Are the Politics of 'Incivility' Paving the Road to an American Fascism?
In the face of a nauseating and poisonous election cycle that ended with Donald Trump’s presidential victory, many commentators are quick to argue that Americans have fallen prey to a culture of incivility. This is the discourse of “bad manners” parading as insight, while working, regardless of intention, to hide the effects of power, politics, racial injustice and other forms of oppression.
The rhetoric of “incivility,” when used as a pejorative ideological label, serves to discredit political rhetoric as ill-tempered, rude and uncivilized. Politics, in this sense, shifts from a focus on substance to style – reworking the notion of critical thinking and action through a rulebook of alleged collegiality – which becomes code for the elevated character and manners of the privileged classes. As John Doris points out in his book "Lack of Character," the “discourse of character often plays against a background of social stratification and elitism.”
In other words, the wealthy, noble and rich are deemed to possess admirable characters and to engage in civil behavior. At the same time, those who are poor, unemployed, homeless or subject to police violence are not seen as the victims of larger political, social and economic forces that bear down upon them; on the contrary, their problems are reduced to the depoliticizing discourse of bad character, defined as an individual pathology, and whatever resistance they present is dismissed as rude, ignorant and uncivil. Ruling elites have used the discourse of incivility to criticize dissent as it has emerged across ideological and racial lines and includes unruly conservative working-class whites as well as left-oriented black youth groups.
Trump has marshaled the assumptions underlying this discourse to support his presidential campaign and political agenda, which warrant far more alarm than suggested by terms such as “ill-mannered.” More than other candidates, Trump not only showcased and appropriated “incivility” in his public appearances as a mark of solidarity with many of his white male followers, he tapped into their resentment and transformed their misery into a racist, bigoted, misogynist and ultra-nationalist appeal to the darkest forces of authoritarianism. Yet millions of Americans decided to live in Trumpland, and as David Remnick observed in the New Yorker immediately upon Trump's election, this represents more than a tragedy in the making:
The election of Donald Trump to the Presidency is nothing less than a tragedy for the American republic, a tragedy for the Constitution, and a triumph for the forces, at home and abroad, of nativism, authoritarianism, misogyny, and racism. Trump’s shocking victory, his ascension to the Presidency, is a sickening event in the history of the United States and liberal democracy. On January 20, 2017, we will ... witness the inauguration of a con who did little to spurn endorsement by forces of xenophobia and white supremacy. It is impossible to react to this moment with anything less than revulsion and profound anxiety.
Clearly, Trump’s embrace of “incivility” was a winning strategy, one that not only signaled the degree to which the politics of extremism has moved from the fringes to the center of American life, but also one that turned politics into a spectacle that feeds the ratings of the mainstream media. The incivility ethos Trump resurrected as a tool of resistance against establishment politicians played a major role in gaining him the presidency. But it would be wrong to subordinate Trump’s politics to his persona, or to categorize either as mere rudeness. Trump has turned politics into what Guy Debord once called a “perpetual motion machine” built on fear, anxiety, the war on terror, and a full-fledged attack on women, the welfare state, and poor minorities.
Tom Engelhardt has persuasively argued that Trump’s election may in time be viewed as a wholesale “regime change,” one that will alter the political and economic trajectory of the country, or what might otherwise be described as a paradigm shift toward an anti-democratic or authoritarian mode of governance. This is a change that points to a democracy spiraling out of control and a prescription for the unfolding of what Hannah Arendt once called the “dark times” associated with totalitarianism. Engelhardt writes:
Donald Trump’s administration, now filling up with racists, Islamophobes, Iranophobes, and assorted fellow billionaires, already has the feel of an increasingly militarized, autocratic government-in-the-making, favoring short-tempered, militaristic white guys who don’t take criticism lightly or react to speed bumps well. In addition, on January 20th, they will find themselves with immense repressive powers of every sort at their fingertips, powers ranging from torture to surveillance that were institutionalized in remarkable ways in the post-9/11 years with the rise of the national security state as a fourth branch of government, powers which some of them are clearly eager to test out.
What happens to a democracy when justice loses its mooring as a democratic principle, and can no longer be a moral guidepost, let alone a central organizing principle of politics? What happens to rational debate, civic culture and the common good?
There is more at issue in the discourse of “incivility” than ideological obfuscation and a flight from social responsibility on the part of the dominant classes. There is the reality of Trump’s language of violence and hate, which labelling “uncivilized” will only serve to reproduce existing modes of domination and concentrated relations of power. There is also the corollary of minimizing Trump’s behavior as merely “uncivil”: When his opponents engage him using argument, evidence and informed judgment – when they hold power accountable or display a strong response to injustice – their arguments can similarly be dismissed as a species of bad manners, rude behavior or even the effect of self-preening, liberal lifestyle choices associated with middle-class cultural capital. In this discourse, matters of power, class conflict, racism and state-sponsored violence against immigrants, Muslims and minorities of color simply disappear. If Trump’s bitter railing against elites is mere “rudeness,” then on what grounds can legitimate anger against oppression be expressed and expect to be taken seriously?
Removed from the injuries of class, racism and sexism, among other issues, the discourse of incivility reduces politics to the realm of the personal and affective, while canceling out broader political issues such as the underlying conditions that might produce anger, or the dire effects of misguided resentment, or a passion grounded in the capacity to reason. Trump is reduced in this case to a rude clown rather than a dangerous authoritarian who now happens to be in control of the most powerful nation on the planet.
As Benjamin DeMott has similarly pointed out, the discourse of incivility does not raise the crucial question of why American society is tipping over into the dark politics of authoritarianism. On the contrary, the question now asked is “Why has civility declined?” Tied to the privatized orbits of neoliberalism, this is a discourse that trades chiefly in promoting good manners, the virtues of moral uplift and praiseworthy character, all the while refusing to raise private troubles to the level of public issues. The elitist call to civility also risks collapsing the important difference between just anger and malevolent rancor, dismissing both as instances of faulty character and bad manners.
America has become a country motivated less by indignation, which can be used to address the underlying social, political and economic causes of social discontent, than by a galloping culture of individualized resentment, which personalizes problems and tends to seek vengeance on those individuals and groups viewed as a threat to American society. One can argue further that the call to civility and condemnation of incivility in public life no longer register favorably among individuals and groups who are less interested in mimicking the discourse and manners of the ruling elite than in expressing their resentment as the struggle for power, however rude such expressions might appear to the mainstream media and rich and powerful. Rather than an expression of a historic, if not dangerous, politics of unchecked personal resentment (as seen among many Trump supporters), a legitimate politics of outrage and anger is desperately needed.
In this instance, we must not confuse anger that is connected to experienced injustice with resentment emanating from personalized pettiness. We see elements of such crucial anger among the many supporters of Bernie Sanders, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement and the indigenous-led movement to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. Anger can be a disruption that offers the possibility for critical analysis, calling out the social forces of oppression and violence in which so many current injustices are rooted. Meanwhile, resentment operates out of a friend/enemy distinction that produces convenient scapegoats. It is the festering stuff of fear, loathing and deep-seated racism that often erupts into spectacles of spontaneous violence, hate-mongering and implied threats of state repression. In this instance, ideas lose their grip on reality and critical thought falls by the wayside. Echoes of such scapegoat-driven animosity can be heard in Trump’s “rhetorical cluster bombs,” in which he states publicly that he would like to punch protesters in the face, punish women who have abortions, bring back state-sanctioned torture and, of course, much more. Genuine civic attachments are now canceled out in the bombast of vileness and shame, which has been made into a national pastime and the central feature of a spectacularized politics.
Critical reflection no longer challenges a poisonous appeal to “common sense” or casts light on the shadows of racism, hatred and bigotry. Manufactured ignorance opens the door to an unapologetic culture of bullying and violence aimed at Muslims, immigrants, blacks and others who do not fit into Trump’s notion of “America.” This is not about the breakdown of civility in American politics or the bemoaned growth of incivility. Throughout its history, American society has been inundated by a toxic, racist ideology that oppresses and marginalizes black people, indigenous people and immigrants of color, and particularly since 9/11 has singled out Muslims as targets. Joined with a market-driven ideology that has enshrined greed and self-interest, there is now an extreme-right movement waging a sustained attack on public values and the common good fueled by policies favoring a financial elite, much of which was codified by both the Republican and the Democratic political establishment.
Trump did not invent these forces; he simply brought them to the surface and made them the centerpiece of his campaign. As anti-democratic pressures mount, the commanding institutions of capital are divorced from matters of politics, ethics and responsibility. The goal of making the world a better place has been replaced by dystopian narratives about how to survive alone in a world whose destruction is just a matter of time. The lure of a better and more just future has given way under the influence of neoliberalism to questions of mere survival. Entire populations once protected by the social contract are now considered disposable, dispatched to the garbage dump of a society that equates one’s humanity exclusively with one’s ability to consume.
The not-so-subtle signs of the culture of seething resentment and cruelty are everywhere, and not just in the proliferation of extremist commentators, belligerent nihilists and right-wing conspiracy types blathering over the airways, on talk radio and across various registers of screen culture. Young children, especially those whose parents are being targeted by Trump’s rhetoric, report being bullied more. Hate crimes are on the rise. And state-sanctioned violence is accelerating against Native Americans, black youth, and others now deemed unworthy or dangerous in Trump’s America. In the mainstream media, the endless and unapologetic peddling of lies becomes fodder for higher ratings, informed by a suffocating pastiche of talking heads, all of whom surrender to “the incontestable demands of quiet acceptance.” Politics has been reduced to the cult of the spectacle and a performative register of shock, but not merely, as Neil Gabler observes, “in the name of entertainment.” The framing mechanism that drives the mainstream media is a shark-like notion of competition that accentuates and accelerates hostility, insults and the politics of humiliation.
Charles Derber and Yale Magrass are right in arguing that “Capitalism breeds competition and teaches that losers deserve their fate.” But it also does more. It creates an unbridled individualism that embodies a pathological disdain for community, produces a cruel indifference to the social contract, disdains the larger social good and creates a predatory sink-or-swim culture that replaces compassion, sharing and a concern for the other. As the discourse of the common good and compassion withers, the only vocabulary left is that of the bully – one who takes pride in the civic-enervating binary of winners and losers. What was on full display in the presidential election of 2016 was the merging of the culture of cruelty, the logic of egregious self-interest, a deadly anti-intellectualism, a ravaging display of resentment, a politics of disposability and a toxic fear of others. Jessica Lustig captures this organized culture of violence, grudges and bitterness in the following comments:
Grievance is the animating theme of this election and the natural state of at least one of the candidates; Trump is a public figure whose ideology, such as it is, essentially amounts to a politics of the personal grudge. It has drawn to him throngs of disaffected citizens all too glad to reclaim the epithet “deplorable.” But beyond these aggrieved hordes, it can seem at times as if nearly everyone in the country is nursing wounds, cringing over slights and embarrassments, inveighing against enemies and wishing for retribution. Everyone has someone, or something, to resent.
It gets worse. In the age of a bullying Internet culture, the trolling community has now elected one of its own as president of the United States. As the apostle of publicity for publicity’s sake, Trump has adopted the practices of reality TV, building his reputation on insults, humiliation and a discourse of provocation and hate. According to the New York Times, even before the 2016 election Trump had used Twitter to insult at least 282 people, places and things. Not only has he honed the technique of trolling, he has also made it a crucial resource in upping the ratings for the mainstream media which, it seems, are insatiable when it comes to covering Trump’s insults.
Criticizing the pernicious trolling produced by political extremists should not suggest a generalized indictment of the internet and social media since they have also been key tools in pushing back against Trump’s egregiousness. Yet no one has done more than Trump to bring a vicious online harassment culture into the mainstream. In doing so, he has legitimated the worst dimensions of politics and brought out of the shadows white supremacists, ultra-nationalists, racist militia types, social media trolls, overt misogynists and a variety of reactionaries who have turned their hate-filled discourse into a weaponized element of political culture.
This impact was made all the more obvious when Trump hired Steve Bannon to run his campaign. The former executive chairman of Breitbart News is well known for his extremist views and for his unwavering support of the political “alt-right.” One of his more controversial headlines on Breitbart read, “Would you rather have feminism or cancer?” He is also considered one of the more prominent advocates of the right-wing trolling mill that is fiercely loyal to Trump. Jared Keller captures perfectly the essence of Trump’s politics of trolling. He writes:
From the start, the Trump campaign has offered a tsunami of trolling, waves of provocative tweets and soundbites – from “build the wall” to “lock her up” – designed to provoke maximum outrage, followed, when the resulting heat felt a bit too hot, by the classic schoolyard bully’s excuse: that it was merely “sarcasm” or a “joke.” In a way, it is. It’s just a joke with victims and consequences.... Trump’s behavior has normalized trolling as an accepted staple of daily political discourse. [Quoting Whitney Philips:] “When you have the presidential candidate boasting about committing sexual assault and then saying, ‘Oh, it’s just locker room banter’ ... it sets such an insidious, sexually violent tone for the election, and the result of that is fearfulness. ... People are being made to feel like shit.”
Another example of this brand of vitriol was noted in Andrew Marantz’s profile of Mike Cernovich, a prominent online troll. He writes:
His political analysis was nearly as crass as his dating advice ("Misogyny Gets You Laid"). In March, he tweeted, “Hillary’s face looks like a melting candle wax. Imagine what her brain looks like.” Next he tweeted a picture of Clinton winking, which he interpreted as “a mild stroke.” By August, he was declaring that she had both a seizure disorder and Parkinson’s disease.
In the age of trolls and the heartless regime of neoliberalism, politics has dissolved into a pit of performative narcissism, testifying to the distinctive influence of a corporate-driven culture of consumerism and celebrity marketing in the United States that is reconfiguring not just political discourse but the nature of power itself.
In spite of the 2008 Wall Street collapse and the ensuing political corruption, in spite of the resulting large-scale protests against economic injustice that ranged from Madison to Occupy Wall Street and numerous teacher strikes across the United States, millions of Americans have turned to the politics of resentment. And the consolidation of wealth and power continues apace. Reinforced by the strange intersection of celebrity culture, manufactured ignorance and a cult of unbridled emotion, the outcome is one that borrows from totalitarian logic but inhabits a new register of resentment that, as Mark Danner points out, takes “the shape of reality television politics.”
Within such an environment, a personalized notion of resentment drives politics, while misdirecting this private form of rage towards issues that reinforce the totalitarian logic of good friend versus evil enemy, atomizing the polity and lobotomizing any collective sense of justice. Under such circumstances, the longstanding forces of nativism and demagoguery emerge in full force to drive American politics, and the truth of events is no longer open to public discussion or informed judgment. All that is left is the empty but dangerous performance of misguided fury wrapped up in the fog of ignorance, the haze of political and moral indifference, and the looming specter of violence. All the more reason to examine the politics of incivility against those historical memories that offer a broader landscape by which to engage the pre-fascist scripts that now hide behind the discourse of performance, character and incivility.
The Trump guide to cultivating neo-fascism in America
Donald Trump’s election has sparked a heated debate about the past, particularly over whether the Trump administration should be judged on a continuum with totalitarian regimes whose “protean origins” reach back to the beginnings of the modern nation-state, but which a number of contemporary thinkers believe are “still with us.” This is a compelling argument, one that combines the resources of historical memory with analyses of the distinctive temper of the current historical moment in the United States. For instance, an increasing number of critics across the ideological spectrum have identified Trump as a fascist or neo-fascist whose administration echoes some of the key messages of an earlier period of fascist politics. On the left/liberal side of politics, this includes writers such as Chris Hedges, Robert Reich, Cornel West, Drucilla Cornel, Peter Dreier and John Bellamy Foster. Similar arguments have been made on the conservative side by writers such as Robert Kagan, Jeet Heer, Meg Whitman and Charles Sykes.
Historians of fascism such as Timothy Snyder and Robert O. Paxton have argued that Trump is not comparable to Hitler, but that there are sufficient similarities between them to warrant some concerns about surviving elements of a totalitarian past crystalizing into new forms in the United States. Paxton, in particular, argues that the Trump regime is closer to a plutocracy than to fascism. I think Paxton’s analysis overplays the differences between fascism and Trump’s style of authoritarianism, and in particular under-emphasizes Trump’s militarism and his embrace of the neoliberal state, which goes much further than endorsing only the rule of free-market capitalism toward an extreme version of the corporate state. If Trump has his way, traditional state power will be replaced by the rule of major corporations and the financial elite. We have already seen that the social cleansing and state violence inherent in totalitarianism has been amplified under Trump.
Both Hannah Arendt and Sheldon Wolin, the great historians of totalitarianism, argued that the dangerous conditions that produce totalitarianism are still with us. Wolin, in particular, insisted (in his book "Democracy Incorporated") that the United States was evolving into an authoritarian society. In contrast, other historians and pundits have downplayed or simply denied the association of totalitarianism with the United States. With respect to Trump, they argue he is either a sham, a right-wing populist or simply a reactionary Republican. Three notable examples of the latter position include cultural critic Neal Gabler, who argues that Trump is mostly a self-promoting con artist and pretender president whose greatest crime is to elevate pretentiousness, self-promotion and appearance over substance, all of which proves that he lacks the capacity and will to govern. Salon's Andrew O’Hehir claims we have to choose between whether Trump is just a clown or a fascist dictator, and in the end seems to pivot more towards the clown argument, though he admits Trump is a dangerous clown.
A more sophisticated version of this argument can be found in the work of historian Victoria de Grazia, who has argued that Trump bears little direct resemblance to either Hitler or Mussolini and is just a reactionary conservative. Certainly Trump is not Hitler, and the United States at the current historical moment is not the Weimar Republic. But it would be irresponsible to consider him a clown or aberration given his hold on power and the ideologues who support him.
What appears indisputable is that Trump’s election is part of a sustained effort over the last 40 years on the part of the financial elite to undermine the democratic ethos and hijack the institutions that support it. Consequently, in the midst of the rising tyranny of totalitarian politics, democracy is on life support and its fate appears more uncertain than ever. Such an acknowledgment should make clear that the curse of totalitarianism is not a historical relic and that it is crucial that we learn something about the current political moment by examining how the spreading darkness of authoritarianism has become the crisis of our times, albeit in a form suited to the American context.
History, once again, offers us a context in which a global constellation of forces are coming together in ways that speak to tensions and contradictions animating everyday lives, now transcending national boundaries and for which there is not yet a coherent and critical language. What these tensions and contributions do is create fear, angst, paranoia and incendiary passion. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt, it would be wise to resurrect one of the key questions that emerges from her work on totalitarianism, which is whether the events of our time are leading to totalitarian rule.
Whether or not Trump is a fascist in the manner of earlier totalitarian leaders somewhat misses the point, because this would then suggest that fascism is a historically fixed doctrine rather than an ideology that mutates and expresses itself in different forms around a number of commonalities. There is no exact blueprint for fascism, though the ghosts of past fascist regimes haunt contemporary politics. As Adam Gopnik observes:
To call [Trump] a fascist of some variety is simply to use a historical label that fits. The arguments about whether he meets every point in some static fascism matrix show a misunderstanding of what that ideology involves. It is the essence of fascism to have no single fixed form –an attenuated form of nationalism in its basic nature, it naturally takes on the colors and practices of each nation it infects. In Italy, it is bombastic and neoclassical in form; in Spain, Catholic and religious; in Germany, violent and romantic. It took forms still crazier and more feverishly sinister, if one can imagine, in Romania, whereas under Oswald Mosley, in England, its manner was predictably paternalistic and aristocratic. It is no surprise that the American face of fascism would take on the forms of celebrity television and the casino greeter’s come-on, since that is as much our symbolic scene as nostalgic re-creations of Roman splendors once were Italy’s.
The undeniable truth is that Trump is the product of an authoritarian movement and ideology with fascist overtones. In responding to the question of whether or not he believes Trump is a fascist, historian Timothy Snyder told Salon's Chauncey DeVega that the real issue is not whether Trump is a literal model of other fascist leaders but whether his approach to governing and the new political order he is producing are fascistic.
I don’t want to dodge your question about whether Trump is a fascist or not. As I see it, there are certainly elements of his approach which are fascistic. The straight-on confrontation with the truth is at the center of the fascist worldview. The attempt to undo the Enlightenment as a way to undo institutions, that is fascism. Whether he realizes it or not is a different question, but that’s what fascists did. They said, "Don’t worry about the facts, don’t worry about logic, think instead in terms of mystical unities and direct connections between the mystical leader and the people." That’s fascism. Whether we see it or not, whether we like it or not, whether we forget, that is fascism. Another thing that’s clearly fascist about Trump were the rallies. The way that he used the language, the blunt repetitions, the naming of the enemies, the physical removal of opponents from rallies, that was really, without exaggeration, just like the 1920s and the 1930s. And Mr. Bannon’s preoccupation with the 1930s and his kind of wishful reclamation of Italian and other fascists speaks for itself.
To date, Trump’s ascendancy has been compared to the discrete emergence of deeply reactionary nationalisms in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere. I would like to broaden the lens with which we view the events happening in the United States in a way that allows for a deeper historical understanding of the international scope and interplay of critical forces that characterize 21st-century globalization.
We are seeing both coherent and incoherent responses, of which ultra-nationalism is one, to the shifts and contradictions arising from the global domination of neoliberal capitalism, which is now the single greatest factor affecting a world increasingly brought to the brink of catastrophe by technological disruption, massive inequities in wealth and power, ecological disaster, mass migrations, relentless permanent warfare and the threat of a nuclear crisis. In the United States, shades of a growing authoritarianism buttressed by neoliberal values are present in Trump’s eroding of civil liberties, the undermining of the separation of church and state, health care policies that reveal an egregious indifference to life and death, and his attempts to shape the political realm through a process of fear, if not, as Snyder insists, tyranny itself.