Donald Trump as the Bully-in Chief: Weaponizing the Politics of Humiliation

Photo by Matt Johnson | CC BY 2.0

Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a scourge of oppressive stupidity, manufactured deceptions, a corrupt political system, and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making; it also points to the withering of civic attachments, the undoing of civic culture, the decline of public life, and the erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. Galvanizing his base of true-believers in post-election demonstrations, the world is witnessing how Trump’s history of unabashed racism and politics of hate is transformed into a spectacle of fear, divisions, and disinformation.  Under President Trump, the plague of mid-20th century authoritarianism has returned not only in the menacing spectacle of populist rallies, fear-mongering, unchecked bigotry, and humiliation, but also in an emboldened culture of war, militarization, and extreme violence that looms over society like a rising storm.

The reality of Trump’s ascendency to the highest levels of power may be the most momentous development of the age because of its apocalyptic irrationality and the shock it has produced. People throughout the world are watching, pondering how such a dreadful event could have happened.  How have we arrived here? What forces have undermined education as a democratic public sphere making it incapable of producing the formative culture and critical citizens that could have prevented such a catastrophe from happening in an alleged democracy? We get a glimpse of this failure of civic culture, education, and civic literacy in the willingness and success of the Trump administration to empty language of any meaning while reducing political rhetoric to the service of humiliating taunts and a discourse of bigotry and hatred.  This is more than a politics of theatrical diversion, it is a rhetorical practice that constitutes a flight from historical memory, ethics, justice, and social responsibility.  Under such circumstances and with too little opposition, the United States government has taken on the workings of a disimagination machine, characterized by an utter disregard for the truth, and often accompanied, as in Trump’s case, by “primitive schoolyard taunts and threats.”  In this instance, Orwell’s “Ignorance is Strength” materializes in the Trump administration’s weaponized attempt not only to rewrite history, but also to obliterate it. What we are witnessing is not simply a political project but also a reworking of the very meaning of education both as an institution and as a broader cultural force.

Trump along with Fox News, Breitbart, and other right-wing cultural apparatuses, echoes one of totalitarianism’s most revered notions, one which pushes the notion that truth is a liability and ignorance a virtue.  Under the reign of this normalized architecture of alleged commonsense, education and critical thinking are regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data, and science is confused with pseudo-science. All traces of critical thought appear only at the margins of the culture as ignorance becomes the primary organizing principle of American society. For instance, two thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughing stock of the world. Such ignorance operates with a vengeance when it comes to higher education. Not only is higher education being defunded, corporatized, and transformed to mimic labor relations associated with Wal-Mart by the Trump administration under the preposterous ill-leadership of the religious fundamentalist, Betsy DeVos, it is also according to a recent poll viewed by most Republicans as being “bad for America.” One of its liabilities being is that it is at odds with Trump’s vision of making America great again.[1]             The politics of humiliation has its counterpart in systemic culture of lies that has descended upon America like a plague. Trump rejoices in his role as a serial liar knowing that the public is easily seduced by exhortation, emotional outbursts, and sensationalism, all of which mimics an infantilizing and depoliticizing celebrity culture. Image selling now entails lying on principle making it easier for politics to dissolve into entertainment, pathology, and a unique brand of criminality.  The corruption of both the truth and politics is abetted by the fact that the American public has 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.  Popular culture delights in the spectacles of shock and violence.[2] Defunded and stripped of their role as a public good, many institutions extending from higher education to the mainstream media are now harnessed to the demands and needs of corporations and the financial elite. In doing so, they have succumbed to the neoliberal assault reason, thoughtfulness, and informed arguments. Governance is now replaced by the irrational tweeter bursts of an impetuous four-year old trapped in the body of an adult.

Donald Trump is the high-priest of caustic rants. He appears to revel in a politics of humiliation both as a tool to insult his critics and as a way to discredit policies he dislikes. In part, his resort to producing humiliating insults is a rhetorical ploy that mimics a mix of cut throat politics, aggressive showmanship, and the bullish behavior found on Reality TV shows, not unlike the television show, The Apprentice, which launched him to celebrity status.  At the heart of Trump’s politics is a distorted mindset and a desire to make sure everyone but him is “fired” or voted off the island. Trump’s mode of governance combines a penchant for inflicting pain with a relentless obsession with ratings, praise, and disruption.  Such actions would be comical if it were not for the fact that they are being used endlessly by one of the most powerful politicians in the world.

Trump’s insults and bullying behavior have become a principal force shaping his language, politics and policies. He has used language as a weapon to humiliate just about anyone who opposes him. He has publicly humiliated and insulted members of his own Cabinet, such as Secretary of State, Rex W. Tillerson and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, undermining their respective ability to do their jobs. Senators such as Mitch McConnell, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse, among others have been the object of Trump’s infantile tweets.  More recently, he has mocked Senator Bob Corker’s height referring to him on Twitter as “Liddle Bob Corker,” and he has shamefully insulted Senator John McCain’s body language, pointing to the physical disabilities he suffered while he was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. The latter is particularly disturbing since McCain has recently been stricken with cancer. Chris Cillizza, a CNN editor, claims that “By my count, Trump has personally attacked 11 senators — or, roughly, 21% of the entire 52 person GOP conference between his time as a candidate and his nine months in the White House. That’s more than 1 in 5!”[3]

Ignorance is a terrible wound when it is self-inflicted but it is both a plague and dangerous when it is the active refusal to know and translates into power. Trump’s lies, lack of credibility, lack of knowledge, and unbridled narcissism have suggested for some time that he lacks the intelligence, judgment, and capacity for critical thought necessary to occupy the presidency of the United States. But when coupled with his childish temperament, his volatile impetuousness, and his Manichean conception of a world inhabited by the reductionist binary that only views the world in term of friends and enemies, loyalists and traitors, his ignorance translates into a confrontational style that puts lives, especially those considered disposable, if not the entire planet at risk.

Trump’s seemingly frozen and dangerous fundamentalism and damaged ethical sensibility suggest that we are dealing with a kind of nihilistic politics in which the relationship between the search for truth and justice, on the one hand, and moral responsibility and civic courage on the other have disappeared. For the past few decades, as Richard Hofstadter and others have reminded us, politics has been not only disconnected from reason but also from any viable notion of meaning and civic literacy. Government now runs on willful ignorance as the planet heats up, pollution increases, and people die. Evidence is detached from argument. Science is a subspecies of fake news, and alternative facts are as important as the truth.  In this instance, violence becomes both the pre-condition and the after effect of the purposeful effort to empty language of any meaning. Under such circumstances, Trump gives credence to the notion that lying is both normalized and can serve as the enabling force for violence.

For Mr. “Grab ‘Em By the Pussy”, words no longer bind or become the object of self-reflection, even when they reveal a complete collapse of civility and ethical norms. In this case, Trump’s revolting hyper-masculinity scoffs at any chance of dialogue or justifiable moral outrage. Trump has sucked all of the oxygen out of democracy and has put in play a culture and mode of politics that kills empathy, wallows in cruelty and fear, and mutilates democratic ideals. Trump’s worldview is shaped by Fox News and daily flattering and sycophantic news clips by his staff that boost his deranged need for emotional validation, all of which relieves him of the need to think and empathize with others. He inhabits a privatized and self-indulgent world in which tweets appear perfectly suited to colonizing public space and attention with his temper tantrums and incendiary vocabulary.  His call for loyalty is shorthand for developing a following of stooges who offer him a false and egregiously grotesque sense of community–one defined by laughable display of ignorance and a willingness to eliminate any vestige of human dignity. Anyone who communicates intelligently is now part of the fake news world that Trump has invented. Language is now forced into the service of violence. Impetuousness and erratic judgment become central to Trump’s leadership, one that is as ill-informed as it is unstable.

On a policy level, Trump has instituted legislation that reveals both his embrace of violence and the racial bigotry that drives it. For instance, he has recently revoked DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals], putting the bodies and dreams in limbo of over 800,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children. There is something particularly cruel and sadistic about Trump’s punishing these Dreamers who were brought to this country involuntarily and who only have known the United States as their home. Moreover, this particular group of immigrants by all the relevant measures are well-educated, economically productive, and valuable members of American society. This particular policy points to a president who thrives on a politics of social abandonment and extreme punitiveness.

Another recent example of Trump’s penchant for cruelty in the face of great hardship and human suffering is evident in his slow response to the devastation Puerto Rico suffered after Hurricane Maria. Five weeks after the powerful hurricane hit, the health care system is in shambles, a third of the population are without clean water, waterborne diseases are spreading, and the number of deaths is increasing. Trump’s response has been hideously slow, with conditions getting painfully worse. Given the accelerating crisis, the Mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz made a direct appeal to President Trump for aid stating: “We are dying.” Trump told her to stop complaining and then produced a series of tweets in which he suggested that the plight of the Puerto Rican people is their own fault and that they should start helping themselves rather than rely on government services. He also suggested, without irony or a sense of shame, that the crisis in Puerto Rico was not that bad when compared to a “real crisis like Katrina.”

Trump’s politics of humiliation reflects more than a savage act of cruelty, such practices also points to an emerging form of state sanctioned violence. What is different about Trump’s leadership compared to past presidents is that he relishes violence and willfully inflicts humiliation and pain on people; he pulls the curtains away from a systemic culture of cruelty, and in doing so refuses to hide his own sadistic investment in violence as a source of pleasure and retribution. Trump is the bully-in-chief, a sadistic troll who has pushed the country — without any sense of ethical and social responsibility — deep into the abyss of authoritarianism and has propagated a culture of violence and cruelty that is as unchecked as it is poisonous and dangerous to human life and democracy itself.

[1] Chris Riotta, “Majority of Republicans say Colleges are Bad for America (yes, really),” Newsweek (July 10, 2017).

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

[3] Chris Cillizza, “Donald Trump has now personally attacked 1 in 5 Republican senators,” CNN Politics-The Point (October 24, 2017).

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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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