Donald Trump. (Gage Skidmore / CC BY-SA 2.0)

“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.”
— James Baldwin

The Greek chorus has finally been heard in that both the left and right are now calling Donald Trump a fascist or neo-fascist. Pundits and journals across the ideological spectrum now compare Trump to Hitler and Mussolini or state he is an unbridled tyrant. For example, the liberal magazine Slate finds common ground with the conservative journal National Review in denouncing Trump as a tyrant, while liberals such as former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich and the actor George Clooney join hands with conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan and Robert Kagan in arguing that Trump represents a loud echo if not a strong register of a fascist past, updated to correlate with the age of reality TV and a fatuous celebrity culture. While such condemnations contain a shred of truth, they only scratch the surface of the conditions that have produced the existing political landscape. Such arguments too often ignore the latent authoritarian and anti-democratic forces that have a long legacy in US politics and society.

Unfortunately, recognizing that the United States is about to tip over the edge into the abyss of authoritarianism is not enough. There is a need to understand the context — historical, cultural, political and economic — that has created this moment in US society in which fascism becomes an endpoint. Trump is only symptomatic of the problem, and condemning him exclusively does nothing to contain it. Moreover, such arguments often ignore the fact that Hillary Clinton is the underside of the new neoliberal oligarchy, which indulges some progressive issues but is indebted ideologically and politically to a criminogenic culture of finance, racism and war. Put differently, she represents a less obscene, less in-your-face form of authoritarianism — hardly a viable alternative to Trump.

Capitalism, racism, consumerism and patriarchy feed off each other and are mobilized largely through a notion of common sense.

Maybe this is all understandable in a corporate-controlled neoliberal society that uses new communication technologies that erase history by producing a notion of time wedded to a culture of immediacy, speed, simultaneity and endless flows of fragmented knowledge. As Manuel Castells writes in Communication Power, this is a form of “digital-time” in which everything that happens only takes place in the present, a time that “has no past and no future.” Time is accelerated in this new information-saturated culture, and it also flattens out “experience, competence, and knowledge,” and the capacity for informed judgment. Time has thus been transformed to provide the ideological support that neoliberal values and a fast-food, temp-worker economy require to survive.

A Culture of Forgetting and Lies

Language has also been transformed to produce and legitimate a culture of forgetting that relishes in a flight from responsibility. Capitalism, racism, consumerism and patriarchy feed off each other and are mobilized largely through a notion of common sense, which while being contested as a site of ideological struggle shows little sign of losing its power as a pedagogical force. As a result, we are living through an ongoing crisis of democracy in which both the agents and institutions necessary for such social order are being dismantled at an accelerating rate in the face of a massive assault by predatory capitalism, even while there is growing resistance to the impending authoritarianism. It gets worse.

We live in a moment of political change in which democratic public spheres are disappearing before our eyes.

We live in a moment of political change in which democratic public spheres are disappearing before our eyes, language is turned into a weapon and ideology is transformed into an act of hate, fear, racism and destruction — all of which is informed by a dark history of political intolerance and ethnic cleansing. The war on democracy has produced both widespread misery and suffering and finds its ideological counterpart in a culture of cruelty that has become normalized.

The bankers, hedge fund managers, financial elite and CEOs who rule the United States’ commanding institutions have become the modern version of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As Hannah Arendt describes them in The Origins of Totalitarianism, citing Conrad: “‘these men were hollow to the core, reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity and cruel without courage …’ the only talent that could possibly burgeon in their hollow souls was the gift of fascination which makes a splendid leader of an extreme party.”

In the age of Trump, anticipation no longer imagines a better world but seems mired in a dystopian dread, mimicking the restlessness, chaos and uncertainty that precedes a historical moment no longer able to deal with its horrors and on the verge of a terrible catastrophe. We now live in a time in which mainstream politics sheds its ideals and falls prey to choices that resemble a stacked deck of cards and mimic the values of an authoritarian society. All the while politics is being hollowed out as lawlessness and misdirected rage, while a loss of faith in electoral politics has given rise to a right-wing populism that is more than willing to dispense with democracy itself.

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