Trump’s language seems buffoonish, but he’s no clown. His rhetoric is meant to destroy thought and democracy
Somewhere every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes, and it is that zone we must try to remember today.
— Catherine Clement
In an age when speed overcomes thought, a culture of immediacy blots out any vestige of historical memory and markets replace social categories, language loses its critical moorings and becomes what Chris Hedges has called “a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idiom of mass culture.”
No longer a vehicle for critique, doubt or possibility, language in the age of Donald Trump upholds the cultural and political workstations of ignorance and paves the way for a formative culture ripe with the death-saturated practices and protocols of fascist politics. As a species of neoliberal fascism eradicates social bonds and democratic communal relations, vulgarity parades as political wisdom and moral cowardice becomes a mark of pride. In a neoliberal age that has a high threshold of disappearance, the sins of a Vichy-inspired history have returned and are deeply rooted in a Republican Party that is as criminogenic as it is morally irresponsible and politically corrupt.
Of course the threads of a fascist politics weave through both political parties, which have sold their souls to the financial elite, though the Democrats do their work under the cover of self-righteousness and constitutional liberties while the Republicans bask in their embrace of corruption and a craven silence in the face of Trumpism. Vast apparatuses of pedagogical regulation endlessly work to produce a kind of Orwellian magic realism in which fiction and reality collapse into each other and the label of “fake news” provides a camouflage for serial liars.
The bad-faith vocabulary of individual responsibility, self-reliance, and choice eliminates the notions of soul crushing constraints and broader systemic forces, and in so doing produces armies of individuals stuck in the debilitating grip of social atomization, low self-esteem and the anxieties produced in landscapes of battered schools, rusting towns and meaningless work, if available. The destruction of collective structures capable of resisting the discourse of fascist politics go hand in hand with a culture awash in civic illiteracy and a culture of cruelty. Persistent denigration now leads to unbridled racism, the resurgence of white nationalism and an indifference to rampant criminality at the highest levels of government.
Robert Jay Lifton’s description of an earlier historical moment as a “death-saturated age in which matters of violence, survival, and trauma inescapably bear down on daily experience” has returned in a new form with a vengeance under the Trump regime. Yet such an age has been met by those in power with a silence that reeks with the scourge of complicity and the moral blindness of a kind of willful ignorance.
Where is the collective rage among the Republican Party over Trump’s endless rhetorical tropes of hate and demonization that both wound and undermine the foundations for a civil society? What can be said about an administration and its followers that refuse to respond to the accusation that Trump’s highly charged rhetoric both legitimates and fuels acts of violence? Why does the American public not erupt in outrage when the Trump administration makes the anti-Semitic claim that George Soros is funding the caravan of migrant workers, and engages in outright racist slurs by calling Maxine Waters a “low IQ person” and demeaning the intelligence of basketball great LeBron James and CNN anchor Don Lemon? What kind of signals does this type of rhetoric send to numerous fascist groups that support him?
Trump thrives on promoting social divisions and often references violence as a means of addressing them. His praise of Greg Gianforte, then a Montana congressional candidate (and now a congressman) for body-slamming a Guardian reporter in 2017 registers as a mark of pride. Oblivious to the horrors of the past, Trump once called the Nazi protesters in Charlottesville “very fine people.” Unsurprisingly, David Duke, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, praised Trump for the remark. This is the politics of fascism wrapped in the discourse of indifference and disappearance.
The language of compassion, community and vulnerability is erased from government media sites, as is any reference to climate change. References to compassion, the grammar of ethics, justice and democracy wither as the institutions that enable and promote them are defunded, corporatized or privatized. The language of egoism, self-interest, hyper-masculinity and a vapid individualism erase any reference to social bonds, public commitments, the public good and the commons. Even worse, under the blitz of a rhetoric of bigotry, hatred and dehumanization, the ability to translate private issues into lager systemic and public concerns is diminished. The language of fascism is now reinforced by a culture of immediacy, stupidity, ignorance and civic illiteracy, and as such promotes a culture in which the only obligation of citizenship is consumption and the only emotion worth investing in is unbridled anger largely directed at Blacks, undocumented immigrants, Muslims, and the oppositional media.
In the age of Trump, self-reflection is a liability. Reason and informed judgment are increasingly viewed as archaic and outdated. Trump both embodies and models an age in which power and ignorance reinforce each other. One recent example brings this point home in spades. Following the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Trump was criticized for his ongoing rhetoric of bigotry, dehumanization and violence. He responded with his usual felonious flight from any sense of moral and political responsibility by stating that he was going to “tone up” his rhetoric rather than tone it down. He lies endlessly, shreds standards for discerning the truth, and produces falsehoods daily in order to divert the media from addressing serious topics ranging from health care to attacks on Social Security and the Mueller investigation.
Peter Baker and Linda Qiu of the New York Times reinforce this charge by pointing to the litany of lies Trump produced while campaigning for the midterm elections. They write:
As he barnstorms the country trying to help Republican allies, President Trump has offered voters this fall a litany of misleading statements and falsehoods that exaggerate even legitimate accomplishments and distort opponents’ views beyond the typical bounds of political spin. In the past couple of weeks alone, the president has spoken of riots that have not happened, claimed deals that have not been reached, cited jobs that have not been created and spun dark conspiracies that have no apparent basis in reality. He has pulled figures seemingly out of thin air, rewritten history and contradicted his own past comments.
The endless lying is about more than diversion or a perpetual motion machine of absurdist theater. It is also about creating a mediascape where morality disappears and a criminogenic culture of thuggery, corruption, white supremacy and violence flourishes — and democracy dies. History seems to be repeating itself in a script in which language collapses into an ecosystem of falsehoods, militarism and racism.
Jason Stanley, in his book, “How Fascism Works,” argues that the 10 pillars of a fascist politics are alive and well in the United States. The pillars he points to are the mythic past, propaganda, anti-intellectualism, unreality, hierarchy, victimhood, law and order, sexual anxiety and appeals to the heartland. History offers us a reliable narrative of the horrific consequences of a society in which the elements of a fascist politics are at work and points to how, closer to the current historical moment, anti-Semitism is couched in the language of globalization and the call for racial and social cleansing is echoed in the discourse of borders and walls. What historical memory reveals in this case is an emergence of a form of fascist politics that alarmingly resembles the 1930s.
In an age when civic literacy and holding the powerful accountable for their action are dismissed as “fake news,” ignorance becomes a breeding ground not just for hate but also for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, refuses to make tolerance a non-negotiable element of civic dialogue and allows the powerful to poison everyday discourse.
State-sanctioned ignorance is more than fodder for late-night comedy shows. It also provides the psychological conditions for individuals and groups to associate the discourse of “pollution” and disposability with what Richard A. Etlin calls “a biologically racialist worldview, which divides the human race according to the dichotomy of the pure and impure, the life-enhancing and the life-polluting.” This is a language mobilized by the energies of the ethically dead, and resonates strongly with the anti-Semitism that was at the center of the genocidal policies of the Third Reich.
The endpoint of the language of disappearance can also be seen in the warehousing of minorities of class and color into the school-to-prison pipeline, a carceral system that represents a bloated and punitive 21st-century apparatus of apartheid, and a regime of law and order in which young black men are indiscriminately subjected by the police to racial harassment and extreme violence. The language and logic of disappearance is also evident in attempts to both punish and make invisible the voices of the poor, homeless and sick who lack basic economic rights such as health care, housing, a living-wage job and quality education. As the language of violence saturates American society, the underlying causes resulting in the killing of journalists both at home and abroad disappear in the spectacle of lies and tweet-bombs that emerge from the White House daily. Trump, obsessed with weaponizing Twitter, is Archie Bunker in drag, who outdoes his comedy routine by, as Matthew Miles Goodrich observes, “railing against fake news, in a moment where Khashoggi was dismembered for being a dissident member of the press.”
The Trump administration has now joined ranks in enabling the vile discourses of racism and anti-Semitism, which have returned to an unusual and dangerous extent in Hungary, Poland and a number of other countries now moving towards fascism. These discourses have come back to life, occupying centers of power, while surfacing among alt-right and other neo-Nazi groups in the United States. It is difficult to ignore, but apparently among politicians easy to forget, that Trump’s racist remarks set the tone for his presidential campaign and have been the driving force during his presidency. Under the Trump administration, people who should be considered a threat to democracy are now at the center of power and embraced by Trump. Moreover, as Trump increasingly appeals more and more to his base, his discourse becomes more extreme and his condoning and fomenting of violence more intensified.
The threads of a general political and ideological crisis run deep in American history. With each tweet and policy decision, Trump pushes the United States closer to a full-fledged fascist state. His words sting, but his policies can kill people. Trump’s endless racist taunts, dehumanizing expressions of misogyny, relentless attacks on all provisions of the social state and ongoing contempt for the rule of law serve to normalize a creeping fascist politics. Moreover, his criminogenic disdain for any viable sense of civic and moral responsibility gives new meaning to an ethos of a selfishness and a culture of cruelty, if not terror, that has run amok in the United States.
An aura of corruption, lies, mendacity and violence defines this administration. The erosion of public values and the rule of law are now accompanied by a worldview that wreaks havoc on everything it touches. The walking dead now inhabit the White House and they have a ravenous appetite for destruction and civic catastrophe. Preoccupied with apocalyptic delusions, they view the current age as one of privileged disposability — a period in which racial and social cleansing informs their model of politics and governance. This is the politics of invented danger, rooted in a discourse that chomps on the flesh of the body politic, whose power is in part haunted by a paranoia over the possibility or threat posed by repressed ideals of the promise and possibility of a radical democracy.
Some high-profile Republicans have dismissed the charge of fascism against the current administration as fraudulent or claim that the real threat to national sovereignty comes from anyone who is not white or for that matter even Democrats. For Trump as well as his spineless Republican allies and many of his unquestioning followers, facts or morality appear never to get in the way of acknowledging the degree to which Trumpism has normalized violence as a tool to squelch dissent or threaten journalists and others critical of Trump’s fascist politics.
Many in Trump’s fan base suffer from more than a bad-faith act of adoration for the strongman; they also represent a corrosive element of fandom marked by what appears to be a gleeful allegiance to the structures of white supremacy.The rhetoric of violence, hate and intolerance has morphed into the service of fashioning Trump as the undisputed strongman at the center of a stupefied cult, and as a symbol for criminalizing those individuals and groups considered disposable and outside the ultra-nationalist notion of America as a white public sphere.
Under Trump, violence defines the political sphere, if not politics itself, and has become a mythic force in which all meaning, desire, relations and actions are framed with a friend/enemy divide. This is the worldview of the demagogue, and points alarmingly to a resurgence of a fascist ideology updated for the 21st century. Trump’s rhetoric of hate resembles the Nazi obsession with the discourse of elimination, ritualistic acts aimed at purging critical thought and undermining informed judgment. This is the discourse of barbarians, and a petri dish for nourishing the virus of a fascist politics.
Of course, Trump is not simply some eccentric clown who happened to be elected by a body of angry and desperate sleepwalking voters. He is symptomatic of a savage form of neoliberalism that over the past 40 years has promoted a war against the welfare state, the most vulnerable and those deemed excess while punishing everyone else with austerity policies that also made the financial elite richer and major corporations more powerful. Extreme wealth and inequality has found its savior and unabashed apostle in Donald Trump — a populist for the rich. Trump is distinctive in that he merges the worst of casino capitalism with an unapologetic reverence for white supremacy and bigotry. Government welfare for the rich and misery for everyone else, mixed with relentless racism that has dispensed with the old dog-whistle variety for the bullhorn variety of Bull Connor, archenemy of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Trump delights in smearing those individuals and groups he considers disposable. He has brazenly attacked journalists even in the face of a growing number of assaults on them — over 1,000 killed in the last decade across the globe. He has endlessly defended Saudi Arabia’s role in torturing and killing Jamal Khashoggi, unabashedly suggesting that the profits from trading in weapons of death are more important than defending civil and human rights.
Trump delights in producing and suggesting cruel policies that might have seemed unimaginable a decade ago. For instance, he now threatens to use an executive order to end birthright citizenship, believing his nativist impulses can overturn the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. His racism appears unbounded, given his endless attacks on immigrants, Muslims and blacks. When asked about his history of racism, he dismisses it, stating that the term is applied by Democrats to Republicans who occupy positions of power. He wages war on the planet through his support for the fossil fuel industry and his ongoing deregulation of corporate practices that pollute the environment.
The debris of violent shootings, racism, religious intolerance, the fog of celebrity culture and the destruction of civic culture has cast an apocalyptic shadow over the future of both democracy and the United States. Trump represents a ghost of the past, and we should be terrified of the way it emboldens and resonates with what is happening both in the United States and in other countries such as Brazil, Poland, Turkey and Hungary.
Trump’s love affair with some of the world’s most heinous dictators and his hatred of democracy echoes 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 death camp. The world is at war once again: It is a war against democracy, and Donald Trump is leading the battle. Trump is our demagogue-in-residence, and the discourse of fascist politics and illiberal democracy no longer resides outside the United States. The menacing abyss of fascism is now at our doorstep.