Assassination Talk, the Banality of Evil, and the Paranoid State of American Politics


During a campaign rally in North Carolina, Donald Trump suggested that “Second Amendment people” would take care of Hilary Clinton for picking Supreme Court judges who favor stricter gun laws. The Clinton campaign and many others saw this as a veiled endorsement of an assassination attempt.[1] These inflammatory, if not dangerous, comments are part of a wider movement in American politics to empty political discourse of any substance, turning it mostly into a form of rhetorical theater designed to mimic a larger culture of stupidity, idiocy, and spectacle. The spectacle of titillating and infantilizing consciousness and public discourse with a flood of shocks, sensations and simplistic views has become the hallmark of a broken political system now largely controlled by the ideological extremists who inhabit big corporations, hedge funds, and the ranks of the ultra-rich. It is a strategy that mixes what Hannah Arendt once called the “banality of evil” with what the eminent historian, Richard Hofststadter has called the paranoid style of American politics.[2]

Trump’s rhetoric, along with the discourse of other extremists, echoes Hannah Arendt’s insight that totalitarianism is produced, in part, by making human beings superfluous, ignoring their voices, and silencing them in fascistic discourses of certainty, absolutes, and unaccountability that allow no space for critical thinking, informed judgment, and critical agency. Trump’s speeches and his off-the-cuff comments bear an eerie resemblance to what Arendt once called in her famous book on Adolf Eichmann “the banality of evil,” in which she defines the roots of totalitarianism being shaped by a type of thoughtlessness, the inability to think, and the disavowal of any form of self-reflection and critical inquiry. For some theorists such as Richard J. Bernstein, Arendt was largely interested in understanding how ordinary people with banal motives can commit horrendous crimes and how such actions were connected to making human beings superfluous as critical, thinking agents.[3] He is only partly right. Arendt connected the dethroning of the political and the emergence of a kind of anti-politics to the inability or reluctance of individuals to “imagine what the other person is experiencing…a kind of stupidity (in which) obedience is idealized.”[4] Trump and other ideological and political fundamentalists exemplify a kind of thoughtlessness in which informed judgment and dialogue are replaced by a rigid ideological embrace of certainty, the eschewing of doubt, and a willingness to sacrifice critical inquiry to the realms of emotion, anger, and contempt for others.

Language in the service of violence is on full display in Trump’s use of the term “loser,” a term that he carries over from his Reality TV shows and is used in many of his political speeches. Trump’s use of the term, echoing Hofstadter, denotes a language in the service of humiliation, but there is also a deeper structure of meaning that is indebted to the current fascistic embrace of “total war” and a “survival-of-the fittest” ethos in which winning and losing become the central organizing principles of a neoliberal society. As the discourse of war and excessive competition moves into the realm of the market place, consumption also serves to reward winners and debase losers based upon a fetishistic notion of consumption. Subjecting the majority of the polity to the discourse of humiliation and disdain and praise for the small number of winners who constitute the .01 percent of the population create an affective economy of misdirected rage, resentment, and retaliation, which finds its most egregious expression in the hateful and racist discourses of authoritarianism, buttressed by a kind of stupidity that is as banal as it is dangerous. The economic and pedagogical forces at work in the production of the banality of evil in reinforced in the registers of atomization, loneliness, and humiliation that often provide fertile ground for the rise of the fascistic sovereign. This was evident at the 2016 Republican National Convention when Donald Trump told his adoring crowd that “I am your voice. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order.” As Yoni Appelbaum points out in The Atlantic, Trump “did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.”[5] And in doing so, he was greeted with sporadic emotional outburst that amounted to disturbing expressions of racism, hyper-nationalism and calls for lawlessness. According to Applebaum, “when Trump said, ‘I am your voice,’ the delegates on the convention floor roared their approval. When he said, “I alone can fix it,” they shouted their approbation. The crowd peppered his speech with chants of ‘USA!’ and ‘Lock her up!’ and ‘Build the wall!’ and ‘Trump!’ It booed on cue, and cheered when prompted.”[6]

In this instance, neoliberal values support and amplify what the Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style in American politics.” Writing in the 1960s in the aftermath of the McCarthy period, Hofstadter made clear that the animosities, anger, “heated exaggerations, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantas[ies]” that characterize such a style were deeply rooted in American politics and history and did not simply apply “to men with profoundly disturbed minds.”[7] Such a paranoid style could only be understood with a broader social, cultural, and political context specific to a distinctive historical era. Hofstadter performed a theoretical service in providing a language for unpacking the new authoritarianism in American society. Building on Hofstadter’s insights, Trump represents more than the fascistic celebration of the heroic leader, there is also a systemic attempt to empty politics of its democratic impulses, repress debate and dialogue, and construct an anti-politics that thrives on conflict, on an enemy/friend divide, fueled by a rhetoric of demonization, objectification, and hatred. Under such circumstances, language becomes militarized, serving as an expression of politics in which persuasion becomes armed, wedded to the production of desires, modes of agency, and forms of identification compatible with political and economic forms of authoritarian domination. The friend/enemy divide creates the boundaries, borders, gate keeping, and circle of certainties that intensify the paranoid state of mind in the American polity while at the same time creating the foundation for new forms of totalitarianism unique to American society.

What is distinct about the current era is that such extremism has moved to the center of politics and has become the hallmark of a period characterized by the destruction of civil liberties, the emergence of what Mike Lofgren calls The Deep State,[8] mass surveillance, the militarization of everyday life, the widespread spectacle of violence, and a culture steeped in the mobilization of mass fear and cruelty. Donald Trump’s take over of the Republican Party alone cannot explain the emergence and embrace of right-wing populism among millions of Americans who as Beverly Bandler observes: “sport idiocy as a ‘badge of honor,’ cling to the discredited, silly birtherism, brazenly support serial lying, rampant xenophobia, racism, misogynism, [and] suggest that [Trump’s] political opponent is ‘the devil’.”[9]

We live in an era when knowledge has been replaced by information, and propaganda seeps into every institution in American society fueled by the billions of dollars provided advertisers, the Koch brothers, hedge fund criminals, bankers, the ultra-rich, and big corporations, all of whom provide the pedagogical parameters for what can be considered to falsely be acceptable ideas, views, and frames of reference. Screen culture is the new force of politics and it is signed, sealed, and delivered by powerful corporate interests, with some exceptions in the mainstream media and certainly a sprinkling of alternative views in online progressive sites such as Truthout, Truthdig, Counterpunch, and others, though such sites operate at the margins of American society. Combine the control by the rich of commanding cultural apparatuses such as the media and public and higher education with the Supreme Court ruling, Citizens United, which allowed politics to be flooded and controlled by big money and you have what Tom Engelhardt has rightly called the “first 1% elections” coupled with a dominant public pedagogy infused with insults, stupidity, insults, racism, and a toxic “sea of words and images.”[10]

Arend’t’s notion that evil becomes banal when it is normalized, supported by a culture in which thinking is seen as an act of stupidity and thoughtlessness provides the foundation for mass violence is crucial to understanding one of the most fundamental elements of American politics—an attack on all vestiges of critical thought and the institutions that support them. Hofstadter makes clear that such extremism has to be understood within broader historical, political, and cultural context and cannot be addressed in limited vocabulary of the eccentric or outlandish personality.

Both Arendt and Hofstadter offer fertile ground for addressing the question of what might be learned from the rise of the political and economic structures of domination in the current historical moment. Implicit in their work is the notion that any viable understanding of politics has to address the role of the educative nature of a politics as a powerful force that demoralizes and infantalizes consciousness, stunts any viable notion of agency, and embraces view of war that thrives on demonization, exclusion, and the production of losers. Central to such a task is expanding the notion of the political to include a notion of public pedagogy that would be fundamental to addressing matters of identity, consciousness, and agency. The teaching machines of the current era are not limited to simply schools but are found in multiple sites in society. Hence, addressing the ideological and structural forces that celebrate the inability to think, readily eliminate institutions and public spheres that make thinking possible, intensify the connection between non-thinking, thoughtlessness and the routinization of misery, human suffering, along with the destruction of the eco system should be at the heart of any viable movement for political and economic change. At stake here is the creation of a politics willing to address the distinctive challenges posed by the emergence of a digital age in which culture, power, and politics become more integrated and serve to reconstitute the ways in which people relate to themselves, others, and the larger world. What Arendt and Hofstadter teach us is that the task of politics in the age of an overabundance of information and knowledge is not to make politics a discourse limited to structural forms of domination but to broaden its meaning as part of a wider project of which pedagogy is central to how it understands, addresses, and shapes the world, particularly how it shapes memory, consciousness, and individual and social agency.

The emergence of Donald Trump, and the deeply corrupt Republican and Democratic political parties on the current American political scene exemplify how ignorance breeds corruption and endears a large number of people to falsehoods, venality, and carnival barking. The corruption of both the truth and politics is made all the easer since the American public have become habituated to overstimulation and live in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images. Experience no longer has the time to crystalize into mature and informed thought. Leon Wieseltier is right in stating that “words cannot wait for thoughts and patience [becomes] a liability.”[11] Opinion outdoes reasoned and evidence based arguments and the power of expression degenerates into a spectacle. News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Popular culture revels in the spectacles of shock and violence.[12] Universities now labor under the burden of a neoliberal regime that celebrate the corporate model made famous by McDonalds. Knowledge is now instrumentalized, standardized, and collapses the distinction between education and training. Knowledge is packaged for easy consumption resulting in curricula that resemble a fast-food menu[13].

Many of the commanding institutions that produce and distribute ideas—from the media to higher education—have become disimagination machines, tools for legitimating ignorance, stoking paranoid fantasies, legitimating conspiracy theories, and are central to the formation of an authoritarian politics that is gutting any vestige of democracy from the ideology, policies, and institutions that now shape American society. Education has lost its moral, political, and spiritual bearings just as teachers, union members, and other public servants across the country are being belittled and attacked by economic and religious fundamentalists. One consequence is that an increasing number of public spheres have become corporatized, employ a top-down authoritarian styles of power, mimic a business culture, and infantilizes the larger polity by removing the public from all forms of governance. Clearly all of these defining relations produced in a neoliberal social order have to be challenged and changed.

The rise of thoughtlessness and the inability to think along with the demonization of vulnerable others constitute a political epidemic and do not augur well for democracy. Americans live in a historical moment that annihilates thought. A culture of cruelty and a survival-of-the-fittest ethos in the United States is the new norm and one consequence is that democracy is on the verge of disappearing or has already disappeared! Where are the agents of democracy and the public spaces that offer hope in such dark times? What role will progressives play at a time when the very ability of the public’s ability to translate private troubles into broader systemic issues is disappearing? How might politics itself be rethought in order to address the pedagogical and structural conditions that contribute to the growing intensification of violence in all spheres of American society? What role should intellectuals, cultural workers, artists, writers, journalists, and others play as part of a broader struggle to reclaim a democratic imaginary and exercise a collective sense of civic courage? What is now clear is that not only is pedagogy linked to social change but also to the production of modes of agency and the institutions that make radical change possible. Education as a political force makes us both the subjects of and subject to relations of power. The key is to expand that insight so as to make education central to politics itself. That is a lesson we can learn from both Arendt and Hofstadter.


[1] Surprisingly, a good take on this issue can be found in Thomas L. Friedman, “Trump’s Wink Wink to ‘Second Amendment People’,” The New York Times, [August 9, 2016] Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/10/opinion/trumps-ambiguous-wink-wink-to-second-amendment-people.html?_r=0; see also, David S. Cohen, “Trump’s Assassination Dog Whistle Was Even Scarier Than You Think,” Rolling Stone Magazine, [August 9, 2016]

Online: http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/features/trumps-assassination-dog-whistle-was-scarier-than-you-think-w433615

[2] Hannah Arendt’s notion of the banality of evil was first used in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Hofstadter phrase the paranoid style of politics gained prominence in his book of the same title.

[3] Richard J. Bernstein, The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of politics and Religion since 9/11, (Polity Press, 2005).

[4] Hannah Arendt, Hannah Arendt: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, (Brooklyn, NY: Melville House Publishing, 2013), p. 50.

[5] Yoni Applebaum, “I Alone Can Fix it,” The Atlantic (July 21, 2016). Online; http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/07/trump-rnc-speech-alone-fix-it/492557/

[6] Ibid., Applebaum.

[7] Richard Hofstadter, “The paranoid style in American politics.” Harper’s (November 1964). Online http://www.harpers.org/archive/1964/11/0014706. As mentioned above, his more extensive treatment of this idea appears in Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics (New York: Vintage, Reprint Edition, June 10, 2008).

[8] Mike Lofgren, The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government (New York: Viking, 2016).

[9] Beverly Bandler, “Paranoid Right-Wing Extremism,” email posting on August 12, 2016 (personal correspondence).

[10] Tom Engelhardt, “Better than reality television: The 2016 election is proving to be the greatest show on Earth,” Salon (August 10, 2016). Online: http://www.salon.com/2016/08/10/better-than-reality-televisio_partner/

[11] Leon Wieseltier, “Among the Disrupted,” International New York Times (January 7, 2015). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/18/books/review/among-the-disrupted.html?_r=0

[12] Brad Evans and Henry A. Giroux, Disposable Futures: The Seduction of violence in the Age of the Spectacle (San Francisco: City Lights, 2016).

[13] Ulrich Beck, Twenty Observations on a World in Turmoil (London: Polity Press, 2010, especially pages 53-59.

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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 a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.

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