A front-page article in the May 29, 2016, edition of The New York Times features the headline, “Rise of Trump Tracks Debate Over Fascism.” The article, by Peter Baker, examines the unlikely political trajectory of Donald Trump in the context of a broader debate about whether fascist movements have made a resurgence in supposedly liberal western democracies. “There is a tendency at times to try to fit current movements into understandable constructs,” Baker writes, “but scholars say there is a spectrum that includes right-wing nationalism, illiberal democracy, and populist autocracy.” Trump, with his call to deport some 11-million illegal immigrants, build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and ban Muslim immigration until the country’s leaders “can figure out what is going on,” would appear to fall squarely along this continuum.
For Henry A. Giroux, a scholar and public intellectual currently based out of McMaster University in Hamilton, Trump is simply the latest manifestation of an ongoing process of quashing civil literacy and promoting what the author refers to as “acceptable forms of right-wing fascism” in the U.S. “Trump is not an aberration,” Giroux writes. “Rather, he is the successor of a long line of fascists who shut down public debate, attempt to humiliate their opponents, endorse violence as a response to dissent, and criticize any public display of democratic principles.”
Clearly, Giroux does not shrink from his own brand of provocation. As an academic aware of the importance of word choice, he does tend to de-emphasize the term “fascism” in favour of the less historically fraught word “authoritarianism” throughout his new work, which examines the extent to which the U.S. has allowed the erosion of its democratic ideals in favour of a state apparatus – backed by large corporations and the lobbying money of a few ultra-rich tycoons – that routinely tramples individual human rights and promotes an ideology dangerously close to totalitarianism. “Trump and his followers may not yet be a fascist party in the strict sense of the word,” Giroux stipulates, “but they certainly display elements of a new style American authoritarianism that come close to constituting a proto-fascist movement.”
Trump’s rise to become the uncontested presumptive nominee for the Republican Party in the upcoming U.S. presidential election took many by surprise, and has resulted in a flurry of near-hysterical responses on the part of liberals, Democrats, and others. But Giroux argues that the billionaire’s political ascendency should surprise no one possessed of a basic historical literacy, or an understanding of the confluence of politics, media, and money in the U.S. Giroux rightly notes the way in which Trump serves as an avatar of American obsession with celebrity culture (it is no accident that his most prominent role prior to entering the political arena was as the star of a reality television series) and a mouthpiece for a particular segment of disaffected white society that feels upended by what it sees as encroaching multiculturalism and an attitudinal sea change that promotes formerly marginalized groups and threatens the comfortable status quo. Giroux locates Trump and his supporters in a social fabric that is historically racist and highly militaristic, encompassing the attitudes of both Hollywood and the NRA.
There is a lot going on here, and Giroux proves only intermittently successful in tying the various strands of his argument together. Variously, he examines the history of neglect and racial intolerance that resulted in the 2015 Flint, Michigan, water crisis; the culture of guns that allows for an acceptance of violence as a solution to individual problems as well as an ever-increasing militarization on the part of police forces throughout the U.S.; the arrest and subsequent death of Sandra Bland and its place in the ongoing racial tensions between black Americans and the forces of institutional law; and the ways American military intervention abroad have led to radicalization among Muslim youth and an increase in violent blowback both at home and away. In each case, his analysis is solid and firmly based in a liberal humanist framework, but he struggles to make his overarching argument cohere. This becomes more apparent the longer the book goes on, and is especially troublesome in the chapter (written with Brad Evans) devoted to youth alienation and ISIS.
This diffusion of focus is not helped by an extremely high level of internal repetition, or what might be considered Giroux’s limited prescriptions for how to address the problems currently facing the U.S. While he suggests midway through his book that what is needed is a full-scale, non-violent revolution replacing the current system of intolerance and racism with an “insurgent politics” based on “the highest ideals of democratic socialism,” in his final analysis, he falls back on revising the education system to emphasize “critical pedagogy” (a somewhat self-serving notion, given his own status as Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar Chair in Critical Pedagogy at McMaster).
There is much to admire about America at War with Itself, and plenty of reason to cheer its fearlessness in engaging with entrenched attitudes directly and forcefully. But greater steps could have been taken to bring this volume into clearer, more concise focus.