Trump’s Second Gilded Age: The Rule of Billionaires and Militarists
By Henry A. Giroux / CounterPunch
During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump made it clear that he liked the uneducated and that once he assumed the presidency, he would appoint a range of incompetent people to high ranking positions that would insure that many people remain poorly educated, illiterate, and impoverished. A few examples make the point. Betsy DeVos, the nominee for Secretary of Education is a multi-millionaire, has no experience in higher education, supports for-profit charter schools, and is a strong advocate for private school vouchers. Without irony, she has described her role in education as one way to “advance God’s kingdom.” She is anti-union, and her motto for education affirms Trump’s own educational philosophy to “defund, devalue, and privatize.”
Ben Carson, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has never run a federal agency and has no experience in government, policy making, or in public housing and has described housing policy pejoratively as a form of social engineering and a socialist experiment. New York City council member and chair of the city’s Housing and Buildings Committee described Carson’s appointment as “ill-advised, irresponsible and hovers on absurdity.” Carson will run a $48 billion agency that oversees public housing and ensures that low-income families have access to housing that is safe and affordable. He believes people can escape from poverty through hard work alone and has argued that government regulations resemble forms of totalitarian rule comparable to what existed in communist countries.
Andrew F. Puzder, Trump’s choice for Secretary of Labor, has less experience in government “than any secretary since the early 1980s.” He is a critic of worker protections, opposes raising the minimum wage, and appears to share Trump’s disparaging views of women. As the New York Times pointed out, the advertisements that Mr. Pusder’s companies run to “promote its restaurants frequently feature women wearing next to nothing while gesturing suggestively.” When asked about the ads, Mr. Puzder replied “I like our ads. I like beautiful women eating burgers in bikinis. I think it’s is very American.” I am sure Trump, the unchecked misogynist, agrees.
It is hard to believe that this gaggle of religious fundamentalists, conspiracy theory advocates, billionaires, and retrograde anti-communists, who uniformly lack the experience to take on the jobs for which they were nominated, could possibly be viewed as reasonable candidates for top government positions. As Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) cited in The Hill observed, most of Trump’s appointees are “The greatest collection of stooges and cronies and misfits we have ever seen in a presidential administration….Some of these people’s only qualifications for the jobs they are being appointed for is that they have attempted to dismantle and undermine and destroy the very agencies they are now hoping to run.”
What these appointments suggest is that one element of the new authoritarianism is a deep embrace of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, crony capitalism, and a disdain for the institutions that give legitimacy to the social contract and the welfare state. Most of Trump’s appointees to top cabinet positions are a mix of incompetent and mean spirited billionaires and generals. This alliance of powerful representatives of predatory financial capitalists and right-wing supporters of the immense military-industrial-surveillance complex makes clear Trump’s support of the worst elements of neoliberalism—a war on education, support for austerity policies, and an attack on social provisions, the poor, workers, unions, and the most vulnerable. As stated in 2003, the year that Iraq was invaded, that “It’s fun to shoot some people, you know, it’s a hell of a hoot.” He once told marines under his command “Be polite. Be professional. But have a plan to kill everybody you meet.” As difficult as it is to imagine it gets worse. Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security advisor considers Islam, with its population of 1.3 billion, a terrorist threat. He has also used the social media to spread fake news stories “linking Mrs. Clinton to underage sex rings and other serious crimes [while pushing] unsubstantiated claims about Islamic laws spreading in the United States.” At work here is an emerging political-social formation in which fake news becomes an accepted mode of shaping public discourse, inexperience and incompetence become revered criteria for holding public office, and social responsibility is removed from any vestige of politics. All of these appointments point to the emergence of a new political order in which the dystopian fears of George Orwell and Aldus Huxley are merged with the comic grotesquery of the tyrannical systems lampooned by the Marx brothers.
Under the reign of right-wing governments and social movements spreading throughout the world, thinking has become dangerous. Increasingly, neoliberal regimes across Europe and North America have waged a major assault on critical education and the public spheres in which they take place. For instance, public and higher education are being defunded, turned into accountability factories, and now largely serve as adjuncts of an instrumental logic that mimics the values of a business culture. But, of course, this is not only true for spaces in which formal schooling takes place, it is also the case for those public spheres and cultural apparatuses producing knowledge, values, subjectivities, and identities through a range of media and sites. This applies to a range of creative spaces including art galleries, museums, diverse sites that make up screen culture, and various elements of mainstream media.
Such sites have come under increasing fire since the 1970s and the war against dissident journalism, in particular, will intensify under a Trump presidency. Attacking the media was a central feature of Trump’s presidential campaign speaks to a coming age of repression, posing a dire threat to freedom of speech. As Christopher Hass observes “But more importantly, he threatened to ‘open up’ libel laws so that he and others can more easily sue publications that are critical of them. Those kinds of attacks are designed to burn money and hours that independent publications don’t have-and sometimes they can be fatal.” What the apostles of neoliberalism have learned is that alternative media outlets along with diverse forms of cultural production can change how people view the world, and that such forms of public pedagogy can be dangerous because they hold the potential for not only creating critically engaged students, intellectuals, and artists but can strengthen and expand the general publics’ imagination, give them critical tools to enable them to think otherwise in order to act otherwise, and hold power accountable. Such thinking is also a prerequisite for developing social movements willing to rethink the vision and tactics necessary to fight against an authoritarian state.
In the face of Trump’s draconian assault on democracy, it is crucial to rethink mechanisms of a repressive politics not only by highlighting its multiple registers of economic power, but also through the ideological pedagogical mechanisms at work in creating modes of agency, identities, and values that both mimic and surrender to authoritarian ideologies and social practices. In this instance, education as it works through diverse institutions, cultural apparatuses, and sites is crucial to both understand and appropriate as part of the development of a radical politics. Reclaiming radical pedagogy as a form of educated and militant hope begins with the crucial recognition that education is not solely about job training and the production of ethically challenged entrepreneurial subjects but is primarily about matters of civic literacy, critical thinking, and the capacity for liberatory change. It is also inextricably connected to the related issues of power, inclusion, and social responsibility. If young people, workers, educators, and others are to develop a keen sense of the common good, as well as an informed notion of community engagement, pedagogy must be viewed as a cultural, political, and moral force, if not formative culture, that provides the knowledge, values, and social relations to make such democratic practices possible.
In this instance, pedagogy as a central element of politics needs to be rigorous, self-reflective, and committed not to the dead zone of instrumental rationality but to the practice of freedom and liberation for the most vulnerable and oppressed. It must also cultivate a critical sensibility capable of advancing the parameters of knowledge, stretching the imagination, addressing crucial social issues, and connecting private troubles into public issues. Any viable notion of critical pedagogy must overcome the image of education as purely instrumental, a dead zone of the imagination, and a normalized space of oppressive discipline and imposed conformity.
A neoliberal and anti-democratic pedagogy of management and conformity not only undermines the critical knowledge and analytical skills necessary for students to learn the practice of freedom and assume the role of critical agents, it also reinforces deeply authoritarian practices while reproducing deep inequities in the educational opportunities that different students acquire. Pedagogies of repression and conformity impose punishing forms of discipline not just on students, but on the general public, deadening their ability to think critically; how else to explain the refusal of large segments of the public to think through and challenge the lies, misrepresentations, and contradictions that Trump used during his campaign. Repressive forms of public pedagogy empty out politics of any substance and further a modern day pandemic of loneliness and alienation. Such pedagogies emphasize aggressive competition, unchecked individualism, and cancel out empathy for an exaggerated notion of self-interest. Solidarity and sharing are the enemy of these pedagogical practices, which are driven by a withdrawal from sustaining public values, trust, and goods and serve largely to cancel out a democratic future for young people. This type of pedagogical tyranny poses a particular challenge for progressives who are willing to acknowledge that the crisis of politics and economics has not been matched by a crisis of ideas, resulting in new age of authoritarianism.
A new age of monstrosities is emerging that necessitates that we rethink the connection between politics and democracy, on the one hand, and education and social change on the other. More specifically, we might begin with the following questions: What institutions, agents, and social movements can be developed capable of challenging the dark times ahead? Moreover, what pedagogical conditions need to be exposed and overcome in order to create the formative culture that would make such a challenge successful? Even thinking such questions becomes difficult in a time of growing pessimism and despair.
Domination is at its most powerful when its mechanisms of control and subjugation hide in the discourse of common sense, and its elements of power are made to appear invisible. Yet, progressives in a wide variety of sites can take up the challenge of not only relating their specialties and modes of cultural production to the intricacies of everyday life but also to rethink how politics works, and how power is central to such a task. Bruce Robbins articulates the challenge well in both his defense of making the pedagogical more political and his defense of struggles waged on the educational front and his reference to how theorists such as Foucault provide a model for such work. He writes:
But I also thought that intellectuals should be trying, like Foucault, to relate our specialized knowledge to things in general. We could not just become activists focused on particular struggles or editors striving to help little magazines make ends meet. We also had a different kind of role to play: thinking hard, as Foucault did, about how best to understand the ways power worked in our time. Foucault, like Sartre and Sontag and Said, was an intellectual, even at some points despite himself. He helped us understand the world in newly critical and imaginative ways. He offered us new lines of reasoning while also engaging in activism and political position-taking.
Power is fundamental to any discourse about education and raises critical questions about what role education should play in a democracy and what role academics, artists, and other cultural workers might assume in order to address important social issues, in part, through the liberatory functions of education. This would suggest not only a relentless critique of dominant discourses, social practices, and policies, but also the need to engage in collective attempts to invent a new way of doing politics. Those concerned about the future of democracy have to rethink how power informs, shapes, and can be resourceful in both understanding and challenging power under the reign of global neoliberalism. This is especially true at a time in which a full scale attack is being waged by the Trump administration and other neoliberal societies on the public good, social provisions, and the welfare state.
Educators and other cultural workers should consider being more forceful, if not committed, to linking their overall politics to modes of critique and collective action that address the presupposition that democratic societies are never too just or just enough, and such a recognition means that a society must constantly nurture the possibilities for self-critique, collective agency, and forms of citizenship in which people play a fundamental role in critically discussing, administrating and shaping the material relations of power and ideological forces that bear down on their everyday lives. This is particularly important at a time when ignorance provides a sense of community; the brain has migrated to the dark pit of the spectacle and the only discourse that matters is about business. Trump has legitimated a spirit of ignorance, anti-intellectualism, and corruption. Thought now chases after emotions that obliterate it and actions are no longer framed against any viable notion of social responsibility.
At stake here is the task, as Jacques Derrida insists, of viewing the project of democracy as a promise, a possibility rooted in an ongoing struggle for economic, cultural, and social justice. Democracy in this instance is not a sutured or formalistic regime, it is the site of struggle itself. The struggle over creating an inclusive and just democracy can take many forms, offers no political guarantees, and provides an important normative dimension to politics as an ongoing process of democratization that never ends. Such a project is based on the realization that a democracy that is open to exchange, question, and self-criticism never reaches the limits of justice.
Theorists such as Raymond Williams and Cornelius Castoriadis recognized that the crisis of democracy was not only about the crisis of culture but also the crisis agency, values, and education. Progressives and others who refuse to equate capitalism and democracy would do well to take account of the profound transformations taking place in the public sphere and reclaim pedagogy as a central category of politics itself. Pierre Bourdieu was right when he stated that cultural workers have too often “underestimated the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle and have not always forged appropriate weapons to fight on this front.” He goes on to say in a later conversation with Gunter Grass that “left intellectuals must recognize that the most important forms of domination are not only economic but also intellectual and pedagogical, and lie on the side of belief and persuasion. Important to recognize that intellectuals bear an enormous responsibility for challenging this form of domination.” These are important pedagogical interventions and imply rightly that pedagogy in the broadest sense is not just about understanding, however critical, but also provides the conditions, ideals, and practices necessary for assuming the responsibilities we have as citizens to expose human misery and to eliminate the conditions that produce it. Matters of responsibility, social action, and political intervention do not simply develop out of the practice of social criticism but also arise through forms of self-critique. The relationship between knowledge and power, on the one hand, and education and politics, on the other, should always be self-reflexive about its effects, how it relates to the larger world, whether or not it is open to new understandings, and what it might mean pedagogically to take seriously matters of individual and social responsibility. Any viable understanding of the artist and educator as a public intellectual must begin with the recognition that democracy begins to fail and civic life becomes impoverished when power is relegated to the realm of common sense and critical thinking is no longer viewed as central to politics itself. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is a case study in how politics has been emptied of any substance and civic illiteracy has been normalized. Trump’s claim that he loves the uneducated appears to have paid off for him just as his victory makes clear that ignorance rather than reason, emotion rather than informed judgment, and the threat of violence rather than critical exchange appear to have more currency in the current historical moment.
This political tragedy ushered in with Trump’s election signifies the failure of the American public to recognize the educative nature of how agency is constructed, to address the necessity for moral witnessing, and the need to create a formative culture that produces critically engaged and socially responsible citizens. Realty-TV bombast and celebrity culture confers enormous authority in America and in doing so empties civil society and democracy of any meaning. Neoliberalism’s culture of consumerism, immediate satisfaction, and unchecked individualism both infantilizes and depoliticizes. The election of Donald Trump cannot simply be dismissed as an eccentric and dark moment in the history of American politics. His election proves that collective self-delusion can be dangerous when the spaces for critical learning, dissent, and informed judgment begin to whither or disappear altogether.
As Trump’s presidency gets underway, the neoliberalism’s hired intellectuals and celebrity pundits have already ushered in a discourse that will increasing normalize the regime of a dangerous demagogue, glossing over the ideological, economic, and religious fundamentalists he has chosen to fill top government positions. Such actions represent more than a flight from political and social responsibility, they also represent a surrender to the dark forces of authoritarianism. Dierdre Fulton, a writer for Common Dreams, is right in arguing that the process of normalization has already begun since Trump election. She writes:
Oprah Winfrey, in an interview with Entertainment Tonight, said Trump’s recent visit to the White House gave her ‘hope’ and suggested he has been ‘humbled’ by the experience,’ Johnson wrote. ‘The Guardian’s Simon Jenkins told his readers to ‘calm down’ and that Trump wasn’t the ‘worst thing.’ His colleague, Nouriel Roubini, insisted the Oval Office will ‘tame’ Trump. People magazine ran a glowing profile of Trump and his wife Melania (though a former People writer accused Trump of sexual assault). The New York Times’ Nick Kristof dubiously added that we should ‘Grit our teeth and give Trump a chance.’ The mainstays —Washington Post, New York Times, and CNN—while frequently critical, are covering Trump’s transition as they would any other.
Democracy should be a way of thinking about education in a variety of spheres and practices, one that thrives on connecting equity to excellence, learning to ethics, and agency to the imperatives of the public good. The question regarding what role education should play in democracy becomes all the more urgent at a time when the dark forces of authoritarianism are being normalized in the mainstream media. Central to such a discourse are hidden structures of critique and power attempting to normalize a full-frontal attack on public values, trust, solidarities, and modes of liberatory education. As such, the discourses of hate, humiliation, rabid self-interest, and greed are exercising a poisonous influence in many Western societies. This is most evident at the present moment in the discourse of the right-wing extremists vying to consolidate their authority within a Trump presidency, all of whom sanction a war on immigrants, women, young people, poor Black youth, and so it goes. One consequence is that democracy is on life support. This is all the more reason to take the late Edward Said’s call for modes of social criticism designed “to uncover and elucidate the contest, to challenge and defeat both an imposed silence and the normalized quiet of unseen power, wherever and whenever possible.” Yet, in spite of the dark forces now threatening many societies around the globe, it is crucial for intellectuals, artists and others to renounce any form of normalization of power, the toxic public pedagogies of neoliberalism, and to take on radical democracy as both a pedagogical project and unfinished ideal. Such a challenge will be all the easier if progressives and others can create the pedagogical conditions that can produce an individual and collective sense of moral and political outrage, a new understanding of politics, and the pedagogical and projects needed to allow democracy to breathe once again.
Trump’s presence in American politics has made visible a plague of deep seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system, and a contempt for reason; it also points to the withering of civic attachments, the collapse of politics into the spectacle of celebrity culture, the decline of public life, the use of violence and fear to numb people into shock, and a willingness to transform politics into a pathology. Trump’s administration will produce a great deal of violence in American society, particularly among the ranks of the most vulnerable: poor children, minorities of color, immigrants, women, climate change advocates, Muslims, and those protesting a Trump presidency. What must be made clear is that Trump’s election and the damage he will do to American society will stay and fester in American society for quite some time because he is only symptomatic of the darker forces that have been smoldering in American politics for the last 40 years. What cannot be exaggerated or easily dismissed is that Trump is the end result of a long standing series of attacks on democracy and that his presence in the American political landscape has put democracy on trial. While mass civil demonstrations have and continue to erupt over Trump’s election, what is more crucial to understand is that something more serious needs to be addressed. We have to acknowledge that at this particular moment in American history the real issue is not simply about resisting Donald Trump’s insidious values and anti-democratic policies but whether a political system can be reclaimed in which a notion of radical democracy can be deepened, strengthened and sustained. Yet, under a Trump presidency, it will be more difficult to sustain, construct, and nurture those public spheres that sustain critique, informed dialogue, and a work to expand the radical imagination. If democracy is to prevail in and through the threat of “dark times,” it is crucial that the avenues of critique and possibility become central to any new understanding of politics. If the authoritarianism of the Trump era is to be challenged, it must begin with a politics that is comprehensive in its attempts to understand the intersectionality of diverse forces of oppression and resistance. That is, on the one hand, it must move towards developing analyses that address the existing state of authoritarianism through a totalizing lens that brings together the diverse registers of oppression and how they are both connected and mutually reinforce each other. On the other hand, such a politics must, as Robin D.G. Kelley has noted, “move beyond stopgap alliances” and work to unite single issue movements into a more comprehensive and broad-based social movement that can make a viable claim to a resistance that is as integrated as it is powerful. For too long progressive cultural workers and activists have adhered to a narrative about domination that relies mostly on remaking economic structures and presenting to the public what might be called a barrage of demystifying facts and an aesthetics of transgression. What they have ignored is that people also internalize oppression and that domination is about not only the crisis of economics, images that deaden the imagination, and the misrepresentation of reality, but also about the crisis of agency, identification, meaning, and desire.
The crisis of economics and politics in the Trump era has not been matched by a crisis of consciousness and agency. The failure to develop a crisis of consciousness is deeply rooted in a society that suffers from a plague of atomization, loneliness, and despair. Neoliberalism has undermined any democratic understanding of freedom limiting its meaning to the dictates of consumerism, hatred of government, and a politics where the personal is the only emotional referent that matters. Freedom has collapsed into the dark abyss of a vapid and unchecked individualism and in doing so has cancelled out that capacious notion of freedom rooted in the bonds of solidarity, compassion, social responsibility, and the bonds of social obligations. The toxic neoliberal combination of unchecked economic growth is a discourse that legitimates plundering the earths’ resources and exhibits a pathological disdain for community and public values that has weakened democratic pressures, values, and social relations and opened the door for the dark side of politics under Donald Trump’s Presidency. The rule of the billionaires and militarists threaten not just democracy but the existence of the planet. The stakes for both justice, if not survival, are more important than ever. There is no room for resignation, internecine squabbles, and despair. Resistance must take on the challenge of creating an informed public, the need to develop new forms of non-violent resistance, and mobilize a collective sense of outrage mixed with a need for disciplined and focus action.
Pressing the claim for social justice and economic equality means working hard to develop alternative modes of consciousness, promote the proliferation of democratic public spheres, create the conditions for modes of mass resistance, and make the development of sustainable social movements central to any viable struggle for economic, political, and social justice. No viable democracy can exist without citizens who value and are willing to work towards the common good. That is as much a pedagogical question as it is a political challenge.
Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and a Distinguished Visiting Professorship at Ryerson University. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013) and Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014). His web site is www.henryagiroux.com.