Fascism on trial

Rethinking education in an age of conspiracy theories and election deniers

Reprinted from Educational Philosophy & Theory (https://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2022.2151895)

In the current political landscape, fascism is on the rise and the threat to democracy is imperilled both as an ideal and a promise. A number of Republican politicians who ran for a variety of political offices in the US embrace elements of white supremacy, support white Christian nationalism, traffic in ‘antisemitism and endorse voter suppression policies, among other elements of hate politics. All of these politicians support a poisonous rhetoric fuelling a neo-fascism sanctioned by most of the Republican Party – a rhetoric of historical erasure, hate, bigotry and a politics of disposability. At least two hundred and ten of these election-denying politicians were elected to House, Senate and governor seats, including JD Vance, Marjorie Taylor Greene and Gregg Abbott. While President Biden claimed in a recent speech that the coming election puts democracy on the block, he vastly underestimated the degree to which the resurgent right-wing could potentially usher in a fascist politics in the United States. There is some hope for democracy in the fact that the Republican red wave did not happen as predicted, especially since a number of the ‘worst election deniers and kookiest candidates were sent packing.’ Yet, the GOP did take control of the House of Representatives, though with a small majority. Fortunately, the Democrats retained control of the Senate. A small reprieve for democracy, yet the deceptions and ideological mystifications powering the threat of fascism remain; the ghosts of fascism are still with us, waiting to stamp out any vestige of democracy, however fragile. Fascism in the United States and across the globe continues to be a spiralling probability.

What must not be forgotten is that many of the GOP politicians who were voted into office, especially Gov. Ron DeSantis, who swept to a landslide victory in Florida, hold deeply anti-democratic, authoritarian positions. These are not rogue deviants; rather, they are symptoms of a much wider culture of authoritarian politics that normalises bigotry, whitewashes history, bans books and encourages violence. They are the new face of fascist politics haunting America. Fascist rhetoric is no longer underground in the US. It has been awakened and is embraced without apology. This is a politics that basks in the language of demagogues, encourages those who trade in lies and ignorance, manipulates public opinion in the service of tyrants, embraces a ruthless display of power, displays utter disregard for the law and fosters a passion for viciousness. Ron DeSantis’s re-election is especially troubling given the fact that a number of historians, opinion writers and others, including former Secretary of Labour Robert Reich, have made clear his links to fascism.

This rebranded fascist politics exceeds and targets more than any one specific group. It goes far beyond the rising displays of antisemitism among celebrities such as Kanye West and beyond the white Christian nationalism of religious fundamentalists such as former General and Trump advisor Michael Flynn. If Flynn advocates turning politics into a ‘spiritual war,’ celebrity anti-Semites such as rapper Kanye West and Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ superstar point guard, want their audiences to believe that antisemitism is a legitimate rhetoric, conspiracy theories are okay to peddle in public and that ‘the Holocaust is an exaggeration or a falsehood.’ In the age of Trump, this rhetoric is not only fuelled by Trump and his followers but also by a stew of forces, including digital culture and right-wing media platforms. This anti-Semitic discourse emerges at a time ‘when incidents of harassment, vandalism and violence against [Jews] have been at their highest since at least the 1970s.’ Moreover, this rhetoric is now part of a broader language of disposability aimed at migrants, people of colour, refugees and others. What should be condemned here is not only their actions but also a society that has allowed this fascism to become once again normalised. What should be understood and interrogated in the age of rebranded fascism is the broad-based attack by anti-democratic forces in the Republican Party and their allies on those critical political, cultural and social institutions that attempt to create informative and critically engaged citizens.

As critical democratic agencies come under attack, modes of critical agency disappear in the fog of political infantilism, paving the way for the public’s belief in the rhetoric of racial purity, religious fundamentalism, an ecosystem of lies, a withdrawal from the language of social responsibility, an obsession with crime and punishment and the identification of adversaries as enemies of the state. We now live in a system of manipulation, staged fear and manufactured ignorance that dissolves any vestige of residual disbelief, scepticism and critique itself. A crisis of ideas, criticism and ideals has led to a crisis of conscience and the near collapse of democratic politics. The winds of fascism now reach deeply into the lungs of the social fabric, infecting its ability to breathe, converting it and the public it serves to the status of the walking dead.

In his essay, ‘Terror’s Atomisation of Man,’ first published in Commentary on January 1, 1946, Leo Lowenthal writes about the atomisation of human beings under a state of fear that approximates a kind of updated fascist terror. Atomisation for Lowenthal refers to individuals who live in a social order in which they are cut off from communal spaces, reduced to disembodied agents who suffer from bouts of isolation and self-worth. Trapped in a culture of harsh competition and a regressive notion of individualism, they feel powerless and are prone to bouts of cynicism and despair. For those who lack any sense of interconnection, the space of the social dissolves, leaving nothing but the emptiness of self-interest and self-survival. Central to their condition is a sense of homelessness, a kind of spiritual rootlessness. What Lowenthal gets, even in 1946, is that democracy cannot exist without the educational, political and formative cultures and institutions that make it possible. And he understands that atomised individuals – divorced from community – are not only prone to the forces of depoliticisation but also to the false swindle and spirit of demagogues, discourses of hate and demonisation of the Other.

We live in an age of death-dealing loneliness, isolation and militarised atomisation. If you believe the popular press, loneliness is reaching epidemic proportions in wired advanced industrial societies. The usual suspect is the internet, which sequesters people in the warm glow of the computer screen while reinforcing their own isolation and sense of loneliness. The notions of ‘friends’ and ‘likes’ become disembodied categories in which human beings disappear into the black hole of algorithms and empty signifiers. The toxic role of the internet cannot be overestimated when one lives in a society in which notions of dependence, compassion, mutuality, care for the other and sociality are undermined by a neoliberal ethic in which self-interest becomes the organising principle of one’s life. Social media amplifies a survival-of-the-fittest ethic that breeds a culture that, at best, promotes an indifference to the plight of others and, at worst, promotes a widespread culture of cruelty and disdain for the less fortunate. Power is now in the hands of a financial elite who control the means of knowledge production, culture and all of the major financial institutions. Jonathan Crary, in Scorched Earth, captures the staggering power of transnational corporations and their power in the following comments:

The digital tools and services used by people everywhere are subordinated to the power of transnational corporations, intelligence agencies, criminal cartels and a sociopathic billionaire elite. For the majority of the earth’s population on whom it has been imposed, the internet complex is the implacable engine of addiction, loneliness, false hopes, cruelty, psychosis, indebtedness, squandered life, the corrosion of memory and social disintegration…. The internet complex has become inseparable from the immense, incalculable scope of 24/7 capitalism and its frenzy of accumulation, extraction, circulation, production, transport and construction, on a global scale. Behaviours that are inimical to the possibility of a liveable and just world are incited in almost every feature of online operations. Fuelled by artificially manufactured appetites, the speed and ubiquity of digital networks maximise the incontestable priority of getting, having, coveting, resenting, envying; all of which furthers the deterioration of the world-a world operating without pause, without the possibility of renewal or recovery, choking on its heat and waste. (p. 2)

At the same time, violence has become normalised as part of the rhetoric of politics, sometimes with dangerous, if not deadly, results. Fuelled by a former president, the growing militia movement in the US and politicians at the highest levels of government, threats of violence or intimidation are now aimed at teachers, politicians, school board members, librarians, election officials and anyone else who defies the orchestrated lies and far-right ideologies promoted by a diverse group of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, nativists, rabid evangelicals and other extremists.

It is no surprise that the greatest threats of violence in the US, according to the FBI and a host of other government agencies, now come from far-right extremists. For instance, as Amy Goodman & Denis Moynihan note, ‘Political violence is on a bloody and disturbing rise in the United States … [and s]ince Trump’s 2020 loss, threats against election officials have intensified. The Brennan Centre for Justice issued a report in 2021 that detailed reports from states across the country of numerous confrontations and threats against election workers – many laced with racism and antisemitism.’

The lust for power by corrupt politicians, major corporations and the financial elite draws directly from the playbook of fascist politics. Umberto Eco, in his 1995 essay ‘Ur-Fascism,’ published in the New York Review of Books, was right in claiming that fascist politics takes many forms, reminding us that the following components often come draped in the symbols and traditions of the societies that embrace them. His list is worth paraphrasing and elaborating on: 1) the cult tradition and the nostalgia for those days when white powerful men ruled society; 2) the rejection of the modern world and the turn toward irrationalism 3) a deep seated anti-intellectualism; 4) the belief that any disagreement with established power amounts to treason; 5) the fear of difference – exemplified by what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban calls ‘mixed races;’ 6) the appeal to fear, anxiety and uncertainty 7) a notion of who is worthy of citizenship based on a besieged sense of agency and identity; 8) an ultra-nationalism that can provide the nation with a racial identity 9) contempt for the weak; 10) an embrace of hyper-masculinity modelled after a contempt and disdain for women; 11) a selective populism in which the notion of citizenship is restricted to a select few – those who hold a sense of racial, religious and political entitlement; 12) use of an impoverished vocabulary, a hatred of the truth and an open embrace of the lie; 13) the destruction of historical memory and moral witnessing.

In 1944, Henry Wallace, Vice President to Franklin D. Roosevelt, published an article in the New York Times in which he made clear that fascism was not a foreign entity unrelated to American politics (reprinted here). For Wallace, fascism has to be recognised and defined within a menacing American context if it was to be defeated. By expanding the definition of fascism, he not only pointed to what he called a ‘breed of super-nationalist[s] who [pursue] political power by deceiving Americans and playing to their fears …who poison the channels of public information (and put) money and power ahead of human beings.’ He also stated that fascists need enemies, scapegoats and harbour ‘an intensity of intolerance toward those of other races, parties, classes, religions, cultures, regions or nations.’ There was an urgency in Wallace’s argument that resonates today with the rise of fascist politics across the globe – an urgency that speaks to a crisis in American democracy that is at a breaking point. Wallace saw a slow-motion nightmare in his own time. It is time to recognise a fascist nightmare that is no longer slow-moving; instead, it is galloping across the globe.

All of these attributes mentioned by Eco, Wallace and others are at work in the updated fascist politics driving the modern Republican Party (see Boggs, Churchwell, Giroux, Hedges, Mullen & Vials, Stanley). They not only present an ongoing threat to social justice, democracy, equality and freedom, but also provide an image of a fascist past – whether inspired by the genocide of Indigenous people and slavery in the United States or the legacy of Nazi Germany – that makes clear what the end of humanity looks like. The spectacle of Nazi rallies holds an eerie resemblance to those Republican Rallies held in the lead-up to the current midterm 2022 elections. Prior to the midterm elections of 2022, politicians ranging from Ron DeSantis and Kari Lake to Blake Masters and J. D. Vance, among others, spewed out lies, denied election results, rejected the perils of climate change, adulated the power of the financial elite and demonised women’s rights-all to the sound of cheering crowds. Their language was laced with falsehoods, racial dog whistles, the demonisation of those they disagree with, an embrace of the rhetoric of fear and an often not-too-subtle call to violence, all in the service of spectacularised fascism.

Isolated individuals do not make up a healthy democratic society. In Marx’s more theoretical language, alienation is a separation from the fruits of one’s labour. While that is certainly truer than ever, the separation and isolation are now more extensive – governing the entirety of social life in a consumer-based society run by the demands of commerce and the financialisation of everything. Isolation, privatisation and the cold logic of rationality based on a market-driven notion of efficiency, worth and commercial exchange have created a new social formation and social order in which it becomes difficult to form communal bonds, deep connections, a sense of intimacy and long-term commitments. The first casualty of authoritarianism is those who would oppose it. In an age in which education on multiple fronts has turned toxic and repressive, thereby serving to depoliticise large groups of people, politics has turned deadly. One consequence is that right-wing formations threaten to destroy civic culture and politics itself in the United States.

Neoliberalism has created a society of monsters for whom pain and suffering are now viewed as entertainment, warfare is seen as a permanent state of existence, racism is accepted as an organising principle of society and militarism is centred as the most powerful force shaping masculinity. Politics has taken an exit from ethics, and, thus, the issue of social costs is divorced from any form of intervention in the world. These are the ideological metrics of political zombies. The key word here is atomisation, and it is the curse of both neoliberal societies and democracy itself. Neoliberal capitalism now preys on the fears of the alienated, fearful, isolated and uninformed to pour gasoline on the fires of racism, hate and bigotry.

At the heart of any type of politics wishing to challenge this flight into fascist politics is not merely the recognition of economic structures of domination but also something more profound. That is, there is a need to take seriously those ideological and educational forces that contribute to the construction of particular identities, values, social relations, or, more broadly, agency itself. Central to such a recognition is the fact that politics cannot exist without people investing something of themselves in the discourses, images and representations that come at them daily. Rather than suffering alone, lured into the frenzy of hateful emotion, individuals need to be able to identify – see themselves and their daily lives – within progressive critiques of existing forms of domination and see how they might address such issues not individually but collectively. This is a particularly difficult challenge today because the scourge of atomisation is reinforced daily not only by a coordinated neoliberal assault against any viable notion of the social but also by an authoritarian and finance-based culture that couples a rigid notion of privatisation with a flight from any sense of social and moral responsibility.

The culture apparatuses controlled by the 1 per cent are the most powerful educational forces in society, and they have become disimagination machines – apparatuses of misrecognition, stupidity and cruelty. Collective agency is now atomised, devoid of any viable embrace of the social. Under such circumstances, domination does not merely repress through its apparatuses of terror and violence, but also, as Pierre Bourdieu argues, through those intellectual and pedagogical practices, ‘which lie on the side of belief and persuasion.’ Too many progressives and others on the left have defaulted on the enormous responsibility of recognising the educative nature of politics and challenging this form of domination – working to change consciousness and make education central to politics itself.

Trump and his current political allies, including Elon Musk, rely on the media as disimagination machines and engines of misinformation because they get all of this; they understand that with an education that promotes critical analysis, thinking and informed judgment comes the possibility of an active citizenry willing to hold power accountable while fighting to strengthen democracy itself. Critical education is the enemy of demagogues. They don’t want to change consciousness but freeze it within a flood of shocks, sensations and simplisms that demand no thinking while erasing memory, thoughtfulness and critical dialogue. For Trump and his current crop of political misfits running for office, miseducation is the key to getting elected.

The leaders of the modern Republican Party now make a claim to mythic innocence, as James Baldwin once put it, by barricading themselves ‘inside their history.’ Instead of breaking free of the smothering grip of white supremacy, too many of them and their followers have embraced a form of historical forgetting and erasure that represses and rewrites history to both suit their feral politics and mimic, without apology, the genocidal legacies of a fascist past. Innocence has now turned deadly as mythic representations of history only make a space for whites who view themselves within the discourse of Christian nationalism, xenophobia and a brutalising nativism, all of which traps them in the grips of a fascist politics. Fascist politics in the US has been expanded through a mix of white supremacy, antisemitism and a growing population of White evangelicals and other right-wing Christians. As Sarah Posner, the historian of the religious right, observes, these religious fundamentalists ‘believe America was founded as a Christian nation, and it is their duty to take it back from what they claim are anti-Christian forces which have undermined its Christian heritage.’

Progressives and the left have failed to take the current crisis seriously by working hard to address the symbolic, structural and pedagogical dimensions of struggle. All of this is necessary in order, at the very least, to get people to be able to translate private troubles into wider social issues. The latter may be the biggest political and educational challenge facing those who refuse to acknowledge that the midterm 2022 election was not only about those who believe in democracy and those who don’t, but also about the possibility of the United States turning into a fascist state. The midterm elections made clear that both democracy and fascism were on the ballot. In light of the less-than-anticipated Republican victory, the American people will still have to bear the burden of living in a number of GOP-run states that will punish anyone who is not a white Christian nationalist, white supremacist, or a supporter of a rebranded fascist politics.

In addition, while the midterms did not result in a democratic bloodbath, what cannot be overlooked is that the Republican Party has been actively putting into place a gerrymandered politics or what can be called a form of ‘unconstitutional disenfranchisement.’ In this instance, the GOP creates serious structural roadblocks that ensure their success at the polls. This is about more than electoral fraud, engineered by redistricting maps drawn up in GOP backrooms. It is about maligning voting preferences and undermining the fate of democratic elections. This rigging of elections is not only about unfair advantage but, more importantly, the death of democracy itself. Rigged elections coupled with the big lie fostered by-election deniers when they lose elections is one of the conditions that fosters and legitimates the newly rebranded fascist politics at work in the US and a number of other countries.

The sinister nightmare of a fascist takeover no longer resides in the works of dystopian fiction; it is here in the present, functioning as a lethal fairy tale defined by a contempt for democracy and heralding political doom. The threat of fascism is no longer a matter of speculation; it has been put to the vote in an election that may potentially transport the unthinkable from being a provocative fiction to a cruelly excruciating reality. There is some hope in that a complete authoritarian route did not happen in the midterm elections and that the GOP did not get the power they had hoped for. Moreover, there were hopeful signs with abortion rights advocates turning out in force, a number of LGBTQI+ candidates running in record numbers, sending the first LGBTQ immigrant to Congress and ‘a democratic surge among voters under age 45, but especially in the 18–29 bracket,’ all voting to rescue democracy (see Corbett). Yet, I think it is crucial not to underestimate the threat of fascism in the US. Moreover, the endless gloating by the liberal press over how democracy was saved because the midterms did not result in a red tsunami is as politically foolish as it is dangerous. What is crucial to acknowledge, as the historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat warns, in light of who came out ahead in the election, however small the count, is that ‘the threats to democracy remain.’ There is a lesson to be learned here if the American public wants to keep democracy resurgent in the face of threats from an updated fascism.

Note. Some of the ideas in this editorial were drawn from Giroux, H. A. (2019, December 6). We must overcome our atomisation to beat back neoliberal fascism. Truthout. https://truthout.org/articles/we-must-overcome-our-atomization-to-beat-back-neoliberal-fascism/

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Full Citation Information:
Giroux, H. A. (2022). Fascism on trial: Rethinking education in an age of conspiracy theories and election deniers. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/fascism-on-trial/

Henry A. Giroux

Henry A. Giroux is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, Canada. Henry is one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States, and has written extensively on public pedagogycultural studiesyouth studieshigher educationmedia studies, and critical theory, winning many awards. His interviews on neoliberalism appear in Truthout.  Henry is past co-Editor-in-chief of the Review of Education, Pedagogy and Cultural Studies.  In 2002 Routledge named him as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period.


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