People react as President Trump speaks to supporters at a rally on August 15, 2019, in Manchester, New Hampshire. Credit: Spencer Platt, Getty Images.
We spoke with cultural critic and one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy, Henry Giroux, about his latest book, The Terror of the Unforeseen, in which he warns that the economic tyranny of neoliberal capitalism and a culture of cruelty and objectification set the stage for Trump’s rise and the emergence of fascism.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Media For Us: In The Terror of the Unforeseen you explain how our economic system enabled Trump’s rise. Can you talk about the connection between neoliberal capitalism and fascism?
Henry A. Giroux: What we need to understand is that neoliberalism does a couple of things that set the groundwork for a fascist politics. But behind all of that, there is a comment that Horkheimer mentioned once, and which always sticks in my mind. He said that if you can’t talk about capitalism, you can’t talk about fascism. I think that we have to keep that in the background.
But what neoliberalism has done since the 1970s is it has created such economic misery, it has so accentuated levels of inequality, it has created such suffering, it has dismantled entire towns, it has concentrated wealth in the hands of the financial elite, and it has legitimated an enormous culture of cruelty. And it operates off the assumption that the market can solve all problems — not simply in the economy, but in all of social life — so it becomes a template and a model for all social relations. In doing so, it is at odds with any notion of the welfare state, any notion of labor unions, any notion of workers’ rights, and any notion of economic rights. It privatizes, deregulates, and commodifies everything. It sets up a series of competitive attitudes that degrades collaboration. It highlights self-interest at the expense of modes of solidarity. It so accentuates matters of inequitable relations in wealth and power that you have an enormous concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the financial elite, and this is enacted by all kinds of policies that undermine the foundations of a democracy — all of its basic institutions, from the press, to public goods such as schools and media, to politics itself.
Money drives politics. We all know that now. But the other side of this is that it’s not just an economic system, it’s also an ideological system. As an ideological system, what it generally does is three things that are pernicious and which set the groundwork for a kind of right-wing populism and a fascist politics. First, it operates off the assumption that all social problems are individual problems. Therefore whatever problems people face, the blame for those problems rests with themselves — whether we’re talking about ecological disasters, about poverty, about homelessness, about ignorance and illiteracy, and so forth and so on. Secondly, in doing so it tends to depoliticize people, and by depoliticizing them it becomes very difficult for people — operating under that notion of self-interest, a brutal form of competition, and this heightened notion of rugged individualism — to translate private troubles into larger systemic issues. Hence they find it very hard to understand the conditions in which they find themselves. Thirdly, it creates an enormous culture of ignorance. You have these cultural apparatuses like Fox News, conservative talk radio, and digital online platforms, that constantly pump out conspiracy theories, lies, and attacks on the truth as ‘fake news’.
This creates a level of ignorance in which ignorance is not innocent; ignorance actually becomes a form of depoliticization. People become very susceptible to simplistic answers, and they become very susceptible in their anger and their frustration to turning over their sense of agency to the strongman. They get wooed by appeals to ultra cultural sovereignty — shorthand for racism and nativism — and ultra cultural nationalism. They fall into the trap of believing in the friend/enemy divide.
And in the United States, now under Trump and prior to Trump, with the rise of fascist politics that’s been going on for a long time, the friend/enemy divide translates into a racial divide. It’s a divide that basically supports xenophobia and a politics of racial cleansing. It says that people at the border are the enemy, it says that blacks are the enemy, it says that women cannot have certain reproductive rights. And so with the anger coupled with the misery, you have a perfect storm between that and the appropriation of what I want to call white supremacy, white nationalism, and this despicable notion of racial cleansing.
It seems Trump can more easily get away with lying to his supporters because many of them distrust the media. Is corporate media’s corporate bias enabling Trump’s dishonesty and perhaps even emboldening him? And does our media’s obsession with violence also desensitize people to Trump’s cruel rhetoric?
One of the hallmarks of neoliberal fascism is that the media is concentrated in relatively few hands, and that means that the media in the United States is largely owned by conservatives and the financial elite such as the Murdoch family and Sinclair broadcasting. What the conservative media has done is it has legitimated, enabled, sustained, articulated, and clarified for the American public Trump’s views. I mean, they’re really lackeys. These are not public intellectuals; these are anti-public intellectuals. And they feed off the spectacle — they feed off the spectacle of racism, they feed off the spectacle of violence, they feed off the spectacle of terrorizing other groups that are considered othered.
The mainstream media, on the other hand, is so cowardly that it takes seriously whatever Trump has to say every day, and rather than dissect it in ways that would suggest that we’re really in the midst of a fascist politics, it becomes a news feed in the 24/7 hour cycle. And in that 24/7 hour cycle, what’s really at work here is the spectacle. Remember, we live in a culture of immediacy. We live in a culture in which simplistic answers override more complicated answers. We live in a culture in which language is reduced to its bare bones. We live in a culture in which language is now in the service of violence.
But what really interests me, in terms of what I have seen particularly in the last few weeks, is that we have to learn something from history here. Fascism begins with the rhetoric of dehumanization, humiliation, and reification, right? It starts with the language of brutality, which it normalizes. It legitimates hatred and racism and violence. It views certain groups through rhetoric as enemies of the American people. It operates off of the rhetoric of war, anti-intellectualism, and white supremacy. It operates off of the language of disposability. That language doesn’t just simply normalize increasingly the notions of white nationalism, white supremacy, racism, and xenophobia; it also enacts policies and it creates a culture of utter stupidity, a culture of ignorance. And, unfortunately, it functions so as to enable violence against groups labeled as dangerous, other, excess, and a threat to the whitewashed notion of citizenship.
With respect to the latter, when people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction, they can’t tell the difference between good and evil. They can’t recognize a crime when they see one or what lawlessness looks like. All standards of truth go out the window. It’s a very dangerous moment because it means that people become more susceptible to demagogues, to people like Trump, and I think that the media has played an enormous role in creating a formative culture that at its worst legitimates and at its best enables what we see happening in the United States today.
In your book you write that any viable language of emancipation needs to develop a discourse of social hope. Can you explain this idea of social hope? And do you see promising examples of this in today’s social movements?
Social hope means that hope is not limited to simply individual aspirations, that hope becomes a collective affair and is compatible with the assumption that people can collectively organize and in doing so they can imagine a different future. But more importantly, collectively in the name of hope, they can address the problems that prevent that future from emerging, and they can organize and become active through a mass social movement to make that hope possible. When we talk about social hope versus individualistic hope, we’re talking about a collective consciousness that is able in a sense to think otherwise in order to act otherwise — that’s the basic key here.
I think there are promising movements all over the world. We see people in Hong Kong demonstrating against Chinese authoritarianism. We see people in Brazil in the streets in the thousands trying in some fundamental way to militate against the dictator Bolsonaro. We see people in the United States fighting for the environment, women mobilizing all over the country, young black youth organizing through a variety of black organizations, workers in a sense coming alive again in a new labor movement, and we’ve just seen teachers who went out on strike in a massive way that we haven’t seen since the 1930s.
So I think it’s there. People are waking up. The contradictions are becoming obvious. But the problem that plagues all of these groups is that they’re individualized. They tend to be autonomous, reduced to isolated issues, and they tend not to be part of a larger social movement in which each group can both articulate its own concerns but at the same time join with others in the call for a democratic socialist mode or a democratic mode of society.
You write that our schools have been increasingly modeled after prisons and have become “zones of economic and political abandonment.” Can you talk about the transformation of our schools since the 1970s and what you call the “slow violence” that has been inflicted on them?
With respect to the latter, “slow violence” refers to our public schools being increasingly defunded, transformed into machines for teaching to the test, and reimagined not as democratic public spheres designed to produced critical citizens, but workers willing to put up with boring work and labor abuses. As they’re increasingly defunded, it’s then claimed that they’re failing, and that then becomes an excuse to either privatize them or turn them over to charter schools. In a sense what you have here is a central element of neoliberal ideology, which is an attack on the public good, an attack on any institution that supports the public good, and an attack on forms of pedagogy that teach students about the past, critical thinking, and provide them with the tools for informed decisions and engaged dialogue. In that sense, schools are a prime target.
The other side of this, this slow violence, is that increasingly the racism, the segregation, and the discrimination, has become intensified. We saw it particularly with the rise of ‘zero tolerance’ policies in schools, which are basically nothing more than racial codes. Schools have really become school-to-prison pipelines; they’ve become militarized and the behavior of young people — not just black and brown people, but poor white kids as well — becomes criminalized. The school becomes modeled after the prison. You have all of the accoutrements of the prison there: you have metal detectors that people have to walk through, you have security guards and police, and the school is defined in terms of the language of surveillance. This is a creeping form of punishment that is now imposed on kids and on schools through a machinery of pedagogical repression.
Outside of that you have teachers who are increasingly deskilled through models of curricula that claim that objective assessments are all that matters, and that teachers just have to implement the assessments. So teachers are completely losing control over the conditions of their labor, they’re being abused, they’re not being paid properly, they’re losing their benefits, and their unions are being disseminated.
This is a full-fledged attack. It’s an attack on one of the most important foundations of a democracy, it’s an attack on teachers, and it’s an attack on young people — particularly those who are marginalized by virtue of class, race, and ethnicity.
In the book you explain that social movements must embrace education as central to reclaiming power and agency because education is “vital for comprehending how culture deploys power and produces those desires, values, and modes of identity that support a neoliberal and market driven view of the world.” There has been a wave of teachers’ strikes nationwide calling for increased wages, smaller class sizes, and in some cases an end to for-profit charter schools. But shouldn’t their demands also include an increase in teachers’ and students’ power over learning itself?
Absolutely. What does it mean to get those benefits if you’re powerless? That doesn’t make any sense. What does it mean if you want to create the conditions for young people to learn how to govern rather than be governed? If we don’t increasingly allow them to take some control over the conditions of their own labor, what does it mean to deskill the teachers and make them powerless and claim that we actually have a mode of education that works? That doesn’t work.
That’s the contradiction that needs to be amplified for people. All pedagogy, when it matters, is contextual. Different kids come from different neighborhoods, they come from different experiences, they come from different classes, and they come from different backgrounds. Context always matters in an educational setting and matters of difference have to be addressed if you are going to connect with young people. In order for education to work, you have to make it meaningful, to make it critical, to make it transformative.
That’s a hell of a lot different than claiming you have to teach for the test. That means that teachers have to be involved in the community and connected with parents and others who shape the lives of young people. They have to be involved with a whole range of people. They have to bring people together. They have to make sure that students in some way find that the work that they’re doing has something to do with their lives and matters.
Schools are increasingly either engaged in massive forms of pedagogical oppression and discipline or they’re basically disimagination machines — they kill the imagination of students and prepare them to work in utterly boring jobs without the slightest notion that they should resist because the implication seems to be that this is normal. They’re normalizing idiocy. They’re normalizing anti-intellectualism. That’s exactly what Trump wants. He wants to normalize anti-intellectualism. When talking about Kim Jong Un he said, ‘Look, his people stand up and obey him. That’s what I want.’ And he’s right — that is what he wants. And that means he wants to destroy every institution that could possibly operate in the interest of not allowing that to happen.
You also talk about “the neoliberal edition” of freedom. Can you explain what you mean by this?
At the end of the 1970s, right wing pundits and cultural apparatuses such as the talk shows and conservative institutes, created a language that undermined the power of democratic discourse and ideas to shape public life. For instance, terms such as “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy” were narrowly defined in terms of market values, priorities, and interests, and any notion of citizenship was restricted to market-driven notions of choice, consumerism, and an empty notion of electoral politics. Or such terms were removed from any notions of equality and justice. Freedom, for instance, under Trump and his acolytes means the freedom to hate.
One of the things that neoliberalism has done is it has taken notions that are really powerful and turned them around, basically hijacking them in ways that produce misery and suffering. Freedom doesn’t simply mean ‘freedom from’ in the traditional sense of the word, it also means the ‘freedom to’ do more than just survive or wallow in your own orbits of privatization. It means that you not only have political freedoms and individual freedoms — you have economic freedoms, and social freedoms. You cannot live in a society and believe in elections (if you believe in that myth), or believe in being an agent, or believe that you can have power, or believe that you can influence events, if you’re hungry all of the time, if you have to make a choice between medicine and food, if time is no longer a luxury but it basically incapacitates you by virtue of not having the time to do anything to develop the capacities that would allow us to be political, social, and economic agents. Freedom has been utterly distorted under this authoritarian neoliberal machine because it is a notion of freedom that has been regressively individualized and refuses to acknowledge that you cannot talk about choices without at the same time talking about constraints, whether they be economic, political, or social.
Today freedom also means the freedom to hate, it means the freedom to say anything, it means the freedom to disparage people, to dehumanize people, to believe in the culture of cruelty, to believe that kindness is not a virtue but a liability. Freedom has been extended into a discourse of violence and hate, which is really part of a larger cultural apparatus that has so undermined the relationship between freedom and justice, freedom and equality, freedom and social responsibility that those terms drop out and freedom becomes in a sense a liability with respect to what a democratic socialist country might look like.
The other side of this is that there is a really demonic notion of freedom that seems to suggest we’re all equal and we can all make all of the choices that we want — it’s up to us. In other words, it suggests that choice in this one-dimensional sense of market freedom is defined without constraints. So you are free to sleep under a bridge at night, or you’re free to sleep in the Ritz. Well, that’s just nonsense. It seems to me that choice only becomes meaningful when people have the capacity to make real choices. That’s what freedom really is about in an economic and political sense.
Can you say something about the recent mass shooting in El Paso and the motivations of the gunman?
Fascism first begins with language, 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,” 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. One recent example can be found in the Trump-like language used in the manifesto posted by the El Paso shooter.
Patrick Crusius, the El Paso gunman, published online a white nationalist screed that echoes numerous racist and xenophobic views aimed at Hispanics. Crusius argues that white people are at risk of genocide and that people of color will replace them. Trump may not be directly responsible for this horrendous crime, but he has used his Twitter account to refer to an “invasion” of migrants at the southern border, and condemned Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and Syrian refugees as “snakes.” Moreover, his rhetoric in support of walls and borders is not about security but a symbol of unadulterated nativism.
Of course, Trump does not just fan the flames of violence with his rhetoric, he also provides legitimation to a number of white nationalists and right-wing extremist groups who are emboldened by his words and actions and too often ready to translate their hatred into the desecration of synagogues, schools, and other public sites, as well as engage in violence against peaceful protesters, and in some cases commit heinous acts of violence.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about this book?
I think that we have entered into a very different moment, a very distinctive moment in the United States, that’s being echoed in many places all over the world. It’s not just about right-wing populism; it’s about an economic tyranny and a culture of cruelty and objectification that now has set the conditions for translating and making possible the rise of a fascist politics. I think that if we don’t conjoin this extreme form of capitalism in all of its incredible accentuating forms of misery and suffering, and the concentration of wealth, with the emergence of a politics of racial cleansing, a politics of xenophobia, then we’re going to miss the boat.
What the book attempts to do in a very accessible way is two things: it attempts to understand the climate of fear and the rise of fascist politics in a historical sense and how that relates to the present, and it attempts to explain very clearly both the rise of neoliberal fascism and what I call the end of the social — all of those social spheres that we can associate with the welfare state, with the public good, and with the common good. And it looks at the very specific landscape or institutions in which this is happening: it looks at higher education, it looks at what’s happening to young people in schools under the specter of violence, and it looks at striking teachers and students. It then ends with a whole series of assumptions about what we can do. So I think the book in that sense is very helpful.