On “Legitimate Political Discourse”

Photograph Source: Tyler Merbler from USA – DSC09523-2 – CC BY 2.0

“Legitimate political discourse” is an interesting phrase. Three weeks ago the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted overwhelmingly to call the violent putschist Capitol Rioters of January 6, 2021 ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” That was their phrase for fascist marauders who:

+ Said “we’re going to take out country back” as they headed to physically assault the legislative branch of the US government.

+ Screamed “Hang Mike Pence” while invading the US Capitol to prevent the peaceful transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election.

+ Constructed gallows intended for the execution of Pence and other elected officials on the steps of the Capitol.

+ Chanted “USA, USA” and “Fight for Trump” while beating Capitol police officers, defacing monuments and paintings, breaking windows, denting doors, stealing government documents and computers, and wiping feces on Capitol walls and looking to kidnap, beat, and kill Congresspersons and Congressional staff.

+ Screamed “stop the steal” to falsely claim that Joe Biden’s election was fraudulent and to justify an attempted putsch meant to install their Dear Cult Leader Donald Trump as a de facto dictator.

+ Carried the Confederate Flag, symbol of Black chattel slavery and slaveholder secession, into the halls of Congress.

It was all very consistent with the prompting of the wannabe president-for-life and “instinctive fascist” Trump, who helped spark the riot by telling his supporters on January 6th to go down to the Capitol and “fight…fight like Hell. If you don’t fight like Hell,” Trump added, “you’re not going to have a country anymore.” At the same “Save America” rally before the Attack on the Capitol, Trump’s demented mob lawyer Rudy Giuliani told “Stop the Steal” protesters to engage in “trial by combat.”

The violent, white-nationalist rampage, which caused at least five deaths, lasted for hours, while the wannabe fascist strongman refused to call off the mob and sat in front of a White House television, enraptured with the real time scenes of chaos even while one of his Congressional sycophants, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, screamed for his sadistic master to call off the assault.

Quite a nice friendly town hall gathering it was. Just call it ordinary fascists engaged in legitimate putschist mayhem

“A Brutalist System Where the Strong Take from the Weak Because They Can”

Thirteen months and two weeks later, the orange-skinned septuagenarian troglodyte who set the madness off and tried to overturn bourgeois electoral democracy not only walks free – he remains very much in charge of one of the nation’s two viable capitalist political parties. He cand his party constitute a grave authoritarian menace in the world’s most dangerous country. As the former Republican strategist and Lincoln Project founder Steve Schmidt observed on (neo-) liberal cable news two weeks ago:

‘The political reality is, [the wannabe dictator Trump] is lock, stock and barrel in charge of the organization of the Republican Party. He controls all 50 state parties. QAnon factions control some of them. And the national party…just said that the [January 6th] violence, the mayhem, desecration was legitimate political discourse. That has meaning. They voted on it…Are we ready to throw the American experiment into the garbage can for a brutalist system, where the strong take from the weak because they can, where the laws benefit the strong because they`re strong, where the powerful get more powerful preying on the weak because that`s the natural order of things?…We are coming to a moment where we must decide the core issues. And the core issues, no matter how important they are, are not the domestic legislative agenda of a president. They`re the values of a country that this presidency is called to defend against a real-life, growing, metastasizing autocratic movement that is, for example, spilling over our northern border and causing chaos there. We live in a dangerous hour. It will get more dangerous.’

Like most CounterPunchers, I’m well to the portside of Steve Schmidt and frame things differently. I’m a left eco-socialist/communist who thinks the “American experiment” was a racist, sexist, and capitalist-imperialist nightmare from day one. But Schmidt is on to something here in his own bourgeois way: the US capitalist governance order is at a crossroads where one of the nation’s two major parties has gone over to a fascist rejection of previously normative bourgeois democracy. (No love at all for the dismal Weimar Dems, but that is one hell of a significant development during this opening quarter of the 21st Century.) He’s not a Marxist or left anarchist so he doesn’t use my/our language. but he’s got a better empirical handle on the situation than many self-proclaimed “leftists” I hear from.

Trumpenheit 451

Now let’s turn to some of what much of the Republifascist Party and base considers illegitimate political discourse: telling students the truth about the nation’s ugly and ongoing history of racial and gender oppression, including Black chattel slavery, Native American genocide, racist mass incarceration, racist police brutality, racial hyper-segregation, and patriarchy in its many forms. According to the ever more Nazified party of Trump, teaching minors and young adults about these things – central to any serious and honest account of US-American history past and present – will “traumatize” (white) youth, causing crippling guilt, depression, and anxiety in tender young hearts and minds. Therefore, many Republifascists feel, literature and scholarship that honestly relate the racist and sexist realities of US-American history and society must be prohibited from schools and libraries.

This is no minor threat. Since Joe Biden’s inauguration, thirteen US states have already enacted measures restricting public school teachers from advancing honest and serious information on the racist and sexist nature of US American history past and present. According to the Washington Post: “Laws limiting the teaching of race, gender and related questions now exist in ArkansasIdahoIowaNew HampshireNorth DakotaOklahomaSouth CarolinaTennessee and Texas. Executive actions, such as rules approved by a state board of education, are in place in AlabamaFloridaUtah and Virginia.”

It gets worse: book banning and even book burning. According to a recent chilling report:

‘book burnings and books being banned are almost heavy-handed in their narrative awfulness, but such things are exactly what’s been going on lately. Around the country, school districts have lately been voting to ban classics like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye because of content that’s been recently deemed inappropriate for children; last week, a right-wing Christian pastor named Greg Locke organized a book burning in Tennessee …right-wing extremists and ostensibly moderate concerned parents …are evidently getting increasingly comfortable with book banning and burning…Conservatives in Florida recently launched an initiative to ban 16 books from being accessed within the Polk County Public Schools district, and in Texas, records requests conducted by NBC News showed that 75 formal banning requests from parents around the state have come in within the first four months of the school year. During the same period of time last year, only one such request was made…Former Fort Worth, Texas librarian Sarah Chase even told NBC News that she’d retired prematurely due to the uptick in book banning fever. “I’m no saint,” Chase said. “I got out because I was afraid to stand up to the attacks. I didn’t want to get caught in somebody’s snare.”’

In some parts of the country, it appears, you put your job or life at stake by assigning, teaching from, and even officially lending out such essential writings as Howard Zinn’s magnificent People’s History of the United States, Gerald Horne’s narrative-flipping The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America, Frederick Douglass’s The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass’s classic speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Edward Baptist’s prize-winning study The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, W.E.B. DuBois’s classic Black Reconstruction in America, Eric Foner’s award-winning Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Richard Wright’s classic memoir Black Boy, Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tony Morison’s Beloved, Deborah Gray White’s classic study Ain’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness, Carol Anderson’s indispensable The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America, Leslie Reagan’s When Abortion Was a Crime– to mention a small number of the kinds of brilliant works doomed to fall under Big (white male) Brother suspicion in the revanchist part of the country that listen to sick racist freaks like the despicable fascist reptiles Charlie Kirk and Tucker Carlson. (For what it’s worth, my first two academic monographs would qualify as prohibited material in Herr Kirk’s world: Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis: A Living Black Chicago History.)

All of that and much more is illegitimate political discourse for the right. MAGA Kens and Karens holding down Fatherland purity in the nation’s “red” (white) suburban, exurban, and rural rings feel justified in trying to protect their little darlings from the “triggering” distress of learning about the terrible things this country has done and is still doing to nonwhite and female people. When you look at the broader right-wing agenda –cancelling efforts to defund the murderous racist white police state assault on Black people (the latest execution victim is Amir Locke), reducing Black people’s already sharply limited voting power, and stripping women’s right to control their own reproductive lives – it should be clear that the real point of this thought-policing is to whitewash the “great” nation’s past so as to more un-controversially commit racist and sexist crimes in the present and future. A related Amerikaner motive is to prevent young people from learning about how earlier generations rose up to fight class, race, national, and gender oppression(s). Zinn’s masterwork does not just linger on subjugation; it inspires with stories of popular resistance. DuBois’s masterwork was subtitled “Toward a History of the Part Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct American Democracy, 1868-1880.”

The whitewash isn’t just about US-American history. A popular volume that tells the story of the Nazi Holocaust in cartoon form (Spiegelman’s Maus) has been banned by a Tennessee school board. That has certainly sent chills down the spines of those who worry – with some reason – about “white power and the rising threat of genocide in the US” (the sub-title of a recent book by the distinguished human rights scholar and activist Alexander Laban Hinton).

I wonder if Amerikaner flames will devour copies of Ray Bradbury’s haunting 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451, which depicts a dystopian future in which books are incinerated (the right temperature for that providing the book’s title) by fire departments tasked with dousing the last embers of critical thought. (I devoured Bradbury’s riveting novel in one day, in a public library, when I was in junior high – a very unusual thing for me to do at that age).

On Trauma and Truth

Imagine being a junior high school or high school instructor trying to teach January 6th to your students. Would you show film clips of the white-nationalist neo-Confederate maniacs sent by their fascist mob boss to create a bloody state of emergency and cancel an election their angry Fuhrer clearly lost? Would you tell your students that paramilitary Oath Keepers were waiting slightly offstage, ready to arrive with assault weapons and tactical gear when the right moment arrived? Would you explain the meaning of putschist Proud Boy t-shirts proclaiming “6MWE” (meaning “six million Jews killed in the Nazi Holocaust wasn’t enough”) and “Pinochet did Nothing Wrong” (a reference to the US-sponsored Chilean fascist general who murdered thousands of leftists after overthrowing the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973)? Might all that “trigger” and traumatize pupils in your charge, especially perhaps nonwhite, Jewish, and female ones?

If you are the kind of civics or history teacher the Charlie Kirks and Tucker Carlsons of the world want to see, you would treat the January 6th marauders as noble warriors in the struggle against the (mythical) Left-globalist campaign to “replace” supposedly superior white people and purportedly glorious Western (white) culture with allegedly nefarious, inferior, and criminal nonwhite people and their supposedly degraded culture. Get it right/white: Critical Race Theory (CRT – not actually being taught in America K-12 schools, but so what?) is illegitimate but Fascist Replacement Theory (FRT) is legitimate.

You want traumatized children – Black, brown, Indigenous, Asian, and female ones especially? Put the FRT advocates in charge of instruction. That will produce childhood trauma, alright – the kind the right wants to increase.

For what it’s worth, I, learned – as a tender white child – about slavery and Jim Crow in my grade school and household during the middle and late 1960s. At age eight, on a very hot day in Soldiers’ Field, I heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak in eloquent detail about and against northern and urban racial oppression. Once a year in the middle and late 1960s, my mother, a Chicago Public Schools teacher, took me to spend the school day with her and her students (40 to a classroom) in a badly underfunded and 100% Black school (Beethoven Elementary) in the middle of the impoverished Robert Taylor Homes at 47th and Wabash in the historical heart of Black Chicago. I remember my father taking me down to a south Chicago suburb where I played awkwardly with a younger, frightened-looking Black boy in a house inhabited by the first Black family to live in his new and unwelcoming community.

Trauma? That kid had it. So did his parents. It was written all over the anxious faces and bodies of my mother’s housing project students, who were living under violently barren conditions that mocked the Apollo astronaut launch celebrations and other supposed techno-racist proofs of national greatness broadcast (along with fudged body counts from Vietnam) on my parents’ television. It was instructive to see and feel the stark contrast between (A) the comparatively sumptuous opportunities and freedom afforded by residence and descent to middle-, and upper-middle-class white, Asian, and Black kids in my school (the University of Chicago Laboratory School, then $800 a year per student) and neighborhood (Hyde Park) and (B) the overcrowded, paint-peeling, prison-like misery imposed on my hyper-segregated all-Black underclass contemporaries just two miles west. It was night and day, a badly and absurdly tilted playing field. Any grade schooler in my shoes could have seen that.

These and other experiences putting me in at least some semblance of a hint of contact with the living historical reality of US-American societal racism didn’t create trauma, anxiety, depression, or guilt for me. Maybe they should have done that, but they didn’t. What they did do was fuel anger, clarity, and a determination to use my (impossible-to-deny) race and class privilege to try to help end race and class privilege. It put me on a path to anti-racist revolutionary socialism in ways that I of course could not discern at the time.

Those who claim that telling children the truth about the United States’ ongoing history of racial, ethnic, national and gender oppression would “traumatize” them are using false concern for kids’ supposed cringing fragility to cover a campaign to repeat and expand upon past racist and sexist crimes.

Those on the right who claim that teaching the truth to American kids about US history and society might encourage kids to “hate their country” are on to something, though. To which a revolutionary should only say: “Let’s hope so. Bring it on. We need people of all ages to stop thinking like Americans and start thinking about humanity!”

Beyond Liberal Parameters

Contrary to what so many Trumpenleftish sorts[1] reflexively think, this is not meant to suggest that the Republifascistic right has a monopoly on Orwellian hypocrisy when it comes to framing “legitimate political discourse.” Not at all. Yes, MSNBC’s Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow, and Lawrence O’Donnell, their CNN counterparts, and many of their elite media guests (obsessed with defending and advancing US imperial power in distant Eastern Europe, specifically Ukraine, for the last two weeks) voice agreement with much of what I wrote above, as well they should. And then, yes, that’s right, they depressingly turn around and spread absurd US State Department and Pentagon propaganda depicting Russia and China as the only menacing imperial powers on the planet. It is unthinkable that they might report the longstanding aggressive and provocative role of the United States in Eastern Europe or anywhere else. Acknowledging the lethality and even the existence of the mass-murderous US-American Empire (which has killed many millions the world over) and Washington’s role in provoking petro-capitalist Russia and fueling Russian nationalism is beyond the parameters of “legitimate political discourse” in “liberal” establishment media. And so, it is pathetically left to Fatherland (FOX) News and pro-Assad Putinist trolls to publicize the ugly fact that there are a bunch of neo-Nazis among the Ukrainian “freedom fighters” Biden, the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, and MSNBC want good US-Americans to rally behind.

Serious discussion of Uncle Sam’s blood-soaked imperialism is off the table in the corporate communications order, dedicated to the manufacture of mass consent to the American Empire Project. So is honest discussion of how Biden’s current war mongering is meant to distract the US populace from his and his party’s abject, predictable, and predicted failure to meaningfully fight for nonwhite and female people and indeed the broad US-American working-class majority against both the right and the capitalist ruling class that owns both the nation’s two viable political organizations – the Republicans (neoliberal-capitalist and fascist) and Democrats (neoliberal-capitalist and bourgeois-democratic/constitutional). Also verboten on, say, MSNBC, is of course any discussion of how what we really need in the US and around world is an actual socialist revolution – something rather beyond the pale of the Democratic Party “progressive neoliberalism” that the right absurdly (and fascistically) calls “Marxist” and “Radical Left” – a vacuous to repressive “liberalism” that loudly celebrates the elevation of a Black female to the Boston Federal Reserve Board, to a corporate CEO position, or (perhaps soon) to the US Supreme Court (as long as the nominee pleases Joe Manchin’s carbon capitalist allies) but has nothing to say about the need for mass action to dismantle the racist prison state, protect poor Black women’s right to control their own reproductive lives, and halt the eco-exterminist and white nationalist mass extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It is unimaginable that MSNBC would ever bring on an expert (me, for example:) who understands  American neofascism within the context of a historical-materialist critique targeting eco-exterminist capitalism and both major party wings of the same bird of US corporate and imperial prey (imagine being able to, in Barrett Brown’s words, “hate two things at the same time”) – a scholar who posits the solution as a sustained popular uprising not only against the neofascist right but against the whole damn system that (including party, elections, and legal superstructures that stand far to the right of the populace) birthed Trump, Tuckems, and their eliminationist white minions along with their enablers in the “inauthentic opposition” party (the Democrats). That’s a kind of “cancel culture” you might not have heard all that much about.


1. The kinds of “left”-identified “class not race!” dunces – almost always white – who think that serious Left anti-racism and anti-sexism are bourgeois “virtue-signaling” and who idiotically claim that the notion of a fascist and right-wing-terrorist threat inside the US is a hysterical liberal hoax. For an in-depth discussion of the oxymoronic Trumpenleft, see the final sub-section of the fourth chapter (“The Anatomy of Fascism Denial”) in my new book This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America.

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).