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The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.
—Philip Roth, The Plot Against America
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. 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.
The architects and managers of extreme capitalism in the Trump administration and in the commanding institutions owned by the financial elite have used the crisis of economic inequality and its “manifestly brutal and exploitative arrangements” to propagate social divisions, tear apart social bonds, destroy the social contract, degrade the environment, and resurrect the language of racial cleansing and white supremacy. In doing so, they have not only tapped into the growing collective suffering and anxieties of millions of people in order to redirect their anger and despair into a language that operates in the service of violence, they have also turned critical ideas to ashes by disseminating a toxic mix of racialized categories, civic ignorance, and a militarized spirit of white nationalism. The entrepreneurs of hate are with us once again producing dystopian fantasies out of the decaying communities and landscapes created by forty years of a feral capitalism.
In this instance, a growing fascist politics connects toxic levels of economic inequality and the cruel austerity policies of casino capitalism with fascist ideals. This unprecedented convergence includes: a disdain for human rights, a rampant anti-intellectualism, a populist celebration of white nationalism,  the cult of leadership, the propagation of a culture of lies, the militarization of public life, the protection of corporate power, the elevation of emotion over reason, rampant cronyism, a disdain for dissent and intellectuals, and the “more or less explicit endorsement of violence against political enemies.”  What this new political formation suggests is that that fascism and its brutalizing logics are never entirely interred in the past and that the conditions that produce its central assumptions are with us once again, ushering in a period of modern barbarity that appears to be reaching towards homicidal extremes. While there is no perfect fit between Trump and the fascist societies of Mussolini, Hitler, and Pinochet, the basic tenets of hyper-nationalism, racism, misogyny, and disgust with democracy and the rule of law, “the essential message is the same.”
At a time of growing fascist movements across the globe, power, culture, politics, finance, and everyday life now merge in ways that are unprecedented and pose a threat to democracies all over the world. This can be seen in the emergence and power exerted by right wing corporate controlled media such as Fox News, Sinclair Broadcast Group, the rise of neo-Nazi digital outlets, and right wing talk radio. These powerful bigoted media outlets produce, shape, and sustain ideas, desires, and social relations that contribute to the disintegration of democratic social bonds and promote a form of social Darwinism in which misfortune is seen as a weakness and the Hobbesian rule of a ‘war of all against all’ replaces any vestige of shared responsibility and compassion for others. The power of this hate filled eco chamber in the cultural sphere cannot be underestimated in terms of the venomous poison it produces and the minds it colonizes. We live at a time in which state violence and a culture of cruelty are displayed like a badge of honor, have become normalized, and echo a past that appears to unleash new horrors adapted for the current historical moment. In this ascendant age of unapologetic brutality, learning to be human becomes more difficult, especially when all social problems are individualized and actions are divorced from moral consequences.
Fascism first begins with language and then gains momentum as an organizing force for shaping a culture that legitimates indiscriminate violence against entire groups — Black people, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and others considered “disposable.” In this vein, Trump portrays his critics as “villains,” describes immigrants as “vermin” and “criminals,” and has become a national mouthpiece for violent nationalists and a myriad of extremists and white supremacists who trade in hate and violence. Using the language of revulsion, criminality, and “filth” as a performance strategy and form of political theater to whip up his base, Trump appears to revel in using the blatantly evil rhetoric of bigotry and demonization, which then sets the tone for real violence.
Echoes of history resonate in Trump’s assault on minority groups, his use of racist taunts, and his twisted references that code a belief in racial purity, and legitimate attacks on and possible criminal action, if not violence, against those who do not mirror the toxic notions of white supremacy. Let’s be clear, Trump’s racist rhetoric “fits into a long white supremacist tradition that imagines non-whites as dirty foreign elements that must be expelled. Or killed.” How else to explain Trump’s recently reported comments in which, according to the New York Times, he stated that migrants on the southern border should be shot in the legs in order prevent them from entering the United States.
Fantasies of absolute control, racial purity, unchecked militarism, and class warfare are at the heart of an American imagination that has turned lethal. This is a dystopian imagination marked by hollow words, an imagination pillaged of any substantive meaning, cleansed of compassion, and used to legitimate the notion that alternative worlds are impossible to entertain. In an age when civic literacy and efforts to hold the powerful accountable for their actions are dismissed as “fake news,” ignorance becomes the breeding ground not just for hate, but for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, and refuses to make tolerance a non-negotiable element of civic dialogue. What we are witnessing is a shrinking of the political and moral horizons, and a full scale attack on justice, thoughtful reasoning and collective resistance.
Authoritarians such as Trump, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, and Orban are not refiguring the character of democracy, they are destroying it, and in doing so, resurrecting all the elements of a fascist politics that many people thought would never re-emerge again after the horrors and death inflicted on millions by previous fascist dictators. Trump, in particular, represents an emergence of the ghost of the past and we should be terrified. His ultra-nationalism, racism, and his love affair with some of the world’s most heinous dictators echoes a period in history when the unimaginable became possible, when genocide was the endpoint of dehumanizing others, and the mix of nativist and xenophobic rhetoric ended in the horrors of the camp. The world is at war once again and it is a war against democracy and Trump is at the forefront of it.
Not only has Trump “normalized the unspeakable” and in some cases the unthinkable, he has also forced us to rethink important questions about capitalism, power, politics, and, yes, courage itself. In part, this means recovering a language for politics, civic life, the public good, and a shared notion of citizenship while at the same time drawing attention to the ethical grammar of suffering and the need to connect personal and political rights with economic rights. What is needed is also a language of educated hope and a comprehensive politics that draws from history, rethinks the meaning of politics, cultivates and imagines a future that does not imitate the present. We need a language of “imagined futures,” one that “can snap us out of present-day socio-political malaise so that we can envision alternatives, build the institutions we need to get there and inspire heroic commitment. The ghosts of fascism should terrify us, but most importantly they should educate us and imbue us with a spirit of civic justice and collective action in the fight for a democratically socialist society.
The dark shadow of authoritarianism may be spreading, but it can be stopped. And that prospect raises serious questions about what educators, youth, artists, and those of us concerned about equality, justice, and freedom are going to do today to make sure that existing fragile democracies do not succumb to the authoritarian forces spreading across the globe. What this suggests, as I point out in The Terror of the Unforeseen, is that we need to develop an active critical relationship with history and modes of civic education because “memory produces hope,” and critical education enables critical questioning, and points to new modes of individual and collective resistance. Against the current political corruption and moral coma overtaking authoritarian societies, we will need to learn how to translate private troubles into public considerations and public issues into individual and social rights.
Near the end of her career, Helen Keller was asked by a student if there was anything worse than losing her sight. She replied “yes, I could have lost my vision.” To add to this eloquent comment, I would say, that history is open and it is time to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, especially if we want to imagine and bring into being alternative democratic futures and horizons of possibility. I want to end with a famous and moving quote by the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass who understood this well. He writes:
“If there is no struggle there is no progress…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” He pressed on: “We need the story, the whirlwind, and the earthquake….It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder… the conscience of the nation must be roused.”
Keller’s importance of developing a vision and Douglass’s demand for action have never been more important than they are today. In the face of the emerging tyranny and fascist politics that are spreading across the globe, it is time to merge a sense of moral outrage with a sense of civic courage and collective action. It is time to combine reason and hope, and to acknowledge that the problems we face are too urgent to be giving up on the promises of a radical democracy. Silence in a time of tyranny is unacceptable and resonates with Martin Luther King Jr,’s warning that “He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it” and that “ the greatest tragedy [in a period of] social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.… In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
1) Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139. ↑
2) Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139. ↑
3) Paul Gilroy, Against Race (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000), 139. ↑
4) Chiara Bottici, “Is Fascism Making a Comeback,” State of Nature (December 3, 2017). Online: http://stateofnatureblog.com/one-question-fascism-part-one/ ↑
5) Chiara Bottici in Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, eds. “One Question Fascism (Part One),” Is Fascism making a comeback?” State of Nature Blog, [December 3, 2017].Online: http://stateofnatureblog.com/one-question-fascism-part-one/ ↑
6) Neil Faulkner in Cihan Aksan and Jon Bailes, eds. “One Question Fascism (Part One),” Is Fascism making a comeback?” State of Nature Blog, [December 3, 2017].Online: http://stateofnatureblog.com/one-question-fascism-part-one/ ↑
7) Curtis Johnson, “The Momentum of Trumpian Fascism is Building: Stopping it is Up to Us,” Truthout (July 25, 2018). Online: https://truthout.org/articles/the-momentum-of-trumpian-fascism-is-building-stopping-it-is-up-to-us/ ↑
8) Martijn Konings, “Neoliberalism Against Democracy?: Wendy Brown’s “In Ruins of Neoliberalism,” and the Specter of Fascism,” Los Angeles Review of Books, [22 September 2019]. Online https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/neoliberalism-against-democracy-wendy-browns-in-the-ruins-of-neoliberalism-and-the-specter-of-fascism/ ↑
9) Sasha Abramsky, “How Trump Has Normalized the Unspeakable,” The Nation (September 20, 2017). Online: https://www.thenation.com/article/how-trump-has-normalized-the-unspeakable/ ↑