Are the politics of "incivility" paving the road to an American fascism? Part 2 of 2

Only a renewal of historical memory can help us understand the threat posed by Trump, and then confront it

Published September 2, 2018 6:00AM (EDT)

 (AP/Alex Brandon)
(AP/Alex Brandon)

Read the first part of this essay here.

History contains dangerous memories, and this is particularly true for Donald Trump, given the ideological features and legacies of fascism that are deeply woven into his rhetoric of hate and demonization, his mix of theater and violence, a frenzied lawlessness, and his policies supportive of ultra-nationalism and racial cleansing. All the more reason for Trump and his acolytes to treat historical memory as a dangerous threat – one that harbors critical tools for understanding how the present repeats the past and how the past informs the future.

Historical memory matters because it serves as a form of moral witnessing, and in doing so becomes a crucial asset in preventing new forms of fascism from becoming normalized, as if the conditions leading to fascism exist outside of history in some ethereal space in which everything is measured against the degree of distraction it promises. Historical memory is especially important in light of the brutality of totalitarian regimes that have marked the history of the 20th century. Without historical memory, there can be no moral awakening to the increasing threat of authoritarianism now sweeping over the United States.

The echoes of fascism in Trump’s leadership have been well documented, but what has been overlooked is a sustained analysis of his abuse and disparagement of historical remembrance, particularly in light of his association with a range of current right-wing dictators and political demagogues across the globe. Trump’s ignorance of history was on full display with his misinformed comments about President Andrew Jackson and 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

Trump’s comments about Jackson having strong views on the Civil War were widely ridiculed, given that Jackson died 16 years before the war started. Trump was also criticized for comments he made during Black History Month when he spoke about Frederick Douglass as if he were still alive, though he died 120 years ago. For the mainstream press, these historical missteps largely reflect Trump’s ignorance of American history. But I think there is more at stake than simply ignorance.

Trump’s comments provide a window into his ongoing practice of stepping outside history so as to deny its relevance for understanding both the economic and political forces that brought him to power and the historical lessons to be drawn in light of his egregious embrace of a number of authoritarianism elements that resemble the plague of a fascist past. His alleged ignorance is also a cover for enabling a “post-truth” culture in which dissent is reduced to fake news, the press is dismissed as the enemy of the people and a mode of totalitarian education is enabled whose purpose, as Hannah Arendt has written, is “not to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” Trump may appear to be an ignoramus and an impetuous bully, but such behavior points to something more profound and political – legitimation for waging an ongoing attack, as Trump himself has done, on any viable notion of thoughtfulness, informed criticism and moral agency.  

I want to argue that there are important lessons to be mined historically regarding how we examine Trump’s connections to a number of ruthless dictators and political demagogues. Trump’s endorsements of and by a range of ruthless dictators are well-known and include Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, the Egyptian president; Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia; Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines, and the unsuccessful 2017 French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen. All of these politicians have been condemned by a number of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch on Torture, Amnesty International and Freedom House.

Less has been said about the support Trump has received from controversial right-wing bigots and politicians from around the world such as Nigel Farage, the former leader of the right-wing UK Independence Party; Matteo Salvini, the Italian deputy prime minister and head of the Northern League; Geert Wilders, the founder of the Dutch Party for Freedom; and Viktor Orbán, the reactionary prime minister of Hungary. All these politicians share a mix of ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, homophobia and a hatred of Muslim immigrants. A number of dictators have quoted Trump’s attacks on journalists as a legitimation for suppressing dissent in their respective countries.  

While the mainstream press and others have expressed moral outrage over Trump’s fawning  associations with brutal dictators, they have refused to examine these relationships within a broader historical context. What is lost in this form of historical amnesia is that the fascist horrors of the past have the ability to become relevant under new conditions that allow them to crystalize into new forms. Jonathan Freedland is right in arguing that “if the Nazi era is placed off limits, seen as so far outside the realm of regular human experience that it might as well have happened on a distant planet … then we risk failure to learn its lessons."    

In an age when totalitarian ideas and tendencies inhabit the everyday experiences of millions of people and create a formative culture for promoting massive human suffering and misery, Trump’s affinity for indulging right-wing demagogues becomes an important signpost for recognizing the totalitarian nightmare that presents us with a terrifying glimpse of the future.

At one level, Trump’s support of right wing demagogues and dictators is often acknowledged to be indicative of his refusal to use the office the presidency to defend human rights. What is not pointed to in the mainstream press is that Trump has no interest in human rights and views them as a threat to his own embrace of authoritarian power. There can be no missing the fact that Trump surrounds himself with ideological bedfellows and political loyalists. And it is in the words of some of his high level appointees that we often catch a glimpse of Trump’s admiration for authoritarian rule.

Soon after Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, one of the most repressive regimes in the world, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave an interview on CNBC in which he said that “[The] thing that was fascinating to me was there was not a single hint of a protester anywhere there during the whole time we were there. Not one guy with a bad placard …” When CNBC host Becky Quick pointed out that the Saudi Arabian government squelches dissent, Ross replied, “In theory, that could be true. ... But, boy, there was not a single effort at any incursion. There wasn’t anything. The mood was a genuinely good mood.”

Maybe Ross should talk to the thousands of protesters and activists who have vanished into Saudi Arabian prisons. Ross is either unaware or morally irresponsible in refusing to acknowledge that protesting in Saudi Arabia is punishable by death. In fact, soon after Ross left Saudi Arabia, the government sentenced to death Munir al-Adam, a disabled man who was arrested after he attended a protest meeting. The Independent in London reported that Adam lost his hearing in one ear as a result of being tortured and was forced to sign a confession. With no other evidence presented, he was sentenced to death by beheading.

Ross’ remarks about how happy he was at the lack of protest in Saudi Arabia and his refusal to speak out against the government’s human rights abuses do more than send the chilling message that the Trump administration cares little for human rights. They also embolden the state to repress and punish dissent. In addition, they signal an affinity for the political, economic and social conditions that allow authoritarian regimes to exist and flourish. How else to explain Trump's incessant attack on the press and journalists as “enemies of the people” and his support for the Duterte regime in the Philippines, which has put journalists on notice that they are at risk of being targeted along with drug dealers.    

Historical memory suggests that a better template for understanding Trump’s embrace of rogue states, dictators and neo-fascist politicians can be found in the reprehensible history of collaboration between individuals and governments, and between the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany before and during the Second World War. For instance, one of the darkest periods in French history took place under Marshal Philippe Pétain, the head of the Vichy regime, who collaborated with the Nazi regime between 1940 and 1944. The Vichy regime was responsible for “about 76,000 Jews [being] deported from France, only 3,000 of whom returned from the concentration camps. ... Twenty-six percent of France’s pre-war Jewish population died in the Holocaust.”

For years, France refused to examine and condemn this shameful period in its history by claiming that the Vichy regime was an aberration, a position that was taken up by Marine Le Pen, the neo-fascist National Front Party leader while running  in the presidential election. Not only has Le Pen denied the French government’s responsibility for the roundup of Jews sent to concentration camps between 1940 and 1944, but she has used a totalitarian script from the past by appealing to economic nationalism in order “to cover up her fascist principles.”

The deeply horrifying acts of collaboration with 20th-century fascism were not limited to France, and included collaborators in Belgium, Croatia, the Irish Republican Army, Greece, Holland and other countries. At the same time that millions of people were being killed by the Nazis, many businesses collaborated with them in order to profit from the fascist machinery of death. Businesses that collaborated with the Nazis included Kodak, which used enslaved laborers in Germany. Hugo Boss, the clothing company, manufactured clothes for the Nazis. IBM created the punch cards and sorting system used for identifying Jews and others in order to send them to the gas chambers. BMW and chemical manufacturer IG Farben used forced laborers in Germany, along with another car company, Audi, that “used thousands of forced laborers from the concentration camps … to work in their plant.”

The political and moral stain of collaboration with the Nazis was also evident in the United States in both Franklin D. Roosvelt’s and the American business community’s initial supportive views of Mussolini. Moreover, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, “In 1937 the State Department described Hitler as a kind of moderate who was holding off the dangerous forces of the left, meaning the Bolsheviks, the labor movement … and that of the right, namely the extremist Nazis. [They believed] Hitler was kind of in the middle and therefore we should kind of support him.”

One telling incident of collaboration suggesting America’s deeply rooted affinity with fascistic principles was visible in the America First movement of the 1930s. "America First" was the motto used by Americans friendly to Nazi ideology and Hitler’s Germany. Its most famous spokespeople were Charles Lindbergh and William Randolph Hearst. The movement had a long history of anti-Semitism, made apparent in Lindbergh’s claim that American Jews were pushing America into war. Historian Susan Dunn has argued that the phrase “America First,” which was appropriated and used by Donald Trump before and after his election, is a “toxic phrase with a putrid history.”   

The awareness of these historical collaborations functions to deepen our understanding of Trump’s current associations with right-wing demagogues, and should serve as a warning that offers up a glimpse of both the contemporary recurrence of fascist overtones from the past and our current immersion in what Richard Falk has called “a pre-fascist moment.” Trump’s endorsement of right-wing demagogues such as Duterte, Le Pen and Erdogan, in particular, is more than an aberration for an American president: It suggests an ominous disregard for human rights and human suffering, and the imminent suppression of dissent including the very principles of democracy itself.

Trump’s collaboration with dictators and right-wing rogues also suggests something equally ominous in the photo snapshots of the celebratory mutual embrace that is the symbol not of companionship but of shared resentments. As Michael Brenner observes, “authoritarian movements and ideology with fascist overtones are back – in America and in Europe. Not just as a political expletive thrown at opponents, but as a doctrine, as a movement, and – above all – as a set of feelings.”

It is against this historical backdrop of collaboration that Trump’s association with various dictators should be analyzed. The case of Rodrigo Duterte is particularly telling. Warning signs of a “pre-fascist moment” abound in Trump’s invitation to Duterte to visit the White House. A leaked transcript of Trump’s call inviting him to the White House also revealed that Trump offered Duterte full support for his savagely bloody war on drugs -- a war in which the police and vigilantes have killed thousands of people, most of them from the underclass.

According to the leaked transcript published by the Intercept, Trump said, "I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem. Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that." What Trump failed to address was that Duterte has supported and employed the use of death squads, both as mayor of Davao and as president of the Philippines. He has established what is essentially a nationwide killing machine that includes giving “free license to the police and vigilantes” to kill drug users and pushers while allowing children, innocent bystanders and others to be caught in the indiscriminate violence.

The New York Times has reported that under Duterte’s rule “more than 7,000 suspected drug users and dealers, witnesses and bystanders – including children – have been killed by the police or vigilantes in the Philippines.” Moreover, he has called former President Barack Obama “the son of a whore,” has drawn comparisons between himself and Hitler, has stated that Trump approves of his drug war (now proven by the leaked transcript) and has threatened to assassinate journalists. Duterte’s likening himself to Hitler offers a horrifying view of his embrace  of lawlessness as a governing principle and his use of the machinery of death to enforce his rule. Comparing himself to Hitler, Duterte's own words speak for themselves:

Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million — what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.

Duterte’s legalized brutality has been captured by photographer Daniel Berehulak, who said that he had “worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone, a place gripped by fear and death [but] what I experienced in the Philippines felt like a new level of ruthlessness: police officers summarily shooting anyone suspected of dealing or even using drugs, vigilantes taking seriously Mr. Duterte’s call to ‘slaughter them all.’”

Trump’s support for Duterte may arise out of his admiration for Duterte’s law and order campaign, hatred of the press and utter embrace of one-man rule. It may also have to do with Trump’s various business ventures in the Philippines, including ownership of a new “$150 million tower in Manila’s financial district.” All these issues represent elements of Trump’s extreme allegiance to his own insatiable self-interest or to a number of anti-democratic policies he has crafted, possibly both. Either way, Trump’s actions have set the country on a course that will corrupt U.S. democracy, while his ties with Duterte serve as a caution regarding how much further he might want to go.

At the same time, Trump’s penchant for what borders on collaboration has played out within a global configuration of economic nationalism and right-wing politics among people such as Le Pen, Erdogan, Putin and Sisi, who look to Trump for support and tacit approval.

Trump’s tacit support for Le Pen’s failed bid for the French presidency rests on his sympathies with her anti-immigration policies, her ultra-nationalism and her claim to speak for the people. Like Le Pen, Trump has turned deflection into an art as he redirects attention away from real problems such as rising inequality, a carceral state, human rights violations, climate change and a persistent racism that demonizes and scapegoats others. Trump wants to join hands with those other right-wing leaders who declare a similar intent to build walls and beef up the security state. His affinity for collaboration with Le Pen is matched only by his affinity for his white nationalist and white supremacist followers, both of which feed his own narcissistic impulses, bigotry, hatred of Muslims and what Juan Cole calls “neo-fascism” cloaked in the guise of “economic patriotism.”  

At the same time, Trump’s disdain for human rights, an unmuzzled press and dissent has enamored him to Putin in Russia, Erdogan of Turkey and Egypt’s bloodthirsty dictator, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Erdogan, Putin, Sisi and Trump are ideological bedfellows who harbor a great deal of contempt for the rule of law, the courts or any other check on their power.

Erdogan, in particular, has not only imposed a state of emergency on his country and then installed himself as a virtual dictator, but has also purged and arrested dissidents in the critical media and in academia. After Erdogan assumed dictatorial powers through what many believe was a rigged election, Trump congratulated him in a phone call. Erdogan and Trump are ideological bedfellows, but Erdogan has carried his authoritarian policies to a greater extreme. He is on record as describing his political system as an "illiberal state," where there can “be no room for cosmopolitan, free thought.” He has made good on his embrace of authoritarian rule by jailing his opposition, including journalists, academics and civil servants. He has been particularly ruthless in attacking the autonomy of Turkey’s universities.

Sisi is even worse than Erdogan and is a brutal military dictator “who overthrew his country’s democratically elected president in a 2013 coup, killed more than 800 protesters in a single day, and has imprisoned tens of thousands of dissidents since he took power.” Soon after Sisi came to power on July 3, 2013, he put into place many of the policies that were essential to his establishing an authoritarian government. As Joshua Hammond points out:

That fall, Sisi launched a sweeping crackdown on civil society. Citing the need to restore security and stability, the regime banned protests, passed antiterrorism laws that mandated long prison terms for acts of civil disobedience, gave prosecutors broad powers to extend pretrial detention periods, purged liberal and pro-Islamist judges, and froze the bank accounts of NGOs and law firms that defend democracy activists. Human rights groups in Egypt estimate that between 40,000 and 60,000 political prisoners, including both Muslim Brotherhood members and secular pro-democracy activists, now languish in the country’s jails. Twenty prisons have been built since Sisi took power.

Trump’s response to these human rights violations and the turning of Egypt into a police state was to publicly announce that he was “very much behind President el-Sisi. He’s done a fantastic job in a difficult situation.” Trump has also offered to meet with Thailand's prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a junta head who is responsible for jailing dissidents after he took power through a coup. But the crowning masterpiece of Trump’s terms of endearment for his fellow leaders is undoubtedly his description of one of the most brutal and disturbed dictators in the world, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, as “a smart cookie.”

Trump has repeatedly praised Vladimir Putin, which is not surprising given Trump’s business ties with Russia. As Trump made clear in 2013 on the "Late Show With David Letterman," “I have done a lot of business with the Russians.” Many people believe that Trump’s business connections far exceed what he is willing to admit. Trump’s unwillingness to reveal publicly his tax returns have been criticized as a way for him to hide his business dealings with Russia. While Trump’s connections with Russia are not clear, there is a deeper concern about to what degree Trump might be indebted to economic and political interests in Russia. Jeremy Venook rightly observes that

Trump’s track record in doing business in Russia doesn’t definitively demonstrate that he currently has connections to the country. ... It also doesn’t in any way mean that he colluded with Russia during the campaign, which is the reason for the FBI’s investigation. But the problem underlying the inquiry into Trump’s financial ties isn’t simply whether he currently has projects there; it’s whether his dealings leave him indebted to the Russian government or the nation’s oligarchs, which could compromise his decision-making.

In his endorsement, support and legitimation of a range of dictators and right-wing extremists, Trump has emulated a grave period in history in which such collaboration was viewed and condemned as not only a sign of disrespect for human rights and the rule of law, but shameless complicity with the ideologies, policies and practices associated with fascism itself. Situating Trump within the historical legacy of collaboration with fascist states and leaders provides a new language for examining how far Trump has already set his regressive policies in motion and how much further he might go in pushing the United States toward outright authoritarianism.

Historical memory can be used to prevent such practices from being normalized. Contextualizing Trump’s collaborationist endorsements offers insights into what the prelude to authoritarianism looks like in contemporary terms. It enables the public to understand how fascism can be normalized by escaping from history and operating in ways to suggest it is merely the “new normal.”

Trump’s politics of collaboration reminds us that the current crisis facing Americans is really about the longer and larger crisis of memory, justice and democracy, and not simply about his own poor judgment or aberrant behavior. Historical memory, in this case, is a crucial referent for gaining insights into the dark forces and totalitarian forms emerging under the Trump regime. It also provides a referent for salvaging the possibility of individual and collective resistance against the evolving dynamics of an American-style fascism that poses a dire threat to democracy at home and abroad.   

The rise of Donald Trump as a corporate-fueled celebrity troll who courts the favor of autocrats and dictators around the world represents the presence of a noxious disease in the body politic, one whose superficial symptoms betray a deep-seated contempt for a politics guided by empathy and compassion. This contempt is the bedrock of a neoliberal formative culture that, as my colleague David Clark observes, “breeds horrors: the failures of conscience, the wars against thought and the flirtations with irrationality that lie at the heart of the triumph of everyday aggression, the withering of political life and the withdrawal into private obsessions.”

The issue is no longer whether politicians such as Donald Trump are about to lead us in into the dark ages. Rather, we should be seeking to locate and challenge the forces that have produced these politicians. When individualized resentment, brute force and scapegoat-centered violence are normalized, we move closer to a police state, and toward an age that has forgotten about the totalitarian impulses that gave us Iraq, legalized torture, a carceral state, war crimes, a plundering of the planet and much more. Trump is only a symptom, not the cause, of our troubles.

Let’s hope the planet is around long enough even to begin to rethink politics in light of the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency, which ranks as one of the most sickening events in American political history. Democracy, however flawed, has now collapsed into Trump’s world, its leader a serial liar, nativist, racist and authoritarian. As my friend Bob Herbert mentioned to me, “Trump threatens everything we’re supposed to stand for. He’s the biggest crisis we’ve faced in this society in my lifetime. The Supreme Court is lost for decades to come. His insane tax cuts will only expand (and lock in) the extreme inequality we’re already facing. I don’t need to provide a laundry list for you. The irony of ironies, of course, is that the very idiots, racists, misogynists and outright fools who put him in the presidency will be among those hammered worst by his madness in office.”

READ MORE: America is married to the mob: But now the crime boss in the White House is feeling the heat

After almost two years of the Trump presidency, it is clear that progressive and liberal strategies have been and will be set back for years to come, especially given Trump’s propensity for vengeance, crushing dissent and sheer animosity towards anyone who disagrees with him. In light of Trump's increasing assault on the environment, his war on black youth, his embrace of racial profiling as a centerpiece of his law and order plank, his $1.5 trillion tax gift to the ultra-rich, his ongoing dismantling of business regulations, his loading the Supreme Court  with ultra-conservatives, his expansion of the police state, separating children from their parents and caging them under inhuman conditions and ruthlessly increasing mass deportations, maybe then we will rethink where the levers of power should lie and what history might tell us about how we wound up on the precipice of fascism.

While the lights of our present democracy, however flawed, have gone dark, we cannot let our anger simply become a misdirected expression of resentment. Nor can we conveniently label the working class as an ignorant expression of right-wing populism — a notion that only self-satisfied elites should be comfortable with.  It is time to wake up and repudiate the notion that capitalism and democracy are the same thing. We must use our anger to fight collectively for a politics that refuses to forget the crimes of the past so that it might imagine a different future.

Such a struggle is not an act of incivility, but a call to civic courage and to start organizing to safeguard the promise of democracy for the generations ahead. This suggests that those fighting for a democratic socialist politics need, among other things,  to make education central to politics. A good place to start is to draw upon the legacy of theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Raymond Williams, C. Wright Mills, Ellen Willis and Stanley Aronowitz. These were theorists for whom the struggle over consciousness was the precondition and starting point for any kind of viable politics.

The great philosopher Antonio Gramsci was one of the first Marxist theoreticians who understood that almost every act of politics is a pedagogical practice. What he understood was that matters of identification, desire and agency were not ideological constructions and practices that existed in a void but were learned political practices; that is, agency was an operative pedagogical force that was often short-circuited  beneath the ideological deceit of common sense, the notion that there is no alternative, and a mass-produced manufactured ignorance or form of public pedagogy that today parades under a notion of civic stupidity that proclaims its support for "alternative facts," its presentation of the media as "enemies of the people," and, as Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently noted on NBC News, the idea that there is no such thing as the truth.

Recognizing consciousness is the motor of thought, desire, agency and struggle is a burden for many today because it refuses the notion of fate, easy orthodoxy, economic determinism and the silly discourse of objective contradictions, not to mention the collapse into political purity and the notion that biology drives our politics. In this case, as a political category consciousness is a site of struggle, not a vacuum waiting to be filled with academic platitudes. It is the site where indifference is challenged and gives rise to educated hope and collective struggles.

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By Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux is University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest and Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. He is the author of numerous books, including "America at War With Itself," "On Critical Pedagogy" and "American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism." His newest book, "Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education at a Time of Crisis," was recently published by Bloomsbury.

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