Scholar Henry Giroux: Trump's attack on democracy will fail

Trump hopes to "dismantle all aspects of American democracy," says radical thinker. But resistance can defeat him

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published December 4, 2017 5:00AM (EST)

 (Getty/Mark Wilson)
(Getty/Mark Wilson)

Donald Trump has been president of the United States for almost a year. America is no longer the same.

Trump is the human embodiment of fascism and authoritarianism melded into an American form, which is in some ways new. It is a civic poison that is the product of reality TV, a culture of consumerism and celebrity, a deep loneliness and hopelessness among tens of millions of Americans, and what Sheldon Wolin has brilliantly described as "inverted totalitarianism" mated with gangster capitalism and unrestrained corporate power.

However, Donald Trump's movement is also the logical outcome of a country born of racism, misogyny, greed and white supremacy. In this sense, Trump's movement is nothing new and should have been expected. Moreover, the values that birthed Trumpism are not unique to America. The falsehood of American exceptionalism tricked and confused too many people -- both the average citizen as well as pundits and other professional "smart people" -- into being blind to the ways the political culture of the United States was fertile ground for demagogues.

How can Trump and the anti-democratic right-wing politics he represents be defeated? After one year of Donald Trump's rule, are matters worse or better than originally predicted? What can be done to sustain the efforts at resisting Trump and the Republican Party's agenda? In what ways has the culture of cruelty been energized by Donald Trump? Is American democracy lost?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with Henry Giroux, a professor of English and cultural studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. He has written dozens of articles and books, including the recent "America at War With Itself" and the forthcoming "American Nightmare: The Challenge of U.S. Authoritarianism." Giroux has also contributed articles to Salon, including his new essay "Gangster capitalism and nostalgic authoritarianism in Trump's America," published this weekend.

A longer version of this conversation can be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon’s Featured Audio page.

Donald Trump has been president of the United States for a year. Are matters worse or better than you expected?

I think it is much worse than anyone anticipated. Trump in the first year has moved at a speed that I do not think many people anticipated, in terms of dismantling as many democratic institutions as possible and consolidating and emboldening his neofascist, ultra-nationalist and white supremacist base. Moreover, he has transformed the Republican leadership into a party of cowards who have become utterly complicit [with] advancing his right-wing agenda. This consolidation of power and increasing normalization of Trump suggests something worse than I had anticipated. At the same time, I am surprised at several things.

One, I'm surprised over the enormous backlash that has emerged with respect to many of his policies, particularly in the courts and among some other Republicans. But I am also alarmed at the number of incompetent, right-wing people he is appointing as federal judges.

Two, there has been a reinvigoration of the press. This is particularly true with some elements of the mainstream media, whether we are talking about CNN, the Washington Post or The New York Times. Unlike in the past, these outlets have been persistent in exposing Trump’s lies and criticizing his policies and have actually pointed to his transformation of the United States into an authoritarian society. This is not to suggest they are now part of a more liberal and progressive network of media outlets as much as to say that they have been willing to criticize Trump in the face of the dangers he poses to the country, the globe and the planet itself. One wishes they would dig deeper and analyze the underlying economic, political and structural forces that make Trump the symptom rather than the problem.

Third, there has been an enormous groundswell of resistance emerging in ways that the mainstream media does not cover. People are organizing around big issues such as health care, "dark money" in politics and education, as well as the environment.

You're a lot more positive than I thought you would be. I'm on the pessimistic side of this whole thing, and I think it’s far worse than most observers anticipated. Are you trying to find the positive side of America under Trump's rule in order to nurture us going forward?

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. What is happening in the United States right now is profoundly threatening. Matters are much worse than when Trump first started. To clarify, I am surprised by some of the elements of resistance which have emerged. What that means politically and theoretically for me is that I am not going to surrender to a notion of power that only concerns itself with domination while ignoring resistance.

This notion of resistance has to be kept alive even in the direst times. I think we have to be careful in this moment. It is not a matter of providing a balance. Rather, it is a matter of offering a language of critique and possibility, even though in some cases those possibilities have been greatly diminished in light of the overwhelming threat that we are facing from Trump and the broader movement he represents.

What advice would you give to Americans and others who are tired right now -- emotionally and physically exhausted by Donald Trump and his movement?   

I think it’s easy to say “I would rather just watch TV or escape into celebrity culture or the undemanding idiocy of reality TV in order to distract myself and turn inward away from the world." We live in a culture that has been conditioned to retreat from social issues, define citizenship as an act of individualized consumption, and embrace the worst forms of anti-intellectualism and ignorance. The result is a society that embraces civic illiteracy and the most egregious forms of ignorance, and for the most part is quite happy to immerse itself in orbits of private pleasure while ignoring the larger issues regarding justice, ethics, social responsibility, power and politics. We are in a very dangerous cultural and political moment in the United States right now -- one that basically makes me very depressed, though far from paralyzed intellectually and politically.

Trump is putting in place a new type of political formation that is really a form of unabashed nationalist right-wing populism and racism which has changed the trajectory of history. These people are not like Father Coughlin. They're not on the sidelines. They’ve occupied the center of power, and they’ve been emboldened. I think in that sense they're going to be around for a long time. We no longer can simply suggest that we're somewhere at the end of history and that the forces of liberal democracy have won out. That is a delusion, and a very dangerous one.

Donald Trump has ushered in a type of malignant reality. How do we counter it?

I think the first thing you have to do is deal with the context in which people find themselves. How do you begin to talk to people who are stuck in forms of social isolation? How do you begin to talk to people who lack communities and are desperate for some kind of solidarity and life of meaning?

Consider Roy Moore in Alabama. He is a sexual predator. When you listen to how people in Alabama who are supporting him explain such a decision, the issue is not to shame them to but to understand how they cling to such arguments and what pedagogical possibilities might exist to enter into a conversation with them.

There are white Republican votes who basically are saying they would support an alleged sexual predator like Roy Moore before they would vote for any Democrat under any circumstance. Where does that sort of polarization and moral sickness come from?

I think it has longstanding roots in a discourse of hate, demonization, objectification and exploitation that really begins to emerge -- of course at the beginning of the country with genocide and slavery -- but more recently from the 1980s on, with a Republican Party that has produced a savage form of capitalism accompanied by both a culture of cruelty and a culture of ignorance. Trump and today's Republican Party are the endpoint of that process.

Your scholarship about the culture of cruelty resonates so loudly in this moment. A man in Las Vegas killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 others earlier this year. Of course nothing has been done to change gun control laws. Another deranged man killed dozens of people in a Texas church several weeks later. Again, nothing was done to make the country safer after that horrific incident. How do those examples of cultural violence reflect the dynamics which made Trumpism possible?

Violence runs like an electrical current throughout almost all aspects of American society. These different examples of violence reinforce one another. At one level, violence is basically the ultimate means for entertaining people at present in America. At another level, violence becomes the organizing principle driving the rise of the punishing state, militarism, and a punitive culture that basically operates at almost every level of society. Violence in American society has moved from the prison to everyday life. The prison and its culture of authoritarianism now shapes institutions such as schools, social services and many police departments. The model of the prison has become the standard way for how American society deals with problems. If kids are acting out, we don’t talk to them. We put them in handcuffs and the school-to-prison pipeline. We criminalize a whole range of behaviors that represent forms of extortion for municipalities and police departments. At another level, we have a military budget that is out of control.

Ultimately, violence is the DNA of American society. What you seeing now is an American society that is now completely removing itself from any sense of ethical and moral responsibility.

Many observers argue that Donald Trump's presidency is somehow "unprecedented." Any serious student of American history would reject such a claim. He’s the logical result of what we've been seeing in this country from the founding and then amplified from the 1960s onward.

Those who dismiss Trump as an aberration are making a terrible mistake. It’s the equivalent of saying that Trump is a clown. Actually, Trump is the unabashed end point, the Frankenstein monster that has been nurtured under the ideology, policies, values and social relations of a savage form of casino capitalism and authoritarianism that has accelerated without much of a challenge since the 1970s. Trump is the endpoint of the triumph of authoritarianism over democracy.

The one thing about Trump that is different and unique is how upfront he is about his beliefs. He’s unapologetic about his white supremacy, hatred of Muslims and his disregard for the social contract. He’s unapologetic about his authoritarianism. He’s unapologetic about the kinds of cruelty that he endorses. He has no remorse. He takes pride in lying as if it were a script out of a reality TV show. I think that is where Trump is distinctive. Is he an aberration? No. Trump is just more honest about the pathologies that now govern the Republican Party and in many ways the American political system.

Do you think journalists and commentators who keep saying that Trump is "unprecedented" just have a misplaced and misdirected faith in the strength of America's democratic institutions and traditions?

They refuse to recognize their own complicity in what Trump represents. I think that’s different. It’s not about faith in the system. It’s about covering up the ways in which they’ve become complicit with a system that endorses the most obscene forms of inequality, racism and sexism, as well as plunder of the planet. In total, these social forces have culminated in an American form of authoritarianism. Too many members of the so-called chattering class have helped to bring this event to fruition. In part, they are utterly craven and cowardly in their refusal to acknowledge that capitalism and democracy are not the same thing and that capitalism is now on steroids in terms of the destruction, misery and suffering it produces. They have too much of an investment in its rewards to be honest about what Trump represents.

There is a mountain of empirical evidence which demonstrates that America is a plutocracy. Trump's rise to power is a function of that reality. How does the average American citizen resist Trump and that type of political power?

I think they resist, in part, by recognizing that capitalism and democracy are not the same thing. I think we need to get over that confusion. We also need to realize that along with the myth of meritocracy and a belief that all problems are individual problems, that those three myths in total have cemented people into the glue of ignorance and authoritarianism we now find ourselves in. We're not even in an oligarchy; it is worse than that. We're basically on the cusp of authoritarian dictatorship in America.

There are millions of Americans who don’t believe in real democracy as long as they get a new phone and can buy other cheap electronic goods. If someone came along and said, “Hey, don’t worry about voting, I'll just give you stuff,” millions of Americans would say yes. I think they're afraid of true freedom and real democracy where they have responsibility as citizens.

I don't think they're afraid of freedom. I think those Americans live in a society which defines freedom so narrowly that they often don’t realize they even have a choice.

That’s even more damning.

Yes, that is more damning. But that doesn’t mean you can simply write them off by shaming them. I think you have to try to understand what the forces are that lead people to believe that consumerism is the only obligation of citizenship. Or that freedom is mostly removed from any sense of compassion or shared responsibilities.

What do you think happens in 2020 if Trump runs again?

I think he’s going to lose. Trump is out of control. His move to dismantle all aspects of American democracy are going to get much worse. I don’t think Trump is going to win in the end. The contradictions between the institutions, ideologies, formative cultures and economic conditions that give democracy meaning and the authoritarian ideology and practices he is implementing are being intensified daily. Trump’s politics are pathological, and his behavior is becoming more erratic and dangerous. People are beginning to wake up and realize they are on a train that is about to go off the rails. Trump will do a lot of damage before he leaves office. The good news is that his ratings are extremely low, and the only people who are now supporting him is a base of extremists, nationalists and other fringe groups. I think this nightmare will not go unchallenged.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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