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Trump’s Return to the Good Old Days and the Specter of Mass Terror

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

Photo by DonkeyHotey | CC BY 2.0

 

Recent revelations about Trump’s misogyny and acts of violence towards women are now on full display given the recent disclosures regarding his vulgar, crude, sexist exchanges with Howard Stern and Billy Bush. Yet, what is so shocking about the revelations of Trump’s misogyny, sexual violence, and rape charges is that they should provoke any type of surprise.

What is even more disturbing is that the sensationalism over these incidents hide from view the war on women that has been in full bloom since the 1980s. The Leave It to Beaver mindset that women should stay in the home as homemakers, do not deserve equal pay for equal work with men, should be defined primarily as degrading sexual objects, or that they should be excluded from revolutionary movements headed by men were part of “the good old days’ a term brought back to life by Donald Trump.

Coded in Trump’s campaign slogan to make America great again is the ghostly apparition of the return of  the ‘good old days.’ Such a call is  not new to a political party that revels in the discourse of decline and celebrates an era  that resurrects the barbaric discourses and values of an older fascism for which gender discrimination, homophobia, and racial purity became normalized.

If memories of fascism are now reduced to third rate Hollywood films, radical memories of collective resistance seem to die even more quickly in a country wedded to the culture of immediacy and the quickest route to making a profit. This may account, in part, for the social and historical amnesia on display in the country’s refusal to understand Trump as symptomatic of a number of authoritarian, anti-democratic forces that have been at play for a long time and of which Trump unapologetically endorses. These include attacks on women particularly on reproductive rights, on the LGBT community, on poor minority youth, on neighborhoods inhabited by people of color, on teachers and public servants, on students drowning in debt, on a culture of questioning, on dissent, on critical education, on people of color across the globe, on Muslims, Mexican immigrants. They also include attacks on any other group that does not kneel down in homage to a neo-fascist embrace of white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism, militarism, the mass incarceration state, and a savage global neoliberal capitalist fundamentalism. America is at war with itself and Trump is simply one despicable register of that war on democracy. What is distinctive about Trump is that he is shrill and unapologetic about his neo-fascist beliefs and policies whereas Hillary Clinton and the rest of the neoliberal centrists wrap their war mongering policies and support for the financial elite in the empty discourse of liberalism with a disingenuous nod towards social justice and democratic values. The embrace of his overt sexism and racism by large numbers of his followers does not augur well for the future of American politics. Needless to say, Trump is not the only politician who benefits from the death of historical memory and the current fog of social amnesia—all of which has produced an accelerated attack on not only women but on African Americans.

What is truly appalling is that, with the exception of the Black Lives Matter movement and Black protest movements, so little is said about the racism that is part of the long legacy of in your face racism that has emerged with the Trump campaign, a racism that the Republican Party has been nurturing since Nixon’s southern strategy and Reagan’s war on drugs, and later adopted by Bill Clinton’s disastrous law and order polices which produced the worst excesses of the current mass incarceration state.

Throughout his primary and presidential campaign, Trump invoked a language of racist violence that could only be understood in the historical context of the state repression unleashed in the fifties, sixties, and seventies in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Arkansas, and other states where expressions of white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and police violence exploded in full view of the American people and larger world. On numerous occasions Trump told his backers: “to knock the crap out of them [Black Lives Matter protesters], seriously, get them out of here. In the good old days this doesn’t happen because they use to treat them very rough and when they protested once they would not do it again so easily. I’d like to punch them in the face, I’ll tell you. I love the good old days. You know what they use to do to guys like that in a place like this? They would be carried out on a stretcher, folks.”[i]

The backdrop of this discourse reaches back into a time of racist terror and was captured in images of the young Black protesters being beaten by police and white patrons when they tried to integrate lunch counters in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee and Greenville, North Carolina. It was also on full display when black protesters were attacked by police dogs in Detroit, hosed down by high power water cannons in Alabama, and when nine young African American students were taunted and shoved as they attempted to enter the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. The latter are “the good old days” that Trump celebrates in his speeches–when protesters were “ripped out of their seat,” “punched in the face,” and “would be carried out on a stretcher.”[ii] These “good old days” also gave us lynchings, the murder of Emmett Till, the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama that killed four young black girls. The “good old days” in this context serve as a legitimation not only for a ruthless return to racist terror and the suppression of dissent, but the celebration of a type of lawlessness endemic to fascism and updated for the new authoritarianism.

What is being suggested here is that this American form of neo-fascism in its various forms is largely about social and racial cleansing and its end point is the construction of prisons, detention centers, enclosures, walls, and all the other varieties of murderous apparatus that accompany the discourse of national greatness and racial purity. Americans have lived through 40 years of the dismantling of the welfare state, the elimination of democratic public spheres such as schools and libraries, and the attack on public goods and social provisions. In their place, we have the rise of the punishing state, with its support for a range of criminogenic institutions extending from banks and hedge funds to state governments and militarized police departments that depend on extortion to meet their budgets.

Where are the institutions that do not support a rabid individualism, a culture of cruelty, and a society based on social combat — that refuse to militarize social problems, and reject the white supremacist discourses, laws and practices spreading throughout the United States? What happens when a society is shaped by a poisonous neoliberalism that separates economic and individual economic actions from social costs, when privatization becomes the only sanctioned orbit for agency, when values are entirely reduced to exchange values?

Notes.

[i] These quotes have been compiled along with historical context that give them meaning in Ava DuVernay’s brilliant film, 13th, which is available on Netflix.

[ii] Ibid., Ava DuVernay, director, 13th.

 

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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 is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018). His website is www. henryagiroux.com.

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