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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/21/19

Let's Shut Down the Authoritarian Machine

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From Truthout

Trump kicks off 2020 reelection campaign at Florida rally
Trump kicks off 2020 reelection campaign at Florida rally
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"We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we can't have both." ~~ Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis

Trump's ominous tweet about how his supporters might "demand" that he stay in office for more than two terms is the latest proof that his authoritarian ideology has little regard for the law. The tweet also reflects Trump's strong desire to use threats of violence, if necessary, to reshape the political landscape and mode of governance.

Other recent evidence of the rising threat of authoritarianism in the U.S. include Trump's continuing efforts to run roughshod over Congress with the most recent attempt being his urging former staff members not to respond to House subpoenas and his attempts "to block Congress from obtaining documents about the census citizenship question." Trump's authoritarian politics is also evident in his embrace of and fascination with dictators and demagogues, his promotion of a militarized foreign policy that threatens war with Iran, and his ongoing criticism of mainstream newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post as "enemies of the people." Moreover, his abuses of executive privilege reflect new levels of disdain for the separation of power; his attempts to prevent the full Mueller report from being handed over to Congress are just one example of this.

As these incidents show, we live in dangerous times, or what might be called the Age of Jackals: that is, an era ruled by the architects of an apocalyptic nationalism, regressive populism, and brutally repressive and racist forms of authoritarianism.

Right-wing populism is washing away the most basic institutions of democracy in countries that extend from the United States to Brazil. Authoritarians such as Viktor Orba'n of Hungary and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil are now invited to the White House in which they receive an endorsement for their policies of repression, their crushing of dissent, their use of state violence, and their much-publicized hatred of democracy. Trump appears to pride himself on flouting the law, making a mockery of justice, enriching his personal wealth through corrupt business practices, and using the office of the presidency to enhance what even timid liberals such as the New York Times columnist David Leonhardt call "the global standing of authoritarianism." Increasingly, authoritarian and fascist movements pose a threat to those they deem disposable, such as Black youth, intellectuals critical of the corrupt Jackals in power, and social movements fighting to save the planet.

The project of addressing the rise of authoritarianism both in the United States and abroad takes on a new urgency as the power of financial capital consolidates its forces over the commanding institutions of society, turning them into workstations for propaganda, social sorting, violence and disposability. The normalization of terror is now matched by the normalization of the spectacle as everyday life is treated as a Reality TV show that endlessly replays the virtues of extreme competition and a survival-of-the-fittest ethos.

The Age of Jackals is the outgrowth of a new political formation that I call neoliberal fascism. This is a historical conjuncture in which neoliberalism and its updated form of finance capital have produced massive degrees of inequality, extreme austerity measures, and ever-expanding attacks on the welfare state. The consequences have been a merging of popular anger and declining hopes for social mobility and a decent life, combined with an intensifying discourse of white supremacy and ultra-nationalism. The current manifestation of finance capital has merged the elements of a fascist politics with the hostile death-dealing machinery of a market fundamentalism, as I discuss in The Terror of the Unforeseen.

We now live in a world in which there appear to be few alternatives to a ravaging global capitalism a world in which existing authoritarian societies announce themselves as the only viable reality. Under such circumstances, it may appear that all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. This is an age dominated by dangerous narratives that are free of evidence, that bulge with misrepresentations, and that are adamant about destroying any semblance of not just truth, but morality, social responsibility and justice. For the Jackals, language, thinking, memory and civic values function like an autoimmune system threatening to weaken their power and modes of legitimation. As the boundaries of the unthinkable become normalized, language becomes emptied of meaning, filled with the blighted values of commercialization, the lure of the spectacle, and the ever-growing registers of corruption.

One consequence is that everything touched by rabble-rousing power becomes a performance and fodder for a mainstream media eager to increase their ratings. Discourses that invoke historical memory and take on the task of moral witnessing while interrogating the abuse of power are derided as fake news or dismissed as being irrelevant in light of the reigning assumption by those demagogues occupying the highest political offices arguing that democratic socialist society is no longer worth pursuing and that all that is left is illiberal "democracy" code for the suppression of political and civil liberties in return for authoritarian notions of security. This attack on democratic socialism appears to be more than a rhetorical flourish, especially since more and more members of the public are supportive of democratic socialist policies, especially as articulated by Bernie Sanders, who is arguing for affordable health care, an Economic Bill of Rights, a living wage, economic security, independence from the dictates of a market society, and a full-fledged attack on massive inequalities in wealth and power.

As the Trump administration makes clear, truth, justice and social responsibility have no place in the Age of Jackals. Power is written in the language of economics rather than ethics, justice and compassion. Language has been turned on its head to mean its opposite. "Freedom" now often signifies the freedom to hate, "work" now often means wage slavery. Individualism is now defined exclusively as a part of an ethos of ruthless competition, self-interest is the enemy of solidarity and compassion, and social atomization, bolstered by an emphasis on individual responsibility, is elevated to a virtue, all while "justice" is used to refer to legal illegalities. The Jackals want to break away from history not only by rewriting it in their own regressive interests, but also by erasing the haunting and lingering ghosts of a fascist politics to which they have sold their souls. Lies are no longer subtle, just as the violence waged against children and undocumented immigrants becomes a badge of honor for Trump and his cowardly and corrupt minions. State violence for the Jackals across the globe is the organizing principle of the societies they rule.

The Jackals are drunk on greed and power and are willing to kill the planet and any vestige of decency and economic and social justice in order to gorge themselves on wealth. If anyone doubts that capitalism breeds iniquitous amounts of greed and wealth and that its endpoint is fascism, take into account the fact that three white men Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have more wealth collectively than the bottom 50 percent of the population. Bear in mind that global power and wealth concentrated in few hands give rise not only to massive repression and misery, but also to unthinkable acts of violence and cruelty. Consider the consequences of neoliberal policies that operate according to the idea that economic and property rights are more important than human rights. Such policies refuse to recognize health care as a basic right that should be free, deny tuition-free college, obstruct laws for raising the minimum wage, and denounce necessary environmental reforms such as the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, these policies maintain massive degrees of inequality, as millions of Americans are forced to choose between food and health care, between paying their bills and medicine, as they work 80 hours a week simply to be able to survive.

In the age of Jackals, reason loses its power to inform judgment. Truth, like capital and trade, is now flexible, making it easier to deny even a modicum of rational judgment, allowing what late academic Elisabeth Young-Bruehl called the "intrusion of criminality into politics." The Jackals feed on fear, a war culture and a culture of cruelty. Language is weaponized and masculinity is militarized. At the heart of the militarization of societies run by Jackals is a profound sense of emptiness, a destruction of civic values and the public institutions that nurture them.

Trump, as the Jackal-in-chief, offers tyrants across the globe a newfound energy to legitimate their authoritarian values, policies and oppressive actions. Under such circumstances, the United States becomes a model for a form of governmentality in which, as Zygmunt Bauman once argued in Liquid Evil, "everything that matters is denied and everything that embodies evil is reinvented." As the politics of lying moves from the margins to the center of power, Trump's false cries of "fake news" wield enormous political and pedagogical influence, while accelerating and normalizing an endless stream of actual fake news and misrepresentations. Ignorance becomes the breeding ground for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, and allows the powerful to weaponize everyday discourse.

Trump's attack on the truth resonates with a larger culture of speed, instant gratification and consumerism. Coupled with a society that worships celebrity culture, the spectacularization of power makes it easier for Trump and his associates to rehabilitate fascist ideas, principles and a political culture. At the core of Trump's disdain for reason and truth is a full-fledged attack on the institutions that promote the habits, sensibilities, values, dispositions and culture that produce critically engaged citizens and sustain a strong democracy. The crucial lesson here is that without informed citizens, a critical press and critical agents, the power of democratic institutions along with established checks and balances wither, and the threat of 21st-century authoritarianism becomes more imminent.

The current age of Jackals constitutes both a crisis of politics and a crisis of history, memory, agency and education. 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. Trump represents a reemergence of a past that should terrify us. Trump's ultra-nationalism, racism, policies aimed at social cleansing, his love affair with some of the world's most heinous dictators and his hatred of democracy echo 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 concentration camp.

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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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