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Populism Is Not the Answer to Neoliberal Fascism

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Trump and Bolsonaro
Trump and Bolsonaro
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Reprinted from truthout.org

We have entered an ominous age of political conformity. Support is growing for a right-wing populism that views liberal democracy as both an anachronism and a curse. Meanwhile, many of those who oppose this growth of the right wing are turning to a left-wing populism that is dangerously susceptible to the same patterns of demagoguery and discourses of unity and exclusion.

The signposts are clear. Across the globe, politicians spew out inordinate incitements of hatred and bigotry, while legitimating and often overtly supporting racism. Liberals cling to notions of freedom and liberty that ignore the power of capital to turn such terms into their opposite. The mainstream media measure the task of pursuing the truth against how their bottom line is affected.

What has emerged out of this abyss of rising authoritarian power and its politics of depoliticization is the depredations of an updated version of fascist politics and the normalization of a rising tide of cruel and habituated ignorance. Habit normalized in a politics that destroys notions of informed agency and self-determination now merges ignorance and hatred. One result is the growing support for right-wing populism, which views individuals and populations displaced by global forces and deprived of the most basic means of existence including food, shelter and pure water with disdain and hatred. The late Russian writer and journalist Vasily Grossman issued a warning from another time that seems equally appropriate today. He writes:

How mighty, how terrible, and how kind is the power of habit! People can get used to anything the sea, the southern stars, love, a bunk in a prison, the barbed wire of the camps." What creates this abyss is the power of habit. Dull as it seems, it is as powerful as dynamite; it can destroy anything. Passion, hatred, grief, pain habit can destroy them all.

The Dangers of Right-Wing Populism

Right-wing populism offers a pseudo-democratic notion of politics in which matters of informed judgment, critical agency and collective action disappear into the symbol of the leader. In this discourse, politics becomes personalized in the image of the larger-than-life demagogue, removed from the alleged ignorance of the masses or "herd." The past and present emergence of right-wing populist leaders is exemplified in the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Geert Wilders, among others. Right-wing populism destroys everything that makes a genuine democratic politics possible.

As I have written elsewhere, right-wing populism builds upon and accentuates a long tradition of anti-democratic, neoliberal and racist tendencies that have been smoldering in the United States for decades. It eliminates critical thinking, undermines acts of civic courage, dismantles genuine collective action rooted in mass movements, suppresses democratic forms of opposition and crushes opponents. Its stark Hobbesian division between friends and enemies, unquestioning loyalty and democratic participation contains a propensity for violence rooted in its unforgiving politics of exclusion. The latter is especially troubling at a time in which violence has increasingly emerged and is accepted as a defining feature and organizing principle of politics, if not society itself. In this instance, the friend/enemy binary becomes all the more dangerous in a context where history is being erased and ignorance colludes with power to give rise to widening networks of oppression.

Trump makes this divisive feature central to his mode of governance. Putting forward coded assertions of white supremacy, Trump acts on a regressive notion of unity that relies on exclusion and a politics of disposability. According to Trump, "The only thing that matters is the unification of the people because the other people don't mean anything." In Trump's discourse, the call for unity has as its foundation the implication that all opposition is not only illegitimate but constitutes the terrain of the enemy. His notion of "the people" is reduced to a category that mimics the will of the leader whose image of the U.S. is as racist as it is anti-democratic in this deeply authoritarian discourse. The right-wing populist claim to exclusive power, representation and governance in the hands of the leader is not without its critical moments. For instance, right-wing populist leaders go out of their way to criticize globalization and the elite, but in doing so, they claim that only they can "represent the people" while putting policies into play that expand the power of the financial elite and their neoliberal imperatives, such as regressive tax cuts and the hollowing out of the welfare state.

The demagogic character of populism can be seen in its use of a language of simplicity, one that avoids complexity, honest dialogue, multifaceted struggles and the hard work of power-sharing modes of governance. This spirit of populism is at odds with a language that is troubling, calls power into question, disturbs machineries of class, gender, sexual and racial oppression, and uses language to sharpen the moral imagination and bear witness to state and corporate violence. Right-wing populism both demonizes and promotes the fear of an internal enemy, distorts information, and suppresses dissent and resistance. In doing so, it attempts to strip democracy of all of its ideals. Populism's language of simplicity and its embrace of an agency-stripping notion of anti-intellectualism is further strengthened by neoliberalism's culture of fear, insecurity and uncertainty that accentuates a sense of frustration, anger and political impotence that traps individuals in their own feelings, unable to translate private troubles into broader social and political considerations.

Right-wing populism speaks in the language of the perpetrator as victim, refigures the language of war as heroic, and merges the rhetoric of command and racial purity with the discourse of commerce and capitalism. Under right-wing populism, the language of violence parades as the language of war, redemption, walls, barriers and security. This is a populism without a social conscience - one that supports authoritarian societies marked by deregulation, the dismantling of the welfare state, the denial of climate change, a soaring inequality and a struggle to define a nation's past.

Populist leaders such as Trump and Bolsonaro rule not for the public interest, but for themselves and their ultra-rich allies, furthering the slide toward lawlessness and barbarism. How else to explain Trump's pressuring Israel to ban two congresswomen of color from visiting Israel after he has stated that they should go back to their own countries after they had criticized his policies? How else to explain his relentlessly cruel policies, such as cutting federal support for food stamps for over 3 million people, asserting that immigrants who use government benefits such as housing vouchers or Medicaid may be denied green cards and visas, and his ongoing immigration raids which separate families and traumatize communities? Trump's grotesque sense of entitlement and limitless self-regard translates into a fixation on dominating and humiliating others.

Right-wing populism thrives on the allure of the spectacle of violence and redirects pent-up anger and aggression into a form of collaborative pleasure and emotional release that becomes complicit with the ugliness of authoritarian modes of governance and morally compromised lives.

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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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