Democracy fatigue and how to fight it: Philosopher Henry Giroux on life in the age of Trump

Are we human beings or robotic "humanoids"? For Giroux, fighting fascism is about being fully conscious and awake

By Chauncey DeVega
January 7, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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People sit on the steps of the Supreme Court as they watch protesters rally against the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, outside of the Supreme Court, October 6, 2018 in Washington, DC. The Senate is set to hold a final vote Saturday evening to confirm the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Like other authoritarians and fascists, Donald Trump is an expert practitioner of the shock doctrine. This strategy involves assaulting the legitimacy of political institutions, norms and values. In Trump's version of the shock doctrine, gangster capitalism and the wholesale privatization of public goods and the social commons are simultaneously both the central tactic and the final goal.

Trump and his agents’ use of the shock doctrine also involves undermining truth and reality itself such that there can be no common ground of agreement for political consensus in service of democracy.

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Trump and his agents' use of the shock doctrine is also a campaign against notions of shared community and citizenship. In the United States this takes the form of white supremacy and other forms of social and political violence against individuals and groups deemed to be the Other — this includes blacks and nonwhites more generally, LGBT people, those with disabilities, the poor and working class, immigrants and refugees, Muslims, liberals and progressives and those people deemed to be Trump’s “enemies.”

The sum effect of Trump’s shock-doctrine assault on the American people is a collective state of exhaustion, fatigue, and loneliness. Moreover, the American people and others around the world who are being victimized by the global right (and the failed neoliberal policies which created the fetid swamp from which it emerged) are also experiencing diminished physical and mental health outcomes.

In the U.S., the sum effect is a type of fatigue where instead of embracing mass resistance and other forms of corporeal politics, the public has succumbed to learned helplessness and an overall condition of passivity.

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Is “democracy fatigue” just a form of cowardice? What can be done to counter it? How have centrist voices in the mainstream news media and elsewhere helped to normalize and sustain Donald Trump, his Republican Party and their movement’s assault on democracy? How can the American people prepare themselves in 2020 and beyond for Trump’s and the Republicans' escalating attacks on American democracy, human rights and the rule of law?

In an effort to answer these questions, I recently spoke with philosopher Henry Giroux. He is 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 "American Nightmare: The Challenge of U.S. Authoritarianism." Giroux’s latest book is "The Terror of the Unforeseen.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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There is much despair among the American people and others who are living through the age of Trump. I have received emails and comments from people telling me that I am "too negative” and my essays and podcasts are “scaring them," and that I should stop. Such people have already surrendered. It is a sad thing to behold. What would you tell them?

I would tell them that criticism is not about despair. It is about opening up the possibilities of thinking in a different way so that one can act in defense of the common good, equality, social justice, and democratic ideals.

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We need to develop a language in the United States and elsewhere where one does not equate capitalism and democracy. We need a new language that generates a space where we can imagine a better future. We also need to confront how language is used as a tool for creating mindless fear. Ultimately, if a person attacks the critic and the truth-teller because it makes him or her sad then they are just turning a public issue into a private issue. As long as people look at society-wide public issues as being first and foremost about their own personal trauma then they are going to be trapped by the very forces that are causing them pain and exploiting them.

There is this emerging language about what is being described as “democracy fatigue.” It threatens to become a dominant framework for understanding the rise of the global right and its impact on the public. The struggle against this new form of fascism and authoritarianism in America and across the West has not yet begun in earnest and there is already talk of surrender.

“Democracy fatigue” does the work of moral depravity because it seems to suggest that even in the face of horrors, we should not be outspoken. That we should get tired and fade into the darkness so to speak.

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When you fade into the shadows you become part of the problem. This is not a matter of being tired, it's a matter of justice. It's about the truth. It's about social responsibility. It's about facing up to the fact that we live in very dangerous times. The issue is not to get tired; the issue is to fight harder.

Ultimately this “democracy fatigue” language is being offered by people who have been absorbed into the system. They are afraid of the possibilities represented by people challenging the system. This resistance could be by young people, teachers, or how people are fighting against climate change. “Democracy fatigue” is cowardly language parading as an insight. It really is the liberal center in the worst way.  It is the language of “Go slow, don't move too fast. Don't exhaust yourself.”

It is a dead language. The unintended outcome of such language is that it also reinforces distrust of the elites and pushes too many people into the arms of demagogues such as Donald Trump.

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What are your thoughts about the professional centrists and other “mainstream” voices in the news media? They dance around the dire realities of what Trumpism represents because they are invested in giving their public some false hope. As an example, the most prominent opinion-makers took almost three years to finally describe Donald Trump as what he is — a fascist, a serial liar, a racist, a misogynist, corrupt, mentally unwell and a demagogue. But guess what? Over the following days and weeks they just moved on. There is little if any follow-through and commitment to the truth.

Their ethical frameworks are organized around very specific economic and political interests. Those professional centrist pundit types are basically showmen and show-women. They are examples of a politics of disengagement and a politics of theater. Politics is emptied of any substance. It's all about the spectacle.

Therefore, any questions of social or ethical responsibility are made meaningless in relation to their own complicity in the system. These professional centrists have a stake in the system. They benefit from it. Do you really think that they care about the social costs that the system produces? They could care less.

These people are nothing more than charlatans who defend the system by making the claim to be opposed to it, when in fact they are not opposed at all. They're basically complicit with it.

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A prime example of the politics of theater and distraction is the new movie “Bombshell,” which is about Fox News and its sexual harassment scandal. The political work being done by such a movie is very dangerous because it attempts to humanize the agents of fascism.

I'm not interested in personal stories that basically obliterate questions of politics and power and the structures which maintain them. These stories function as disimagination machines which reduce politics and serious concerns down to “Do you like these people in the movie? See, they're not too bad. Oh, they're just like us." That is just nonsense. In this discourse, social and political issues collapse into the personal and all politics is reduced to matters of character, style, and aesthetics.

They are “humanoids.” They are part of a system that wages enormous destruction on people's minds, their lives, their livelihoods, on their families, and on their quest to have a life filled with dignity. I am not interested in evil being humanized. Instead, I am interested in understanding the ideological and structural forces that actually produce evil.

What does it mean to be a full human being? How do we make the distinction between a “humanoid” and a full human being?

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A humanoid is a person who no longer occupies a moral universe. A humanoid is an individual who has removed him or herself from any sense of ethical and social responsibility to others. The process of making people into humanoids turns people into a type of machine. It turns them into something deadly. It turns them into people who don't feel. It turns them into people who are basically immersed in a culture of cruelty — and in some ways these humanoids even seem to enjoy the pain and rage and the separation and despair they perpetrate on others.

Humanoids are people who are basically sadomasochists, who function in a way that aligns their own personhood with a system which says that questions of compassion, justice, caring, love, courage and social responsibility are a liability.

In total, humanoids both produce a culture of cruelty and misery but also literally occupy its center.

That process and its agents are central to the fascist imaginary that is taking over America and the world at present.

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You are correct. We are in the midst of a fascist imaginary. Fascism does not replicate itself exactly every time it appears. Focusing on some strict formal definition misses the point. Fascism is instead an ideological system that tends to reinvent itself in different ways. If a person cannot understand that fact, then they have learned nothing from history. They have no historical consciousness.

This is not simply about a debate over the meaning of “fascism” but a debate about the meaning of history. We must also grapple with how history reproduces itself in the present.

The obligatory question: At the end of one year and the beginning of another, what are your thoughts on 2020 and beyond?

There is a way to talk about time that is very different from the question of making forecasts and predictions. Time, with respect to politics and agency, is either a burden or a luxury. When time is a burden then people cannot develop their full human capacities because they are embroiled in the politics of survival. By comparison, when time can be used as a luxury people are not just surviving. They can more fully reach their artistic, creative and other human capacities.

Shifts in time are critical to understand. What is happening in this historical moment and its shifts? What new political formations are we witnessing?

That is why I have been spending a large amount of time thinking about neoliberal fascism, a process wherein the corporate and other elites are now using white supremacy, white nationalism and racism and blood-and-soil discourses as a way of diverting politics away from their own failures as a class.

Neoliberal fascism is a new political formation. Yes, it is related to what happened in the 1920s and 1930s. But it is also distinctly different.

How do we balance the fact that entire populations are in survival mode with trying to maintain some perspective for the long view?

People need to be educated to see how questions of survival can be coupled with a notion of self-reflection. One does not have to be trapped in such a state of despair if they learn to work collectively with others.

People must begin to understand that the very people they are supporting, the elites, are the people who are in fact exploiting them. People must understand that the system as presently configured is not meant for the average person. And again, we must understand that capitalism has nothing to do with democracy and everything to do with consolidation of power in its many antisocial forms.

We cannot write people off just because they are trapped. Instead, we must figure out what it means for people to be trapped and then find ways to give them a new sense of individual and collective agency.

The Democratic Party’s leaders, and most in the mainstream news media, are still in a state of profound denial about the fact that Trump’s supporters love him because he is crude, foul, dangerous, ignorant, violent, racist, sexist and contemptuous of human rights and human dignity more generally. In short, Trump’s cultists love him because he is a bad person. The mainstream media and Democratic leaders cannot admit that basic fact because to do so would indict American society.

How should we understand the rage being appropriated by Donald Trump? How were the so-called liberal elites so completely brain-dead with respect to what they missed with the rise of Trumpism?

Liberal elites had nothing to say to workers. The language the liberal elites used did nothing but reproduce the problems that workers were already struggling with. Liberal elites also spoke in a language which did not in any sense engage the cultures of everyday life that these people inhabited.

The response to these liberal elites is then, “Look, we hate these people. They're arrogant; they think we're scum; they think we're stupid; they don't think we care; they don't care about us." Then all of a sudden somebody like Donald Trump comes along, and he's foul-mouthed, arrogant, stupid, and his supporters love it all. Why? Because Trump is basically the antithesis of the so-called elites.

We need to confront the societal forces and apparatuses which terrorize too many people into believing that Donald Trump is the only choice they have.

The people Trump does not like he calls “treasonous.” The people Trump doesn’t like he calls “scum.” Trump uses the same language the Nazis did. This is dehumanizing entire groups of people by calling them "rats" and "vermin". This is not entertainment. It remains uncertain if the Democrats, liberals, progressives and others on the American left are going to take Trump’s threats seriously.

 How did you feel at the end of 2019?

I felt both exhausted and energized. I felt exhausted because I think this is a long-term struggle. The immediacy of the tyranny that we face with Trump — and other leaders like him around the world — has now been transformed into a recognition that this is a long-term issue, one deeply embedded in the social, political and economic fabric of American society.

I also have moments when I feel existentially exhausted, that is, a bit pessimistic politically about the nature of the fascist forces we are fighting, but I never let that view defeat me. I think that we have to go on. The stakes are too high to give up. In that sense, I am equally energized by the hope that change is possible, especially given the current sacrifices and struggles being waged by young people and others in Chile, Brazil, the U.S. and other countries in their efforts to be written back into the script of a radical democracy. I use the word existential in the sense of Gramsci’s notion of pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will.

People who claim to be surprised by the rise of Trumpism are not in fact really surprised. They have had their heads in the sand. It is a form of willful ignorance.

The people who say they are surprised are people who refuse to address the core problems. Why? Because to identify the real problems means that those problems are then deemed to be dangerous. This in turn means those who are in denial are therefore made complicit. To correct these deep problems would mean that those people who are in denial would have to change their political views about the world.

One of the core problems that led to the age of Trump is that the United States is an infantile country and culture.

If we live in an infantilizing culture, then one must talk about celebrity culture as well as the collapse of public education. As part of that conversation we need to focus on the corporatization of education on all levels as well. Neoliberal fascism and its attack on the public imagination and capacity for learning and critical self-reflection must also be confronted.

Donald Trump is the endpoint and the symptom of a social, political and economic system in crisis. Trump is the unabashed avatar of neoliberalism in its most extreme form. Donald Trump is unapologetically rude, nasty, humiliating, racist and xenophobic. Ultimately, Donald Trump is the mirror that we now must look at in order to gain some understanding of what these forces of neoliberal fascism have created.

Neoliberal fascism and Trumpism are a form of fascist politics that basically wears its own racism and modes of exploitation and humiliation as a badge of honor.

The collective narcissism and feedback loop of ideation and love between Trump and his followers is a symptom of an infantile pathological culture. When Trump looks in the mirror, he sees a god. By giving their obedience to Donald Trump, his supporters feel like they too are gods. This is mass delusion, a form of public sickness.

Right-wing populism creates create such an outcome. It is the psychosis that emerges under neoliberalism.

Looking to the future, what do you want to prepare the American people and others in the West and elsewhere for?

There is going to be a time when they will have to make choices. The contradictions will be stark. People are going to have to decide if they are going to live in a fascist state or if they are going to live in a democracy. They are going to have to fight for democracy.

I do not believe that the middle ground is tenable anymore. We are living in a time of utter urgency. People can no longer stand by and do nothing. People can no longer have the luxury of saying, "I'm apolitical” or "I'm just angry” or “I don’t want to hear negative things anymore”. People are either going to have to fight for a better future or they are going to have to recognize that they are part of the problem.


Chauncey DeVega

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

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