Volume 52, Issue 1: Spring 2018

Examining the American nightmare

  • The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism

    Henry A. Giroux

    Routledge, 2018

This new work by one of the world’s leading social critics, the founding theorist of critical pedagogy, represents an attempt to develop both a political discourse and call to action, by examining what is viewed as an impending crisis of authoritarianism, evident in the rise of Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right in the United States.

Consisting of several distinct sections, Part I of the book directly highlights the emerging authoritarianism in the United States which the author sees as the “emptying of politics of democratic values, public participation, and justice.”

“The American Dream has been replaced by an avalanche of nightmares, and the nightmares have morphed into a political reality,” he writes (31).” As Giroux tells it, a war is being waged against both the democratic ideals of the United States and simultaneously against minorities of colour and class, Muslims, Syrian refugees and Mexicans, indeed virtually all immigrants. This section also discusses white supremacy and what is termed, “armed ignorance” as a function of “manufactured illiteracy.”

Part II takes up the issues of domestic terrorism and the impact of a growing authoritarianism upon America’s most vulnerable populations, youth, especially black youth, suffering assault from what Giroux terms the “warfare state.” Further, this section examines the manner in which the prison experience has bled into the public school system, often redefining young people within a culture of criminality. Violence against students in the educational system, with its draconian zero-tolerance policies criminalizing often trivial behavior, is a dramatic measure of the loss of confidence and trust in young people. An important measure of any democratic society is how it treats its youth, its minorities and those with disabilities. The regression of the school system from being a source of learning, literacy, and mobility to that of testing institutions and virtual holding centres, primarily for black and brown youth, reflects a society that is failing.

Part III of the book, while defending the role of teachers as critical to the education system as a whole, examines the reactionary influence of neoliberalism upon higher education generally. Giroux finds that “ideologies with racist, xenophobic and misogynistic overtones” are becoming increasingly more pervasive (165), that the education system is in disarray, having largely collapsed into training and in higher education “instrumentalized and wedded to the dictates of a business culture.” But at the same time, he sees elements of hope and resistance, particularly from teachers and, I would add, students.

Part IV examines some distinct aspects of neoliberal ideology and practice, specifically, the embrace of a war culture, and the formation of a workforce that suffers from the economic and divisive effects of precarity and uncertainty which increasingly dominates all forms of social life. This reality also raises the issues of culture and the mainstream media, which Giroux contends are controlled by the “one per cent.” While politics is nation-based, power has become more and more global. “Global markets now trump the national rendering of the political culture and democratic institutions of modernity making them nearly obsolete (231).” Concomitantly, the author suggests modes of resistance connected to a politics that is more inimical to the forces of authoritarianism while at same time providing needed hope.

Despite the drift into overstatement in a few places in this work, I find myself largely in agreement with the author. There is nonetheless a point of critical engagement to be offered. The author envisions progressive struggles as being far too fragmented and sorely in need of cohesion. This is obviously true to those of us who have had the experience of organizing working people, on the ground so to speak, but throughout the text he suggests “moving beyond single-issue movements” to focus on the connections between diverse social movements, a perspective he repeats several times, if with minor variations. As well-intentioned as it is, however, this misses the challenges of actual organizing and building social movements, from the ground up.

The first thing to recognize in any organizing endeavor is that human beings have complex views of the world. In my experience, they are often both very uneven in their thoughts and highly diverse in their perspectives. On some issues they are forward- thinking and progressive, on others very limited and conservative: often they are both. It is therefore a challenge to reach agreement on even a single issue and the commensurate tactics for its implementation. It is only through participation in the struggle to raise awareness on the issue and perhaps even win some issue-based social change, that a more expanded consciousness is possible. Here diversity has the potential to merge into a more wholistic perspective of society. Only then can fragmentation be overcome.

Early on in the text, Giroux holds that what is needed is “A radical democracy based on the best principals of a democratic socialism.”

Yet what are “best principals” is left unstated. How does Giroux define “democratic socialism,” for example? In what direction should one focus their thoughts and actions in this era of authoritarianism and the emergence of the “alt-right”? To ask for a blueprint of the future of course would be the wrong approach, if not impossible. Yet an outline of future directions is fundamentally necessary if one is to develop alternatives and motivate people to take positive action.

This book is not only important, it is profoundly insightful. Major battles to defeat racism and the right hopefully loom ahead. Giroux is highly knowledgeable, the text’s style is polemical, dense and rhetorical, yet is a very worthwhile read for anyone concerned with the new reality of the rise of Donald Trump and authoritarianism in the United States and beyond.

For many years the director of research at the Ontario Federation of Labour, Chris Schenk then taught at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources, University of Toronto.