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Donald Trump as the Bully-in Chief: Weaponizing the politics of Humiliation

By       Message Henry Giroux       (Page 1 of 2 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   42 comments

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Donald Trump's ascendancy in American politics has made visible a scourge of oppressive stupidity, manufactured deceptions, a corrupt political system, and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making; it also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life, and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship.

Galvanizing his base of true-believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how Trump's history of unabashed racism and politics of hate is transformed into a spectacle of fear, divisions, and disinformation. Under President Trump, the plague of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing spectacle of populist rallies, fear-mongering, unchecked bigotry, and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization, and extreme violence that looms over society like a rising storm.

The reality of Trump's ascendency to the highest levels of power may be the most momentous development of the age because of its apocalyptic irrationality and the shock it has produced. People throughout the world are watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened. How have we arrived here? What forces have undermined education as a democratic public sphere making it incapable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of civic culture, education, and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning while reducing political rhetoric to the service of humiliating taunts and a discourse of bigotry and hatred.

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This is more than a politics of theatrical diversion, it is a rhetorical practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice, and social responsibility. Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the United States government has taken on the workings of a disimagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth, and often accompanied, as in Trump's case, by "primitive schoolyard taunts and threats." In this instance, Orwell's "Ignorance is Strength" materializes in the Trump administration's weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history, but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education both as an institution and as a broader cultural force.

Trump along with Fox News, Breitbart, and other right-wing cultural apparatuses, echoes one of totalitarianism's most revered notions, one which pushes the notion that truth is a liability and ignorance a virtue. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged commonsense, education and critical thinking are regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data, and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world.

Such ignorance operates with a vengeance when it comes to higher education. Not only is higher education being defunded, corporatized, and transformed to mimic labor relations associated with Wal-Mart by the Trump administration under the preposterous ill-leadership of the religious fundamentalist, Betsy DeVos, it is also according to a recent poll viewed by most Republicans as being "bad for America." One of its liabilities being is that it is at odds with Trump's vision of making America great again. [1]

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The politics of humiliation has its counterpart in systemic culture of lies that has descended upon America like a plague. Trump rejoices in his role as a serial liar, knowing that the public is easily seduced by exhortation, emotional outbursts, and sensationalism, all of which mimics an infantilizing and depoliticizing celebrity culture. Image selling now entails lying on principle making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology, and a unique brand of criminality.

The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that the American public has become habituated to overstimulation and live in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystalize into mature and informed thought. Popular culture delights in the spectacles of shock and violence. [2]

Defunded and stripped of their role as a public good, many institutions extending from higher education to the mainstream media are now harnessed to the demands and needs of corporations and the financial elite. In doing so, they have succumbed to the neoliberal assault reason, thoughtfulness, and informed arguments. Governance is now replaced by the irrational tweeter bursts of an impetuous four-year old trapped in the body of an adult.

Donald Trump is the high-priest of caustic rants. He appears to revel in a politics of humiliation, both as a tool to insult his critics and as a way to discredit policies he dislikes. In part, his resort to producing humiliating insults is a rhetorical ploy that mimics a mix of cut-throat politics, aggressive showmanship, and the bullish behavior found on Reality TV shows, not unlike the television show, The Apprentice, which launched him to celebrity status.

At the heart of Trump's politics is a distorted mindset and a desire to make sure everyone but him is "fired" or voted off the island. Trump's mode of governance combines a penchant for inflicting pain with a relentless obsession with ratings, praise, and disruption. Such actions would be comical if it were not for the fact that they are being used endlessly by one of the most powerful politicians in the world.

Trump's insults and bullying behavior have become a principal force shaping his language, politics and policies. He has used language as a weapon to humiliate just about anyone who opposes him. He has publicly humiliated and insulted members of his own Cabinet, such as Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, undermining their respective ability to do their jobs. Senators such as Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse, among others have been the object of Trump's infantile tweets. More recently, he has mocked Senator Bob Corker's height referring to him on Twitter as "Liddle Bob Corker," and he has shamefully insulted Senator John McCain's body language, pointing to the physical disabilities he suffered while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The latter is particularly disturbing since McCain has recently been stricken with cancer. Chris Cillizza, a CNN editor, claims that "By my count, Trump has personally attacked 11 senators -- or, roughly, 21% of the entire 52 person GOP conference between his time as a candidate and his nine months in the White House. That's more than 1 in 5!"[3]

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Ignorance is a terrible wound when it is self-inflicted, but it is both a plague and dangerous when it is the active refusal to know and translates into power. Trump's lies, lack of credibility, lack of knowledge, and unbridled narcissism have suggested for some time that he lacks the intelligence, judgment, and capacity for critical thought necessary to occupy the presidency of the United States. But when coupled with his childish temperament, his volatile impetuousness, and his Manichean conception of a world inhabited by the reductionist binary that only views the world in terms of friends and enemies, loyalists and traitors, his ignorance translates into a confrontational style that puts lives, especially those considered disposable, if not the entire planet at risk.

Trump's seemingly frozen and dangerous fundamentalism and damaged ethical sensibility suggest that we are dealing with a kind of nihilistic politics in which the relationship between the search for truth and justice, on the one hand, and moral responsibility and civic courage on the other have disappeared. For the past few decades, as Richard Hofstadter and others have reminded us, politics has been not only disconnected from reason but also from any viable notion of meaning and civic literacy. Government now runs on willful ignorance as the planet heats up, pollution increases, and people die. Evidence is detached from argument. Science is a subspecies of fake news, and alternative facts are as important as the truth. In this instance, violence becomes both the precondition and the after effect of the purposeful effort to empty language of any meaning. Under such circumstances, Trump gives credence to the notion that lying is both normalized and can serve as the enabling force for violence.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and dis the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America's Addiction to Terrorism (Monthly Review Press, 2016), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2017). He is also a contributing editor to a number of journals, includingTikkun, (more...)
 

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