Trump and the Ghosts of the Past in Fascist America


The smell of death is everywhere under the Trump administration in spite of the recent elections in which the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives.  Prior to the mid-term elections, Trump escalated his attacks on immigrants, referring to the caravan of refugees from Central America as an invading criminal force against whom he mobilized as many as 15,000 troops, more than currently serve in Afghanistan. According to Trump, the caravan of immigrants had “violently overrun” Mexico and were on the verge of invading the United States. He repeatedly echoed the discourse of a fascist politics calling immigrants “predatory… the worst scum of the world.”  Trump’s language functions as  a cruel and savage nod to the most extremist elements of his base of support. For instance, he has  also threatened to order U.S. soldiers to shoot migrants and refugees from Central America  who throw rocks at them. In addition, he has threatened to use an executive order to rewrite the constitution and annul birthright citizenship. He has threatened reporters who don’t show him respect, and did  so specifically by rescinding the press credentials of CNN reporter Jim Acosta.  In the aftermath of a series of tragedies and threats that included the recent killing of two African-Americans in a grocery store near Louisville, a campaign of mail bombs being sent to a number of high-profile Democrats and celebrities, and the mass murder of 11 people in a Pittsburgh Synagogue, Trump refused to acknowledge how his toxic rhetoric, name-calling rallies, and mendacity-filled interviews have fanned the flames of racism and anti-Semitism. Instead, he blamed the media for the violence and labelled them as “the true enemy of freedom;” moreover he has escalated his attacks on the media while calling Democrats   the “party of crime,” whom he argues are determined “to unleash violent predators and ruthless killers” onto American streets. Without shame, he publicly stated that he is a nationalist emboldening right-wing extremist groups such as the Proud Boys, the American equivalent of the Nazi brown shirts.

Trump has repeatedly used language associated with a fascist politics and ruthless dictators. Incapable of both empathy and self-reflection, he can only use language in the service of lies, vilification, and violence. This is a language that “marks a terrifying new horizon for human political experience,” one that suggests that the fascist appropriation of language as a tool of state repression and domestic terrorism is still with us. Trump may not be Hitler, but there are disturbing parallels in his language and reactionary policies that send up warning signs that resonate with dangerous echoes of the past. Moreover, it is precisely these historical lessons that should be examined carefully so that the plague of fascism  can be both recognized in its current form and resisted so that it will never happen again. While Trump has not embraced all aspects of the fascist playbook such as throwing dissidents in jail and or preventing elections to take place, it is crucial to remember that fascism is not a static historical fixture or a fixed moment in history. While some elements of fascism may go into remission others may crystalize in different forms. It is crucial to recognize that in light of the resurgence of fascist politics in the United States, the current elections do not suggest an antidote to the growing fascism in the country bolstered by Trump’s presidency. Trump brings surface elements of fascism to the political landscape and in doing so nurtures definable features of fascism that have and will continue long after Trump disappears from the political scene.  The elections may gratify some liberals and convince them that some elements of democracy still exist in the U.S., but that argument pales against the way in which different elements of the fascist playbook are surfacing under Trump, making clear that the problems the U.S. now faces are much too deep to be saved by or simply disappear as a result of recent elections. The most basic elements of the fascist playbook are alive and well in the United States and include: the stoking of ultra-nationalism, a galloping inequality, entrenched racism, the rise of white nationalism, the corporate control of all forms of education extending from the schools to the media, the concentration of power by  the financial elite and the commanding influence of a toxic ideological fundamentalism that dominates the Republican party and the Supreme court. All of these forces feed into a deeply authoritarian logic that as Viktor Orban continually argues means that  democracies do not have to be liberal in order to be successful. Against the new face of fascist politics, elections may offer some immediate relief if not short-term checks on authoritarian power, but in the long run they will do little to alter its fundamental structures, institutions, power, and grasp on the American public.


The entrepreneurs of hate are no longer confined to the dustbin of history, particularly the 1930s and 1940s. They are with us once again producing dystopian fantasies out of the decaying communities and landscapes produced by forty years of a savage capitalism. Angry loners looking for a cause, a place to put their agency into play, are fodder for cult leaders. They have found one in Trump for whom the relationship between the language of fascism and the toxic worldview it creates has moved to the center of power in the United States.   Campaigning for the mid-term elections, President Trump has, without apology, reached deep into the fascist playbook and displayed a degree of racism, hatred, and ignorance that should send alarm bells ringing across the globe. In the aftermath of a week that included the recent killing of two African-Americans in a grocery store near Louisville, a campaign of mail bombs being sent to a number of high-profile Democrats, and the mass murder of 11 people in a Pittsburgh Synagogue, Trump refused to acknowledge how his rhetoric, rallies, and interviews have fanned the flames of racism and anti-Semitism. Instead, he blames the media for the violence, calls his political rivals enemies, labels immigrants as invaders, and publicly claims he is a nationalist emboldening right-wing extremists groups such as the Proud Boys, the American equivalent of the Nazi brown shirts. Incapable of both empathy and self-reflection, he can only use language in the service of lies, vilification, and violence. Trump is the endpoint of a culture of hyper-punitiveness amplified through forms of militarization, privatization, the criminalization of entire groups of people and the financialization of everything.

Fascism first begins with linguistic violence and then gains momentum as an organizing force for shaping a culture that legitimates indiscriminate violence against entire groups — Black people, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and others considered “disposable.” In this vein, Trump portrays his critics as “villains” and “enemies,” describes immigrants as “losers” and “criminals,” and has become a national mouthpiece for violent nationalists and a myriad of extremists who trade in hate and violence. Using a rhetoric of hate as a performance strategy to whip up his base, Trump employs endless rhetorical tropes of hate and demonization that set the tone for real violence.

Trump appears utterly unconcerned by the accusation that his highly charged rhetoric of racial hatred, xenophobia and virulent nationalism both legitimates and fuels acts of violence. He proceeds without concern about the consequences of lending his voice to conspiracy theorists claiming that George Soros is funding the caravan of migrant workers, calling Maxine Waters a “low IQ person,” or referring to former CIA director John Brennan as a “total lowlife” and a “very bad guy.” Meanwhile, this inflammatory infective promotes violence from the numerous fascist groups that support him.

Trump thrives on promoting social divisions and often references violence as a means of addressing them. His praise of Montana congressman Greg Gianforte for body slamming a Guardian reporter in 2017 speaks for itself, as does his remark that the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville were “very fine people.” No wonder Trump is praised by David Duke, the former head of the Ku Klux Klan, and by the Proud Boys (a vile contemporary version of the Nazi Brownshirts). Needless to say, as Karen Garcia notes, Trump’s “frenzied Nuremberg-style rallies” are a cauldron of race baiting and anti-Semitic demagoguery.

We have seen before this collapse of language into a form of coded militarism and racism — the anti-Semitism couched in critiques of globalization, the call for racial and social cleansing couched in the discourse of borders and walls. The emerging discourse of state terrorism in the US alarmingly resembles that of Europe in the 1930s. Edward Luce rightly reminds us that we have heard this language before. He writes: “Eighty-five years ago on Thursday, Heinrich Himmler opened the Nazis first concentrating camp at Dachau. History does not repeat itself. But it is laced with warnings.”

In an age when civic literacy and efforts to hold the powerful accountable for their actions is dismissed as “fake news,” ignorance becomes the breeding ground not just for hate, but for a culture that represses historical memory, shreds any understanding of the importance of shared values, refuses to make tolerance a non-negotiable element of civic dialogue and allows the powerful to weaponize everyday discourse.

Trump’s language is neither harmless, nor merely a form of infantilized theater. It is toxic, steeped in a racist nationalist ardor that stirs up and emboldens extremist elements of his base. It is also the language of silence, moral irresponsibility and a willingness to look away in the face of violence and human suffering. This is the worldview of fascist politics and a dangerous nihilism — one that reinforces a contempt for human rights in the name of financial expediency and the cynical pursuit of political power.

How can Trump and his lemming-like supporters support the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who have become increasingly emboldened in the United States? How can they engage in racist and anti-Semitic attacks repeatedly, and at the same time, overlook how they have become democracy’s gravediggers? How can Trump call for national unity and denounce anti-Semitism when he engages in what his critics have described as unapologetic “demagoguery against racial minorities, foreigners and prominent Jewish political figures“? How can they deny that the symbolic violence they endorse endlessly as a central feature of politics creates a climate that produces hate and legitimates violence? Trump does not merely trade in hate, he also works hard in his rhetoric and policies to get Americans to hate each other.

How can they gloss over the connection between the recent explosive devices mailed to George Soros and the Republican attack ads that accused Soros of paying for protesters at Trump’s rallies or claimed that he was the head of some global financial cabal and worldwide conspiracy? These are familiar anti-Semitic slurs used by a number of demagogues including Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. There is more at work here than referring to Trump’s language as condoning and encouraging extremism and violence. There is also a worldview that comes out of a fascist playbook. Referring to the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Bari Weiss captures the relationship between Trump’s language and the violence and anti-Semitism that is ballooning in the US as one register of rising extremism. She writes:

We are living in an age when anti-Semitism is on the rise here at home. You need only think of last year’s chants of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville, or the president’s constant attacks on “globalists,” “international bankers” and “the corrupt media,” all of which are commonly associated with Jews in the minds of anti-Semites. It isn’t at all surprising that these rhetorical tropes have translated into acts of violence — according to the Anti-Defamation League, anti-Semitic incidents rose by 57 percent in 2017…

We have seen too many instances where Trump’s followers have beaten critics, attacked journalists, and shouted down any form of critique aimed at Trump’s policies — to say nothing of the army of trolls unleashed on intellectuals and journalist critical of the administration. Last week, a few weeks prior to the 2018 midterm elections, a number of Trump’s outspoken critics, all of whom have been belittled and verbally attacked by Trump, were sent homemade pipe bombs in the mail. Cesar Sayoc — the man who was charged in connection with the bombings — is a strong Trump fan whose Twitter feed is littered with right-wing conspiracy theories along with an assortment of “apocalyptic, right-wing dystopian fantasies.”

Without a care as to how his own vicious and aggressive rhetoric has legitimated and galvanized acts of violence by an assortment of members of the “alt-right,” neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Trump responded to the pipe bomb threats by claiming it was the fault of the mainstream media, which he labeled as “fake news.” Trump appears clueless and incapable of empathy regarding the suffering of others, all while displaying great hypocrisy. For instance, he claims political opponents should not be compared to historical villains and then proceeds to villainize his political rivals when he speaks to his base. The most obvious instance is when he whips up his base by encouraging chants aimed at Hillary Clinton such as “lock her up” or when he claims at his rallies that the Democrats are funding the caravan from Central America that is making its way to the United States border.

He ignored the plea of a number of progressive Jewish leaders not to visit the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh until he was willing to denounce white nationalism. Instead he stated, once again, that if the synagogue had adequate security the mass murder might have been avoided. Understandably, members of the Jewish community were deeply offended by this suggestion that the victims were to blame for their own deaths. Once again Trump turned his back on the victims of white nationalist hate and gave a nod to people who should be labeled as a threat to democracy by refusing to address the role they play in fomenting a fascist politics and in posing a threat to both human life and democracy.

Trump remains silent about the fringe groups he has incited with his vicious attacks on the press, the judiciary and his political opponents. That is, he refuses to criticize them while shoring up their support my claiming he is a “nationalist” who is fighting a global conspiracy. Violent fantasies are Trump’s trademark, whether expressed in his support for ruthless dictators or in his urging to “knock the crap out of” protesters. We have seen this celebration of violence in the past with its infantile appeal to a hyper-masculinity.

Within a week after the pipe bombs were sent to high-profile critics of Trump, a mass shooting took place at a Pittsburgh synagogue in which 11 people were killed and six were wounded. The charged suspect, Robert Bowers, opened fire on a Saturday morning during baby-naming services. As he entered the Tree of Life synagogue and began gunning people down, Bowers shouted, “All Jews must die.” Trump responded to the tragedy by claiming, “This wicked act of mass murder is pure evil, hard to believe, and frankly, something that is unimaginable.” Surely, there is nothing unimaginable about the rising acts of violence in the United States given the degree to which Trump’s highly charged rhetoric baits people to follow through on his demonizing and poisonous calls to punish his alleged critics and those he describes as “enemies of the American people.” While Trump’s attacks on Muslims, undocumented immigrants and Mexicans are part of the script that launched his investigation and have become a central feature of his racist political appeals, his more recent attacks have broadened the objects of his assault in ways that conjure up echoes of a fascist past. Trump now applies fuel to a conflagration that is in tune with the winds of illiberal democracy spreading around the globe. Max Boot summarizes well this expanding demagogic language of disposability and demonization. He writes:

Trump calls Democrats “evil” and “crazy.” He accuses them of being “treasonous” and “un-American.” He claims they are in league with MS-13 gang members. He says they are trying to open our borders to criminals and to turn America into Venezuela…. He applauds a congressman who assaulted a reporter and calls for his political opponent to be locked up. He singles out minorities such as [Rep. Maxine] Waters for opprobrium, and he promotes anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that hold George Soros responsible for everything from the Central American caravan to protests against Brett M. Kavanaugh.    When Trump talks about “globalists,” the far right hears “Jews.” When Trump says there were “fine people” on both sides in Charlottesville, the far right hears official approval…. And Trump continues his incendiary rhetoric even after the tragic consequences have become clear.

When confronted with the rising acts of hate-inspired violence in the United States and the question of whether his incendiary language serves to inflame such violence, Trump responded in his usually crude and ethically irresponsible way by stating he was going “tone up” his rhetoric rather than tone it down. His moral indifference to threats of violence as well as to acts of real violence was on further display when Trump tweeted that the “bomb stuff” was a distraction that was slowing Republican momentum in the polls. Removed from any sense of moral and political responsibility, Trump refuses to acknowledge that words matter and that they feed the violent fantasies of right-wing extremists.

Some high-profile Republicans dismissed the attempted assassinations as fraudulent or blamed the Democrats. For Trump as well as his Vichy-Republican allies and many of his followers, facts or morality appear to never get in the way of acknowledging the degree to which Trumpism has normalized violence as a tool to squelch dissent by threatening journalists and others critical of Trump’s fascist politics. The rhetoric of violence, hate and intolerance has morphed into the service of fashioning Trump into the symbolic leader of the fascist effort to criminalize all those individuals and groups considered disposable and outside of the ultra-nationalist notion of the US as a white-public sphere.

Under Trump, violence defines the political sphere, if not politics itself, and has become a mythic force in which all meaning, desire, relations and actions are reduced to a friend/enemy divide. This is the worldview of the demagogue and points alarmingly to a resurgence of a fascist ideology updated for the 21st century. Trump’s rhetoric of hate resembles the Nazi obsession with the discourse of pollution, ritualistic acts aimed at purging critical thought and undermining informed judgment. This is the discourse of vicious cruelty and a petri dish for nourishing the virus of a fascist politics. It is also the outgrowth of a form of neoliberal fascism that has been emerging in the United States since the late 1970s. What we are witnessing with the rise of fascism in the United States and in many other countries gives credence to the warning made by Theodor Adorno in his essay “The Meaning of Working Through the Past“: “I consider the survival of National Socialism within democracy to be potentially more menacing than the survival of fascist tendencies against democracy.”

Trump is the endpoint of a malady that has been growing for decades. What is different about Trump is that he basks in his role, as George Scialabba puts it in Slouching Towards Utopia, as a “famous social parasite.” He is unapologetic about the looting of the country by the ultra-rich (including him) and by mega-corporations. He embodies with unchecked bravado the sorts of sadistic impulses that could condemn generations of children to a future of misery. He loves people who believe that politics is undermined by anyone who has a conscience, and he promotes and thrives in a culture of violence and cruelty. Trump is not refiguring the character of democracy, he is destroying it, and in doing so, resurrecting all the elements of a fascist politics that many people thought would never re-emerge again after the horrors and death inflicted on millions by fascist dictators. Trump represents an emergence of the ghost of the past and we should be terrified of what is happening both in the United States and in other countries such a Brazil, Poland, Turkey, and Hungary.  Trump’s ultra-nationalism, racism, policies aimed at social cleansing, his love affair with some of the world’s most heinous dictators, and his hatred of democracy echoes a period in history when the unimaginable became possible, when genocide was the endpoint of dehumanizing others, and the mix of nativist and nationalist rhetoric ended in the horrors of the camp. The world is at war once again and it is a war against democracy and Trump is at the forefront of it.

Henry A. Giroux is a Contributing Editor for Tikkun magazine and 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). His website is www.henryagiroux.com.

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