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Trump’s War on Dangerous Memory and Critical Thought

Posted on Mar 16, 2017

By Henry A. Giroux / Tikkun

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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.

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. 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.

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.


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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).

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.” 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. 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 tragedian in the present.” 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.” 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. 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.” Historical and dangerous memories inhabit that zone in today’s neo-fascist social order.

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” 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. 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.

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