Donald Trump may lose the election, but the damage he’s done to the political system will take a lot of work to repair, argues Henry A Giroux.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has made it clear that politics embodies both our best and worst fears about democracy. When politics champions a collective vision of hope, a desire to address and engage the ideals and promises of democracy it generally falls on the side of political and economic justice, and spurs movements and policies that embody such dreams. Elements of such a politics were present in FDR’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s call for The Great Society. These were historical periods when the collective good took priority over narrow self-interests. On the other hand, politics can also embody the nightmare of the deep and dark impulses of authoritarianism. Such nightmares, largely motivated by the discourses of hate, bigotry, hyper-nationalism, xenophobia, national decline, and violence, have not only corrupted politics but emptied it of its democratic values.
With the rise of Donald Trump, politics has been reduced to a carnival of unbridled narcissism, deception, anti-intellectualism, spectacle and overloaded sensation—a type of anti-politics that unburdens people of any responsibility to challenge the fundamental precepts of a society drenched in corruption, inequality, racism, and violence. In the age of Trump, truth becomes the enemy of governance and politics tips over into enthusiastic fantasies of a popular vigilantism. This is a politics that celebrates saviours, denigrates relations of power and policy, and provides a mode of escape in which heartfelt trauma and pain are used not to mobilise people into democratic movements, but to blame others who are equally oppressed. This signals an anti-politics that kills both empathy and the imagination, a politics that uses pain to inflict further pain on others. This is an anti-politics that removes many individuals from the most relevant social, moral, and political bonds and channels their anger and frustration into a weaponised form of ignorance in which they blame the most powerless and vulnerable for the problems confronting the United States. Donald Trump has not only learned how to manipulate such anger and misery, but he has spectacularized politics through a language of shame, humiliation, degradation, and violence.
Trump has called women dogs, displayed his misogyny by boasting about sexually groping women, and stated that women who have abortions should be punished, among other insults. On a number of occasions Trump has strongly implied that the culture of criminality is equated with the culture of blackness. One example can be found in Trump taking out a full-page ad condemning the Central Park Five while calling for the death penalty for the five young black boys. Implied in the ad was the notion that these five young boys fit neatly into the then popular category of super-predators—code for black youth. Even when the young boys were acquitted on DNA evidence seven years later, Trump refused to accept the decision and claimed they were guilty.
Trump’s implication that the culture of criminality is symptomatic of black culture in general is echoed in his insistent and repeated claims that he is the law and order candidate who will be tough on crime. He bolsters this assertion with the call to reinstitute racial profiling on a national level. Racial profiling has been challenged by the courts as unconstitutional and racist.
Couple this with Trump’s false claim that the black community is defined by a culture of drugs, murders, crime, and “bad hombres” and it becomes clear that this is not an assertion of truth but an overt form of racial stereotyping that supports the increasing criminalisation of black behaviour while painting black communities in derogatory racist stereotypes.
Trump has also exhibited unapologetic racism towards other people of color, echoing white supremacist sentiments that have endeared him to neo-Nazi groups such as those that follow The Daily Stormer.
For instance, he has called Mexican immigrants rapists, proposed to ban Muslims from entering the country, advocated expelling 11 million illegal immigrants, and repeatedly argued for law and order policies.
Such statements are reminiscent of the racist policies and practices that were in full bloom in the past and include the racially-coded war on drugs initiated by Presidents Nixon and Reagan and accelerated by Bill Clinton’s harsh crime bills and policies that created the modern day version of the mass incarceration state.
Of course, Trump has also waged an attack on journalists and protesters who have criticised his policies. He has also repeatedly called for or insinuated that violence is appropriate in dealing with those he labels as his enemies. In short, Trump attacks just about any group that does not kneel down in homage to a neo-fascist embrace of white supremacy, religious fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism, militarism, the mass incarceration state, a war against women’s reproductive rights, and a savage global neoliberal capitalist fundamentalism. It gets worse. His propensity for lawlessness and violence was on full display when he suggested that second amendment followers might take care of Hillary Clinton if she is elected; he has also publicly threatened to jail her if he is elected president. This is the rhetoric of unbridled demagogues.
More recently he has extended his discourse of fear, threats, and potential violence by arguing without any substantive evidence that the election process is rigged and that if he loses it will be because of a corrupt political system. In fact, Trump refused in the third presidential debate to agree that he would accept election results if Clinton wins and in doing so implied that a smooth political transition to a new administration would not be accepted by either him or his supporters. He later claimed he would accept the election results only if he won! Some interpret this as a not so subtle suggestion that his followers would have the right to engage in violence in protesting the results of a Clinton presidency.
What is distinctive about Trump is that he is not only shrill and unapologetic about his beliefs and policies, but that he also consistently hints that if he does not get his way he supports the potential for civic strife, if not mass violence. A peaceful transition to power is central to any viable democracy and yet Trump refused to acknowledge this central tenant of democratic rule. Trump’s appeal to aggression, hatred, and violence coupled with the overt sexism and racism supported by large numbers of his followers does not augur well for the future of American politics.
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. While Trump may lose the election, the damage he has done will stay and fester in American society for quite some time because Trump is only symptomatic of the darker forces that have been smouldering in American politics for the last 40 years. While fears of a civil war after Trump’s defeat may be exaggerated, what cannot be dismissed so easily 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 eruptions and violence may be one consequence of Trump’s loss in the 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 defeating Donald Trump but whether a political system can be reclaimed in which democracy is not on trial but is deepened, strengthened and sustained.