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Anti-Politics and the Plague of Disorientation: Welcome to the Age of Trump

By       Message Henry Giroux       (Page 1 of 3 pages)     Permalink

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Reprinted from www.truth-out.org with author permission

"Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have."
-- James Baldwin

The Greek chorus has finally been heard in that both the left and right are now calling Donald Trump a fascist or neo-fascist. Pundits and journals across the ideological spectrum now compare Trump to Hitler and Mussolini or state he is an unbridled tyrant. For example, the liberal magazine Slate finds common ground with the conservative journal National Review in denouncing Trump as a tyrant, while liberals such as former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the actor George Clooney join hands with conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan and Robert Kagan in arguing that Trump represents a loud echo if not a strong register of a fascist past, updated to correlate with the age of reality TV and a fatuous celebrity culture. While such condemnations contain a shred of truth, they only scratch the surface of the conditions that have produced the existing political landscape. Such arguments too often ignore the latent authoritarian and anti-democratic forces that have a long legacy in US politics and society.

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Unfortunately, recognizing that the United States is about to tip over the edge into the abyss of authoritarianism is not enough. There is a need to understand the context -- historical, cultural, political and economic -- that has created this moment in US society in which fascism becomes an endpoint. Trump is only symptomatic of the problem, and condemning him exclusively does nothing to contain it. Moreover, such arguments often ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton is the underside of the new neoliberal oligarchy, which indulges some progressive issues but is indebted ideologically and politically to a criminogenic culture of finance, racism and war. Put differently, she represents a less obscene, less in-your-face form of authoritarianism -- hardly a viable alternative to Trump.

Capitalism, racism, consumerism and patriarchy feed off each other and are mobilized largely through a notion of common sense.

Maybe this is all understandable in a corporate-controlled neoliberal society that uses new communication technologies that erase history by producing a notion of time wedded to a culture of immediacy, speed, simultaneity and endless flows of fragmented knowledge. As Manuel Castells writes in Communication Power, this is a form of "digital-time" in which everything that happens only takes place in the present, a time that "has no past and no future." Time is accelerated in this new information-saturated culture, and it also flattens out "experience, competence, and knowledge," and the capacity for informed judgment. Time has thus been transformed to provide the ideological support that neoliberal values and a fast-food, temp-worker economy require to survive.

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A Culture of Forgetting and Lies

Language has also been transformed to produce and legitimate a culture of forgetting that relishes in a flight from responsibility. Capitalism, racism, consumerism and patriarchy feed off each other and are mobilized largely through a notion of common sense, which while being contested as a site of ideological struggle shows little sign of losing its power as a pedagogical force. As a result, we are living through an ongoing crisis of democracy in which both the agents and institutions necessary for such social order are being dismantled at an accelerating rate in the face of a massive assault by predatory capitalism, even while there is growing resistance to the impending authoritarianism. It gets worse.

We live in a moment of political change in which democratic public spheres are disappearing before our eyes, language is turned into a weapon and ideology is transformed into an act of hate, fear, racism and destruction -- all of which is informed by a dark history of political intolerance and ethnic cleansing. The war on democracy has produced both widespread misery and suffering and finds its ideological counterpart in a culture of cruelty that has become normalized.

The bankers, hedge fund managers, financial elite and CEOs who rule the United States' commanding institutions have become the modern version of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. As Hannah Arendt describes them in The Origins of Totalitarianism, citing Conrad: "'these men were hollow to the core, reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity and cruel without courage ...' the only talent that could possibly burgeon in their hollow souls was the gift of fascination which makes a splendid leader of an extreme party."

In the age of Trump, anticipation no longer imagines a better world but seems mired in a dystopian dread, mimicking the restlessness, chaos and uncertainty that precedes a historical moment no longer able to deal with its horrors and on the verge of a terrible catastrophe. We now live in a time in which mainstream politics sheds its ideals and falls prey to choices that resemble a stacked deck of cards and mimic the values of an authoritarian society. All the while politics is being hollowed out as lawlessness and misdirected rage, while a loss of faith in electoral politics has given rise to a right-wing populism that is more than willing to dispense with democracy itself.

Demands to support Hillary Clinton as a lesser evil compared to Trump refuse to acknowledge that such mandates keep existing relations of power intact. Such actions represent more than a hollowing out of politics -- they represent a refusal of the affirmative nature of political struggle. They also represent the surrender of any hope of moving beyond the enveloping fog of authoritarianism and a broken political system. Put bluntly, such choices sabotage any real hope for developing a new politics and a radical democracy. These limited choices also undermine the need to develop a broader vision of struggle, a comprehensive politics and the need to engage multiple publics in the quest to rethink the political terrain outside of a neoliberal notion of the future. At issue here is the moral blight that permeates the United States: a politics of the lowest expectations, one saturated in lies, deceptions and acts of bad faith.

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Historical memory is saturated with the lies of mainstream politicians. The list is too lengthy to develop but extends from the Gulf of Tonkin falsehoods that led to the Vietnam War to the lies that produced the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have left 1.3 million dead. As documented by Elizabeth Hinton in From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, the politics of lying by politicians and their intellectual collaborators fueled a regressive neoliberal war on poverty and crime that morphed into a racist war on the poor and helped produce the carceral state under Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton.

In addition, during the Obama administration, the politics of hope quickly became a politics without hope, functioning to legitimate and accelerate a flight from social responsibility that provided a blank check for Obama's refusal to prosecute government officials who engaged in egregious acts of torture, to conduct immoral drone attacks, to expand the nuclear arsenal and to display a cold indifference to the criminal environment of Wall Street. All of this adds up to a notion of politics partly driven by a culture of ignorance and lying that has surpassed previous historical eras, marking an entry into what Toronto Star reporter Olivia Ward calls a "post-truth universe." In this instance, the politics of performance denigrates language and shamelessly indulges a culture in which the truth is sacrificed to shouting, dirty tricks and spin doctors.

We now are approaching a moment in US history in which truth is either viewed as a liability or ignored; at the same time, lies become more plausible, because as Hannah Arendt argued in Crises of the Republic, "the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear." Lying is now the currency of mainstream politicians and finds its counterpart in the Wild West of talk radio, cable television and the mainstream media. Under such conditions, referentiality and truth disappear along with contexts, causes, evidence and informed judgment. A manufactured ignorance and the terrifying power and infusion of money in politics and society have corrupted democratic principles and civic life. A combination of arrogance, power and deceit among the financial elite is exemplified by Donald Trump, who has repeatedly lied about his business transactions, his former misdeeds with the media, the number of Latinos who support him and the claim he personally hired instructors for Trump University.

Desperation among many segments of the American public has become personal, furthering a generalized anger ripe for right-wing populism or worse. One consequence is that xenophobia and economic insecurity couple with ignorance and a collective rage to breed the conditions for symbolic and real violence, as we have seen at many Trump rallies. When language is emptied of any substance and politics loses its ability to hold power accountable, the stage is set for a social order that allows poor Black and Brown youth to continue to be objects of domestic terrorism, and provides a cover for corporate and political criminals to ravage the earth and loot the public treasury. In the age of Trump, truth becomes the enemy of governance and politics tips over into a deadly malignancy.

One thing about the political impasse facing the American public is that it finds itself in a historical moment in which language is losing its potential for imagining the unimaginable, confronting words, images and power relations that are in the service of violence, hatred and racism -- this is the moment in which meaning slips into slogans, thought is emptied of substance and ideas descend into platitudes and sound bites. This is an instant in which the only choices are between political narratives that represent the hard and soft versions of authoritarianism -- narratives that embrace neo-fascism on the one side and a warmongering neoliberal worldview on the other.

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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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