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Trump's Neo-Nazis and the Rise of Illiberal Democracy

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The recent "Unite the Right" march by a couple of hundred white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists across the University of Virginia campus offered a glimpse of the growing danger of authoritarian movements both in the United States and across the globe, reeking of the 1930s. The image of hundreds of fascist bullies chanting anti-Semitic, racist and white nationalist slogans, such as "Heil Trump," and later attacking peaceful anti-racist counter-demonstrators makes clear that the radical right-wing groups that have been on the margins of American society are now more comfortable in public with their nihilistic and dangerous politics.

They appear especially emboldened to come out of the shadows because elements of their neo-fascist ideology have found a comfortable if not supportive place at the highest levels of the Trump administration, especially in the presence of Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions and Stephen Miller, who espouse elements of the nefarious racist ideology that was on full display in Charlottesville. As is well known, Trump has embraced the presence and backing of white nationalists and white supremacists while refusing to denounce their Nazi slogans and violence in strong political and ethical terms, suggesting his own complicity with such movements.

It should surprise no one that David Duke, a former imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, told reporters on Saturday that the Unite the Right followers were "going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump " to take our country back." Nor should it surprise anyone that Trump initially refused to condemn the fascist groups behind the horrifying, shocking images and violence that took place in Charlottesville.

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Trump's silence made elements of the far right quite happy. For instance, the Daily Stormer, a white supremacist website, issued the following statement: "Refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."

It appears that the presence of Nazi and Confederate flags, along with the horrible history of millions lost to the Holocaust and slavery, lynchings, church bombings, and the assassination of Black leaders, such as Medgar Evans and Martin Luther King Jr., did little to move Trump to a serious understanding or repudiation of the poisonous historical forces that surfaced in Charlottesville. As New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb observes, this was a telling moment. He writes:

"When [Trump] did speak about the crisis, he denounced bigotry and violence 'on many sides,' in a statement that was bizarrely punctuated by references to efforts to reform trade relationships and better conditions for veterans. We have seen a great number of false equivalencies in the past two years, and the most recent Presidential election was defined by them. Yet it remains striking to hear Trump imply that Nazis and the interracial group of demonstrators who gathered to oppose them were, in essence, equally wrong."

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While Trump finally gave way to overwhelming pressure on Monday and delivered a speech in which he asserted that "racism is evil" and described the KKK, neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "repugnant," by Tuesday he had already reverted to his initial assertion of "blame on both sides," equating neo-Nazis with anti-racist counter-protesters (whom he labeled as the "alt-left") and speaking of "very fine people" among the crowd of right-wing extremists who chanted racist and anti-Semitic slogans on Friday night.

The authoritarian drama unfolding across the United States has many registers and includes state violence against immigrants, right-wing populist violence against mosques and synagogues, and attacks on Muslims, Black people and others who do not fit into the vile script of white nationalism. The violence in Charlottesville is but one register of a larger mirror of domestic terrorism and home-grown fascism that is growing in the United States.

Such demonstrations represent a historical moment that capture some of the elements of a past that led to some of the worse crimes in human history. At the risk of falling prey to historical amnesia, the crucial lesson to be learned is that the ideology, values and institutions of a liberal democracy are once again under assault by those who no longer believe in equality, justice and democracy. As the historian Timothy Snyder has observed, it is crucial to remember that the success of authoritarian regimes in Germany and other places succeeded, in part, because they were not stopped in the early stages of their development.

The growing call for illiberal democracies (code for authoritarian regimes) first begins with the popularization and normalization of hate and bigotry, which we have witnessed under the Trump regime, and then morphs into right-wing groups developing their own militias, organs of violence and paramilitary forces.

Charlottesville provides a glimpse of authoritarianism on the rise and speaks to the dark clouds that appear to be ushering in a new and dangerous historical moment. While it is problematic to assume that a US-style totalitarianism will soon become the norm in the United States, it is not unrealistic to recognize that the possibility for a return to authoritarianism is no longer the stuff of fantasy or paranoia, especially since its core elements of hatred, exclusion, racism and white supremacy have been incorporated into both the highest levels of state power and the mainstream right-wing media. The horrors of the past are real, and the fears they produce about the present are the necessary work of both historical memory and the power of civic courage and moral responsibility.

Liberal Democracy Is Losing Its Grip

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In Selections from the Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci, the great Italian Marxist philosopher, observed that one measure of a time of crisis is "that the great masses ... become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe previously. The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appear."

While Gramsci was characterizing a different historical period, his words are as relevant today as they were when written in the 1930s. All over the globe, liberal democracy is losing its grip on the public imagination and in the midst of this loss a toxic form of illiberal democracy is taking its place. As institutions that once provided public visions and proactive spaces are stripped of their authority and decay under the scourge of casino capitalism, the foundation is being set for the rise of new modes of authoritarianism. What they all share is both a hatred for democracy and a willingness to feed off the anger and rage of those who have suffered under punishing austerity measures imposed by global capitalism. At a time in which the growing problems of inequality, terrorism, war, state violence, immigration, precarity, mass poverty and the elimination of the welfare state have accelerated, stable democracies have been shattered.

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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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