The Plot to Erase History: Trump’s War on Dangerous Memory and Critical Thought
An early fascist poster from the 1920s in Spain. [Image credit]
The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi . . . but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists. ― Hannah Arendt
HAMILTON, ONTARIO — People living in the United States have entered into one of the most dangerous periods of the 21st century. President Donald Trump is not only a twisted caricature of every variation of economic, political, educational, and social fundamentalism, he is the apogee of an increasingly intolerant and authoritarian culture committed to destroying free speech, civil rights, women’s reproductive freedoms, and all vestiges of economic justice and democracy.
Trump is the fascist shadow that has been lurking in the dark since Nixon’s Southern Strategy. Authoritarianism has now become viral in America, pursuing new avenues to spread its toxic ideology of bigotry, cruelty, and greed into every facet of society. Its legions of “alt-right” racists, misogynists, and xenophobic hate-mongers now expose themselves publicly, without apology, knowing full well that they no longer have to use code for their hatred of all those who do not fit into their white-supremacist and ultra-nationalist script.1
Trump’s victory makes clear that the economic crisis and the misery it has spurred has not been matched by an ideological crisis-- a crisis of ideas, education, and values. Critical analysis and historical memory have given way to a culture of spectacles, sensationalism, and immediacy.2 Dangerous memories are now buried in a mass bombardment of advertisements, state sanctioned lies, and a political theater of endless spectacles. The mainstream media is now largely an adjunct of the entertainment industries and big corporations. Within the last 40 years training has taken the place of critical education, and the call for job skills has largely replaced critical thinking. Without an informed public, there is no resistance in the name of democracy and justice; nor is there a model of individual and collective agency rising to such an occasion. Of course, power is never entirely on the side of domination, and in this coming era of acute repression, we will have to redefine politics, reclaim the struggle to produce meaningful educational visions and practices, find new ways to change individual and collective consciousness, take seriously the need to engage in meaningful dialogue with people left out of the political landscape, and overcome the factionalism of single-issue movements in order to build broad based social movements.
The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our...understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present.
Manufactured ignorance erases histories of repression, exploitation, and revolts. What is left is a space of fabricated absences that makes it easy, if not convenient, to forget that Trump is not some eccentric clown offered up to the American polity through the deadening influence of celebrity and consumer culture. State and corporate sponsored ignorance produced primarily through the disimagination machines of the mainstream media and public relations industries in diverse forms now function chiefly to erase selected elements of history, disdain critical thought, reduce dissent to a species of fake news, and undermine the social imagination. How else to explain the recent Arkansas legislator who is pushing legislation to ban the works of the late historian Howard Zinn? How else to explain a culture awash in game shows and Realty TV programs? How else to explain the aggressive attack by extremists in both political parties on public and higher education? Whitewashing history is an urgent matter, especially for the Trump administration, which has brought a number of white supremacists to the center of power in the United States.3
The great novelist, Javiar Marias, captures in a recent interview why memory matters, especially as a resource for understand the present through the lens of the past. He writes:
I do not know what I might say to an American young person after Trump’s election. Probably that, according to my experience with a dictatorship — I was 24 when Franco died — you can always survive bad times more than you think you can when they start, when “thus bad begins.” Though the predictions are terrible, I suppose we must all wait and see what Trump does, once he is in office. It looks ominous, indeed. And [Vice President Mike] Pence does not seem better, perhaps even worse. It is hard to understand that voters in the United States have gone against their own interests and have decided to believe unbelievable things. One of the most ludicrous interpretations of Trump’s victory is that he represents the poor, the oppressed, the people “left behind.” A multimillionaire, and a very ostentatious one to boot? A man who surrounds himself with gilded stuff? A guy whose favorite sentence is, “You’re fired!”? A bloke who has scorned blacks, Mexicans, women, and of course, Muslims in general? He is the elite that he is supposed to fight. Indeed, it is a big problem that nowadays too many people (not only Americans, I’m afraid) don’t know anything about history, and therefore cannot recognize dangers that are obvious for the elder ones (those with some knowledge of history, of course, be it first- or second-hand).4
As Marias suggest, historical legacies of racist oppression and dangerous memories can be troublesome for the neo-fascist now governing American society. This was made clear in the backlash to Ben Carson’s claim that slaves were immigrants, Trump’s insistence that all black communities are crime-ridden, impoverished hellholes, and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s assertion that historically black colleges and universities were “pioneers of school choice.”5 Memories become dangerous when exposing this type of ideological ignorance aimed at rewriting history so as to eliminate its fascist and poisonous legacies. This is particularly true of the genocidal brutality waged against Native Americans and Black slaves in the United States and its connection to the memory of Nazi genocide in Europe and the disappearance of critics of fascism in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s.
Dangerous memories are eliminated by political reactionaries in order to erase the ugliness of the past and to legitimate America’s shop worn legacy of exceptionalism with its deadening ideology of habitual optimism, one that substitutes a cheery, empty Disney-like dreamscape for any viable notion of utopian possibility.6 The Disney dreamscape evacuates hope of any meaning while attempting to undercut a radical utopian element in the conceptual apparatus of hope that speaks to the possibility of a democratic future very different from the authoritarian present. Jelani Cobb is right in insisting that “The habitual tendency to excise the most tragic elements of history creates a void in our collective understanding of what has happened in the past and, therefore, our understanding of the potential for tragedy in the present.”7 The revival of historical memory as a central political strategy is crucial today given that Trump’s white supremacist policies not only echo elements of a fascist past, they also point to the need to recognize as Paul Gilroy has observed “how elements of fascism appear in new forms,” especially as “the living memory of the fascist period fades.”8 What historical memory makes clear is that subjectivity and agency are the material of politics and offer the possibility of creating spaces in which “the domestic machinery of inscriptions and invisibility” can be challenged.9 Catherine Clement is right in arguing that “Somewhere every culture has an imaginary zone for what it excludes and it is that zone we must try to remember today.”10 Historical and dangerous memories inhabit that zone in today’s neo-fascist social order.
The cover of a 1935 issue of Vanity Fair addresses the spread of fascism. [Image credit]
While it would be irresponsible to underestimate Trump’s embrace of neo-fascist ideology and policies, he is not solely answerable for the long legacy of authoritarianism that took on a frontal assault with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. This neoliberal attack was later embraced in the Third Way politics of the Democratic Party, its expansion of the mass incarceration state, and solidified under the anti-democratic, war on terror, permanent war policies of the Bush-Cheney and Obama administrations. During this period, democracy was sold to the bankers and big corporations. Whistleblowers were sent to prison. The financial elite and the CIA tortures were given the green light by the Obama administration that they could commit the gravest of crimes and act with impunity. This surge of repression was made possible mostly through the emergence of a savage neoliberalism, a ruthless concentration of power by the ruling classes, and an aggressive ideological and cultural war aimed at undoing the social contract and the democratic, political and personal freedoms gained in the New Deal and culminating in the civil rights and educational struggles of the 1960s.
Trump’s unapologetic authoritarianism has prompted Democratic Party members and the liberal elite to position themselves as the only model of organized resistance in such dark times. It is difficult not to see such moral outrage and faux pas resistance as both comedic and hypocritical in light of these centrist liberals have played in the last forty years — subverting democracy and throwing minorities of class and color under the bus. As Jeffrey St. Clair observes, “Trump’s nominal opponents,” the Democrats Party are “encased in the fatal amber of their neoliberalism”11 and they are part of the problem and not the solution. Rather than face up to their sordid history of ignoring the needs of workers, young people, and minorities of class and color, the Democratic Party acts as if their embrace of a variety of neoliberal political and economic policies along with their support of a perpetual war machine had nothing to do with paving the way for the election of Donald Trump. Trump represents the transformation of politics into a Reality TV show and the belief that the worth of a candidate can only by judged in terms of a blend of value as an entertainer and an advertisement for casino capitalism.12 Chris Hedges gets it right in revealing such hypocrisy for what it is worth—a carnival act. He writes:
Where was this moral outrage when our privacy was taken from us by the security and surveillance state, the criminals on Wall Street were bailed out, we were stripped of our civil liberties and 2.3 million men and women were packed into our prisons, most of them poor people of color? Why did they not thunder with indignation as money replaced the vote and elected officials and corporate lobbyists instituted our system of legalized bribery? Where were the impassioned critiques of the absurd idea of allowing a nation to be governed by the dictates of corporations, banks and hedge fund managers? Why did they cater to the foibles and utterings of fellow elites, all the while blacklisting critics of the corporate state and ignoring the misery of the poor and the working class? Where was their moral righteousness when the United States committed war crimes in the Middle East and our militarized police carried out murderous rampages? What the liberal elites do now is not moral. It is self-exaltation disguised as piety. It is part of the carnival act.
The production of dangerous memories and critical knowledge and the democratic formative cultures they enable must become central to resisting the armed ignorance of the Trump disimagination machine. While such knowledge is the precondition for militant resistance, it is not enough. A critical consciousness is the precondition of struggle but is only the starting point for resistance. What is also needed is a bold strategy and social movement capable of shutting down this neo-fascist political machine at all levels of government through general strikes, constant occupation of the political spaces and public spheres under the control of the new authoritarians, and the creation of an endless wave of educational strategies and demonstrations that make clear and hold accountable the different ideological, material, psychological, and economic registers of fascism at work in American society. This is a time to study, engage in critical dialogues, develop new educational sites, support and expand the alternative media, and fight back collectively. It will not be easy to turn the tide, but it can happen, and there are historical precedents.13
The main strategies of change and political agency, in part, have to focus on both the young and those most vulnerable to the dictates of neo-fascism. Young people, workers, and those now considered disposable, especially, are the driving force of the future and we have to both learn from them, support them, contribute where possible, and join in their struggles. At the same time, as Robin D.G. Kelley argues in his Boston Review article, After Trump, “we cannot build a sustainable movement without a paradigm shift. Stopgap, utilitarian alliances to stop Trump aren’t enough. . . . So where do we go from here? If we really care about the world, our country, and our future, we have no choice but to resist.”14 This would also suggest building up unions again and putting their control in the hands of workers; working to build sanctuary cities and institutions that would protect those considered the enemies of white supremacy—immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, and those others considered disposable. Politics has to be revived at the local and state levels, especially given the control of 56 percent of state legislatures by right-wing Republicans. There is also a need to make education central to the formation and expansion of study groups throughout the country and to further a public pedagogy of justice and democracy through the alternative media and when possible in the mainstream media. Central to the latter task is expanding both the range of dialogue regarding how oppression works focusing not merely on economic structures but also the ways it functions ideologically, psychologically (as Wilhelm Reich once argued), and spiritually as Michael Lerner has pointed out in his book, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right.15 It is not enough for progressives and others to examine the objective forces and underlying conditions that have pushed so many people to give up on politics, undercut acts of solidarity, and dismantle any viable notion of hope in the future. It is also crucial to understand the crippling emotional forces and psychological narratives that cripple them from the inside out.16
Stopping Trump without destroying the economic, political, educational and social conditions which produced him will fail.
It is worth repeating that at the core of any strategy to resist the further descent of the United States into authoritarianism, progressives must recognize that stopping Trump without destroying the economic, political, educational and social conditions which produced him will fail. In part a successful resistance struggle must be both comprehensive and at the same time embrace a vision that is as unified as it is democratic. While talking about youth in the age of precarity, Jennifer Silva’s point about the need for a comprehensive vision of politics is worth repeating. She writes: “I find that without a broad, shared vision of economic justice, race, class and gender become sites of resentment and division rather than a coalition among the working class.”17 Instead of reacting to the horrors and misery produced by capitalism, it is crucial to call for its end while supporting a notion of democratic socialism that speaks and unifies the needs and actions of those who have been left out of the discourse of democracy under the financial elite. At stake here is the need for both a language of critique and possibility, a rigorous analysis of the diverse forces of oppression and a discourse of educated hope.
Such a task is both political and pedagogical. Not only do existing relations of power have to be called into question, but notions of neoliberal commonsense learning have to be disconnected from any democratic sense of political agency and notion of civic literacy. As Michael Lerner insightfully observes, rather than engaging in a politics of shaming, progressives have to produce a discourse in which people can recognize their problems and the actual conditions that produce them.18 This is not just a political but a pedagogical challenge in which education becomes central to any viable notion of resistance. Making education central to politics means the left will have to remove itself from the discourse of meritocracy that often is used to dismiss and write off those who hold conservative, if not reactionary, views. Not doing so only results in a discourse of shaming and a self-indulgent congratulatory stance on the part of those who occupy progressive political positions. The hard political and pedagogical work of changing consciousness, producing new modes of identity, desires, and values conducive to a democracy doesn’t stop with the moral high ground often taken by liberals and other progressives. The right-wing knows how to address matters of self-blame and anger whereas the left and progressives dispense with the pedagogical challenges posed by those vulnerable groups caught in the magical thinking of reactionary ideologies.19
While it is crucial to address the dramatic shifts economically and politically that have produced enormous anger and frustration in American society, it is also important to address the accompanying existential crisis that has destroyed the self-esteem, identity, and hopes of those considered disposable and those whom Hillary Clinton shamelessly called a “basket of deplorables.” The ideological mix of untrammeled self-interest, unchecked individualism, unrestrained self-reliance, a culture of fear, and a war against all ethic has produced both a profound sense of precarity and hopelessness among not only immigrants, poor people of color, but also among working class whites who feel crushed by the economy and threatened by those deemed other as well as demeaned by so called elites.
Resistance will not be easy and has to take place on multiple fronts while at the same time enabling a view of politics that understands how a new class of financial scavengers operates in the free flow of a global space that has no national allegiances, no respect for the social contract, and exhibit a degree of power that is unparalleled in its ability to exploit, produce massive inequality, destroy the planet, and accelerate human suffering across and within national boundaries. Resistance is no longer an option, it is now a matter of life or death. The lights are going out on democracy across the globe and the time to wake up from this nightmare is now. There are no guarantees in politics, but there is no politics that matters without hope, that is, educated hope. This is not merely a call for a third political party, progressives need to create a new politics and new social and political formations. For instance, instead of mounting resistance through a range of single issue movements, it is important to bring such movements together as part of a broad-based political formation.
In "No", the film about unseating the Chilean dictatorship in 1988, a sought-after ad man creates winning tactics (see film trailer below).
Any vision for this movement must reject the false notion that capitalism and democracy are synonymous. The crisis of democracy has reached its tipping point, and once again the possibilities for reclaiming the ideals and practices of democratic socialism seem capable of moving a generation of young people and others to act. Under the reign of Trump, the words of Frederick Douglass ring especially true:
If there is no struggle, there is no progress. ...This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.20
Trump’s election is surely a tragedy for democracy and a triumph for neo-fascism and it must be challenged and stopped on a variety of levels. Yet, making clear Trump’s anti-democratic ideology and practices will not put an end to the current stage of neo-fascism in the United States, especially when memory no longer makes a claim on our understanding of the past. Trump’s election has unleashed a brand of savage capitalism that not only has and will continue to have horrible consequences, but is deeply rooted in a mode of historical and social amnesia that eliminates its relationship to an authoritarian past. Memory loses its role as a vehicle of liberation when policies that produce savage modes of austerity, inequality, racism, and contempt for public goods become frozen in historical time and consciousness and as such become normalized. Under such circumstances, organized structures of misrecognition define and legitimate memory as a threat.
Memory, reason and thoughtfulness have to awake from the narcotizing effects of a culture of spectacle, consumerism, militarism, and the celebration of unchecked self-interests. A society that enshrines the war of all against all, elevates self-interest as its highest ideal, reduces responsibility to a solely individual undertaking, makes distrust a virtue, and turns love and compassion into a pathology points to a social order that has lost its memory of self-worth, dignity, justice, and compassion. Evil in politics is no longer a figment of the past but a present day reality enshrined in the ethos of neoliberalism. The body of democracy is on life support and the wounds now being inflicted upon it are too alarming to either ignore or normalize.
1. See, for instance, Ned Resnikoff, “Rep. Steve King: ‘We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.’” ThinkProgress (March 12, 2017). Online: https://thinkprogress.org/steve-king-white-nationalist-tweet-5f43c687902a#.uh1yf1p8m. Also, see Chris Hedges, “The March of Death,” Truthdig (March 12, 2017). Online: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_dance_of_death_20170312
2. I take this up in great detail in Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself, (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2017).
3. See, for instance, Emily Bazelon, “Department of Justification,” The New York Times, [Feb. 28, 2017] Online: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/28/magazine/jeff-sessions-stephen-bannon-justice-department.html
4. Gregg LaGambina interviews Javier Marías, “The World Is Never Just Politics: A Conversation with Javier Marías,” Los Angeles Review of Books, (February 9, 2017). Online: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/conversation-javier-marias/
5. On DeVos incompetency and racist understanding of history, see Anthony Dimaggio, “DeVos and the 'Free Lunch' Flimflam: Orwell, Neofeudalism, and the Destruction of the Welfare State,” Counterpunch (March 7, 2017). Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/07/devos-and-the-free-lunch-flimflam-orwell-neofeudalism-and-the-destruction-of-the-welfare-state/
6. Jelani Cobb, “Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and the Misuse of American History,” The New Yorker (March 8, 2017). Online: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/ben-carson-donald-trump-and-the-misuse-of-american-history
7. Ibid., Jelani Cobb.
8. Paul Gilroy, Against Race: Imagining Political Culture beyond the Color Line, (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2000), pp. 145-146
9. Joao Biehl, Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), p. 10.
10. Cited in Cited in Helene Cixous and Catherine Clement, The Newly Born Woman, trans., Betsy Wing Theory and History of Literature Series, vol. 24 (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), p. ix.
11. Jeffrey St. Clair, “Fools on the hill: Trump and Congress,” Counterpunch, [March 3, 2017] Online: http://www.counterpunch.org/2017/03/03/fools-on-the-hill-trump-and-congress/
12. The classic commentary on politics as show business can be found in Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1985, 2005).
13. Chris Hedges, “Donald Trump’s Greatest Allies Are the Liberal Elites,” Truthdig, (march 7, 2017) Online: www.truthdig.com/report/item/donald_trumps_greatest_allies_are_the_liberal_elites_20170305
14. Robin D. G. Kelley, “After Trump,” Boston Review (November 15, 2016). Online: http://bostonreview.net/forum/after-trump/robin-d-g-kelley-trump-says-go-back-we-say-fight-back
15. Michael Lerner, The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right (New York: HarperOne, 2007).
16. On this issue, see Peter A. Hall and Michele Lamont, “Introduction,” in Peter A. Hall and Michele Lamont, eds., Successful Societies: How Institutions and Culture affect Health (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 1-22.
17. Jennifer Silva, Coming Up Short: Working-Class Adulthood in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 16.
18. This issue is taken up in great detail in Michael Lerner, “Overcoming Trump-ism: A New Strategy for Progressives,” Tikkun (January 31, 2017). Online: http://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/overcoming-trump-ism-a-new-strategy-for-progressives
19. Ibid., Lerner, “Overcoming Trump-ism”.
20. Cited in Frederick Douglass, “West India Emancipation” speech at Canandaigua, New York on August 3, 1857. Online: http://www.blackpast.org/1857-frederick-douglass-if-there-no-struggle-there-no-progress#sthash.8Eoaxpmo.dpuf
HENRY A. GIROUX is the McMaster University Professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest, and the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books include The Violence of Organized Forgetting (City Lights, 2014), Dangerous Thinking in the Age of the New Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2015), coauthored with Brad Evans, Disposable Futures: The Seduction of Violence in the Age of Spectacle (City Lights, 2015), and America at War with Itself (City Lights, 2016). www.henryagiroux.com