Dystopian Plagues, Pandemic Fears, and Fascist Politics in the Age of Trump

Reality now resembles a dystopian world that could only be imagined as a harrowing work of fiction or biting political commentary. The works of George Orwell, Ray Bradbury and Sinclair Lewis now appear as an understatement in a world marked by horrifying political horizons — a world in which authoritarian and medical pandemics merge.[1] In this age of uncertainty, time and space have collapsed into a void of relentless apprehension and the possibility of an authoritarian abyss. The terrors of everyday life point to a world that has descended into darkness.

The COVID-19 crisis has amplified a surrealist hallucination that floods our screens and media with images of fear, trepidation, and dread. We can no longer shake hands, embrace our friends, use public transportation, sit inside a restaurant, go to a movie theater or walk down the street without experiencing real anxiety and stress. Doorknobs, packages, counters, the breath we exhale and anything else that offers the virus a resting place is comparable to a ticking bomb ready to explode resulting in massive suffering and untold deaths. Amid this collective terror, the architecture of fascist politics has resurfaced with a vengeance in the form of a waking nightmare with a cast of horrors. Surveillance technologies proliferate, armed militia defend groups refusing to wear protective masks, conspiracy theories originate or are legitimated by President Trump, right-wing federal judges are appointed a right-wing Senate at breakneck speed in order to destroy civil liberties,.  Republican politicians and reactionary media pundits use vitriolic language against almost anyone who criticizes Trump’s destructive and death-dealing policies, including Democratic governors and liberal and progressive members of the press and media.

The current coronavirus pandemic is more than a medical crisis; it is also a political and ideological crisis. It is a crisis deeply rooted in years of neglect by neoliberal governments that denied the importance of public health and the public good while defunding institutions that made them possible. At the same time, this crisis cannot be separated from the crisis of massive inequalities in wealth, income and power that grew relentlessly since the 1970s.[2] Nor can it be separated from a crisis of democratic values, critical education and civic literacy.[3] With respect to the latter, the COVID-19 pandemic is deeply interconnected with the politicization of the social order through the destructive assaults waged by neoliberal capital on the welfare state and the ecosystem.[4] 

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The pandemic has revealed the ugly and cruel face of neoliberalism, which has waged war  on the social contract, public sphere and the welfare state since the 1970s. Neoliberalism is a worldview that takes as its central organizing idea that the market should govern not only the economy but all aspects of society.[5] This is a worldview that vilifies the public sphere, rejects the social contract and public values; at the same time, it promotes untrammeled self-interest and privatization as central governing principles. In this logic, “individual interests are the only reality that matters and those interests are purely monetary.”[6] 

Neoliberalism views government as the enemy of the market, limits society to the realm of the family and individuals, embraces a fixed hedonism and challenges the very idea of the common good.  In addition, neoliberalism cannot be disconnected from the spectacle of fear-mongering, ultranationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment and bigotry that has dominated the national zeitgeist as a means of promoting shared anxieties rather than shared responsibilities. Neoliberal capitalism has created, through its destruction of the economy, environment, education and public health, a petri dish for the virus to wreak havoc and wide-scale destruction.

What is clear is that the COVID-19 plague must also be understood as part of a more comprehensive political and educational narrative in which neoliberalism plays a central role. In this case, we cannot separate the struggle for public health from the struggles for emancipation, social equality, economic justice and democracy itself. The horror of the pandemic often blinds us to the fact that a range of anti-democratic economic and political forces have been grinding away at the social order for the last 40 years. As engaged citizens, it is crucial to examine the anti-democratic and iniquitous political, economic and social forces that have intensified the pandemic while failing to contain it. This is especially true at a time when a growing number of authoritarian regimes around the globe replace thoughtful dialogue and critical engagement with the suppression of dissent and a culture of forgetting. This does not only include the usual suspects such as Turkey and Hungary, but also allegedly democratic countries such as England, where government officials recently “ordered schools … not to use resources from organizations which have expressed a desire to end capitalism.”[7] This state act of censorship should remind us that fascism begins with language, the suppression of critical ideas, the undermining of institutions that support them, and finally with the elimination of groups considered undesirable and disposable.

How do we situate our analysis of white supremacy, nativism and the suppression of dissent as part of a broader discourse and mode of analysis that interrogates the promises, ideals and claims of a substantive democracy?  What role does the legacy and continued force of systemic racism play in the virus disproportionately infecting and killing poor people of color? How do we fight against iniquitous relations of power and wealth that empty power of its emancipatory possibilities, and as Hannah Arendt has argued, “makes most people superfluous as human beings”? How might we understand how a society driven by the accumulation of capital at any costs, with its appropriation of market-based values and regressive notions of freedom and agency, uses language to infiltrate daily life? These are not merely economic and political issues but also educational considerations.

Oppressive forms of education have now become central elements of a society threatened by a number of pandemics that threaten human life and the planet itself. The propaganda machines of the right-wing media echo the Trump regime’s support for conspiracy theories, lies about testing and fake cures for the virus, all the while engaging in a politics of evasion that covers up both Trump’s incompetence and the machineries of violence, greed, and terminal exclusion at the core of a society that believes the market is the template for governing not just the economy but all aspects of society. One consequence is that truth, evidence and science fall prey to the language of mystification, which legitimates a tsunami of ignorance and the further collapse of morality and civic courage.

What the COVID-19 pandemic reveals in shocking images of long food lines, the stacking of dead bodies and the state-sanctioned language of social Darwinism and racial cleansing is that a war culture has become an extension of politics and functions as a form of repressive education in which critical thought is derailed, dissent suppressed, surveillance normalized, racism intensified, and ignorance elevated to a virtue. This pandemic has made clear the false and dangerous market-driven ideological notion that all problems are a matter of individual responsibility and that the state is simply the tool of the ruling financial elite.

Neoliberal ideology now works in tandem with corporate media conglomerates to produce identities defined narrowly by market values, while normalizing a notion of individual responsibility that convinces people that whatever problems they face, they have no one to blame but themselves.  Right-wing media platforms such as Breitbart News, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, and the Rush Limbaugh podcast reproduce endlessly the falsehoods, misrepresentations and lies that sustain the conditions that disproportionately produce chronic illness among poor people of color and contribute to the acceleration rise of infections and deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

This is a strain of pernicious neoliberal commonsense and public pedagogy that celebrates unchecked self-interest, disdains civic freedoms, scorns scientific evidence and turns away from the reality of a society with deep-seated institutional rot and the continuous unraveling of social connections and the social contract. Americans do not simply inhabit a deeply divided country, which has become the phrase of the day among the liberal media, but a war culture.

Everyday life has taken on the character of a war zone. The walls and cement barriers now surrounding Trump’s White House signify a mode of governance wedded to both a warlike mentality and an expansive culture of cruelty and ruthlessness, most clearly visible in the police violence waged against poor people of color. The latter is a murderous violence enabled and encouraged by the white supremacist ideology at the center of the Trump administration. State violence hides behind the power of a badge as the police terrorize the spaces in which Black people drive, conduct their everyday lives, walk the streets and sleep.

What are the ideologies, institutions and spectrum of injustice in America that allow the police to kill, with impunity, Breonna Taylor while she slept in her own home? What allows a police officer to believe without a modicum of self-reflection that he could brutally kill George Floyd by pinning him to the ground and kneeling on his neck until he showed no signs of life? What order of injustice allows the police to shoot, on different occasions, Philando Castile and Jacob Blake while their children were in the back seat of their car? What is the connective tissue between the brazen forms of police brutality at work in American society, the violence Trump calls for and enables among his right-wing extremist followers, and the organizing principles of violence at work in Trump’s policies?

The culture of violence runs deep in American society. For example, Attorney General Bill Barr allowed military forces to attack demonstrators in the streets outside the White House so that Trump could walk to a nearby church and pose for a photo op, while ironically holding up a Bible — all the while giving new meaning to a display of fascist agitprop.  It is worth noting that Trump referred to the right-wing extremists and neo-Nazis who marched in a hate rally in Charlottesville in 2017 in which Heather Heyer was killed as including some “very fine people” while calling protesters who marched against racism and police violence “thugs,” “terrorists” and “anarchists.” Trump is not just deaf to the violence being provoked by vigilantes, armed extremists and right-wing militia groups around the country, he encourages their actions.[8]

Such spectacularized violence cannot be abstracted from those political and economic forces driving hyper-capitalism, ultranationalism and the politics of racial sorting, spiraling poverty and soaring inequality. These rapacious economic structures extend from a predatory financial sector to big corporations that produce massive misery, engage in unchecked exploitation, plunder the public sector and concentrate wealth and power in the hands of a ruling elite. This war culture also assaults every element of the welfare state.

The current stage of hyper-capitalism has waged war on the social contract, public sphere and the public good for the last four decades. One consequence has been the publicly owned bones of society — public education, roads, bridges, levees, water systems — have been underfunded and in many ways pushed to the breaking point of disrepair and dysfunctionality. Moreover this attack on the welfare state and the common good is increasingly legitimated and normalized through tyrannical forms of education in a variety of sites, especially in the broader cultural sphere. This is a space in which perverse ignorance, the disdain of science, the repudiation of evidence and conspiracy theories are produced not only at the highest levels of government but also in the media and other cultural apparatuses — such as conservative talk radio and Fox News in the U.S., which David Enrich describes as playing a “democracy-decaying role as a White House propaganda organ masquerading as conservative journalism.”[9] Fox News and a number of other conservative cultural apparatuses function ideologically and politically to objectify people of color, promote spectacles of violence, endorse consumerism as the only viable expression of citizenship, and legitimate a language of exclusion, bigotry and white nationalism.  One consequence is deep-seated anxiety, loneliness, cynicism and profound emptiness at the heart of American society, coupled with an accelerating culture of cruelty and white supremacy.

Unfortunately, the political, medical and economic crises Americans are experiencing have not been matched by a crisis of ideas — that is, a critical understanding of the conditions that produced the crises in the first place. Yet the U.S. and several other countries are in the midst of a medical, racial, political, economic and educational crisis that touches every aspect of public life. Fascist politics no longer hides behind the call for market freedoms, small government and individual expressions of freedom. For example, Trump’s hatred of dissent not only reveals itself in his view of the free press as an “enemy of the people,” but also in his disdain for any institution that does not promote the willful narrative of white nationalism. How else to explain his call for a commission to establish what he embarrassingly labeled “patriotic education,” a term one associates with dictatorial and fascist regimes?

Trump’s admiration for racial purity and “his ongoing eugenics fixation” has been expressed in his lavish praise for what he called the “good genes” of an overwhelmingly white audience in Minnesota.[10] This is the menacing logic of a eugenicist rhetoric that disdains bad genes, and hence willingly labels some groups as undesirable and subject to terminal exclusion. There is more at stake here than an investment in racial purity; there is also the willingness to erase and rewrite historical memory, especially the history of racial oppression. This may be most obvious in Trump’s criticism of the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which teaches students about the history of slavery. There is more at stake here than the divisive rhetoric of a president who is “a gift to polarization.”[11] This is an ominous language that both echoes a horrifying and dangerous historical period and normalizes the mobilizing passions of an updated fascism. This is a language that, as Adam Weinstein of the New Republic observes, reveals a government that inflames partisan positions that creates chaotic contexts not unlike those that enabled fascist movements to come to power in Germany and Italy in the 1930s.[12] He further argues that the Trump administration represents a gangster state that has “reached an important stage of fascist maturity”:

It is time to embrace the parallels, to be unafraid to speak a clear truth: Whether by design or lack of it, Donald Trump and the Republican Party operate an American state that they have increasingly organized on fascist principles. It is also time to consider what else the fascists may yet do, during an unprecedented pandemic, amid unprecedented unemployment, faced with unprecedented resistance ahead of an unprecedented election.[13]

As part of a broader autocratic maneuver, Trump has made clear that he will not agree to a peaceful transition of power if he loses the election. Not only has he questioned the legitimacy of the upcoming election which the polls indicate he will lose, he has also nominated a prospective right-wing Supreme Court justice whose presence may play a crucial role in enabling him to secure his re-election if he contests it.[14] Under such circumstances, fascist politics is now embraced by him, his sycophantic political allies, and his followers without apology. Antonio Gramsci’s notion that as the old dies and the new order has yet to emerge, a new form of barbarism can appear, seems more prescient than ever and has become increasingly visible under a Trump era which mirrors a frightening reality.

It is worth repeating that most of the globe is experiencing a new historical period produced by a hyper-capitalist neoliberal system that is at odds with any just, prudent and equitable notion of the future. This is a system which since the 1970s, with its tools of financialization, deregulation and austerity, has transformed American society, if not most of the world, in pernicious ways. We now live in an age in which economic activity is divorced from social costs, all the while enabling policies of racial cleansing, militarism and white nationalism along with staggering levels of inequality that have become the defining features of everyday life and established modes of governance. The economic brutality and barbarism of neoliberal capital has joined forces with the forces of white supremacy and white nationalism to create an updated form of neoliberal fascism.[15] 

We get glimpses of this new political formation in Trump’s massive tax giveaway to the ultra-rich and his reversal of policy regulations designed to protect workers, the public and the environment. Trump’s White House has become a monument to white nationalism. Consider Trump’s defense of Confederate monuments and his support for racial sorting, his formulation of suburbs as white public spheres, his attempt to pass laws that deny citizenship to particular groups, and his definition of cities as dark enclaves of criminality, all of which echoes a history rooted in earlier forms of fascism. Most recently, in his first presidential debate with Joe Biden, Trump refused to denounce white supremacy while signaling his support to members of the Proud Boys, a right-wing extremist group, to “stand back and stand by.”  

His inflammatory remarks not only revealed his tribute to white supremacy and his willingness to stoke racial fears but also his support for right-wing extremist groups to continue using violence to promote social change. Trump has made it clear that he is a candidate for aggrieved white Americans and that he is willing to fan the flames of hatred and bigotry. His racist remarks reveal the degree to which he has turned democracy into ashes.        

American fascism presents itself in the form of unabashed white supremacy, a defense of nativism, the longing for a strongman, a cult of ignorance that denies scientific evidence, the elevation of emotion over reason, a disregard for the law and civil liberties, an enthusiasm for using armed militias to attack protesters and a celebration of the enabling rhetoric of violence.[16] Nativist populism as one register of an updated notion of American fascism has a long history in the United States. What is different today is that it occupies the center of power in the White House. Sarah Churchwell argues persuasively that fascism has resurfaced in America and that “it draws on familiar national customs to insist it is merely conducting political business as usual.” She writes:

American fascist energies today are different from 1930s European fascism, but that doesn’t mean they’re not fascist, it means they’re not European and it’s not the 1930s. They remain organized around classic fascist tropes of nostalgic regeneration, fantasies of racial purity, celebration of an authentic folk and nullification of others, scapegoating groups for economic instability or inequality, rejecting the legitimacy of political opponents, the demonization of critics, attacks on a free press, and claims that the will of the people justifies violent imposition of military force. Vestiges of interwar fascism have been dredged up, dressed up, and repurposed for modern times. Colored shirts might not sell anymore, but colored hats are doing great.[17]

Fascism in America has never gone away, it simply exists in different forms, often at the margins of society. In its updated form, American neoliberal fascism does not need to make a spectacle of swastikas, jackboots, or Nazi salutes, or to call for sending those considered disposable to concentration camps. Fascism today wraps itself in local customs, ultra-nationalism, the rhetoric of purification, the flag, and Nuremberg-like spectacles — and legitimates itself not by banishing the media but by controlling it. Moreover, the tropes of fascism are being mainstreamed in the midst of a plague that reinforces what Bill Dixon calls “the protean origins of totalitarianism … loneliness as the normal register of social life, the frenzied lawfulness of ideological certitude, mass poverty and mass homelessness, the routine use of terror as a political instrument, and the ever growing speeds and scales of media, economics, and warfare.”[18]

As I have said elsewhere, talk of a fascist politics emerging in the United States and in the rise of right-wing populist movements across the globe is often criticized as a naive exaggeration or a misguided historical analogy. In the age of Trump, such objections feel like reckless efforts to deny the growing relevance of the term and the danger posed by a society staring into the abyss of a menacing authoritarianism. In fact, the case can be made that rather than harbor an element of truth, such criticism further normalizes the very fascism it critiques, allowing the extraordinary and implausible, if not unthinkable, to become ordinary. Under such circumstances, history is not simply being ignored or distorted, it is being erased. In this instance, the claim of moral witnessing disappears. Moreover, after decades of a savage global capitalist nightmare both in the United States and around the globe, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s.  

This is a fascism that not only grants impunity to the ultra-rich and big corporations, regardless of their criminogenic behavior, but also exhibits a disdain for weakness and a propensity for violence. It poisons the air we breathe and thrives on producing widespread misery. In its current forms, the checks and balances that liberals point to as an impregnable defense against fascism in America appear quaint if not delusional in the face of Trump’s frontal assault on all the institutions that shore up a democratic society along with his increasing use of state violence to squash dissent. As Peter Maass points out in the Intercept:

…the accessories and devices of dictatorship have expanded with infectious ruthlessness in American cities. The police swinging batons wildly, the paramilitary forces refusing to identify themselves, the hysterical president trying to incite war, the vigilantes in league with the police, military helicopters clattering overhead, the general marching in the streets in combat fatigues, the state TV network losing its tales of sabotage and mayhem —  it’s all there, loud and clear.[19]

Turning away from the horrors of updated fascism can be both complicitous and dangerous. While there is no perfect fit between Trump and the historical fascist politics of leaders such as Mussolini, Hitler, and Pinochet, “the basic tenets of extreme nationalism, racism, misogyny, and a hatred for democracy and the rule of law are too similar to ignore.[20] 

The COVID-19 plague cannot be separated from a broader plague of hyper-capitalism, right-wing populism, and surge of fascist politics around the globe. These forces represent the underside of the COVID-19 pandemic and relentlessly subject workers, the disabled, the homeless, the poor, children, people of color and, more recently, frontline hospital and emergency workers and all others considered at risk to lives of despair, precarity, massive danger and, in some cases, death.[21] At the roots of this larger pandemic is an unbridled lawlessness and deep-seated disdain for critical thought, meaningful forms of education and any mode of analysis that holds power accountable. The pandemic has revealed the toxic underside of a form of neoliberal fascism with its assault on the welfare state, its undermining of public health, its attack on workers’ rights and its prioritizing of the economy and the accumulation of capital over human needs and life itself.

The full-blown pandemic has revealed in all its ugliness the death-producing mechanisms of systemic inequality, deregulation, a culture of cruelty, the increasingly dangerous assault on the environment and an anti-intellectual culture that derides any notion of critical education. Beneath the massive failure of leadership from the Trump administration lies the long history of concentrated power in the hands of the one percent, shameless corporate welfare, political corruption, the legacy of racial violence, and the merging of money and politics to deny the most vulnerable access to health care, a living wage, worker protection and strong labor movements capable of challenging corporate power and the cruelty of austerity and right-wing policies that maim, cripple and kill hundreds of thousands, as is evident in the current pandemic.

The brutality of casino capitalism, with its hyped-up version of social Darwinism, is now openly defended by Trump and many Republican governors in their call to reopen the economy and undercut or eliminate protective measures that would slow the pace of the virus. Most at risk are those populations who have been considered disposable such as poor people of color, undocumented immigrants, the racially incarcerated, the elderly warehoused in nursing homes and the working class. These populations are now told to sacrifice their lives in the interest of filling the coffers of the corporate elite.  

At the same time, the claims of neoliberal capitalism have been broken and what was once unthinkable is now being said in public by large groups of people. Young people are calling for a new narrative to repair the safety net, provide free health care, child care, elder care and quality public schools for everyone. There are loud calls to address state violence, and the plagues of poverty, homelessness and the pollution of the planet. The spirit of democratic socialism is in the air.  The pandemic crisis has shattered the myth that each of us is defined exclusively by our self-interest and as individuals are solely responsible for the problems we face. Both myths run the risk of breaking down as it becomes obvious that, as the pandemic unfolds, shortages in crucial medical equipment, lack of testing, lack of public investments and failed public health services are largely due to right-wing neoliberal measures such as regressive tax policies and bloated military budgets that have drained resources from public health, public goods and other vital social institutions such as public and higher education.

The pandemic has torn away the cover of a neoliberal economic system marked by what Thomas Piketty calls “the violence of social inequality.”[22] Inequality is a toxin that destroys lives, democratic institutions and civic culture and it is normalized through politicians and a right-wing media culture reduced to sounding boards for the rich and powerful. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s infamous quip that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families” no longer holds the status of neoliberal common sense in a society in which matters of social responsibility and strong, morally responsive government institutions are crucial in order to fight the pandemic and the economic and political conditions that worsen its effects.[23] 

If neoliberalism contributed to the unraveling of social connections and the institutions that support them, the pandemic has made clear how vital such connections are to both the public health of a society and its democratic institutions. As social spheres are privatized, commercialized and individualized, it becomes difficult to translate private issues into systemic considerations, inequality becomes normalized, and the pandemic crisis is isolated from the political, economic, social and cultural conditions that fuel it.  

The ideological virus-plague has as one of its roots a politics of depoliticization and normalization. It attempts to rob people of their sense of agency, all the while making the unthinkable matters of alleged common sense. Through a variety of market-based assumptions and pedagogical practices, it works to undermine and normalize those ideas, values, modes of identification, and desires that enable individuals to become critically engaged actors.  

Crucial to any politics of resistance is the necessity to take seriously the notion that education is central to politics itself, and that social problems have to be critically understood before people can act as a force for empowerment and liberation. In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, matters of criticism, informed judgment, and critical modes of understanding are crucial in making a choice between democracy and authoritarianism, life, and death.        

The stark choices regarding what the future might look like appear to hang between the forces of despotism and democracy. Yet as ominous as this foreboding appears, history is open, and how it will unfold hangs in the balance. The pandemic is a crisis that cannot be allowed to turn into a catastrophe in which all hope is lost. While this pandemic threatens democracy’s ability to breathe, it should also offer up the possibility to rethink politics and the habits of critical education, human agency, and elements of social responsibility crucial to any viable notion of what life would be like in a democratic socialist society. Amid the corpses produced by neoliberal capitalism and COVID-19, there are also flashes of hope, a chance to move beyond the contemporary resurgence of authoritarianism. Beyond the normalizing ideologies of a poisonous cynicism and paralyzing conformity endemic to neoliberal capitalism, there is a growing movement to reclaim a collective political vision that is more compassionate, equitable, just, and inclusive.  

In spite of the ugly terror of a fascist abyss that lurks in the background of the COVID-19 crisis, the pandemic can teach us that democracy is fragile as “a way of life” and that if it is to survive, critical education, civic courage, historical consciousness, moral witnessing and political outrage must become central elements of a pedagogical practice capable of producing citizens who are informed, politically aware and willing to struggle to keep justice, equity and the principles of a socialist democracy alive. Rosa Luxemburg’s once-celebrated claim that under capitalism humanity faces a choice between “socialism or barbarism” is more appropriate today than in her own time at the beginning of the 20th century.

The pandemic has done more than expose the cult of capitalism and its production of social inequities operating on a vast scale in the U.S. and around the globe. It has also revealed the inner workings of a Trump government that has been more concerned about the health of the economy than saving lives, especially the lives of those marginalized by color, class, age and pre-existing health conditions. Because of Trump’s failure to address the crisis, the United States has been turned into a giant cemetery. Trump lied about the severity of the virus, calling it no more dangerous than the flu, even saying it would just disappear. He admitted to journalist Bob Woodward that the virus was deadly and airborne and that millions of people could get infected, sick and die. He flouted the advice of scientific experts and put incompetents in positions of power to shape health policies. Moreover, as the virus spread throughout the country, Trump disregarded the advice of medical and health experts and held indoor rallies in cities around the United States, impervious to the danger large group gatherings posed to his followers. After downplaying the virus since its inception while modeling behavior that promotes it, going so far as to treat mask-wearing as a weakness while ridiculing his rival Joe Biden for wearing one, Trump and the first lady, Melania Trump, have tested positive for Covid-19. For four years, this administration has lied, deceived the public, and undermined the health and safety of the nation. Events have now caught up with Trump’s world of deceit, lies, and willful ignorance,  and he has to bear the fate of his own hypocrisy and moral failing.  What is crucial here is that Trump is not the only victim of his own inept leadership and the disdain of health experts and the laws of science. More importantly, because of his lack of leadership the economy tanked, millions lost their jobs, at least 208,000 people have died, and more than 7.3 million are infected. Trump did not deserve this virus, but neither did the people who contracted it because of his irresponsible and vicious disregard for the lives of others. Trump has blood on his hands, and his failure to address the pandemic’s reach, severity, and danger is no longer an issue he can ignore.

Calls to remove Trump from office, raise the minimum wage, support decent and safe work, offer access to affordable housing, provide universal health care, lower prescription drug costs, provide free quality education to everyone, expand infrastructure, defund the police and military, and invest in community services are important reforms, but they do not deal with the larger issue of eliminating a market-driven economic system structured in massive racial and economic inequalities. Renowned educator David Harvey is right to argue that the “immediate task is nothing more nor less than the self-conscious construction of a new political framework for approaching the question of inequality [and racism], through a deep and profound critique of our economic and social system.” [24]The battle against capitalism can only take place through a movement that unites its disparate movements for social justice, emancipation and economic equality.

This is a crisis in which different threads of oppression must be understood as part of the general crisis of capitalism. The various protests now evolving internationally at the popular level offer the promise of new global movements for the struggle for popular sovereignty and economic, racial and social justice. Central to this struggle is the challenge of destroying the neoliberal global order. In the current moment, democracy may be under a severe threat and appear frighteningly vulnerable, but with young people and others rising up across the globe — inspired, energized and marching in the streets — the future of a radical democracy is waiting to be reimagined, if not reborn. Democracy needs to breathe again, inspired by collective struggles to dismantle the machinery of social death at the heart of neoliberal fascist empire.

Thanks to Henry Giroux for sharing this article with Tikkun which appeared on Salon.

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[1] See for instance Wade Davis, “The Unravelling of America,” Rolling Stone, [August 6, 2020] Online; Ed Yong, “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” The Atlantic, [August 3, 2020]. Online

[2] See, for instance, Julia Lynch, Regimes of Inequality: The Political Economy of Health and Wealth (London:  Cambridge University Press, 2020); Thomas Piketty, The Economics of Inequality (New York: Belknap Press, 2015); Paul Farmer: Infections and Inequalities: The Modern Plagues, Updated with a New Preface Updated Edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

[3] Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of the Unforeseen (Los Angeles: LARB Books, 2019).

[4] Bram Ieven and Jan Overwijk, “We Created This Beast,” Eaurozine, [March 23, 2020] Online

[5]  See Henry A. Giroux, The Terror of the Unforeseen (Los Angeles: LARB, 2020) and On Critical Pedagogy, 2nd edition (London: Bloomsbury, 2020). Also see Wendy Brown,  In The Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, (New York: Columbian University Press, 2018),

[6] Doreen Massey, “Vocabularies of the economy,” Soundings, (2013). Online

[7] Mattha Busby, “Schools in England told not to use material from anti-capitalist groups,” The Guardian (September 27, 2020). Online

[8] Brad Evans interview with Ruth Ben-Ghiat, “Histories of Violence: America Is Not a Fascist State – It’s an Authoritarian One,” LA Review of Books, [July 20, 2020] Online 

[9] David Enrich, “Fox in the White House,” New York Times Book Review (September 27, 2020), p. 16.

[10] Mark Bray, “Trump Fuels March Toward Fascism With “Anarchist Jurisdictions” Edict,” Truthout (September22, 2020).  Online

[11] Ben Smith, “Journalists Aren’t the Enemy of the People. But We’re Not Your Friends,” New York Times (September 6, 2020). Online

[12]   Adam Weinstein, “This is Fascism,” The New Republic (June 2, 2020). Online

[13]   Ibid., Adam Weinstein, “This is Fascism.”

[14] Ishaan Tharoor with Benjamin Soloway, “Trump’s Supreme Court move deepens fears of an authoritarian power play.” The Washington Post (September 27, 2020). Online

[15] I take this up in detail in American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism {San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2019) and The Terror of the Unforeseen (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Review of Books, 2020).

[16] Chauncey DeVega, “Irish Author Fintan O’Toole explains the ‘suspension of disbelief’ that made Trump’s destruction of America possible,” Alternet, [May 26, 2020]

Online; Chauncey DeVega, “Brian Klaas: Trump has ‘exposed the weakness of American democracy’ – but there’s hope,” Salon, [October 23, 2019]. Online 

[17] Sarah Churchwell, “American Fascism: It Has Happened Again,” The New York Review of Books, [May 26, 2020]. Online 

[18] Bill Dixon, “Totalitarianism and the Sandstorm,” Hannah Arendt Center (February 3, 2014). Online

[19] Peter Maass, “Trump Built His Own Green Zone. He Got the Wall He Deserves,” Intercept (June 5, 2020). Online

[20] Curtis Johnson, “The Momentum of Trumpian Fascism is Building: Stopping it is Up to Us,” Truthout (July 25, 2018). Online

[21] The critical literature on inequality is enormous, I have learned a great deal from this small selection: Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge: Belknap, 2020);  (Michael D. Yates, The Great Inequality (New York: Routledge, 2016); Anthony B. Atkins, Inequality: What Can be Done? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015); Joseph E. Stiglitz, The Price of Inequality (New York: Norton, 2012); Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (New York: Penguin, 2010).

[22] Thomas Piketty, Capital and Ideology (Cambridge: Belknap, 2020).

[23] Hannah Fearn, “Is society dead?” The Independent (December 31, 2016). Online

[24] David Harvey, “Capitalism Is Not the Solution to Urban America’s Problems — Capitalism Itself Is the Problem,” Jacobin Magazine (June 2020). Online


3 thoughts on “Dystopian Plagues, Pandemic Fears, and Fascist Politics in the Age of Trump

  1. 0.02% is roughly the mortality rate for Covid19. Does anyone seriously think that justifies the fascist-style approach given that it is less than a bad Flu season and comparable with annual Flu rates which have NEVER brought such hysteria?
    Does anyone seriously think fullstop? And yes, I am full aware of the number-crunching propaganda which tries to prove that Covid-19 is worse than the annual Flu, but the f/lies in the ointment are:
    1. Dying of Covid-19 is generally not established. There is a lot of guessing and projecting going on so we don’t actually know how many Covid has killed. And it does matter if people die WITH Covid, or OF Covid, or something else and it is called Covid.
    2. Modelling systems, number-crunchers, data donkeys are all fiddling with facts to meet vested agendas – garbage in, garbage out is the way of much of it.
    If we believe the official figures of 1.14 million Covid deaths out of a population of 7.5 billion, and the percentage of one million out of 7 billion is 0.0142857%, then, pretty clearly if we compare Flu deaths on average, from bad years to not so bad years, Covid is not a greater threat. Even more so because the Flu impacts all ages and 99% of Covid ‘deaths’ are in a particular group – the very old who are also very sick, generally with 2-3 co-morbidities which are slowly killing them anyway.

    This is not a plague and whatever it might be, it is not a threat to 99% of people.

  2. 2.6% of the US population infected so far. 2.6% of these have died. About 5 times as many require hospitalization, with 1 to 3 months to recover, many with long lasting damage. This is far more severe than the flu. I’ve know two people who’ve survived but it was severe, with months long recovery and possibly permanent damage.

  3. Here’s another way to combat fascism on the Right. Namely, most of this is due to escalating inequality and neoliberal capitalism, but some is due to the “cultural wars”. Thesse are, in part, are fueled by “condescending elitism” from the Left, especially from the acolytes of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and their followers.

    We on the Left gain credibility when we keep our own House in order. The unfortunate fact is that CRT has its own aspects of fascism. See my Amazon review of “How Fascism Works” by Jason Stanley. For example, his very first point is “Targeting of ideological enemies, without restraint”, which is a good description of the “cancel culture” bred by CRT. A second point is “Conflicts in principle with expertise, science, truth”, which matches how CRT is grounded in “postmodern philosophy”, promoting sweeping dogmas like “all whites are racist”, which lack scientific validity, and which offend the white working class because they have their own legitimate grievances, etc.