The culture of cruelty

Henry A. Giroux


What is the “culture of cruelty in Trump’s America” and why is it important to analyze?

The United States has a long history in which the culture of cruelty has both undermined and challenged its professed claims to the democratic principles of equality, freedom, compassion and justice. The hardening of the culture and the emergence of a social order driven by a collapse of ethics, an unchecked celebration of self-interest, and a Hobbesian war-of-all-against-all have been increasingly nurtured in the last 40 years under the rise of a neoliberal form of gangster capitalism, more aptly called neoliberal fascism. Yet, this history of cruelty is not unique to the Trump administration. The attack on the welfare state, a numbing social atomization, the rise of a survivalist ethic and a growing indifference to human suffering have long been supported by both major political parties. Before Trump’s election, [the US’s] culture of cruelty resided rhetorically on the margins of power, hidden under the false rhetoric of liberal and conservative politicians who benefited from exploiting the vulnerable in order to further advance the interests of the rich and their own power.

But such attacks have taken on a more aggressive and organizing role under the Trump presidency. This is evident as Trump devotes an inordinate amount of tyrannical energy to the notion that the market and state violence are the primary solution to all social problems and constitute the only legitimate pillars of governance. This descent into the practice of cruel power, cruelty and barbarism no longer hides in the shadows and is employed without apology in most of Trump’s activities since he was elected. Trump revels in the discourse of bullies. He calls his critics “losers,” insults world leaders with belittling language and tacitly supports the violent actions of white supremacists. He endorses state torture, has remilitarized the police, relishes representations of violence and in one instance, tweeted an edited video showing him body-slamming and punching a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head during a wrestling match. He has executed policies that bear the weight of domestic terrorism, which partly include breaking up immigrant families and separating young children from their parents while expanding the racially charged reach of the carceral state under his call for “law and order.” He has called Latinos “animals,” Mexicans “rapists” and “drug dealers,” and a number of African nations “shithole countries,” all of which echoes the dangerous, racially charged rhetoric of the Nazis in the 1930s.

Trump’s embrace of the culture of cruelty also drives policies rooted in an ongoing process of dehumanization, rancor and a racially-inspired hatred — one that views with disdain basic human emotions, such as compassion, empathy and care for the other. How else to explain his $1.3 trillion tax cut for the ultra-rich and big corporations along with a massive increase in military spending? This dreadful and harmful legislation accompanies policies that produce unprecedented cuts in low-income housing, impose punitive work requirements for those on welfare, eliminate job training programs, slash food assistance programs for the poor, decrease quality health care for the poorest populations, cut nutrition programs for new mothers and their infants, and remove billions from desperately needed programs such as the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). All of these policies serve to redistribute wealth upward while an alarming 43 percent of American families cannot afford basic needs, such as housing, child care, food or even a cell phone, and millions of the most vulnerable Medicaid recipients risk losing their health care. Philip Alston, the United Nations monitor on poverty, in an interview with the Guardian, has warned that Trump is not only producing policies that reward the ultra-rich, he is also punishing the poor and most vulnerable as a result of “a systematic attack on America’s welfare program that is undermining the social safety net.” And states that by removing “any sense of government commitment, you quickly move into cruelty.”

It gets worse. A new level of hatred, exhibition of ferocity and state-sanctioned cruelty are on full display in Trump’s willingness to end the Dreamers program, risking the expulsion of over 700,000 immigrants brought to the country as children. Moreover, Trump has put in play executive orders that end temporary protected status for more than 425,000 immigrants, including 86,000 Hondurans and 200,000 people from El Salvador, many of whom have lived in the US for decades. There is a genocidal mentality at work here, amplified by a hatred that suggests a disgust for those who do not fit into Trump’s embrace of racial purity, white nationalism and a “cleansed” public space.

This culture of cruelty has a long history in the United States and has to be connected with the intensifying and accelerating practices of a neoliberal fascism, which is more than willing to exercise cruel power in the interest of accumulating capital and profits without any consideration of social costs to humanity or the planet itself. The culture of cruelty is not simply about character…. On the contrary, it has to be connected to structural and ideological forces in the service of a financial elite. Rather than simply produce moral outrage, the culture of cruelty should point to a convergence of power, politics and newly emerging structures of domination that are as unjust as they are cruel. Gangster capitalism is the root cause of such cruelty because of its concentration of power, ongoing destruction of democratic values and ongoing production of a machinery of terminal exclusion, disposability, social abandonment and social death.

Neoliberalism fascism, as a form of extreme capitalism, views democracy as the enemy, the market as the exclusive arbiter of freedom, and the ethical imagination as an object of disdain. It is a form of zombie politics that produces a ruling elite that represents a 21stcentury version of the walking dead. To paraphrase New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, these zombie politicians and power-brokers serve as a dystopian “reminder of not only our fears but [also] what we have become.” The coarsening of American culture and society has solidified into a state-sanctioned language in which the tyranny of authoritarian zombies has become domesticated, if not normalized. What we are now witnessing is the death of compassion[A psychopathification of society. Operating with the morals of a psychopath, as per my characterization of the US government as a psychopathocracy. Ed.] a repudiation of our obligations to the most vulnerable, the death of the social and a dishonorable discharge from the obligations of a democracy. Under neoliberalism’s form of gangster capitalism, the United States has lost its sense of decency and collapsed into a society of lawlessness and moral indifference. Trump is the endpoint of a country that has become a criminogenic society, one which, as Pankaj Mishra has written, promotes “a widely sanctioned ruthlessness … that does not make for an understanding of the tangled roots of human suffering.” The current culture of cruelty is both a symptom of the war on democracy and a mirror that reveals the collapse of the United States into the abyss of fascism.

In your new book, American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism, you argue that there is a connection between neoliberalism and fascism. Can you speak to that connection?

Actually, I bring the two terms together in the phrase “neoliberal fascism,” which I define as both a project and a movement. Neoliberalism is an enabling force that weakens, if not destroys the commanding institutions of a democracy while undermining its most valuable principles. It is part of what Sheldon Wolin called a totalitarian imaginary that constitutes a revolutionary break from democracy. This is a form of fascism in which state rule is replaced by corporate sovereignty and a culture of fear, insecurity and precarity reinvigorates executive power and the rise of the punishing state. Consequently, neoliberalism as a form of gangster capitalism provides a fertile ground for the unleashing of the ideological architecture, poisonous values, and racist social relations sanctioned and produced under fascism. Neoliberalism and fascism conjoin and advance in a comfortable and mutually compatible project and movement that connects the worst excesses of capitalism with fascist ideals: the veneration of war and a hatred of reason and truth; a populist celebration of ultra-nationalism and racial purity; the suppression of freedom and dissent; a culture which promotes lies, spectacles of disparagement and a demonization of the other; a discourse of decline, brutal exploitation and ultimately, state violence in heterogeneous forms. All vestiges of the social are replaced by an idealization of individualism and all forms of responsibility are reduced to individual agents. Neoliberalism creates a failed democracy, and in doing so, opens up the fascists’ use of fear and terror to transform a state of exception into a state of emergency. As a project, it destroys all the commanding institutions of democracy and consolidates power in the hands of a financial elite. As a movement, it produces and legitimates massive economic inequality and suffering, privatizes public goods, dismantles essential government agencies and individualizes all social problems. In addition, it transforms the political state into the corporate state, and uses the tools of surveillance, militarization and “law and order” to discredit the critical press and media, and undermine civil liberties, while ridiculing and censoring critics. Moreover, what is quite distinctive about neoliberal fascism is its aggressive war on youth, especially Black youth, its war on women, and its despoiling of the planet.

In addition, corporate control of the cultural apparatuses provides the public with endless spectacles of violence, toxic and banal illusions, the celebration of market-driven values, and an empty obsession and worship of celebrity culture. With the collapse of the social state, the punishing neoliberal fascist state emerges in full force, criminalizing a range of behaviors that are in fact expressions of social problems such as homelessness and poverty. The model of the prison and the state-sanctioned embrace of violence and lawlessness are now unleashed with impunity on youth, people of color, undocumented immigrants and all those others considered disposable. Massive inequality horribly accentuated by neoliberal policies that destroy basic social services, needed infrastructures and essential public goods provide a fertile ground for advancing a sinister turn toward a collective anger and resentment open to a newly charged populism willing to embrace white supremacist ideology, state violence and authoritarian beliefs. Neoliberalism is the face of a new fascism. After decades of the neoliberal nightmare both in the United States and abroad, the mobilizing passions of fascism have been unleashed unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s and 1940s. Extreme capitalism has destroyed any vestige of a substantive democracy, produced massive economic suffering, tapped into a combination of fear and a cathartic cruelty, and emboldened a brutal lawlessness aimed at those considered “disposable.” It is time to repudiate the notion that capitalism and democracy are the same thing, renew faith in the promises of a democratic socialism, create new political formations around an alliance of diverse social movements and take seriously the need to make education central to politics itself. As Walter Benjamin reminds us, fascism is the product often of failed democracies, and under the reign of neoliberalism, we are in the midst of not simply a dysfunctional democracy, but in the grip of an extreme form of gangster capitalism wedded to unbridled forms of corporate power that produce massive inequalities in wealth and power, and aggressively wage war on everything crucial to a vibrant democratic society.

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