To ignore danger is a particular and peculiar type of privilege. Generally speaking, it belongs to the rich and powerful, and to others who believe that because of their skin color, their gender or other types of societal advantages they are immune from perils that may terrify others. This is to expected: the rich and powerful literally do not live in the same reality as everyone else; in some versions of the future, they may not even live on the same planet.
Everyday people, especially the poor, the working class, Black and brown folks, a large majority of women, LGBTQ people and members of other vulnerable and disadvantaged communities do not have the privilege of ignoring danger. Nonetheless, many of them also practice denial as a coping mechanism, when they arguably should know better.
In the end, any major peril — such as climate change or the current global democracy crisis — will affect everyone, rich and powerful or otherwise. The difference will largely concern the circumstances and timing. Ignoring a problem cannot solve it.
Many Americans really did vote to support democracy in the 2022 midterms. But that did not change the basic reality that Donald Trump and the Republican-fascist movement — as well as the deeper crises that spawned them — continue to threaten America and the world. They have been slowed but not defeated, and are unlikely to stop, driven as they are by the zealous desire to overthrow multiracial, pluralistic democracy and replacing it with an authoritarian, apartheid-style plutocracy.
Trump remains the effective leader of the Republican Party, even after all his likely and apparent crimes. He is still its most likely presidential nominee in 2024. He commands the loyalty of tens of millions of followers, and has threatened massive violence and social upheaval if he is prosecuted by the Department of Justice (or any other relevant authority). In recent weeks, Trump has openly consorted with antisemites, neo-fascists and QAnon supporters, blatantly attaching himself to views that were formerly unacceptable even to staunch conservatives.
In a previous Salon article, I suggested that "there is no harm in celebrating the reprieve offered by the 2022 midterms and enjoying the afterglow. But we can't afford to forget that the reality of American neofascism is still with us."
For the most part, the American people, along with the news media and the political class, seem increasingly bored and disengaged with the endless Trump spectacle, and just want it to end. This is understandable, but requires some unpacking.
Data analyst and political columnist David Byler addressed this last week in the Washington Post:
In the past two presidential elections, Donald Trump had a not-so-secret weapon: control over the news cycle. Trump could, with an inflammatory tweet or unscheduled speech, grab political reporters by the prefrontal cortex and direct their coverage toward the topic of his choosing.
But he might not have that gift in 2024. Three data points tell the story.
The first comes from cable TV.
Trump tried to focus the media on himself throughout the fall of 2022 — first by repeatedly teasing his 2024 presidential run, then by announcing it on Nov. 15. More recently, Trump dined with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and rapper Ye (the former Kanye West, who has made virulent antisemitic comments), and just a few days ago called for "terminating" the Constitution.
None of it yielded the media attention that Trump craves.
Byler uses Google search data to demonstrate how Donald Trump has gone from being among the most searched topics in 2016 and early his presidency to a greatly diminished role in the search ecosystem, as compared to the current World Cup tournament and other pop culture phenomena:
Trump's announcement was a tad more interesting than the mad rush for Taylor Swift tickets and much less grabby than a big soccer tournament. And his dinner with Ye and Fuentes, so far, seems to be a non-event.
Trump still holds advantages in his attempt to recapture the White House. He is leading Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis by nearly double digits in the RealClearPolitics average of Republican presidential primary polls. And he is still the biggest name in Republican politics: Trump's announcement speech generated far more Google searches for him than DeSantis's blowout reelection did for him.
But Trump isn't new or exciting anymore — and he can't bend media coverage toward himself at will. If he wants to win another term, he will have to do it the old-fashioned way: by touting his record as president, building a coalition and relying on TV just a little less.
Exhaustion is more than understandable. It's also true that to look away from Trump or ignore him is to invite disaster yet again. Too many Americans have succumbed to premature celebration of "victory" in the midterms and have bought into the mainstream media narrative that Trump and Trumpism are in retrograde. That may or may not be true in the long haul, but at the moment, Trump and the Republican fascists are reorganizing and recalibrating, in preparation for backlash and likely retaliation.
What is the best way to respond to the neofascist threat in this moment, while neither inflating it nor ignoring it? That is a difficult question to answer, which may involve contradictory or competing agendas and goals as well as one's subjective understanding of reality. It requires grappling with how our democracy crisis began and where it is likely going.
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One thing is clear: We are in a moment of organized forgetting in real time, one that has greatly accelerated since the midterms, in which many the American people are trying to delete or purge Donald Trump and the neofascist movement from their collective memories and minds. That dynamic is deeply troubling, in terms of what it confirms about the force of denial in an American society.
In a 2013 essay at Truthout, scholar and cultural critic Henry Giroux wrote that "America has become amnesiac — a country in which forms of historical, political, and moral forgetting are not only willfully practiced but celebrated":
The United States has degenerated into a social order that is awash in public stupidity and views critical thought as both a liability and a threat. Not only is this obvious in the presence of a celebrity culture that embraces the banal and idiotic, but also in the prevailing discourses and policies of a range of politicians and anti-public intellectuals who believe that the legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be reversed.
Trumpism and neofascism and similar dark forces of recent years have inflicted great trauma on the American people, which has not been properly diagnosed, never mind healed. Forgetting or ignoring the pain is a maladaptive response, encouraged and enabled by leaders and other elites, which does nothing to address the underlying injury. Americans need to do some difficult collective emotional and political work, akin to the mourning process, to reach real catharsis.
Instead of that difficult work, America's political elites largely want Donald Trump and his movement to go away so that the country can "get back to normal." In fact, the "normal" is exactly what led to the Trump disaster in the first place.
On one hand, the mainstream news media has continued to normalize Trump and the Republican fascist project through its obsolete norms and habits: "Both sides" coverage, meaningless conventions of "balance" and fairness, access journalism, horserace coverage, a fetishistic focus on scandal and personality and so on.
And it is undeniably true that as a sociopathic cult leader and malignant narcissist, Donald Trump is fueled by attention in all its forms. So how is it possible to balance an appropriate level of vigilance while denying Trump and his movement the attention they crave? I have no clear or conclusive answer, but I keep returning to Milton Mayer's book "They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933-45." In this passage, Mayer interviews a colleague about what it was like to live through the rise of Nazism while lacking the language or conceptual framework to make sense of it:
To live in this process is absolutely not to be able to notice it — please try to believe me — unless one has a much greater degree of political awareness, acuity, than most of us had ever had occasion to develop. Each step was so small, so inconsequential, so well explained or, on occasion, "regretted," that, unless one were detached from the whole process from the beginning, unless one understood what the whole thing was in principle, what all these "little measures" that no "patriotic German" could resent must some day lead to, one no more saw it developing from day to day than a farmer in his field sees the corn growing. One day it is over his head.
How is this to be avoided, among ordinary men, even highly educated ordinary men? Frankly, I do not know. I do not see, even now. Many, many times since it all happened I have pondered that pair of great maxims, Principiis obsta and Finem respice — "Resist the beginnings" and "Consider the end." But one must foresee the end in order to resist, or even see, the beginnings. One must foresee the end clearly and certainly and how is this to be done, by ordinary men or even by extraordinary men? Things might have. And everyone counts on that might….
In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, "It's not so bad" or "You're seeing things" or "You're an alarmist." And you are an alarmist. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can't prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don't know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? [my emphases added]
That's not "doom porn"; it is reasoned wisdom and insight painfully learned from some of the worst times in human history. This is a dangerous moment that may not be apparent as such, a seductive interregnum in what will clearly be a long crisis and fight. In a new essay at Capital & Main, Jessica Goodheart writes:
But those who have been warning about the rise in political extremism say this is no time to rest. American democracy is in a weakened state. Among its ailments: a segment of the public in thrall to the Big Lie that Trump won the 2020 election, social media platforms that peddle misinformation and gerrymandering that polarizes state politics. Along with those threats, two looming U.S. Supreme Court cases could further imperil voting rights and make the country even more vulnerable to the politically motivated overturning of presidential elections. "You can't get complacent," said David Pepper, the former Ohio Democratic Party chair who has been warning of rising extremism in statehouses. There are "still some really blaring alarm bells, some really disturbing attacks on democracy and the rule of law happening all over the place."
Too many Americans want to rest. They are tired. Those of us who are most vulnerable to the Trumpist culture of cruelty really do not have that luxury. We will keep on saying that rest is a privilege we cannot afford, that the work ahead will be trying and difficult and not always popular, and that we must endure and persist if we genuinely want to (re)build democracy.