Against the dictatorship of ignorance in the age of Donald Trump: Part 1 of 2

Our culture of ignorance has made possible the rise of a terrible new political blend: Neoliberal fascism

By Henry A. Giroux

Contributing Writer

Published May 18, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

President Donald Trump; Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro; Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (AP/Getty/Salon)
President Donald Trump; Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan; Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro; Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban (AP/Getty/Salon)

The ghosts of a fascist past are with us once again, resurrecting the discourses of hatred, exclusion and ultra-nationalism in countries such as the United States, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, Turkey and the Philippines. In addition, right-wing extremist parties are on the move politically in Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden and Germany. The designers of a new breed of fascism increasingly dominate major political formations and other commanding political and economic institutions across the globe. They have infused a fascist ideology with new energy through a right-wing populism that constructs the nation through a series of racist and nativist exclusions, all the while feeding off the chaos produced by neoliberalism.

Their nightmarish reign of misery, violence and disposability is legitimated, in part, in their control of a diverse number of cultural apparatuses that produce a vast machinery of manufactured consent. This reactionary educational formation includes the mainstream broadcast media, digital platforms, the Internet and print culture, all of which participate in an ongoing spectacle of violence, the aestheticization of politics, the legitimation of opinions over facts, and an embrace of a culture of ignorance. Under the reign of this normalized architecture of neoliberal ideology, literacy is now regarded with disdain, words are reduced to data, and science is confused with pseudo-science. Chris Hedges is right to argue that both the rule of law and the institutions that make democracy possible are being undermined. He is worth quoting at length:

The mechanisms that once made democracy possible have withered and died. We no longer have elections free of corporate control; real legislative debate; an independent press rooted in verifiable fact that lifts up the voices and concerns of the citizens rather than peddling conspiracy theories such as “Russiagate” or cheerleading for disastrous military interventions and occupations; academic institutions that vigorously examine and critique the nature of power; or diplomacy, negotiation, détente and compromise. Puffed up by self-importance, intoxicated by the ability to wield police and military power, despots and their grotesque courtiers are freed with the collapse of the rule of law to carry out endless vendettas against enemies real and imagined until their own paranoia and fear define the lives of those they subjugate. This is where we have come, not because of Trump, who is the grotesque product of our failed democracy, but because the institutions that were designed to prevent tyranny no longer function.

Ignorance has lost its innocence and is no longer synonymous with the absence of knowledge. It has become malicious in its refusal to know, to disdain criticism, and render invisible important social issues that lie on the side of social and economic justice. James Baldwin was certainly right in issuing the stern warning in “No Name in the Street” that “Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”

As is well known, President Trump’s ignorance lights up the Twitter landscape almost every day. He denies climate change along with the dangers that it poses to humanity, shuts down the government because he cannot get the funds for his wall — a grotesque symbol of nativism — and heaps disdain on the heads of his intelligence agencies because they provide proof of the lies and misinformation that shapes his love affair with tyrants. This kind of power-drunk ignorance is comparable to a bomb with a fuse that is about to explode in a crowded shopping center. Ignorance now fuses with a reckless use of state power that holds both human life and the planet hostage. Under such circumstances, thinking becomes dangerous and becomes the object of organized disgust for any vestige of the truth.

However, there is more at stake here than the production of a toxic form of illiteracy and the shrinking of political horizons. What we are witnessing is a closing of the political coupled with explicit expressions of cruelty and “widely sanctioned ruthlessness.”  Moreover, the very conditions that enable people to make informed decisions are under siege as schools are defunded, media becomes more corporatized, oppositional journalists are killed, and reality TV becomes the model for mass entertainment.

Power feeds off corruption in the United States and dictators who crush dissent are invited to the White House and praised by President Trump.  Under such circumstances, there is a full-scale attack on thoughtful reasoning, empathy, collective resistance and the compassionate imagination. In some ways, the dictatorship of ignorance resembles what the writer John Berger calls “ethicide” and Joshua Sperling defines as “The blunting of the senses; the hollowing out of language; the erasure of connection with the past, the dead, place, the land, the soil; possibly, too, the erasure even of certain emotions, whether pity, compassion, consoling, mourning or hoping.”

After decades of the neoliberal nightmare both in the United States and abroad, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s. The ruling elite and managers of extreme capitalism have used the crises of economic inequality and immigration and what Paul Gilroy has called its “manifestly brutal and exploitative arrangements” to sow social divisions and resurrect the discourse of racial cleansing and white supremacy. In doing so, they have tapped into the growing collective suffering and anxieties of millions in order to redirect their anger and despair through a culture of fear and discourse of dehumanization; they have also turned critical ideas to ashes by disseminating a toxic mix of racialized categories, ignorance and a militarized spirit of white nationalism.

In this instance, neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible project and movement that connects the exploitative values and cruel austerity policies of “casino capitalism” with fascist ideals. These ideals include the veneration of war, anti-intellectualism, dehumanization, a populist celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity, the suppression of freedom and dissent, a culture of lies, a politics of hierarchy, the spectacularization of emotion over reason, the weaponization of language, a discourse of decline, and state violence in heterogeneous forms. Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and 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, especially in the United States.

The deep grammar of violence now shapes all aspects of cultural production and becomes visceral in its ongoing generation of domestic terrorism, mass shootings, the mass incarceration of people of color and the war on undocumented immigrants. Not only has it become more gratuitous, random and in some cases trivialized through the monotony of repetition, it has also become the official doctrine of the Trump administration in shaping its domestic and security policies. Trump’s violence has become both promiscuous in its reach and emboldening in its nod to right-wing extremist groups. The mix of white nationalism and expansion of policies that benefit the rich, big corporations and the financial elite are increasingly legitimated and normalized in a new political formation that I have termed neoliberal fascism.

The urgency of addressing the rise of fascism both in the United States and abroad might begin with the regime of untruth and manufactured illiteracy that allows and normalizes the catastrophic conditions that make neoliberal fascism a potent source of identity, fantasy and pleasure. One place to start would be a critical analysis of the Trump administration’s efforts to abandon and discredit traditional sources of evidence, facts and analysis in its attempt to normalize fake news, a culture of lying and the world of alternative facts.

At issue here is making visible a radical new relationship between the public and truth and the ensuing demise of civic culture and the public institutions that make it possible. As the public’s grip on civic literacy weakens, language is emptied of any substantive meaning and the shared standards necessary for developing informed judgments and sustained convictions are undermined. At the same time, those institutions dedicated to producing critical knowledge and informed citizens are under attack and are slowing disappearing.  In a world where nothing is true, all that is left to choose from are competing fictions. One consequence is that everything begins to look like a lie.

As the historian Timothy Snyder points out, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.” More startling is the assumption that what matters in an age of deep divisions, exploitation and precarity is not whether something is true or false but the promise of a consistent narrative which calls upon people to commit to a newfound sense of unity while willing to “abolish their capacity for distinguishing between the truth and falsehood, between reality and fiction.” Of course, there is more at stake here than the creation and normalization of a culture of lying and what Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord and others identified as the theatricalization and aestheticization of politics. There is also the threat to democracy itself.

The entrepreneurs of hate are no longer confined to the dustbin of history, particularly the proto-fascist era of 1930s and 1940s. They are with us once again, producing dystopian fantasies out of the decaying communities produced by 40 years of a savage capitalism. White male rage has emerged out of the destruction of social bonds and the gutting of the welfare state and intensified with the neoliberal unleashing of destructive energies of “deracination, displacement, and disintegration.” Angry white male loners looking for a cause, a place to put their agency into play, are fodder for cult leaders. They have found one in Trump, for whom the relationship between the language of fascism and its toxic worldview of “blood and soil” and the “fear of inferior blood” has moved to the center of power in the United States.  

Thinking is now viewed as an act of stupidity, and ignorance a virtue. 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 most of the Republican Party in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the U.S. the laughingstock of the world. Politicians endlessly lie, knowing that the public is addicted to extreme violence and shock, which allow them to drown in overstimulation and live in an ever-accelerating overflow of information and images.

News has become entertainment and echoes reality rather than interrogating it. Language operates in the service of violence, entertainment thrives on the spectacle of violence, and state violence has become normalized and shapes domestic and foreign policies. Violence on the southern border, along with violence waged against black and brown people by a militarized police force, is legitimated daily in the violence that shapes popular culture, whether in video games or in the extreme violence of Hollywood films such as the "John Wick" series. Unsurprisingly, education in the larger culture has become a disimagination machine, a tool for legitimating ignorance that now plays a central role in the formation of an authoritarian politics that has gutted the ideologies, policies and institutions that are crucial to a substantive and thriving democracy.

I am not talking about the kind of anti-intellectualism that has a long history in the United States. I am pointing to a more lethal form of ignorance fueled by a manufactured type of illiteracy that is often ignored. What I am referring to is a mode of illiteracy that is both a scourge and a political tool power designed primarily to make war on language, meaning, thinking, and the capacity for critical thought. Chris Hedges is right to state that “the emptiness of language is a gift to demagogues and the corporations that saturate the landscape with manipulated images and the idiom of mass culture.” Words such as love, trust, freedom, responsibility and choice have been deformed by a market logic that narrows their meaning to either a relationship to a commodity or a reductive notion of self-interest.

Freedom now means removing one’s self from any sense of social responsibility so one can retreat into privatized orbits of self-indulgence. And so it goes. The new form of illiteracy does not simply constitute an absence of learning, ideas or knowledge. Nor can it be solely attributed to what has been called the “smartphone society.” On the contrary, it is a willful practice and goal used to actively depoliticize people and make them complicit with the forces that impose misery and suffering upon their lives.

The writer and social critic Gore Vidal once called America the United States of Amnesia. The title should be extended to the United States of Amnesia and Willful Illiteracy. Illiteracy no longer simply marks populations immersed in poverty with little access to quality education; nor does it only suggest the lack of proficient skills enabling people to read and write with a degree of understanding and fluency. More profoundly, illiteracy is about what it means not to be able to act from a position of thoughtfulness, informed judgment and critical agency.

In this instance, manufactured illiteracy has become a form of political repression that discourages a culture of questioning, renders agency inoperable as an act of intervention, and restages power as a mode of domination. Illiteracy serves to depoliticize people because it reproduces conditions that make it difficult for individuals to develop informed judgments, analyze complex relationships and draw upon a range of sources to understand how power works and how they might be able to shape the forces that bear down on their lives.

Think about the defunding of public education or the assault on truth and civic literacy by the Trump administration in the U.S. and the Jair Bolsonaro administration in Brazil. Illiteracy provides the foundation for being governed, not how to govern. It is precisely this mode of illiteracy that now constitutes the modus operandi of a society that both privatizes and kills the imagination by poisoning it with falsehoods, consumer fantasies, data loops, propaganda machines and the need for instant gratification. This mode of manufactured illiteracy and education has no language for relating the self to public life, social responsibility or the demands of citizenship.

It is important to recognize that the rise of this new mode of illiteracy is not simply about the failure of public and higher education to create critical and active citizens; it is about a society that eliminates those public spheres that make thinking possible while imposing a culture of fear in which there is the looming threat that anyone who holds power accountable will be punished. Literacy is dangerous to tyrants because they recognize that it is not only about learning critical competencies and an essential step towards agency, it is also the precondition for intervening in the world by being able to critique common-sense assumptions that legitimate apparatuses of persuasion and power. In the absence of a culture of literacy, the preconditions disappear for confronting not only the crisis of memory, ethics and agency but also the crisis of democracy itself.

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.

As cultural apparatuses are concentrated in the hands of the ultra-rich and major tech companies, the educative force of culture has taken on a powerful anti-democratic turn. This can be seen in the rise of new digitally driven systems of production and consumption that 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 “war of all against all” replaces any vestige of shared responsibility and compassion for others. Think of the power of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire as an anti-democratic disimagination machine, especially in its ability to influence the Trump presidency.

The era of post-truth is in reality a period of crisis which, as Antonio Gramsci observed, “consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born [and that] in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” Those morbid symptoms are evident in Trump’s mainstreaming of a fascist politics in which there is an attempt to normalize the language of racial purification, the politics of disposability and social sorting while exaggerating a culture of fear and a militarism reminiscent of past and current dictatorships.

I want to argue that any viable attempt at developing a radical politics must begin to address the role of education and civic literacy and what I have termed public pedagogy, or more precisely the educational force of the wider culture, as central not only to politics but also to the creation of subjects capable of becoming individual and social agents willing to struggle against injustices and fight to reclaim and develop those institutions crucial to the functioning and promises of a substantive democracy. One place to begin to think through such a project is by addressing the meaning and role of pedagogy as part of the broader struggle for economic justice and practice of freedom.

The reach of pedagogy extends from schools to diverse cultural apparatuses such as the mainstream media, the expanding digital screen culture, and alternative old and new media outlets. Accordingly, pedagogy is at the heart of any understanding of politics and the ideological scaffolding of those framing mechanisms that mediate our everyday lives. Across the globe, the forces of free-market fundamentalism are using media establishments and public and higher education to reproduce the corporate-driven culture of neoliberalism. In addition, they are waging an assault on the historically guaranteed social provisions and civil rights provided by the welfare state, public schools, unions, feminist organizations and social services, among others, all the while undercutting public faith in the defining institutions of democracy.

As market mentalities and moralities tighten their grip on all aspects of society, democratic institutions and public spheres are being downsized, if not altogether disappearing. As these institutions vanish — from public schools and alternative media to health care centers — there is also a serious erosion of the discourses of community, justice, equality, public values and the common good. This grim reality has been called by Alex Honneth a “failed sociality” — a failure in the power of the civic imagination, political will and open democracy. It is also part of a politics that strips the social of any democratic ideals and undermines any understanding of education as a public good and pedagogy as an empowering practice.

One of the challenges facing the current generation of educators, students, progressives and other cultural workers is the need to address the role they might play in educating students to be critically engaged agents, attentive to addressing important social issues and alert to the responsibility of deepening and expanding the meaning and practices of a vibrant democracy. At the heart of such a challenge is the question of what education should accomplish not simply in a democracy but at a historical moment when society is about to slip into the dark night of authoritarianism.

What work do educators have to do to create the economic, political and ethical conditions necessary to endow young people and the public with the capacities to think, question, doubt, imagine the unimaginable, and defend education as essential for inspiring and energizing the citizens necessary for the existence of a robust democracy? In a world in which there is an increasing abandonment of egalitarian and democratic impulses, what will it take to educate young people and the broader polity to challenge authority and hold power accountable?

Coming in Part 2: Education is one of the few possible cures for "neoliberal fascism"

By Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux holds the Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest at McMaster University and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy.

MORE FROM Henry A. Giroux