarked that we live with the ghosts of the past or to be more precise: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.”  Already the ghosts of the Trump administration haunt us. This critique of Trump still applies today, especially considering the millions who voted for Trump. A perfect example is the Senate’s refusal to agree to a deep investigation into the insurrection of January 6th. Unfortunately in that rejection Trumpism lives on, as it does in many of the mainly GOP Senate’s decisions in their  determination to hang onto their (for them) comfortable neoliberal system that makes them millionaires and puts their interests above the interests of the majority of the people in America. It is also reflected in the recent decision of President Biden, who, while stating fossil fuel planet pollution needs to be addressed as it affects climate change, approved the Alaska oil development project.

The Terror of the Unforeseen echoes a warning about the past that now haunts the present: the terror that comes with the plague of a resurgent fascist politics. Evidence of this plague can be seen at a time in which there is a dangerous attack being waged in many countries against journalists who have played a crucial role in both educating people against the emerging increase in right-wing populism and exhibiting the civic courage necessary to understand how power works in our time.  Civic courage does not come easy and many journalists have been killed in their pursuit of uncovering injustices and holding power accountable. In 2018 alone, 53 journalists have been killed, with one of the most notorious cases being Jamal Khashoggi.

Never has the practice of thinking critically, reading critically, and developing a sense of engaged and courageous agency been more important. We live at a time in which free speech, critical inquiry, and democracy itself are under siege. In this historical moment, it is impossible to say enough about the important role that writers, artists, educators, journalists, and other cultural workers can and have played in fighting against injustices and the rise of authoritarianism across the globe. In what follows, I want highlight some of the themes from my The Terror of the Unforeseen that deal with an emerging fascist politics and the growing elements of extreme capitalism, which I call neoliberal fascism, which is attacking the most fundamental elements of democracy. In doing so, I will stress the central role that education now plays in politics, not only as part of a language of critique but also as a discourse of possibility that allows us to imagine a better world.

Talk of a fascist politics emerging in the United States is often criticized as either a naïve exaggeration or a failure to acknowledge the strength of liberal institutions. Yet, the case can be made that rather than harbor an element of truth, such criticism further normalizes the very fascism it critiques, allowing the extraordinary and implausible to become ordinary.  After decades of the neoliberal nightmare both in the United Stats and abroad, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s.  The architects and managers of extreme capitalism have used the crisis of economic inequality and its “manifestly brutal and exploitative arrangements” to sow social divisions and resurrect the discourse of racial cleansing and white supremacy.[1] In doing so, they have not only tapped into the growing collective suffering and anxieties of millions of Americans in order to  redirect their anger  and despair through a culture of fear and discourse of dehumanization, they have also turned critical ideas to ashes by disseminating a toxic mix of  racialized categories, ignorance, and a militarized spirit of white nationalism . While there is no perfect fit between Trump and the fascist societies of Mussolini, Hitler, and Pinochet, “the basic tenets of extreme nationalism, racism, misogyny, and a hatred for democracy and the rule of law are too similar to ignore.[2]

In this instance, neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible project and movement that connects the exploitative values and cruel austerity policies of casino capitalism”[3] with fascist ideals. Such ideals include: the veneration of war, anti-intellectualism;  dehumanization;  a populist celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; [4] the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture of lies; a politics of hierarchy, the spectacularization of emotion over reason, the weaponization of language;  and a discourse of decline, and state violence in heterogeneous forms. Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and the conditions that produce its central assumptions, are with us once again, ushering in a period of modern barbarity that appears to be reaching towards homicidal extremes.[5]

The urgency of addressing the rise of fascism both in the United States and abroad might begin with the regime of untruth and manufactured illiteracy that allows and helps normalize the catastrophic conditions that make neoliberal fascism a potent source of identity, fantasy, pleasure, and investment. One place to start, and many journalists do this, would be a critical analysis of the Trump administration’s efforts to abandon and discredit traditional sources of evidence, facts, and analysis in its attempt to normalize fake news, a culture of lying, and the world of alternative facts. At stake here is making visible a radically altered relationship between the public and truth and the ensuing demise of civic culture and the public institutions that make it possible.  As the public’s grip on civic literacy weakens, language is emptied of any substantive meaning and the shared standards necessary for developing informed judgements and sustained convictions are undermined. In a world where nothing is true, all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. One consequence is that everything begins to look like a lie.  Of course, there is more at stake here than the creation and normalization of a culture of lying, there is also the threat to democracy itself.

We do not live in a post-truth world and never have. On the contrary, we live in a pre-truth world where the truth has yet to arrive. As one of the primary currencies of politics, lies have a long history in the United States.  For instance, state sponsored lies played a crucial ideological role in pushing the US into wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, legitimated the use of Torture under the Bush administration, and covered up the crimes of the financial elite in producing the economic crisis of 2008. Moreover, we have been living the lie of neoliberalism and systemic racism for over forty years and because of the refusal to face up to such lies, the United States has slipped into the abyss of an updated American version of fascism of which Trump is a both symptom and endpoint.

Under Trump, lying has become a rhetorical gimmick in which everything that matters politically is denied, reason loses its power for informed judgments, and language serves to infantilize and depoliticize as it offers no room for individuals to translate private troubles into broader systemic considerations. Truth is now mobile making it easier to deny even a modicum of rational judgment while reinventing a fascist politics that echoes the past and allows the “intrusion of criminality into politics.”[6] Post-truth is a pedagogical tool of deflection that as the novelist Toni Morrison points out functions “like a coma on the population” imposing misery and traumas so deep and cruel that they kill the moral imagination and “purge democracy of all of its ideals.[7]

As the politics of lying moves from the margins to the center of power, Trump’s fake news industry wields enormous political and pedagogical power while at the same time accelerating and normalizing and endless stream of fake news and misrepresentations, wrapped in a kind of dystopian legitimacy. Trump’s attack on the truth wages a war against the ethical imagination, privatizes experiences, and resonates with a larger culture of speed, instant gratification, and consumerism.  Coupled with a society that worships celebrity culture, the spectacularization of power and the masculinization of the public sphere make it easier for Trump and his associates to rehabilitate fascist ideas, principles, and a fascist political culture.            

At a time of growing fascist movements across the globe, power, culture, politics, finance, and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world. As cultural apparatuses are concentrated in the hands of the ultra-rich, the educative force of culture has taken on a powerful anti-democratic turn. This can be seen in the rise of new digitally driven systems of production and consumption that produce, shape, and sustain ideas, desires, and social relations that contribute to the disintegration of democratic social bonds and promote a form of social Darwinism. Under such circumstances, misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a ‘war of all against all’ replaces any vestige of shared responsibility and compassion for others.

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The entrepreneurs of hate are no longer confined to the dustbin of history, specifically the proto fascist era of 1930s and 1940s. They are with us once again producing dystopian fantasies out of the decaying communities and landscapes produced by forty years of a savage capitalism. White male rage has emerged out of the destruction of social bonds and the gutting of the welfare state and intensified with the neoliberal unleashing of destructive energies of “deracination, displacement, and disintegration.”[8] Angry white male loners looking for a cause, a place to put their agency into play, are fodder for cult leaders. They have found one in Trump for whom the relationship between the language of fascism and its toxic worldview of “blood and soil” and the “fear of inferior blood” has moved to the center of power in the United States.

Fascism first begins with language and then gains momentum as an organizing force for shaping a culture that legitimates indiscriminate violence against entire groups — Black people, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and others considered “disposable.” In this vein, Trump portrays his critics as “villains,” describes immigrants as “losers” and “criminals,” and has become a national mouthpiece for violent nationalists and a myriad of extremists who trade in hate and violence. One recent example can be found in the Trump-like language used in the manifesto posted by the El Paso shooter. Using a rhetoric of revulsion as a performance strategy and media show to whip up his base, Trump employs endless rhetorical tropes of bigotry and demonization that set the tone for real violence.

There are historical precedents for this collapse of language into a form of coded militarism and racism — the anti-Semitism couched in critiques of globalization and the call for racial and social cleansing aligned with the discourse of borders and walls. Echoes of history resonate in this assault on minority groups, the use of racist taunts, and twisted references that code a belief in racial purity, and legitimate attacks on and possible criminal action against those who do not mirror the twisted notions of white supremacy.

In an age when civic literacy and efforts to hold the powerful accountable for their actions are dismissed as “fake news,” ignorance is no longer innocent. That is, a manufactured ignorance becomes the breeding ground not just for hate, but for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, refuses to make tolerance a non-negotiable element of civic dialogue and allows the powerful to weaponize everyday discourse. While Trump has been portrayed as a serial liar, it would be a mistake to view this pathology as a matter of character.[9] Lying for Trump is a tool of power used to discredit any attempt to hold him accountable for his actions while destroying those public spheres and institutional foundations necessary for the possibility of a democratic politics.  At the heart of Trump’s world of lies, fake news, and alternative facts is a political regime that trades in corruption, the accumulation of capital, and promotes lawlessness, all of which provides the foundation for a neoliberalism on steroids that now merges with an unabashed celebration of white nationalism.  The post-truth era constitutes both a crisis of politics and a crisis of history, memory, agency, and education. It is worth reiterating that this new era of barbarism cannot be understood or addressed without a reminder that fascism has once again crystalized into new forms and has become a model for the present and future.  Trump’s language and policies are best understood as a contemporary remnant of the fascist imagination.

Fantasies of absolute control, racial cleansing, unchecked militarism, and class warfare are at the heart of an American imagination that has turned lethal.  This is a dystopian imagination marked by hollow words, an imagination pillaged of any substantive meaning, cleansed of compassion, and used to legitimate the notion that alternative worlds are impossible to entertain. What we are witnessing is a shrinking of the political and moral horizons and a full-scale attack on justice, thoughtful reasoning, and collective resistance. Such anti-democratic tendencies create new and urgent challenges for journalists, educators, and other to speak out about important social issues with a deep sense of commitment and courage.

Under the current reign of neoliberal fascism, politics extends beyond the attack on any vestige of truth, informed judgments, and constructive means of communication. There is more at work here than the need to decode and analyze Trump’s language as a tool for misrepresenting reality and shielding corrupt practices and policies that benefit major corporations, the military, and the ultra-rich.  There is also a worldview, a mode of hegemony, which comes out of a fascist playbook, and translates into dangerous policies and potentially violent acts. This is evident in Trump’s attacks on dissent and his support for the use of violence against journalists and politicians who are critical of his views.  One such example can be found in his critique of members of the Democratic Party whom he labeled as the radical left.  Not only did he hurl a McCarthyite slur at them, he also implied in one instance that one response to their opposition might be violence. In addition, he has attacked with racist rhetoric black athletes and Congresswomen of color, as well as black newscasters, suggesting they have low intelligence and in the case of Ilhan Omar stating she was both an Al Qaida supporter and had married her brother.  There is more at work here than infantilizing schoolyard threats.  We have seen too many instances where Trump’s followers have beaten critics, attacked journalists, and shouted down any form of critique aimed at Trump’s policies — to say nothing of the army of trolls unleashed on intellectuals and journalist critical of the administration.

Trump aligns himself with a number of ruthless dictators and appears to glow in their presence all the while heaping insults on America’s allies such as Canada. Trump’s fans include a number of white nationalists and white supremacists, who have been involved in recent killings, the most recent being in El Paso, Texas.  Patrick Crusius, the El Paso gunman, published online a white nationalist screed that echoes numerous racist and xenophobic views aimed at Hispanics. Crusius argues that white people are at risk of genocide and that people of color will replace them.  Trump may not be directly responsible for this horrendous crime but he has used his Twitter account to refer to an “invasion” of migrants at the southern border, condemned Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” and Syrian refugees as “snakes.” Moreover, his rhetoric in support of walls and borders is not about security but a symbol of unadulterated nativism. Of course, Trump does not just fan the flames of violence with his rhetoric, he also provides legitimation to a number of white nationalists and right-wing extremists groups who are emboldened by his words and actions and too often ready to translate their hatred into the desecration of synagogues, schools, and other public sites as well as engage in violence against peaceful protesters, and in some cases commit heinous acts of violence.

Trump is the endpoint of a malady that has been growing for decades. What is different about Trump is that he basks in his role and is unapologetic about enacting policies that further enable the looting of the country by the ultra-rich (including him) and by mega-corporations. He embodies with unchecked bravado the sorts of sadistic impulses that could condemn generations of children to a future of misery and in some cases state terrorism. He loves people who believe that politics is undermined by anyone who has a conscience, and he promotes and thrives in a culture of violence and cruelty. Trump is not refiguring the character of democracy, he is destroying it, and in doing so, resurrecting all the elements of a fascist politics that many people thought would never re-emerge again after the horrors and death inflicted on millions by previous fascist dictators. Trump represents an emergence of the ghost of the past and we should be terrified of what is happening both in the United States and in other countries such as Brazil, Poland, Turkey, and Hungary.  Trump’s ultra-nationalism, racism, policies aimed at social cleansing, and his hatred of democracy echoes a period in history when the unimaginable became possible, when genocide was the endpoint of dehumanizing others, and the mix of nativist and nationalist rhetoric ended in the horrors of the camp. The world is at war once again, it is a war against democracy, and Trump is at the forefront of it.

Trump represents a distinctive and dangerous form of American-bred authoritarianism, but at the same time he is the outcome of a past that needs to be remembered, analyzed, and engaged for the lessons it can teach us about the present. Not only has Trump “normalized the unspeakable” and in some cases the unthinkable, he has also forced us to ask questions we have never asked before about capitalism, power, politics, and, yes, courage itself.[10]  In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, citizenship, and justice that has real substance.  One challenge is to confront the horrors of casino capitalism and its transformation into a form of fascist politics under Trump. As Fred Jameson has suggested such a revolution cannot take place by limiting our choices to a fixation on the “impossible present.”[11] Nor can it take place by limiting ourselves to a language of critique and a narrow focus on individual issues.

What is needed is also a language of militant possibility and a comprehensive politics that draws from history, rethinks the meaning of politics, and imagines a future that does not imitate the present. We need what Gregory Leffel calls a language of “imagined futures,” one that “can snap us out of present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there and inspire heroic commitment.”[12] Such a language has to create political formations capable of understanding neoliberal fascism as a totality, a single integrated system whose shared roots extend from class and racial injustices under financial capitalism to ecological problems and the increasing expansion of the carceral state and the military-industrial-academic complex.[13] William Faulkner once remarked that we live with the ghosts of the past or to be more precise: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”  Such a task is all the more urgent given that Trump is living proof that we are once again living with the ghosts of a dark past. However, it is also true that the ghosts of history can be critically engaged and transformed into a radical democratic politics for the future.  The Nazi regime was more than a frozen moment in history. It is a warning from the past and a window into the growing threat Trumpism poses to democracy.  The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly, they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice and collective action in the fight for a substantive and inclusive democracy.

The dark shadow of authoritarianism may be spreading, but it can be stopped. In addition, that prospect raises serious questions about what educators, youth, intellectuals, journalists, and other cultural workers are going to do today to make sure that they do not succumb to the authoritarian forces spreading across the globe, waiting for the resistance to stop and for the lights to go out. Critical reading is especially important at a time when ignorance has more political currency than historical memory, moral witnessing, and thinking itself. The need to think critically becomes particularly important in a society that appears to become increasingly amnesiac – a country in which forms of historical, political and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but also celebrated. The United States has degenerated into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Reading critical books is no longer an option but a necessity in the fight against manufactured ignorance. Such reading is the foundation for thinking dangerously and acting courageously.  Reading critically is more than a mode of resistance. That is, it is the foundation for a formative and educational culture of questioning and politics that takes seriously how the civic imagination can become central to the practice of freedom. Even more reason to take seriously John Dewey’s observation that “Democracy must be born anew in every generation and education is its midwife.” Books matter, especially if as intellectuals, artists, writers, journalists and educators we want to imagine alternative futures and horizons of possibility inspired by the ideals and promises of a radical democracy.

[1] Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139.
[2] Curtis Johnson, “The Momentum of Trumpian Fascism is Building: Stopping it is Up to Us,” Truthout (July 25, 2018). Online: https://truthout.org/articles/the-momentum-of-trumpian-fascism-is-building-stopping-it-is-up-to-us/
[3] Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139.
[4] Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139.
[5] Chiara Bottici in Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, eds. “One Question Fascism (Part One),” Is Fascism making a comeback?”  State of Nature Blog, [December 3, 2017].Online: http://stateofnatureblog.com/one-question-fascism-part-one/
[6] Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, Why Arendt Matters, (New York: Integrated Publishing Solutions, 2006), pp. 154-155.
[7] Toni Morrison, The Source of Self-Regard: Selected essays, Speeches, and Meditations (New York: Knopf, 2019), p.vii.
[8] Wendy Brown and Jo Littler, “Where the fires are: An interview with Wendy Brown,” Eurozine, [April 18, 2018].Online: https://www.eurozine.com/where-the-fires-are/
[9] Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days,’ The Washington Post (March 4, 2019). Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/03/04/president-trump-has-made-false-or-misleading-claims-over-days/?utm_term=.6e791f431791
[10] Sasha Abramsky, “How Trump Has Normalized the Unspeakable,” The Nation (September 20, 2017). Online: https://www.thenation.com/article/how-trump-has-normalized-the-unspeakable/
[11] Gregory Leffel, “Is Catastrophe the only cure for the weakness of radical politics?” Open Democracy, [Jan. 21, 2018]. Online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/transformation/gregory-leffel/is-catastrophe-only-cure-for-weakness-of-radical-politics
[12] Gregory Leffel, “Is Catastrophe the only cure for the weakness of radical politics?” Open Democracy (January 21, 2018). Online: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/transformation/is-catastrophe-only-cure-for-weakness-of-radical-politics/
[13] For an analysis of the origins of fascism in American capitalism, see Michael Joseph Roberto, The Coming of the American Behemoth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2019).

Henry Giroux’s Critical Reads

The Great Regression (Polity Press, 2017), ed. Heinrich Geiselberger
Can the Working Class Change the World? (Monthly Review Press, 2018), by Michael D. Yates
Atrocity Exhibition: Life in the Age of Total Violence (LARB Books, 2018), by Brad Evans
United States of Distraction (City Lights Books, 2019), by Nolan Higdon and Mickey Huff
How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them (Random House, 2018), by Jason Stanley
Democracy May Not Exist, But well Miss it When It’s Gone (Metropolitan Books, 2019), by Astra Taylor
Digital Demagogue: Authoritarian Capital ism in the Age of Trump and Twitter (Pluto Press, 2018), by Christian Fuchs
Red State Revolt: The Teachers Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso 2019), by Eric Blanc
Revolution Today (Haymarket Books, 2019), by Susan Buck-Morss
The Source of Self-Regard (Knopf, 2019), by Tony Morrison
The Writer of Our Time: The Life and Work of John Berger (Verso, 2018), by Joshua Sperling

Henry A. Giroux is a prolific writer and political commentator who was a central figure in the development of critical pedagogy.  A recent book is The Terror of the Unforeseen(LARB, 2019), for which he penned this companion essay.

The Terror of the Unforeseen

By: Giroux, Henryvvv
Paperback | $17.00 | 9781940660493

Description: In a searing takedown of the populist authoritarian vision of America, The Terror of the Unforeseen tackles the resurgence of fascism in the age of Donald Trump’s presidency. Through the mendacious exchange of facts for “fake news,” Henry A. Giroux examines the language of hatred that activates neoliberal fascism, complete with state-sanctioned racism, casino capitalism, and fear-mongering at federal and local levels. In this “age of disposability,” Trump’s rhetoric eschews reason and democratic principles in favor of impetuous politics rooted in bigotry, all to injuriously catastrophic effect. Through protests, strikes, and education, Giroux proposes an international social movement that joins together various modes of resistance to illuminate a democratic renewal, and proves himself once again as one of the great public intellectuals of our time.


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3 comments

  1. Unlike a few social/labor revolutions of the past, notably the Bolshevik and French revolutions, it seems to me that contemporary Western world’s virtual corporate rule and superfluously wealthy essentially have the police and military ready to foremost protect big power and money interests, even over the food and shelter needs of the protesting masses.

    I can imagine that there are/were lessons learned from them (How to Hinder Progressive Revolutions 101?) with the clarity of hindsight by big power and money interests. They, the police/military/big-money, can claim they must bust heads to maintain law and order as a priority; thus the absurdly unjust inequities and inequalities can persist.

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  2. Authoritarianism can come from the political Right, but also the political Left and the political “Center; which is a variable positional ideology, and can also lead to murderous policies. Hitler and Stalin represented two versions of totalitarianism, the ultimate murderous forms prior to the rise of ethnoreligious “cleansing” movements. But nations that claim to be a democratic civil society must always be viewed with suspicion, since they too can devolve into murderous racial or ethnic, or religious states that assume a “real democracy” will require a “cleansing” fire to restore the “real people” to power.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel that ‘civilized’ society should refrain from self-righteously condemning the evil acts of one racial/ethnic/religious/cultural group or another. I once heard a philosophy professor say that every person should avoid believing (let alone saying) that they, as a human being, are not inherently predisposed to committing an atrocity if pushed to their limit. Contrary to what is claimed or felt by many of us, he said, deep down there’s a tyrant in each of us that, under the just-right circumstances, can be unleashed.

      Though some identifiable groups have been brutally victimized throughout history a disproportionately large number of times, the victims of one place and time can and sometimes do become the victimizers of another place and time. I don’t hold much faith in the Bible, but I can appreciate the verse (somewhere within) stating that base human nature is “desperately wicked”. And maybe even more so when convinced that ‘God is on our side’.

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