SEPTEMBER 9, 2019
“IT IS NOT the light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder.” Nine years before the Civil War, the former enslaved person and ardent abolitionist Frederick Douglass condemned a nation for stubbornly clinging to the abomination of slavery in his blistering speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July.” He pressed on:
We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.
In The Terror of the Unforeseen, a timely and audacious new book brimming with Douglass’s seething anger and barely controlled rage, Henry A. Giroux wants to again rouse and startle the conscience of the nation and denounce the crimes it is committing. “Echoes of the formative stages of fascism are with us once again,” Giroux writes, “and provide just one of the historical signposts of an American-style neo-fascism that appears to be engulfing the United States after simmering in the dark for years.” He is calling down fire, thunder, storms, and whirlwinds.
Giroux, a prolific scholar and cultural critic, author of more than 68 books, most recently American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (2018), and over 400 articles, papers, and chapters, teaches at McMaster University, where he is the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest. He begins his new book by documenting Donald Trump’s deplorable and dangerous language and actions during the first years of his presidency, emphasizing that Trump’s rhetoric is hardly new; it matches what many historians report in the rise of Nazism and fascism. Giroux then traces the domestic origins of Trump’s policies to the neoliberalism of the 1970s. Next he focuses on the steadfast dismantling of public education and more broadly on the rise of anti-intellectualism and the muzzling of open debate. In the face of such a dire portrait of the United States, Giroux concludes by calling for a deeper, more galvanized and interrelated resistance, and a radical transformation of capitalism, in order to restore our democracy.
In the age of Trump, Giroux sees the reemergence of fascism in “an unceasing stream of racism, demonizing insults, lies, and militarized rhetoric, serving as emotional appeals that are endlessly circulated and reproduced at the highest levels of government and the media.” He is precise that what Trump is doing is not simply “updated” Nazism. Instead, he claims that there is a “real and present danger” that many of the same seeds that grew into fascism in the 1920s and 1930s have been planted and cultivated in American soil for years. He gathers the evidence in an extended and alarming compendium:
People in power have turned their backs on the cautionary histories of the fascist and Nazi regimes and, in doing so, willingly embrace a number of authoritarian messages and tropes: the cult of the leader, the discourse of the savior, white nationalism, a narrative of decline, unchecked casino capitalism, systemic racism, silence in the face of a growing police state, the encouragement of state endorsed violence, the hallowing out of democracy by corporate power, a grotesque celebration of greed, a massive growth in the inequality of wealth, power and resources, a brutal politics of disposability, an expanding culture of cruelty, and a disdain for public virtues, all wrapped up in an authoritarian populism.
Here, Giroux names most of the essential targets that he unpacks. This is his bill of particulars, his indictment of both the Trump administration and the conditions that the far-right has been engineering for decades. These conditions are based on principles of white supremacy baked into the founding of our country that even a civil war, several constitutional amendments, a mixed record of court decisions, and the fits and starts of various administrations have failed to eradicate.
In developing his themes, Giroux is not selfish or vain. He readily shares his space with other writers, historians, and scholars whose distinct expression of key ideas he welcomes, including Tom Engelhardt, Chris Hedges, Roger Cohen, Masha Gessen, Juan Cole, Michael Tomasky, Timothy Snyder, Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Richard J. Evans, Ariel Dorfman, Hannah Arendt, Steven Levitsky, Daniel Ziblatt, Naomi Klein, Wendy Brown, Peter Dreier, J. M. Coetzee, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Susan Sontag, Theodor W. Adorno, Stanley Aronowitz, and many others. The presence of these authorities strengthens Giroux’s argument. The book and its 488 footnotes serve as a valuable resource for further reading and study, which is, after all, one of Giroux’s essential prescriptions for overcoming the “knownothingness” of our time. It is a public service to have marshaled so much evidence, statistics, and source material within 245 pages to document the treachery not only of the Trump years but of the decades that preceded them.
Giroux readily observes that there “is nothing new about the possibility of authoritarianism in a particularly distinctive guise coming to America,” citing the alarms sounded by fiction writers from George Orwell, Sinclair Lewis, and Aldous Huxley to Margaret Atwood, Philip K. Dick, and Philip Roth as well as the work of theorists such as Umberto Eco, Hannah Arendt, and Robert O. Paxton (whom in a rare error Giroux misidentifies as “Thomas”). What they all have in common “is an awareness of the changing nature of tyranny and how it could happen under a diverse set of historical, economic, and social circumstances.” Here Giroux reveals the origin of the title of his book, citing Roth’s “insistence that we all have an obligation to recognize ‘the terror of the unforseen’ that hides in the shadows of censorship, makes power invisible, and gains in strength in the absence of historical memory.”
Giroux is deeply concerned about the use of language to solidify authoritarianism and erase historical memory. “The United States has a long history of racist language leading to cruel and harmful practices and, in some cases, violence aimed at groups targeted by such language.” He sees that “the language of white nationalism and racial resentment” creates “a discourse that annihilates social codes and restrains political behavior and undermines the rule of law.”
Giroux believes “it is fair to argue that Orwell’s nightmare vision of the future is no longer fiction.” Under the Trump regime, “the Ministry of Truth has become the Ministry of Fake News, and the language of ‘Newspeak’ has multiple platforms, morphing into a giant disinformation machinery of propaganda, ignorance, hypocrisy, and fear.” Citing Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Giroux reminds us that “fascism starts with words and Trump’s use of language and his manipulative use of the media as political theater echo earlier periods of propaganda, censorship, and repression.” Under fascist regimes, “the language of brutality and culture of cruelty were normalized through the proliferation of the strident metaphors of war, battle, expulsion, racial purity, and demonization.”
In July, we witnessed Trump’s latest appeal to “expulsion, racial purity, and demonization” when he told four congresswomen, all American citizens and persons of color — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), and Ayanna Pressley (D-Massachusetts) — to “go back to” where they came from, immediately prompting his rabid fans at a rally in North Carolina to chant, “Send her back! Send her back!” Trump’s deplorable taunts were repeated days later when Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), speaking about Omar, told Breitbart News that he was “willing to contribute to buy her a ticket to go visit Somalia.” Undeterred by a congressional resolution condemning his racist tweets, Trump stepped up his racist attacks by singling out Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-Maryland) and Reverend Al Sharpton, both persons of color, with demeaning tweets. The spread and normalization of Trump’s persistent neo-fascist language is exactly what Giroux is talking about.
Giroux traces the Trump presidency directly to “the curse of neoliberalism.” Emerging in the 1970s, neoliberalism was based on the work of Friedrich August von Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society, as well as Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics, and was associated with the politics of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, Ronald Reagan in the United States, and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Notably, it was supported by various right-wing think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and by billionaires such as the Koch Brothers.
As an economic policy, neoliberalism creates an all-encompassing market guided by the principles of privatization, deregulation, commodification, and the free flow of capital. Advancing these agendas, it weakens unions, radically downsizes the welfare state, and wages an assault on public services such as education, libraries, parks, energy, water, prisons, and public transportation. As the state is hollowed out, big corporations take on the functions of government, imposing severe austerity measures, redistributing wealth upward to the rich and powerful, and reinforcing a notion of society as one of winners and losers.
Fifty years in the making, under “a savage neoliberalism,” Giroux writes, “fascistic notions of racial superiority, social cleansing, apocalyptic populism, hyper-militarism, and ultra-nationalism have gained in intensity, moving from the repressed recesses of US history to the centers of state and corporate power.” Consequently,
[decades] of mass inequality, wage slavery, the collapse of the manufacturing sector, tax giveaways to the financial elite, and savage austerity policies that drove a frontal attack on the welfare state have further strengthened fascistic discourses and redirected populist anger against vulnerable populations and undocumented immigrants, Muslims, the racially oppressed, women, LGBTQ+ people, public servants, critical intellectuals, and workers.
To illustrate the human consequences of these policies, Giroux cites a 2017 analysis by Marian Wright Edelman that “millions of America’s children today are suffering from hunger, homelessness, and hopelessness.” The statistics are staggering: “Nearly 13.2 million children are poor — or almost one in five. About 70 percent of them are children of color, who will be a majority of our children by 2020. More than 1.2 million are homeless. About 14.8 million children struggle against hunger in food insecure households.” According to the June 2018 report of UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, amid a massive concentration of wealth among the upper one percent in the United States, 40 million people live in poverty and 18.5 Americans live in extreme poverty.
As Giroux sees it, “Trump has elevated himself as patron saint of ruthless neoliberalism” as is evident “in the various miracles he has performed for the rich and powerful,” from environmental and worker safety deregulation to a $1.5 trillion tax gift to the financial elite, from the appointment of neoliberal fundamentalists like Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt to his cabinet to a vast $717 billion increase in the Pentagon budget.
Giroux sees education and civic literacy as prime targets of neoliberalism’s assault on democracy.
One precondition for bringing Trump’s neoliberal fascism to a halt is the recognition that democracy cannot exist without knowledgeable citizens who have a passion for public affairs, and who believe that critical consciousness is one precondition through which politics must pass in order to render individuals fit for the kind of collective struggles that offer the possibility for change.
Education creates not only individuals who can think; “it is also a condition for any viable notion of autonomy, self-governing, and agency.”
This is precisely why, in Giroux’s analysis, the “Trump administration, along with other conservative institutions, needs education to fail in a very particular way because it needs democracy to fail.” Higher education poses a threat because of its “potential role as a public sphere capable of educating informed citizens who can resist diverse forms of oppression, interrogate power relations, and exercise civic courage.” Consequently, the Trump regime “is attempting through the logic of a weaponized neoliberalism to reshape education with an intense emphasis on privatization, commodification, deregulation, training, and managerialism.”
For Giroux, the undermining of higher education is part of a much larger and ominously long-term strategy. “Donald Trump’s ascendancy in American politics has made visible a plague of deep-seated civic illiteracy, a corrupt political system, and a contempt for reason that has been decades in the making.” He points to many examples including that two thirds of the American public believe that creationism should be taught in schools and that a majority of Republicans in Congress do not believe that climate change is caused by human activity, making the United States, in his words, “the laughingstock of the world.”
Instead of improving and investing in public schools, Giroux accuses Trump of following the neoliberal playbook by turning schools into commercial profit centers, including, cynically, profit centers for the institutional security industry in the wake of the epidemic of deadly school shootings. According to a February 2018 New York Times report, since a deranged gunman wielding an assault rifle killed 20 first graders and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, there have been at least 239 school shootings in the United States, in which 438 people were shot, 138 of whom were killed. Nationwide, according to the Gun Violence Archive, 667 children and 2,841 teens were injured or killed by gun violence in 2018. Since 1968, nearly 1.4 million Americans have been killed by guns, compared to a total of almost 1.2 million Americans killed in every war this nation has fought since its founding.
Trump has adopted a “pro-gun script” and embraced the mantra of the NRA to arm teachers and militarize public schools. Giroux points out that after the outrage in reaction to the Parkland, Florida, shooting died down, instead of support programs to hire more teachers, teacher aids, support staff, and school psychologists to help prevent school shootings, the Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed that federal funding be taken from the federal Every Student Succeeds Act to purchase firearms and provide weapons training for teachers and school staff. Giroux also notes that in 2017, the sales of security equipment and services to the education sector reached $2.7 billion — that’s billion with a “b.” He writes:
Gun violence in the U.S. is not simply about a growing culture of violence, it is about the emergence of a form of domestic terrorism in which fear, mistrust, lies, corruption, and financial gain become more important than the values, social relations, and institutions that write children into the script of democracy and give them an opportunity to imagine and struggle for a future that embraces human rights, the rule of law, and the institutional and governing structures that strengthen democracy.
In the face of all this, Giroux believes passionately that what is essential “is a renewed perception of education as the crucial site in which the intertwined dynamics of individual agency and democratic politics merge.” He is genuinely heartened by the “spectacular demonstrations of resistance and a proliferation of causes for hope as brave students from Parkland, Florida, and equally courageous teachers throughout the United States have led throughout 2018 mass movements of demonstrations, walkouts, and strikes.” Giroux reports that in the past year, 400,000 teachers in nine states have gone on strike, affecting five million students in West Virginia, Colorado, Kentucky, Chicago, Arizona, and Sacramento, protesting not only law wages, but also school defunding, overcrowded classrooms, and rising health insurance premiums. Teacher pay in the public sector (accounting for inflation) actually fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. On top of that, the National Center of Educational Statistics found that 94 percent of teachers pay out of their own pockets an average of $480 annually for essential school supplies.
Teacher strikes and walkouts dovetail with protests led by students. Parkland students Emma González, Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Alex Wind, Jaclyn Corin, and many others organized massive protests, including the nationwide March for Our Lives rally held in March 2018 in Washington, DC, and in 880 other locations throughout the United States and around the world. Giroux sees these demonstration and their young leaders as the outgrowth of a new political formation and new movements that have been building for two decades, including the Moral Monday Movement, the New Poor People’s Campaign, and the all-inclusive Movement for Black Lives, which “share a criticism of the interconnecting forces of poverty, racism, sexism, the culture of policing, and call for dismantling the institutions, ideologies, policies, and structures that support a punitive and cruel capitalist system.”
Giroux argues that at the “center of all these movements are efforts to raise consciousness, make education a vital part of their politics, and an attempt to reclaim historical memory, fit events together in a larger narrative, resist moralizing classifications, recognize shared values, and develop unwavering coalitions.” He sees the possibility of “fashioning a new public imagination,” which moves beyond the narrow realm of specific interest “to a more comprehensive grasp of politics that is rooted in a practice of open defiance willing to disrupt corporate tyranny and state violence.” He describes it as “a politics that refuses liberal centrism, the extremism of the right, and a deeply unequal society modeled on the iniquitous precarity and toxic structures of savage capitalism.” This “new political horizon” foreshadows “the need to organize new political formations, massive social movements, and a third party that can make itself present in a variety of institutional, educational, social, and cultural spheres.”
Having issued a provocative call for a third party, Giroux does not explore the idea further. He has offered an elaborate political platform, but he does not develop a pragmatic plan for how such a third party would be created, organized, funded, and populated. Perhaps that will be the subject of his 70th book.
Giroux begins his final chapter by summarizing his entire project with an epigram from Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress, […] Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
The threads of a general political and ideological crisis run deep in American history, and with each tweet and policy decision Donald Trump pushes the United States closer to a full-fledged fascist state. His words sting, but his policies can kill people. Trump’s endless racist taunts, dehumanizing expressions of misogyny, relentless attacks on all provisions of the social state and ongoing contempt for the rule of law serve to normalize a creeping fascist politics.
Giroux considers it indispensable “for individuals, institutions, labor unions, educators, young people, and others not to be silent in the face of the current fascist turn in the United States and elsewhere.” He insists that “no one can afford to look away, fail to speak out, and risk silence” in the face of “hatred, racism, misogyny, and deceit.” It is time “to build community led broad based social movements from the bottom up” starting in local communities and expanding to the state and national levels. According to Reverend William J. Barber II, founder of the New Poor People’s Campaign, such movements must be “deeply moral, deeply constitutional, anti-racist, anti-poverty, pro-justice, [and] pro-labor.”
Giroux has no time for “banal resistance.” He takes the Democratic Party to task for the role the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama played “in creating the economic, political, and social conditions for Trump’s election in 2016,” although he does not identify those conditions or elaborate on how they are to blame for Trump’s election. While he does not disavow resistance, he demands that it be redefined “as inseparable from fundamental change that calls for the overthrow of capitalism itself.” Here, as with his glancing call for a third party, Giroux moves on without explaining what he means by “the overthrow of capitalism itself,” except to reiterate that “what is needed is not only a resistance to the established order of neoliberal capitalism but a radical restructuring of society itself,” adding that this “is not about resisting oppression in its diverse forms but overcoming it — in short, changing it.”
Having so effectively diagnosed the disease, if Giroux is seriously prescribing such life-saving surgery as the cure, readers would no doubt be eager to know how he would radically restructure society and overthrow capitalism itself. For now, in this book, they must content themselves with Giroux’s call for “a new kind of democratic socialist politics,” which would include issues such as
instituting free higher education, eliminating runaway inequality, creating universal health care, reforming the criminal justice system, ending the off-shoring of jobs, eliminating global warming, taking money out of politics, taxing Wall Street trading, cutting military spending, and developing extensive safety nets for the most vulnerable.
As revealed by the handful of excerpts from The Terror of the Unforeseen included in this review, almost every sentence Giroux writes crackles with a piercing clarity. He leaves no doubt where he stands. There is an urgency in his writing, and just when you need it he reinforces his arguments with factual support. One of the many satisfactions in reading Giroux’s searing prose is the pleasure in seeing a writer put into words what so many of us are thinking but are unable to articulate in reaction to Trump’s cruel insanity. Indeed, it is the very sanity of Giroux’s writing that is so encouraging, instilling a common bond that reassures us in these dark times that we are not in this struggle alone.
Giroux has a lot to say and he knows he is struggling uphill against decades of conventional wisdom — what William Whyte and Irving Janis called “groupthink.” Giroux repeats himself for emphasis throughout his book, returning more than once to each of his main themes. Such repetition may annoy some readers but others will welcome it, as one does in the presence of a commanding speaker or an experienced trial lawyer who knows that arguments and evidence are not always grasped the first time around and often need to be recast and reiterated to maximize understanding.
Inspired by the courage and vision of Frederick Douglass and so many others, Giroux’s commanding and profound book demands much from all of us in this ominous and threatening period in American history. “Now is the time to talk back,” he writes, “embrace the radical imagination in private and public, and work until radical democracy becomes a reality. There is no other choice.”