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Is Trump’s Rise a Result of America Declaring War on Institutions That Make Democracy Possible?

StoryOctober 14, 2016
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In his new book, scholar Henry Giroux examines “America at War with Itself.” From poisoned water in Flint and other cities to the police deaths of African Americans to hatemongering on the presidential campaign trail, Henry Giroux critiques what he believes is a slide toward authoritarianism and other failings that led to the current political climate and rise of Donald Trump. Giroux is the McMaster University professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We end today’s show with a look at a new book that argues America is at war with itself. From poisoned water in Flint and other cities to the police deaths of African Americans, including Keith Lamont Scott, Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, to hatemongering on the presidential campaign trail, Henry Giroux critiques what he believes is a slide toward authoritarianism and other failings that led to the current political climate.

AMY GOODMAN: Noted scholar Robin D.G. Kelley writes in the book’s foreword, quote, “These are indeed dark times, but they are dark not merely because we are living in an era of vast inequality, mass incarceration, and crass materialism, or that we face an increasingly precarious future. They are dark because most Americans are living under a cloak of ignorance, a cultivated and imposed state of civic illiteracy that has opened the gates for what Giroux correctly sees as an authoritarian turn in the United States. These are dark times because the very fate of democracy is at stake—a democracy fragile from its birth, always battered on the shoals of racism, patriarchy, and class rule. The rise of Donald J. Trump is a sign of the times,” he writes.

Well, for more, we’re joined by the author of America at War with Itself, Henry Giroux, MccMaster University professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest. He joins in New York City.

We welcome you. It’s great to have you with us.

HENRY GIROUX: Well, I’m honored.

AMY GOODMAN: How is America at war with itself?

HENRY GIROUX: It’s at war with itself because it’s basically declared war not only on any sense of democratic idealism, but it’s declared war on all the institutions that make democracy possible. And we see it with the war on public schools. We see it with the war on education. We see it with the war on the healthcare system. We see it, as you said earlier, with the war on dissent, on the First Amendment. We see it in the war on women’s reproductive rights.

But we especially see it with the war on youth. I mean, it seems to me that you can measure any degree—any society’s insistence on how it takes democracy seriously can, in fact, be measured by the way it treats its children. And if we take that index as a measure of the United States, it’s utterly failing. You have young people basically who—in schools that are increasingly modeled after prisons. You have their behavior being increasingly criminalized. And one of the most atrocious of all acts, you have the rise of debtors’ prisons for children. Kids who basically are truant from school are being fined, and if they can’t—their parents can’t pay the fine, they’re being put in jail. You have kids whose every behavior is being criminalized. I mean, what does it mean to be in a public school, and all of a sudden you are engaged in a dress code violation, and the police come in, and they handcuff you? They take you out, they put you in a police car, put you in the criminal justice system, and all of a sudden you find yourself, as Tess was saying earlier, marked for life. Entire families are being destroyed around this.

So, but it seems to me the real question here is: How do you understand these isolated incidents within a larger set of categories that tell us exactly what’s happening? And what’s happening is the social state is being destroyed, and the punishing state is taking its place. So violence now becomes the only tool by which we can actually mediate social problems that should be dealt with in very different ways.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, you devote an entire chapter to Donald Trump’s America.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you specifically talk about the—how the media coverage of Trump has sort of divorced him from any past history of the country, in terms of the development of right-wing demagogues and authoritarian figures.

HENRY GIROUX: That’s an important question. I mean, you live in a country marked by the culture of the immediate. You live in a country that’s marked by celebrity culture, you know, that basically infantilizes people, paralyzes them, eliminates all notions of civic literacy, turns the school into bastions of ignorance. They completely kill the radical imagination in any fundamental way.

And I think that what often happens with Trump is that you see something utterly symptomatic of the decline of a formative culture that makes democracy possible. Juan, you have to have informed citizens to have a democracy. You don’t have an informed citizenry. You don’t have people who can think. Remember what Hannah Arendt said when she was talking about fascism and totalitarianism. She said thoughtlessness is the essence of totalitarianism. So all of a sudden emotion becomes more important than reason. Ignorance becomes more important than justice. Injustice is looked over as simply something that happens on television. The spectacle of violence takes over everything.

I mean, so it seems to me that we make a terrible mistake in talking about Trump as some kind of essence of evil. Trump is symptomatic of something much deeper in the culture, whether we’re talking about the militarization of everyday life, whether we’re talking about the criminalization of social problems, or whether we’re talking about the way in which money has absolutely corrupted politics. This is a country that is sliding into authoritarianism. I mean, it is not a—you cannot call this a democracy anymore. And we make a terrible mistake when we equate capitalism with democracy. And—

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the ethical bankruptcy of the U.S. ruling elites paving the way for Donald Trump.

HENRY GIROUX: You know, you live in a country in which we have separated all economic activity from social cost, from ethical considerations. The ethical imagination, in itself, has become a liability. And I think that when people like you and others make that clear, that you can’t have a democracy without that kind of ethical intervention, without assessing, you know, the degree to which people in some way can believe in the public good, can believe in justice, you have the heavy hand of the law pouncing on you. And I think that when the radical imagination dies, when an ethical sensibility dies, you live in a state of terrorism, you live in a state of fear, you live in a state in which people can’t trust each other. Shared fear has become more important than shared responsibilities. And that’s the essence of fascism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what sign of hope do you see out of all this—

HENRY GIROUX: I think there are a lot of signs. And thank you for the question. I mean, I think, at some level, we see young people all over the country mobilizing around different issues, in which they’re doing something that I haven’t seen for a long time. And that is, they’re linking these issues together. You can’t talk about police violence without talking about the militarization of society in general. You can’t talk about the assault on public education unless you talk about the way in which capitalism defunds all public goods. You can’t talk about the prison system without talking about widespread racism. You can’t do that. They’re making those connections.

But they’re doing something more: They’re linking up with other groups. If you’re going to talk about Flint, if you’re going to talk about, it seems to me, Ferguson, you have to talk about Palestine. If you’re going to talk about repression in the United States, you’ve got to figure out how these modes of repression have become global. Because something has happened that we—that suggests a new kind of politics: Politics is local, and power is global. The elite float. They don’t care about the social contract anymore. So, you know, we see a level of disposability, a level of violence, that is really unlike anything we’ve seen before.

I mean, Donald Trump talking about the Central Park Five still being guilty, give me a break. I mean, what is this really about? Is it about somebody who’s just ignorant and stupid? Or is it somebody who now is part of a ruling class that is so indifferent to questions of justice that they actually boast about their own racism?

AMY GOODMAN: So let me ask you about the issue of education.


AMY GOODMAN: The debate here is around school choice—

HENRY GIROUX: Right, right.

HENRY GIROUX: —of vouchers, charter schools. But you’ve been talking about schools for a long time. What is the role of schools and education in our society?

HENRY GIROUX: Schools should be democratic public spheres. They should be places that educate people to be informed, to learn how to govern rather than be governed, to take justice seriously, to spur the radical imagination, to give them the tools that they need to be able to both relate to themselves and others in the wider world, in a way in which they can imagine that world as a better place. I mean, it seems to me, at the heart of any education that matters, is a central question: How can you imagine a future much different than the present, and a future that basically grounds itself in questions of economic, political and social justice?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, how do you see, then—for instance, the Obama administration has been a big promoter of charter schools and these privatization efforts as a school choice model.

HENRY GIROUX: Yeah. The Obama administration is a disgrace on education. The Obama administration basically is an administration that has bought the neoliberal line. It drinks the orange juice. I mean, it doesn’t see schools as a public good. It doesn’t see schools as places where basically we can educate students in a way to take democracy seriously and to be able to fight for it. It sees them as basically kids who should be part of the global workforce. But it does more, because not understanding schools as democratic public spheres means that the only place you can really go is either to acknowledge and not do anything about the fact that many of them are now modeled after prisons, or, secondly, they become places that kill the radical imagination. Teaching for the test is a way to kill the radical imagination. It’s a way to make kids boring, you know? It’s a way to make them ignorant. It’s a way to shut them off from the world in a way in which they can recognize that their agency matters. It matters. You can’t be in an environment and take education seriously, when your education is under—when your agency is under assault. Can’t do it.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book with a quote of Albert Camus: “Memory is the enemy of totalitarianism.”

HENRY GIROUX: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.


HENRY GIROUX: Well, I’ll explain it in terms of a slogan, Donald Trump’s slogan: “Let’s make America great again.” You know, and when I hear that, that seems to suggest there was a moment in the past when America really was great, you know, when women knew their places, when we could set dogs on black people in Mississippi, when young people went and sit in at lunch counters and were assaulted by others. That’s about—that’s about the death of memory. That’s about memory being basically suppressed in a way that doesn’t allow people to understand that there were things that happened in the past that we not only have to remember, we have to prevent from happening again. Or, on another level, it suggests the suppression of memory so that those things can happen again and that we don’t have to worry about them. And so, it seems to me that a country without a sense of public memory, without a sense of historical memory, is a country always in crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: You have talked about Donald Trump also coming about, the phenomenon, as the—a failure of the progressive left.



HENRY GIROUX: Well, I think that, you know, one of the things about the left—three things about the left disturb me, Amy. One is, they never really have taken education seriously. They think education is about schooling. I mean, what they don’t realize is that forms of domination are not just simply structural. They’re also about changing consciousness. They’re also about getting people to invest in a language in which they can recognize that the problems that we’re talking about have something to do with their lives. It means making something meaningful, to make it critical, to make it transformative.

Secondly, it seems to me that the left is too involved in isolated issues. You know, we’ve got to bring these issues together to create a mass social movement that in some way really challenges the kind of power that we’re now confronting.

AMY GOODMAN: Only the beginning of the conversation. Henry Giroux, thanks so much for being with us, McMaster University professor for Scholarship in the Public Interest. His new book, America at War with Itself.

That does it for our broadcast. Oh, Juan, tomorrow is a very special day: Happy birthday!

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Amy, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll be—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: You didn’t need to mention that.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll be broadcasting Monday from North Dakota, from right near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Tune in.

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