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Trump's Second Gilded Age: Overcoming the Rule of Billionaires and Militarists

By       Message Henry Giroux       (Page 1 of 4 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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From Counterpunch

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During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made it clear that he liked the uneducated and that once he assumed the presidency, he would appoint a range of incompetent people to high-ranking positions that would insure that many people remain poorly educated, illiterate, and impoverished. A few examples make the point. Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education is a multi-millionaire, has no experience in higher education, supports for-profit charter schools, and is a strong advocate for private school vouchers. Without irony, she has described her role in education as one way to "advance God's kingdom."[1] She is anti-union, and her motto for education affirms Trump's own educational philosophy to "defund, devalue, and privatize."[2]

Ben Carson, Trump's nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has never run a federal agency and has no experience in government, policy making, or in public housing and has described housing policy pejoratively as a form of social engineering and a socialist experiment. New York City council member and chair of the city's Housing and Buildings Committee described Carson's appointment as "ill-advised, irresponsible and hovers on absurdity."[3] Carson will run a $48 billion agency that oversees public housing and ensures that low-income families have access to housing that is safe and affordable. He believes people can escape from poverty through hard work alone and has argued that government regulations resemble forms of totalitarian rule comparable to what existed in communist countries. [4]

Andrew F. Puzder, Trump's choice for Secretary of Labor, has less experience in government "than any secretary since the early 1980s."[5] He is a critic of worker protections, opposes raising the minimum wage, and appears to share Trump's disparaging views of women. As the New York Times pointed out, the advertisements that Mr. Pusder's companies run to "promote its restaurants frequently feature women wearing next to nothing while gesturing suggestively."[6] When asked about the ads, Mr. Puzder replied "I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it's is very American."[7] I am sure Trump, the unchecked misogynist, agrees.

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It is hard to believe that this gaggle of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theory advocates, billionaires, and retrograde anti-communists, who uniformly lack the experience to take on the jobs for which they were nominated, could possibly be viewed as reasonable candidates for top government positions. As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) cited in The Hill observed "most of Trump's appointees are "The greatest collection of stooges and cronies and misfits we have ever seen in a presidential administration...Some of these people's only qualifications for the jobs they are being appointed for is that they have attempted to dismantle and undermine and destroy the very agencies they are now hoping to run."[8]

What these appointments suggest is that one element of the new authoritarianism is a deep embrace of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, crony capitalism, and a disdain for the institutions that give legitimacy to the social contract and the welfare state. Most of Trump's appointees to top cabinet positions are a mix of incompetent and mean spirited billionaires and generals. This alliance of powerful representatives of predatory financial capitalists and right-wing supporters of the immense military-industrial-surveillance complex makes clear Trump's support of the worst elements of neoliberalism -- a war on education, support for austerity policies, and an attack on social provisions, the poor, workers, unions, and the most vulnerable.

As Eric Sommer wrote in CounterPunch, "These ministerial level cabinet selections are a warning that far greater attacks on the social and economic rights of American workers, and greater militarism and military aggression abroad are being prepared."[9] Trump's affirmation of an updated version of the Gilded Age and his attempts to accelerate America's slide into authoritarianism is an assault on reason, compassion, morality, and human dignity. Its underside is a political mix of militarism and rule by the financial elite, both of which are central features of a savage neoliberal assault on democracy. Trump's government of billionaires and militarists makes clear that the next few years will be governed by ruthless financial elite who will give new meaning to a war culture that will impose forms of domestic terrorism across a wide swath of American society.

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Thus far, Trump has appointed three generals to join his cabinet -- James Mattis and Michael Flynn for Secretary of Defense and National Security Adviser, along with Retired General John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security. Kelly is infamous for defending the force-feeding of prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay and wants to expand the prison population there. Retired General Mattis, whose nickname is "Mad Dog," stated in 2003, the year that Iraq was invaded, that "It's fun to shoot some people, you know, it's a hell of a hoot."[10] He once told marines under his command "Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everybody you meet."[11]

As difficult as it is to imagine, it gets worse. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump's choice for national security adviser considers Islam, with its population of 1.3 billion, a terrorist threat. He has also used the social media to spread fake news stories "linking Mrs. Clinton to underage sex rings and other serious crimes [while pushing] unsubstantiated claims about Islamic laws spreading in the United States."[12] At work here is an emerging political-social formation in which fake news becomes an accepted mode of shaping public discourse, inexperience and incompetence become revered criteria for holding public office, and social responsibility is removed from any vestige of politics. All of these appointments point to the emergence of a new political order in which the dystopian fears of George Orwell and Aldus Huxley are merged with the comic grotesquery of the tyrannical systems lampooned by the Marx brothers.

Under the reign of right-wing governments and social movements spreading throughout the world, thinking has become dangerous. Increasingly, neoliberal regimes across Europe and North America have waged a major assault on critical education and the public spheres in which they take place. For instance, public and higher education are being defunded, turned into accountability factories, and now largely serve as adjuncts of an instrumental logic that mimics the values of a business culture. But, of course, this is not only true for spaces in which formal schooling takes place, it is also the case for those public spheres and cultural apparatuses producing knowledge, values, subjectivities, and identities through a range of media and sites. This applies to a range of creative spaces including art galleries, museums, diverse sites that make up screen culture, and various elements of mainstream media. [13]

Such sites have come under increasing fire since the 1970s and the war against dissident journalism, in particular, will intensify under a Trump presidency. Attacking the media was a central feature of Trump's presidential campaign speaks to a coming age of repression, posing a dire threat to freedom of speech. As, Christopher Hass, observes "But more importantly, he threatened to 'open up' libel laws so that he and others can more easily sue publications that are critical of them. Those kinds of attacks are designed to burn money and hours that independent publications don't have -- and sometimes they can be fatal."[14] What the apostles of neoliberalism have learned is that alternative media outlets along with diverse forms of cultural production can change how people view the world, and that such forms of public pedagogy can be dangerous because they hold the potential for not only creating critically engaged students, intellectuals, and artists but can strengthen and expand the general public's imagination, give them critical tools to enable them to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, and hold power accountable. Such thinking is also a prerequisite for developing social movements willing to rethink the vision and tactics necessary to fight against an authoritarian state.

In the face of Trump's draconian assault on democracy, it is crucial to rethink mechanisms of a repressive politics not only by highlighting its multiple registers of economic power, but also through the ideological pedagogical mechanisms at work in creating modes of agency, identities, and values that both mimic and surrender to authoritarian ideologies and social practices. In this instance, education as it works through diverse institutions, cultural apparatuses, and sites is crucial to both understand and appropriate as part of the development of a radical politics. Reclaiming radical pedagogy as a form of educated and militant hope begins with the crucial recognition that education is not solely about job training and the production of ethically challenged entrepreneurial subjects but is primarily about matters of civic literacy, critical thinking, and the capacity for liberatory change. It is also inextricably connected to the related issues of power, inclusion, and social responsibility. [15] If young people, workers, educators, and others are to develop a keen sense of the common good, as well as an informed notion of community engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as a cultural, political, and moral force, if not formative culture, that provides the knowledge, values, and social relations to make such democratic practices possible.

In this instance, pedagogy as a central element of politics needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom and liberation for the most vulnerable and oppressed. It must also cultivate a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, stretching the imagination, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles into public issues. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must overcome the image of education as purely instrumental, a dead zone of the imagination, and a normalized space of oppressive discipline and imposed conformity.

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A neoliberal and anti-democratic pedagogy of management and conformity not only undermines the critical knowledge and analytical skills necessary for students to learn the practice of freedom and assume the role of critical agents, it also reinforces deeply authoritarian practices while reproducing deep inequities in the educational opportunities that different students acquire. Pedagogies of repression and conformity impose punishing forms of discipline not just on students, but on the general public, deadening their ability to think critically; how else to explain the refusal of large segments of the public to think through and challenge the lies, misrepresentations, and contradictions that Trump used during his campaign. Repressive forms of public pedagogy empty out politics of any substance and further a modern day pandemic of loneliness and alienation. Such pedagogies emphasize aggressive competition, unchecked individualism, and cancel out empathy for an exaggerated notion of self-interest. Solidarity and sharing are the enemy of these pedagogical practices, which are driven by a withdrawal from sustaining public values, trust, and goods and serve largely to cancel out a democratic future for young people. This type of pedagogical tyranny poses a particular challenge for progressives who are willing to acknowledge that the crisis of politics and economics has not been matched by a crisis of ideas, resulting in new age of authoritarianism.

A new age of monstrosities is emerging that necessitates that we rethink the connection between politics and democracy, on the one hand, and education and social change on the other. More specifically, we might begin with the following questions: What institutions, agents, and social movements can be developed capable of challenging the dark times ahead? Moreover, what pedagogical conditions need to be exposed and overcome in order to create the formative culture that would make such a challenge successful? Even thinking such questions becomes difficult in a time of growing pessimism and despair.

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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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