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The Culture of Cruelty in Trump’s America

Posted on Mar 22, 2017

By Henry A. Giroux / Truthout

Khürt Williams / CC 2.0

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For the last 40 years, the United States has pursued a ruthless form of neoliberalism that has stripped economic activity from ethical considerations and social costs. One consequence has been the emergence of a culture of cruelty in which the financial elite produce inhuman policies that treat the most vulnerable with contempt, relegating them to zones of social abandonment and forcing them to inhabit a society increasingly indifferent to human suffering. Under the Trump administration, the repressive state and market apparatuses that produced a culture of cruelty in the 19th century have returned with a vengeance, producing new levels of harsh aggression and extreme violence in US society. A culture of cruelty has become the mood of our times—a spectral lack of compassion that hovers over the ruins of democracy.

While there is much talk about the United States tipping over into authoritarianism under the Trump administration, there are few analyses that examine how a culture of cruelty has accompanied this political transition, and the role that culture plays in legitimating a massive degree of powerlessness and human suffering. The culture of cruelty has a long tradition in this country, mostly inhabiting a ghostly presence that is often denied or downplayed in historical accounts. What is new since the 1980s—and especially evident under Donald Trump’s presidency—is that the culture of cruelty has taken on a sharper edge as it has moved to the center of political power, adopting an unapologetic embrace of nativism, xenophobia and white nationalist ideology, as well as an in-your-face form of racist demagoguery. Evidence of such cruelty has long been visible in earlier calls by Republicans to force poor children who get free school lunches to work for their meals. Such policies are particularly cruel at a time when nearly “half of all children live near close to the poverty line.” Other instances include moving people from welfare to workfare without offering training programs or child care, and the cutting of children’s food stamp benefits for 16 million children in 2014.  Another recent example of this culture of cruelty was Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) tweeting his support for Geert Wilders, a notorious white supremacist and Islamophobic Dutch politician.

   
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Focusing on a culture of cruelty as one register of authoritarianism allows us to more deeply understand how bodies and minds are violated and human lives destroyed. It helps us to acknowledge that violence is not an abstraction, but is visceral and, as Brad Evans observes, “should never be studied in an objective and unimpassioned way. It points to a politics of the visceral that cannot be divorced from our ethical and political concerns.” For instance, it highlights how Trump’s proposed budget cuts would reduce funding for programs that provide education, legal assistance and training for thousands of workers in high-hazard industries. As Judy Conti, a federal advocacy coordinator [at the National Employment Law Project] points out, these cuts would result in “more illness, injury and death on the job.”

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Rather than provide a display of moral outrage, interrogating a culture of cruelty offers critics a political and moral lens for thinking through the convergence of power, politics and everyday life. It also offers the promise of unveiling the way in which a nation demoralizes itself by adopting the position that it has no duty to provide safety nets for its citizens or care for their well-being, especially in a time of misfortune. Politically, it highlights how structures of domination bear down on individual bodies, needs, emotions and self-esteem, and how such constraints function to keep people in a state of existential crisis, if not outright despair. Ethically the concept makes visible how unjust a society has become. It helps us think through how life and death converge in ways that fundamentally transform how we understand and imagine the act of living—if not simply surviving—in a society that has lost its moral bearing and sense of social responsibility. Within the last 40 years, a harsh market fundamentalism has deregulated financial capital, imposed misery and humiliation on the poor through welfare cuts, and ushered in a new style of authoritarianism that preys upon and punishes the most vulnerable Americans.

The culture of cruelty has become a primary register of the loss of democracy in the United States. The disintegration of democratic commitments offers a perverse index of a country governed by the rich, big corporations and rapacious banks through a consolidating regime of punishment. It also reinforces the workings of a corporate-driven culture whose airwaves are filled with hate, endless spectacles of violence and an ongoing media assault on young people, the poor, Muslims and undocumented immigrants. Vast numbers of individuals are now considered disposable and are relegated to zones of social and moral abandonment. In the current climate, violence seeps into everyday life while engulfing a carceral system that embraces the death penalty and produces conditions of incarceration that house many prisoners in solitary confinement—a practice medical professionals consider one of the worse forms of torture.

In addition, Americans live in a distinctive historical moment in which the most vital safety nets, social provisions, welfare policies and health care reforms are being undermined or are under threat of elimination by right-wing ideologues in the Trump administration. For instance, Trump’s 2017 budgetary proposals, many of which were drafted by the hyperconservative Heritage Foundation, will create a degree of imposed hardship and misery that defies any sense of human decency and moral responsibility.

Public policy analyst Robert Reich argues that “the theme that unites all of Trump’s [budget] initiatives so far is their unnecessary cruelty.” Reich writes:

His new budget comes down especially hard on the poor—imposing unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, job training, food assistance, legal services, help to distressed rural communities, nutrition for new mothers and their infants, funds to keep poor families warm, even “meals on wheels.” These cuts come at a time when more American families are in poverty than ever before, including 1 in 5 children. Why is Trump doing this? To pay for the biggest hike in military spending since the 1980s. Yet the U.S. already spends more on its military than the next 7 biggest military budgets put together. His plan to repeal and “replace” the Affordable Care Act will cause 14 million Americans to lose their health insurance next year, and 24 million by 2026. Why is Trump doing this? To bestow $600 billion in tax breaks over the decade to wealthy Americans. This windfall comes at a time when the rich have accumulated more wealth than at any time in the nation’s history.

This is a demolition budget that would inflict unprecedented cruelty, misery and hardship on millions of citizens and residents. Trump’s populist rhetoric collapses under the weight of his efforts to make life even worse for the rural poor, who would have $2.6 billion cut from infrastructure investments largely used for water and sewage improvements as well as federal funds used to provide assistance so they can heat their homes. Roughly $6 billion would be cut from a housing budget that benefits 4.5 million low-income households. Other programs on the cutting block include funds to support Habitat for Humanity, the homeless, energy assistance to the poor, legal aid and a number of antipoverty programs. Trump’s mode of governance is no longer modeled on “The Apprentice.” It now takes its cues from “The Walking Dead.”

If Congress embraces Trump’s proposal, poor students would be budgeted out of access to higher education as a result of a $3.9 billion cut from the federal Pell grant program, which provides tuition assistance for low-income students entering college. Federal funds for public schools would be redistributed to privately run charter schools, while vouchers would be available for religious schools. Medical research would suffer and people would die because of the proposed $6 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health.

Trump has also called for the elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, making clear that his contempt for education, science and the arts is part of an aggressive project to eliminate those institutions and public spheres that extend the capacity of people to be imaginative, think critically and be well-informed.

The $54 billion that Trump seeks to remove from the budgets of 19 agencies designed to help the poor, students, public education, academic research and the arts would instead be used to increase the military budget and build a wall along the Mexican border. The culture of cruelty is on full display here as millions would suffer for the lack of loans, federal aid and basic resources. The winners would be the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, the private prison industry and the institutions and personnel needed to expand the police state. What Trump has provided in this budget proposal is a blueprint for eliminating the remnants of the welfare state while transforming American society into a “war-obsessed, survival-of-the fittest dystopia.”

The United States is now on a war footing and has launched a war against undocumented immigrants, Muslims, people of color, young people, the elderly, public education, science, democracy and the planet itself, to say nothing of the provocations unfolding on the world stage.  The moral obscenity and reactionary politics that inform Trump’s budget were summed up by Bernie Sanders: “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, when 43 million Americans are living in poverty and half of older Americans have no retirement savings, we should not slash programs that senior citizens, children and working people rely on in order to provide a massive increase in spending to the military industrial complex. Trump’s priorities are exactly the opposite of where we should be heading as a nation.”

As more and more people find themselves living in a society in which the quality of life is measured through market-based metrics, such as cost-benefit analyses, it becomes difficult for the public to acknowledge or even understand the cost in human misery and everyday hardship that an increasing number of people have to endure.

A culture of cruelty highlights both how systemic injustices are lived and experienced, and how iniquitous relations of power turn the “American dream” into a dystopian nightmare in which millions of individuals and families are struggling to merely survive. This society has robbed them of a decent life, dignity and hope. I want to pose the crucial question of what a culture of cruelty looks like under a neofascist regime, and in doing so, highlight what I believe are some of its most crucial elements, all of which must be recognized if they are to be open to both criticism and resistance.

First, language is emptied of any sense of ethics and responsibility and begins to operate in the service of violence. This becomes evident as social provisions are cut for programs that help poor people, elderly people, impoverished children and people living with disabilities. This is also evident in the Trump administration’s call to scale back Medicaid and affordable, quality health insurance for millions of Americans.


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