Normalizing Trump’s Authoritarianism is Not an Option
The dark times that haunt the current age no longer appear as merely an impending threat. They have materialized with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. Trump and his administration of extremists epitomize the dire dangers posed by those who longed to rule American society without resistance, dominate its major political parties, and secure uncontested control of its commanding political, cultural, and economic institutions. The consolidation of power and wealth in the hands of the financial elite along with the savagery and misery that signifies their politics is no longer the stuff of Hollywood films such as Wall Street and American Psycho. If George W. Bush’s reign of fear mongering, greed, and war on terror embodied the values of a kind of militarized Gordon Gekko, Trump represents the metamorphosis of Gekko into the deranged and ethically-neutered Patrick Bateman. Yet, Trump’s ascent to the highest office in America is already being normalized by numerous pundits and politicians, including Barack Obama, who are asking the American public to give Trump a chance or are suggesting that the power and demands of the presidency will place some restraints on his unrestrained impetuousness and often unpredictable behavior.
As might be expected, a range of supine politicians, media pundits, and mainstream journalists are already tying themselves in what Tom Engelhardt calls “apologetic knots” while they “desperately look for signs that Donald Trump will be a pragmatic, recognizable American president once he takes the mantle of power.”[i] As comedian John Oliver pointed out on his show, Last Week Tonight, Trump is not ordinary and his politics forebode the storm clouds of an American version of authoritarianism. Oliver brought his point home by shouting repeatedly, “This is not normal,” and, of course, he is right! It is even more surprising that Lesley Stahl’s 60 Minute interview with Trump portrayed him less as a demagogue than as a transformed politician who was “subdued and serious.”[ii] In addition, NBC’s Andrea Mitchell “reported approvingly upon the transition as if proposed White House counselor Steve Bannon and proposed attorney general Jeff Sessions, two men with racism in their pasts, were ordinary appointments.”[iii] High-profile celebrity Oprah Winfrey stated without irony in an interview with Entertainment Tonight that “I just saw President-elect Trump with President Obama in the White House, and it gave me hope.”[iv] This is quite a stretch given Trump’s history of racist practices, his racist remarks about black people, Muslims, and Mexican immigrants during the primary and the presidential campaigns, and his appointment of a number of cabinet members who embrace a white nationalist ideology. The New York Times opinion writer Nicholas Kristof sabotaged his self-proclaimed liberal belief system by noting, in what appears to be acute lapse of judgment, that Americans should “Grit [their] teeth and give Trump a chance.”[v] Bill Gates made clear his own and often hidden reactionary worldview when speaking on CNBC’s Squawk Box. The Microsoft co-founder slipped into fog of self-delusion by stating that Trump had the potential to emulate JFK by establishing an upbeat and desirable mode of “leadership through innovation.”[vi]
Such actions by the mainstream media and such highly visible pundits point to not just a retreat from responsible reporting, discourse, and a flight from any vestige of social responsibility, but also the further collapse of serious journalism and thoughtful reasoning into the corrupt world of a corporate controlled media empire and an infantilizing celebrity culture. Normalizing the Trump regime does more than sabotage the truth, moral responsibility, and justice; it also cancels out the democratic institutions necessary for a future of well-being and economic and political justice. The New York Times columnist Charles Blow observes insightfully that under a Trump administration:
The nation is soon to be under the aegis of an unstable, unqualified, undignified demagogue [who surrounds] himself with a rogue’s gallery of white supremacy sympathizers, anti-Muslim extremists, devout conspiracy theorists, anti-science doctrinaires and climate change deniers….This is not normal [and] I happen to believe that history will judge kindly those who continued to shout, from the rooftops, through own weariness and against the corrosive drifty of conformity.[vii]
Blow is right. Any talk of working with a president who has surrounded himself with militarists, racists, neofascists, anti-intellectuals, and neoliberal fundamentalists should be resisted at all costs. It is well worth remembering that Trump chose Steve Bannon a notorious anti-Semite and white supremacist to the center of power in the White House. As Reuters reported, “White supremacists and neo-Nazis have rarely, if ever, in recent history been so enthusiastic about a presidential appointment as Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon to be his chief White House strategist.”[viii] Trump has also surrounded himself with militarists and corporate ideologues who fantasize about destroying all vestiges of the welfare state and the institutions that produce the public values that support the social contract. Neal Gabler argues that the normalizing of Trump by the mainstream media is about more than the dereliction of duty by members of the mainstream media. He writes:
Far more serious is their normalization not of Trump but of his voters. The former is typical cowardice under threat of reactionary populism. The latter is an endorsement of reactionary populism that may have far-reaching consequences for whether the country can ever be reunited after having been torn asunder.[ix]
Normalization is code for a retreat from any sense of moral and political responsibility, and it should be viewed as an act of political complicity with authoritarianism and condemned outright. What is being propagated by Trump’s apologists is not only a reactionary Populism and some fundamental tenets of an American style authoritarianism, but also a shameless whitewashing of the racism and authoritarianism at the center of Trump’s politics. In addition, little has been said about how Trump and his coterie of semi-delusional, if not heartless, advisors embrace a demented appropriation of Ayn Rand’s view that selfishness, war against all competition, and unchecked self-interest are the highest human ideals. In addition, arguments in defense of such normalization appear to overlook with facile indifference how the rhetoric of authoritarianism has become normalized in many parts of the world and that the Trump administration has clearly demonstrated an affinity with such hateful rhetoric. How else to explain the support that Trump has received from a number of ruthless dictators who head reactionary governments such as the Philippines, Turkey, and Egypt, among others. Such a danger is all the more ominous given the current collapse of civic literacy and the general public’s increasing inability to deal with complex issues, on one hand, and the attempt, on the other hand, by those who maintain power to ruthlessly promote a depoliticizing discourse of lies, simplicity, and manufactured distortions.
The United States has entered a new historical conjuncture, which echoes elements of a totalitarian past. Hannah Arendt, Sheldon Wolin, and Robert Paxton, the great theorists of totalitarianism believed that the fluctuating elements of fascism are still with and that they would crystallize in different forms.[x] Far from being fixed in a frozen moment of historical terror, these theorists believed that totalitarianism not only “heralds as a possible model for the future”[xi] but that its “protean origins are still with us.”[xii] Arendt, in particular, was keenly aware that a culture of fear, the dismantling of civil and political rights, the ongoing militarization of society, the attack on labor, an obsession with national security, human rights abuses, the emergence of a police state, a deeply-rooted racism, and the attempts by demagogues to undermine education as a foundation for producing critical citizenry were all at work in American society. Historical conjunctures produce different forms of authoritarianism, though they all share a hatred for democracy, dissent, and human rights.[xiii] More recently, Robert Paxton in his seminal work, The Anatomy of Fascism, provides a working definition of fascism that points to both its anti-democratic moments and those elements that link it to both the past and the present. Paxton’s point is not to provide a precise definition of fascism but to understand the conditions that enabled fascism to work and make possible its development in the future. Accordingly, fascism is:
A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.[xiv]
It is too easy to believe in a simplistic binary logic that strictly categorizes a country as either authoritarian or democratic and leaves no room for entertaining the possibility of a mixture of both systems. American politics today suggests a more updated if not different form of authoritarianism or what might be called the curse of totalitarianism. In Trump’s America, there are strong echoes of the fascism that developed in Europe in the 1920s and ‘30s. For instance, there are resemblances to a fascist script in Trump’s scapegoating of the other; his claim that the United States is in a period of decline; his call to make America great again; his blatant appeal to ultra-nationalism; his portrayal of himself as a strongman who alone can save the country; his appeal to aggression and violence aimed at those who disagree with him; his contempt for dissent; his deep rooted anti-intellectualism or what Arendt called “thoughtlessness” (i.e., denial that climate change is produced by humans) coupled with his elevation of instinct and emotion over reason; his appeal to xenophobia, national greatness, and support for a politics of disposability; his courting of anti-Semites, white supremacists, and flirtation with the discourse of racial purity; his support for a white Christian public sphere; his use of a kind of verbal waterboarding to denigrate Muslims, black people, undocumented immigrants, and women’s reproductive rights; his contempt for weakness and his support for the dark side of hyper-masculinity.
I argue in this essay that the dark period Americans are about to enter under a Trump regime cannot be understood without an acknowledgement of the echoes of a totalitarian past. With Trump’s election, the crisis of politics is accompanied by a crisis of historical conscience, memory, ethics, and agency exacerbated by an appeal to a notion of common sense in which facts are regarded with disdain, words reduced to slogans, and science confused with pseudo-science. Under such circumstances, language is emptied of any meaning and constitutes a flight from ethics, justice, and social responsibility. As language becomes devoid of any meaning, the American public is inundated with empty slogans such as “post-truth” and “fake news” — euphemisms for a landscape of manufactured derangements and distortions that constitute what might be called a culture of post-ethics. This culture is part of what Todd Gitlin calls “an interlocking ecology of falsification that has driven the country around the bend.”[xv] Against the background of an infantilizing culture of immediacy, spectacle, and sensationalism, Trump will govern as if he is running a reality TV show, endlessly performing for an increasingly depoliticized public. But there are more dangers ahead than the toxic seduction of politics as theater and the transformation of the mainstream media as adjunct of the entertainment industry or for that matter a growing distrust of democracy itself. Under casino capital, the alleged celebration of the principle of a free press hides more than it promises. Noam Chomsky, Bill Moyers, and Robert McChesney, among others, have observed, mainstream media now work in conjunction with the financial elite and the military-industrial-academic complex as an echo chamber while further indulging in the rituals of shock, celebrity culture, and spectacularized violence in order to increase their ratings. Earlier this year, Les Moonves, CBS CEO, stated that his network’s inordinate and disastrous coverage of Trump “may not be good for America but it’s damn good for CBS.”[xvi] Moonves openly gloated not only because the network was pumping up its ratings but was also getting rich by inordinately covering Trump’s presidential campaign. As he put it, “[T]he money’s rolling in … [T]his is going to be a very good year for us….It’s a terrible thing to say, but bring it on, Donald. Go ahead. Keep going.”[xvii] Moonves made it clear that the power of mainstream media in general has little to do with either pursuing the truth or holding power accountable. On the contrary, its real purpose was to normalize corruption, lies, misrepresentation, accumulate capital, and allow the transformation of the press to become an adjunct of authoritarian ideologies, policies, interests and commodified values — if that is what it takes to increase their profit margins.
Normalization is about more than dominating media outlets being complicit with corrupt power or willfully retreating from any sense of social responsibility; it is also about aiding and abetting power in order to increase the bottom line and accumulate other cowardly forms of power and recognition. This is evident in the fact that some powerful elements of the mainstream press not only refused to take Trump seriously, they also concocted embarrassing rationales for not holding him up to any viable sense of accountability. For instance, Gerard Baker, the editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal, publicly announced that in the future he would not allow his reporters to use the word lie in their coverage. This is more than a retreat from journalism’s goal of holding people, institutions, and power to some measure of justice; it also legitimizes the kind of political and moral cowardice that undermines the truth, informed resistance, and the first amendment. While such actions may not rise to the level of book burning that was characteristic of various fascist and authoritarian regimes in the past, it does mark a distinctive retreat from historical memory and civic courage that serves to normalize such actions by making dissent appear, at best, unreasonable and, at worse, an act of treason.
Such actions become apparent in efforts by the mainstream press to rage against the rise of fake news, suggesting that since they are not part of such attempts their integrity cannot be questioned. Of course, fake news is a euphemism for deliberately lying and collapsing the line between facts and fiction, the truth and falsehoods. By that definition, lying is about more than fake news, it is central to the need to manufacture consent in the interest of implementing polices, constructing identities, and shoring up values that serve a wide range of unsavory political and ideological interests. The slippery nature of the term fake news is on full display particularly when used by Trump and his merry band of liars to dismiss anyone or any organization that holds him accountable for his fabrications. Hence, there were no surprises when Trump at his first president-elect press conference refused not only to take questions from a CNN reporter because his network had published material critical of Trump, but he justified his refusal by labeling CNN as fake news — reducing the term to a slogan used to silence the press. Clearly, we will see more of this type of bullying repression and censorship but it will not be aimed just at mainstream outlets such as CNN but will also eventually be used to smear all manner of alternative social media, such as Truthout, Tikkun, Counterpunch, TomDispatch.com, Democracy Now, and others. Traditional democratic public spheres such as higher education will also feel the brunt of such an attack.
Normalization has many registers and one of the most important is the control by the financial elite over commanding cultural apparatuses that produce, legitimize, and distribute highly selective media narratives that shore up the most reactionary ideologies and financial interests. The mainstream press says little about how such actions serve as an apology for the egregiously reactionary nature of Trump’s ideology and policies. Moreover, they fail to note how distortions of the truth, the endless production of lies by governments, politicians, and corporations, along with the media’s flight from civic literacy, serve to bolster authoritarian societies willing to distort the truth while simultaneously suppressing dissent. Under such circumstances, it should not be surprising that Trump’s authoritarian and hateful discourse, threats of violence, loathing of dissent, and his racist attitudes towards Muslims, black people, and Mexican immigrants are downplayed in the mainstream media. These structured silences have become more and more apparent given the benign manner in which the supine press and its legion of enervated anti-public intellectuals and pundits treat Trump’s endless nighttime Twitter outpourings and his incessant choreographed public fabrications.
For instance, The Wall Street Journal’s refusal to address critically Trump’s endless lies and insults is matched by the high brow New Yorker’s publishing of a piece on Trump, which largely celebrates uncritically how he is viewed by conservative intellectuals such as Hillsdale College president Larry Arnn. Arnn supports Trump because he shares Arnn’s view that “the government has become dangerous.”[xviii] If he were referring to the rise of the surveillance and permanent war state, it would be hard to disagree with Arnn. Instead, he was referring to the government’s enforcement of “runaway regulations.”[xix] What Arnn and The New Yorker ignore is the fact that the real danger the government poses is the result of it being in the hands of demagogues such as Trump who are truly dangerous and threaten the planet, American society, and the rest of the world. While New Yorker staff writer Kelefa Sanneh mentions Trump’s connection to the “alt-right,” he underplays the group’s fascist ideology and refuses to use the term white supremacy in talking about such groups, reverting instead to the innocuous term, “white identity politics.”[xx] Trump’s misogyny, racism, anti-intellectualism, Islamophobia, and hatred of democracy are barely mentioned. Sanneh even goes so far as to suggest that since Trump has disavowed the “alt-right,” his connection to neofascist groups is tenuous. This is more than an apology dressed up in the discourse of ambiguity; such reporting is a shameful retreat from journalistic integrity, an assault on the truth, and constitutes an egregious act of normalization. This is only one example of what is surely to come in the future under Trump’s rule.
Under Trump’s regime of economic, religious, education, and political fundamentalism, compassion and respect for the other will be viewed with contempt while society will increasingly become more militarized and financial capital will be deregulated in order to be free to engage in behaviors that put the American public and planet in danger. A form of social and historical amnesia will descend over American society like a poisonous virus. A culture of dumbness and civic illiteracy will be produced and legitimated along with a culture of fear that will enable a harsh law and order regime.
Policies will be enacted in which public goods such as schools will be privatized, and a culture of greed and selfishness will be elevated to new heights of celebration. There will be a further retreat from civic literacy, civic courage, and social responsibility, one matched by a growing abandonment by the state of any allegiance to the common good. Fear and the threat of state violence will shape how problems are addressed, and a growing culture of dissent will be ruthlessly suppressed in all of the public spheres in which it has functioned in the past. The free-market mentality that gained prominence under the presidency of Ronald Reagan will accelerate under the Trump administration and it will continue to drive politics, destroy many social protections, celebrate a hyper-competitiveness, and deregulate economic activity. Under Donald Trump’s reign, all human activities, practices, and institutions will be subject to market principles and militarized. The only relations that matter will be defined in commercial terms just as civil society will be organized for the production of violence. It is most likely that the most dangerous powers of the state will be unleashed under Trump, possibly on the environment, public and higher education, protesters, poor black people, Muslims, and undocumented immigrants. Surely, all the signs are in place given the coterie of billionaires, generals, warmongers, Islamophobes, neoliberal cheerleaders, and anti-public demagogues Trump has appointed to high-ranking government positions. Americans may be on the verge of witnessing how democracy ends and this is precisely why Trump’s election as the president of the United States cannot be normalized.
Trump’s repressive and poisonous attitudes and irresponsible view of others and the broader society will not change his role as president. In fact, he will consolidate his power and will be more reckless than he was during the primaries and presidential campaigns. Trump’s narcissism, indifference to the truth, and addiction to the spectacle will further increase his view of himself and his policies as unaccountable, especially as he institutes a mode of governance that suppresses the opposition and deals with his audience directly through the social media. Fortunately, a number of diverse groups, extending from union members and women’s groups to more left-oriented groups such as Refuse Fascism.org, along with teachers, actors, and artists are organizing to protest Trump’s neofascist ideology and policies. As George Yancy pointed out to me in a personal correspondence, such actions are unique in that they make the political more pedagogical by elevating protests, modes of resistance, and criticism to the level of the cultural rather than allowing such criticism to reside in the voice and presence of isolated, prophetic intellectuals. Moreover, a number of opposition magazines and social sites such as In These Times, The Nation, Truthout, and Counterpunch along with various public intellectuals such as Anthony DiMaggio, Robin Kelley, and members of the Black Lives Matter Movement are producing instructive articles on both the nature of resistance and what forms it might take.[xxi]
At issue here is the urgent necessity to produce a collective effort that enables a level of critical thinking, civic literacy, and political courage that will inspire and energize a massive broad-based struggle intent on producing ongoing forms of non-violent resistance at all levels of society. Rabbi Michael Lerner is right in insisting that progressives need a new language of critique and possibility, one that embraces a movement for a world of love, courage, and justice while being committed to a mode of nonviolence in which the means are as ethical as the ends sought by such struggles.[xxii] Such a call is as historically mindful as it is insightful and it draws upon legacies of nonviolent resistance as diverse as those called for by renowned activists such as Saul Alinsky, Paulo Freire, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet, in spite of their diverse projects and methods, these modes of nonviolent resistance all shared a commitment to a collective and fearsome struggle in which nonviolence strategies rejected passivity and compromise for powerful expressions of resistance. Such struggles to be successful will have to be coordinated, fearless, and relentless. Single-issue movements will have to join with others in supporting both a comprehensive politics and a mass collective movement. We live at a time in which totalitarian forms are with us again. American society is no longer at the tipping point of authoritarianism; we are in the midst of what Hannah Arendt called “dark times” and individual and collective resistance is the only hope we have to move beyond this ominous moment in our history.
[i] Tom Engelhardt, “Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, No ‘New Normal,” TomDispatch (November 20, 2016). Online: http://www.tomdispatch.com/blog/176212/
[ii] Neil Gabler, “And So It Begins: Normalizing the Election,” Moyers&Company (November 24, 2016). Online: http://billmoyers.com/story/media-normalizing-election/
[iii] Ibid. Gabler, “And So It Begins: Normalizing the Election.”
[iv] The interview is available at http://buzz.blog.ajc.com/2016/11/12/oprah-trump/
[v] Nicholas Kristof, “Gritting Our Teeth and Giving President Trump a Chance,” New York Times (November 9, 2017). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/10/opinion/gritting-our-teeth-and-giving-president-trump-a-chance.html?_r=0
[vi] Irish Central Staff, “Bill gates Says Trump Could lead America like JFK,” IrishCentral.com (January 6, 2017). Online: http://www.irishcentral.com/news/politics/bill-gates-says-trump-could-lead-america-like-jfk
[vii] Charles Blow, “Donald Trump, This is not Normal,” New York Times (December 19, 2016). Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/19/opinion/donald-trump-this-is-not-normal.html?_r=0
[viii] Bill Trott, “Donald Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as chief strategist sets off critical firestorm,” Global News (November 15, 2017). Online: http://globalnews.ca/news/3068972/donald-trumps-choice-of-steve-bannon-as-chief-strategist-sets-of-critical-firestorm/
[ix] Ibid., Gabler, “And So It Begins: Normalizing the Election.”
[x] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York: 2001). Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, (Princeton University Press, 2008).
[xi] Marie Luise Knott, Unlearning With Hannah Arendt, trans. by David Dollenmayer, (Other Press: New York, NY. 2011, 2013), p 17.
[xiii] The following three paragraphs draw from previous work in Henry A. Giroux, “Barack Obama and the Resurgent Specter of Authoritarianism,” 3:4 JAC (2011), pp. 415-440.
[xiv] Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism. (USA, N.Y.: Vintage Books, 2005), p. 208.
[xv] Todd Gitlin, “Welcome to the Vortex,” Open Democracy, [7 January 2017]
[xvi] Amy Goodman, “”It Might Not Be Good for America, But It’s Good for Us”: How the Media Got Rich on Trump’s Rise,” Democracy Now (Novemmber 9, 2016). Online: https://www.democracynow.org/2016/11/9/it_might_not_be_good_for
[xviii] Kelefa Sanneh, “Secret Admirers: The Conservative Intellectuals Smitten with Trump,” The New Yorker (January 9, 2017). Online: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/09/intellectuals-for-trump
[xxi] See for instance, “A Handbook For Resistance” in the January 2017 issue of In These Times; the December 5th issue of The Nation on “How to Fight Back;” Anthony DiMaggio, “The Anti-Trump Uprising: Forging a Path Forward in Uncertain Times,” Counterpunch (December 15, 2016). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2016/12/15/the-anti-trump-uprising-forging-a-path-forward-in-uncertain-times/; Robin D. G. Kelley, “After Trump,” Boston Review (November 15, 2016). Online: http://bostonreview.net/forum/after-trump/robin-d-g-kelley-trump-says-go-back-we-say-fight-back; a resistance manual launched by the Movement for Black Lives, See https://www.resistancemanual.org/Resistance_Manual_Home
[xxii] Rabbi Michael Lerner, “Yearning for a World of Love and Justice: An introduction to the Ideas of Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives (NSP),” Tikkun (April 30, 2015). Online: https://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/yearning-for-a-world-of-love-and-justice-the-worldview-of-tikkun-and-our-network-of-spiritual-progressives