The Politic Rhetoric of Bloodbath Politics

Freire, Trump and the Challenge of Meaning

In 2020, during a remarkable display of spiritual hysteria, Paula White, the wackadoodle spiritual advisor to former President Trump, embarked on a proclamation that reverberated both with a maddening celestial invocation and unhinged theological assertion influenced by a ‘Moonies cult’ revelation operating under the banner of the New Apostolic Reformation. Utilising a staccato rhythm reminiscent of sacred chants, White beckoned forth territorial angels purportedly hailing from the distant continents of Africa and South America to help Trump win the election. Her declaration, punctuated by the resolute assertion, ‘I hear victory in the corridors of heaven,’ underscored her unwavering belief in divine intervention and celestial governance:

‘You will give us victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of shouting and singing. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory. I hear a sound of abundance of rain. I hear a sound of victory….

The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. The Lord says it is done. For I hear victory, victory, victory, victory. In the corners of heaven. In the corners of heaven. Victory, victory, victory, victory, victory, victory.

For angels have even dispatched from Africa right now, Africa right now, Africa right now. From Africa right now.

They’re coming here. They’re coming here. In the name of Jesus. From South America, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here, they’re coming here.

From Africa. From South America. Angelic forces. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement. Angelic reinforcement.’

White’s frantic invocation of angelic forces was intricately intertwined with her theological conviction that the divine order transcended earthly governance, categorically asserting, ‘God is a theocracy, not a democracy.’ This theological stance, while contentious to some, serves as the foundation for her broader vision of spiritual warfare and societal transformation.

White’s theological framework envisions coordinated efforts by divine forces leading to the expulsion of spiritual adversaries symbolised by Jezebel. Through the triumph of God-ordained militias, she anticipates a societal landscape wherein Christians would ascend to positions of authority akin to regal monarchs. The practical implications of White’s theological stance are evident in the New Apostolic Reformation’s vision for the ecclesiastical landscape as a loose network of preachers, prophets, churches, and parachurch organisations collaborating to effect mass conversions within family units and social networks. At the heart of this transformative mission lay the authority vested in apostolic figures like herself, whom she fervently believes are endowed with the same authority granted to the original twelve apostles by Jesus himself.

Little did White realise that, four years later, Trump would be indicted on charges of falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to porn star Stormy Daniels ahead of the 2016 presidential election. That Trump was described during the trial as wearing satin pyjamas while being spanked prior to having sex with Daniels did not make the situation any better. Clearly, Trump is bent on becoming president once again, so that he will be better positioned in prosecuting his retribution: ‘I am your warrior. I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,’ Trump told supporters last year. Trump looks forward to a bloodbath. If you don’t take his word for it, you can feel the rage just by looking at him. The first group to feel his wrath will likely be prisoners on death row. Jessica Schulberg writes:

Trump, the GOP’s presumptive 2024 presidential nominee, has openly fantasised about executing drug dealers and human traffickers. He reportedly suggested that officials who leak information to the press should be executed, too. And behind the scenes, there’s a team of pro-Trump conservatives who are pushing for a second Trump term that involves even more state-sponsored killing than the first.
Last year, a coalition effort by conservative groups known as Project 2025 released an 887-page document that lays out policy goals and recommendations for each part of the federal government. Buried on page 554 is a directive to execute every remaining federal death row prisoner – and to persuade the Supreme Court to expand the types of crimes that can be punished with death sentences.
Gene Hamilton, the author of the transition playbook’s Department of Justice chapter, wrote that the next conservative administration should ‘do everything possible to obtain finality’ for every prisoner on federal death row, which currently includes 40 people.
‘It should also pursue the death penalty for applicable crimes – particularly heinous crimes involving violence and sexual abuse of children – until Congress says otherwise through legislation,’ he wrote. In a footnote, Hamilton said that this could require the Supreme Court to overrule a previous case, ‘but the [Justice] department should place a priority on doing so.’

Trump’s rally speech in Ohio took a chilling turn when he declared, ‘If I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a bloodbath.’ This unequivocal statement, according to Amanda Marcotte, leaves little room for interpretation: it is a threat, plain and simple. Trump’s ominous warning of a ‘bloodbath for the country’ is as literal as it is alarming. Even when considered within the broader context of Trump’s remarks, Marcotte notes, there is no denying the sheer gravity of his words. To any honest observer, it is evident that this is a call to action with potentially dire consequences. Why? Because Trump is a white supremacist, a malignant narcissist, a racist, a sexist and an ableist who made fun of a disabled journalist, joked about Nancy Pelosi’s husband who had serious brain damage after a violent encounter with a madman wielding a hammer, and bragged about grabbing women’s genitalia. The list goes on and on. And the public seemingly gives its tacit approval or else agrees to disagree about taking Trump’s rhetorical words seriously. In so doing, they fail to realise that Trump does not adhere to the fundamental Enlightenment values of freedom, equality and truth, the adherence to which is imperative if governments are to prevent themselves from imploding into authoritarianism. Trump is rarely tethered to his rhetorical overreach or mythological transpositions when he calls for vengeance (he saves those myths about himself when he is most in need of affirmation about his appearance (he claims he resembles Elvis Presley) or brags about his presidential legacy (he sees himself as the greatest president since Lincoln); vengeance is not some pipe dream floating around his brainpan, waiting to dissipate like flatulence perfuming the void in a cold courtroom.

In President Donald Trump’s inaugural address in 2016, he encapsulated his governing philosophy with the declaration, ‘From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First.’ While this phrase has become synonymous with Trump’s strategy of deploying his political rhetoric in ways that will fire up his base, its origins trace back much further, bearing a complex and troubling history, according to Sarah Churchwell, a distinguished professor of American literature and humanities at the University of London. She explores the evolution of two iconic American phrases, ‘America First’ and ‘American Dream,’ in her latest work, Behold, America. She argues that language carries profound historical baggage, often shaping our perceptions and ideologies without our conscious awareness. According to Churchwell, the term ‘America First’ initially emerged as a Republican campaign slogan in the 1880s but gained national prominence when President Woodrow Wilson employed it in 1915 to advocate for neutrality in World War I. Despite Wilson’s internationalist leanings, the phrase soon became associated with isolationism, particularly amidst the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-immigration sentiments. Notably, reports Churchwell, aviator Charles Lindbergh led the ‘America First Committee,’ which sought to keep the United States out of World War II, aligning the phrase with nativist and xenophobic ideologies.

Churchwell highlights the intersection between ‘America First’ and the ‘American dream,’ emphasising how these slogans symbolise the struggle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism. While the American dream originally embodied aspirations for equality and upward mobility, it gradually became intertwined with notions of individualism and free market capitalism, leading to tension between economic liberty and social justice. The collision between these ideologies was inevitable, particularly as ‘America First’ evolved into a rallying cry for white nationalism and exclusionary policies. The phrase resonated with those who sought to preserve a mythical version of America rooted in racial homogeneity and nativism, echoing sentiments of ‘Make America Great Again.’ Trump’s appropriation of these slogans represents a continuity with a historical strain of American thought rather than a novelty. Churchwell claims that his invocation of ‘America First’ taps into a deep-seated longing for a return to a perceived golden age of American dominance, resonating with those who fear cultural and demographic change.

I have previously argued that this golden age of American dominance for many fascist-leaning Americans was an era that identified with the American First Movement – not the current America First movement identified with Trump but the one that grew during the years preceding World War II. Understanding this movement, I argued, liberates us from simplistic narratives about American identity and progress, reminding us that our national story is constantly evolving and contested, requiring ongoing engagement and vigilance to uphold democratic ideals and inclusive principles. I will summarise part of my description of this movement below.

In a revelatory exploration presented through the captivating medium of the Ultra podcast series, esteemed journalist Rachel Maddow delved deeply into a pivotal yet often overlooked chapter of American history, one that eerily mirrors contemporary events unfolding within the United States. Ultra, an eight-episode production by MSNBC and NBC News, meticulously scrutinises a clandestine scheme hatched nearly eight decades ago to subvert the very foundations of American democracy alongside the legal battles waged to thwart its nefarious ambitions. Spearheaded by Maddow and her colleague Mike Yarvitz, with Kelsey Desiderio at the production helm, this brilliant series casts a piercing light on the insidious machinations of Nazi operatives within the United States, often in collusion with domestic politicians.

Immersing listeners in the prelude to World War II, Ultra navigates the shadowy realm of espionage and political intrigue, illuminating the concerted efforts of Nazi agents to dissuade the United States from entering the global conflict. Central to their strategy was disseminating propaganda to sow seeds of doubt and disillusionment among the American populace, particularly targeting the steadfast resolve of key allies such as Britain. George Sylvester Viereck, a prominent figure within this clandestine network, emerges as a pivotal figure, his intimate ties to Hitler’s regime irrefutably linking him to the machinations of Nazi Germany. Maddow masterfully underscores the gravity of any association with Viereck, whose past entanglements in pro-German activities and subsequent prosecution as a Nazi agent underscore the severity of his collaboration.

Of particular significance is the revelation of Viereck’s collaboration with certain members of Congress, a partnership often motivated by financial incentives. Leveraging the congressional privilege of free distribution, Viereck cunningly disseminated German propaganda materials to millions of American households, exploiting taxpayer resources to advance the agenda of a foreign power. Maddow further unveils the alarming nexus between Viereck’s operations and prominent political groups such as the America First Committee, a formidable force opposing US intervention in World War II. Founded by influential figures and boasting a substantial membership, the committee initially sought to uphold American neutrality. However, Maddow astutely highlights the erosion of its credibility, fuelled by allegations of pro-German sentiments and exacerbated by the rhetoric of figures like Charles Lindbergh. Moreover, she exposes the unsettling convergence of extremist ideologies within the America First Committee, attracting individuals espousing virulent antisemitism and ultra-right sentiments reminiscent of contemporary political movements. Figures such as Father Charles Edward Coughlin emerge as influential purveyors of bigotry, wielding their platforms to propagate hatred and intolerance. Maddow’s incisive analysis underscores the pernicious influence of figures like Coughlin, whose demagoguery and charisma captivated millions, ensnaring them in a web of prejudice and xenophobia.

In a parallel narrative, J.P. O’Malley delves into the journalistic endeavours of Charles R. Gallagher, an esteemed historian whose meticulous research unveils the hidden history of the Christian Front, a clandestine organisation poised on the brink of subverting American democracy. Drawing upon intelligence files and historical archives, Gallagher unravels a chilling saga of treachery and fanaticism, tracing the genesis of the Christian Front to the fertile soil of Coughlin’s propaganda machine. Through Gallagher’s meticulous scholarship, O’Malley paints a vivid portrait of a malevolent force driven by a fervent conviction that perceived threats to democracy and capitalism posed an existential peril to Catholicism itself. As Gallagher’s narrative unfolds, O’Malley deftly navigates through a landscape fraught with betrayal and intrigue, where the line between piety and perfidy blurs amidst the machinations of the Christian Front. From the corridors of power to the streets of New York, the Christian Front emerges as a formidable adversary, its ranks teeming with zealots fuelled by hatred and intolerance. O’Malley’s narrative serves as an unsettlingly provocative reminder of the enduring resonance of history, echoing through the corridors of power and the annals of memory.

Today’s America First rebellion is not unlike the first. It is spearheaded today by a puffy, fist-pumping, and tweet-obsessed Trump whose propaedeutic role is to prepare his ranks for openly embracing fascism (he won’t admit to the label, of course) and his lifetime leadership of a new, original fascist dispensation for the United States. Trump has, after all, exalted its intellectually emaciated engineers of decay to celebrity status, such as Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Mihály Orbán, a move that has not only exasperated educators on the left by Trump’s febrile political acumen but has produced cadres of school administrators across the United States, determined to prohibit any historical-contemplative inquiry into the foundations of American empire that might expose the political mediocrity and treachery throughout the history of the country up to and including the Trumpocene. In doing so, Trump and his minions have effectively reversed an inherently balanced and unified world of liberal-democratic formations. In a growing number of states, it has forbidden the teaching of history that does not flaunt the virtues of America, the Beautiful and comport to the ideological imperatives of the power elite.

In his ‘bloodbath’ address, President Trump brazenly extolled the events of the January 6 insurrection, lauding the individuals who stormed the Capitol as ‘unbelievable patriots’ in their endeavour to overturn the 2020 election results in his favour. Furthermore, he emphasised his adherence to a fascist ideology by dehumanising immigrants, asserting that they are ‘not people,’ while disdainfully dismissing objections from the ‘radical left’ as mere inconveniences. Such overt dehumanisation tactics, as readily discerned by even the most cursory historical examination, have been employed as preludes to genocidal atrocities and hate crimes. Notably, Trump’s brazen use of such rhetoric stands in stark contrast to the subtlety often observed among individuals who incite racist violence.

The motivations behind Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric are transparent, akin to his role in fomenting the January 6 insurrection. According to Marcotte, Trump perceives the spectre of MAGA violence as a means to coerce potential adversaries into capitulation by building upon his phantasmagoria of degeneracy, often cloaked in Nazi rhetoric in which migrants are accused of ‘poisoning the blood’ of the country and referring to his opponents as ‘vermin,’ However, contrary to his expectations, such menacing pronouncements are more likely to galvanise opposition rather than instil fear-induced compliance. Regrettably, the dissemination of Trump’s explicit threats to perpetrate further violence is hindered by a pervasive lack of awareness among the American populace. We have the media to thank for that.

Trump’s propensity for violent rhetoric, whether evidenced by his allusions to Mein Kampf or his derisive accusations against migrants, consistently fails to capture sustained attention in the public discourse. In an intriguing historical parallel, the recent commemoration by Donald Trump of insurrectionists involved in the January 6 attack on the Capitol evokes echoes of Adolf Hitler’s post-Beer Hall Putsch tactics in 1923. The Beer Hall Putsch constituted a foiled endeavour by Hitler and his adherents to violently subvert the government of Bavaria, Germany. Following the failed putsch, Hitler adopted a strategy of public veneration for those who had perished in the endeavour, effectively lionising them as martyrs for the cause and exalting their deeds as heroic. Notably, this propaganda manoeuvre served to galvanise support for Hitler’s ambitions among his followers. A decade after the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler ascended to the position of Chancellor in 1933. Among his initial actions was the establishment of the Gestapo, Germany’s notorious secret police, helmed by his steadfast associate Hermann Göring. This early consolidation of power underscores the enduring impact of Hitler’s manipulation of historical events and figures for political gain. But how are future generations able to identify such a historical parallel when they are not permitted to examine history from a critical lens, thanks to the political efforts of Ron DeSantis and other troglodyte governors populating America’s red states?

Despite sporadic media coverage, Marcotte maintains that the cyclical nature of Trump’s vitriol, coupled with the press’s penchant for novelty-driven narratives, renders such occurrences alarmingly routine, thus contributing to their normalisation. Compounding this issue is the proclivity of Trump and his allies to obfuscate the true intent behind his incendiary remarks, thus engendering a climate of scepticism and confusion that detracts from the gravity of his rhetoric. Furthermore, the ensuing discourse often devolves into a futile debate over Trump’s purported intentions, diverting attention from the substantive examination of his violent rhetoric. Consequently, the press is frequently dissuaded from affording Trump’s statements the requisite scrutiny and condemnation they merit, particularly in light of his escalating belligerence since the events of January 6. Compounding matters, warns Marcotte, are attempts by Trump and his associates to gaslight the public by disavowing the explicit nature of his threats to further obfuscate the truth, perpetuating a cycle of misinformation and denial that undermines accountability. Marcotte wants to cut through the obfuscation: Those attempting to spin Trump’s remarks as innocuous economic prognostication are not fooling anyone. While it’s true that Trump briefly touched upon the auto industry prior to issuing his ominous threat, anyone familiar with his erratic speaking style knows that coherence is not his forte, even on his most lucid days. However, on this occasion, Trump’s message was remarkably clear. There is no room for misinterpretation. He unequivocally stated, ‘It’s going to be a bloodbath for the country.’ This was not a veiled insinuation or a nuanced implication; it was a direct and unambiguous assertion.

Brett Samuels describes the chaos that occurred in the wake of the ensuing tumult over the word ‘bloodbath,’ where Trump and his cohorts found themselves ensnared in a tempest of exasperation and ire. Trump’s handlers vehemently contested the notion that Trump was threatening a violent insurrection, asserting that the former president’s discourse pertained solely to the automotive industry within its contextual framework. On Truth Social, Trump feigned astonishment at his invocation of the term BLOODBATH: ‘The Fake News Media, and their Democrat Partners in the destruction of our Nation, pretended to be shocked at my use of the word BLOODBATH, even though they fully understood that I was simply referring to imports allowed by Crooked Joe Biden, which are killing the automobile industry.’

Amidst the cacophony, certain Republicans, viewing Trump’s words through a lens of misunderstood context, posited that Trump purposefully goaded his critics, thereby galvanising his defenders. Senator Bill Cassidy, who had castigated Trump during his second impeachment trial, maintained that the term ‘bloodbath’ was arguably a metaphor for an economic cataclysm, not an incitement to electoral violence, furnishing his advocates with a semblance of distortion to rally behind. Samuels noted how Senator Steve Daines, at the helm of the Senate GOP’s campaign apparatus, decried the media’s perpetuation of what he deemed ‘easily disprovable lies’ to besmirch Trump’s name. Senator JD Vance, touted as a potential running mate for Trump, derided the latest assaults on the former president as ‘ridiculous.’ Even erstwhile Vice President Mike Pence, despite his recent refusal to endorse Trump for re-election, maintained, on ‘Face the Nation,’ that Trump’s intent was unmistakably focused on the detrimental impact of imports on the American automotive industry. Samuels described Trump’s detractors as remaining steadfast in their scepticism, contending that affording Trump the benefit of the doubt was a folly, especially in light of his ongoing legal entanglements over efforts to subvert the 2020 election, culminating in the violent insurrection on January 6, 2021.

Trump’s history of inflammatory rhetoric and actions further fuelled their apprehensions. From his equivocation on the events of Charlottesville to his veiled encouragement of far-right groups like the Proud Boys, Trump’s discourse has long been a source of consternation. Trump’s vitriol is mostly directed towards migrants, whom he characterises as ‘poisonous’ and, in some instances, ‘inhuman.’ These diatribes, for many, represent a continuation of Trump’s endorsement of political violence and divisive rhetoric that poses an existential threat to democracy. In Samuel’s view, it was Michael Tyler, communications director for the Biden campaign, who best reflected this sentiment, remarking that what transpired was not merely an isolated remark but encapsulated the essence of Donald Trump, the perpetrator of political vitriol and imminent threat to our democratic fabric.

Amanda Marcotte reports that numerous media outlets admirably resisted the temptation to downplay the gravity of President Trump’s incendiary remarks related to his support of a ‘bloodbath,’ opting instead for forthright and unambiguous headlines. Notably, NBC News boldly declared, ‘Trump says there will be a “bloodbath” if he loses the election,’ while CBS News echoed this sentiment with the direct headline, ‘Trump says there will be a “bloodbath” if he loses November election.’ Even the typically circumspect New York Times provided a headline that conveyed both clarity and contextual richness: ‘Trump Says Some Migrants Are “Not People” and Predicts a “Blood Bath” if He Loses.’ While this represents a commendable stride in the right direction, Marcotte stresses the point that it is imperative that the media does not allow Trump’s provocations to fade into the recesses of public consciousness. That would be an unmitigated disaster. While seasoned political observers and journalists may be desensitised to Trump’s penchant for incendiary rhetoric, a significant portion of the American populace remains largely unaware of the extent of his inflammatory discourse. Sustained public awareness necessitates a concerted effort on the part of the press to maintain a steady drumbeat of coverage.

To this end, writes Marcotte, media outlets can explore several avenues to ensure continued engagement with the issue. Firstly, a recalibration of editorial priorities is warranted, with a discernible shift away from superfluous narratives such as ‘Biden is old’ stories – a category of discourse that scarcely qualifies as substantive news. Instead, emphasis should be placed on comprehensive coverage of Trump’s alarming propensity for violence. Furthermore, writes Marcotte, the deployment of polling methodologies to gauge public sentiment regarding the acceptability of Trump’s threats is essential in illuminating the broader societal implications of his rhetoric. By contextualising Trump’s violent pronouncements within the broader spectrum of MAGA aggression, such as instances targeting educational institutions or LGBTQ gatherings, media outlets can elucidate the interconnectedness of these phenomena, thereby fostering a more nuanced understanding among the populace, even those who have pledged undying fealty to what some have called the Orange Jesus.

In addition to traditional journalistic approaches, the incorporation of qualitative methods, such as ‘man on the street’ interviews, offers a valuable means of capturing diverse perspectives on Trump’s rhetoric. By canvassing individuals at random and within the milieu of Trump events, reporters can provide a multifaceted portrayal of public opinion regarding his calls for a ‘bloodbath.’ Ultimately, Marcotte affirms a truism that the media possesses the requisite tools and expertise to sustain the momentum of critical discourse surrounding Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. The imperative lies in a steadfast commitment to journalistic integrity and an unwavering dedication to upholding the principles of informed public discourse.

It is indisputable that Trump’s penchant for falsehoods is well-documented, rendering any benefit of the doubt untenable. However, the brazenness of his falsehoods regarding this speech underscores the futility of engaging in bad-faith denials. Despite the transparent nature of his deceit, Trump’s gaslighting tactics succeeded in cowing a significant portion of the press into capitulation. CNN, for instance, hosted a ‘debate’ on the supposed ambiguity of his remarks, while Politico opted for a headline pondering, ‘When is a “bloodbath” not a bloodbath?’ Such attempts to downplay or rationalise Trump’s explicit language fail to acknowledge the preceding praise he bestowed upon the January 6 insurrectionists, who engaged in violent acts against law enforcement and sought to harm his own vice president.

Trump and his cohorts may fancy themselves as cunning manipulators with their deceptive tactics, but it’s important to recognise that their playbook isn’t a novel invention. In reality, their methods have historical antecedents, tracing back to the nefarious strategies employed by the Nazis. Marcotte cited Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, who cogently documented this phenomenon in his seminal 1945 essay, ‘Anti-Semite and Jew,’ wherein he elucidated how the Nazis would deliberately make outlandish statements and then feign misunderstanding when challenged, thereby sowing confusion and diverting attention from their true intentions. The recent ‘bloodbath’ debacle serves as a stark illustration of this insidious tactic in action. Despite the glaring lack of ambiguity in Trump’s remarks, his allies have attempted to obfuscate the issue by pretending that his words are open to interpretation. This manipulation of discourse is, notes Marcotte, emblematic of a broader trend wherein Trump’s most egregious actions and statements are met with equivocation and deflection. Indeed, it seems that no matter how explicit his transgressions are, there are always those willing to distort reality to fit their narrative.

This pattern of gaslighting extends beyond mere political manoeuvring; it permeates every facet of public discourse. One can’t help but wonder: if Trump were to commit an unthinkable act on stage, would we find ourselves embroiled in a debate over the semantics of the situation? The absurdity of such a scenario underscores the dangerous lengths to which Trump and his ilk will go to manipulate public perception and evade accountability. Their success has been realised in the proskynesis of Trump’s adoring base, where kissing the ring of the master is no longer sufficient but requires even greater gestures of supplication, such as rendering Trump as a messenger of God, sent to earth to save humanity from Hollywood and the Democrats.

Despite the prevalence of misleading narratives, Marcotte remains optimistic since several media outlets resisted the urge to sanitise Trump’s rhetoric. NBC News, CBS News, and even The New York Times opted for candid headlines that accurately reflected Trump’s ominous pronouncements. While commendable, this represents only a partial victory in the broader battle to counteract Trump’s violent rhetoric, which remains largely overlooked by a substantial portion of the American populace. To rectify this oversight, the press must adopt a proactive approach, eschewing trivial coverage in favour of sustained scrutiny of Trump’s incendiary remarks. By amplifying the voices of those impacted by his rhetoric and contextualising his threats within the broader framework of MAGA aggression, the media can empower citizens to confront the alarming reality of Trump’s escalating belligerence.

In the intricate warp and woof of political discourse, one undeniable thread weaves its way through the tumultuous fabric: the mendacity of Donald Trump. A veritable virtuoso of untruths, he wields deception with alarming dexterity, leaving in its wake a trail of falsehoods that strain credulity. Yet, amidst this labyrinth of lies, one instance stands out in its audacity. Trump’s brazen mendacity regarding a specific speech is a stark reminder of his disregard and even contempt for truth. His dexterity of fantasy is his trademark. His egregious falsehoods offer compelling evidence against entertaining the disingenuous denials often accompanying his pronouncements. Indeed, to grant Trump the benefit of the doubt would be to naively overlook the calculated nature of his deceit. Each falsehood serves not as an innocent misstep but as a deliberate distortion designed to obfuscate reality and manipulate public perception.

Thus, in the face of such blatant dishonesty, it behoves us to reject the siren call of bad faith denials and instead uphold the integrity of truth in our discourse. Only by steadfastly confronting and uncompromisingly rejecting falsehoods with unwavering resolve can we hope to navigate the turbulent waters of political rhetoric and the antinomies of everyday life with clarity and conviction. It has become increasingly important that we recognise the social contingency or reified nature of the institutions forged in the furnace of capitalist modernity and, as social subjects, be able to detect the deceptive machinations of our leaders such that we can create a social universe beyond the limitations of value creation (i.e., capital accumulation) and rethink our political system in ways conducive to the needs of the oppressed, not as transcendental subjects, but as members of communities, as social subjects, All philosophical abstractions need to be connected to their roots in concrete, material, fleshy, social conditions. Feenberg maintains, and rightly so, ‘[t]hat logic requires that philosophical abstractions be traced back to their roots in concrete social conditions. And once those conditions have been identified, the hypothetical construction of their revolutionary transformation rebounds back on the philosophical concepts and shows how their contradictions can be resolved.’

But do we have anyone whose ideas could conceivably serve as a counterpoint to Trump? We do, in the figure of Brazil’s Paulo Freire, who died in 1997 but whose ideas become exceedingly more urgent with the passage of time. Having prevailed against an epoch-defining attack by Brazil’s resident fascist and former president, Jair Bolsonaro, Freire’s work has enjoyed an increased visibility across the United States, only to be maliciously maligned as a danger to the minds of America’s youth. Freire’s work is caught between the collective character of the forces and relations of capitalist production and the private reaction of the workers to the exploitation of their labour-power and the protracted sweep of renewed anti-communist propaganda which conjoins and intensifies tropes from the 1950s Red Scare.

Despite the steady and brutish expanse of MAGA ideology, the bedraggled and ongoing culture wars, budget cuts on the backs of the poor, hardened efforts to delegitimise the struggles of ‘the wretched of the earth,’ and movement-building groups such as #BlackLivesMatter, Paulo Freire’s increasing public visibility has drawn renewed attention to his magisterial works. Pedagogy of Freedom is a magnum opus, displaying Freire’s unique fortitude and captivating insights joined to the themes of educational formation, criticality, historicity, situated knowledge, hope and optimism, ethical and ideological conditioning and awareness, ‘universal human ethic,’ curiosity, autonomy, methodological rigour, a dialogical and critical reading of the world and the word, and the necessary humility required to undertake such a challenging yet life-affirming and self-defining task. It is a work of vital political and pedagogical importance. It sounds an alarm not only for reactionary forces but also for liberals who still cling to the slippery notion of political neutrality and have capitulated to neoliberal pragmatism in their educational agenda. Authoritarians of all stripes have tried but failed in their vainglorious efforts to silence Freire’s ideas. In fact, attempts by reactionary ‘influencers’ to denigrate and defame Freire’s profound capacity to inspire dialogical spaces of critical inquiry, where social, cultural and ideological transformation can occur in tandem with humanity’s project of self-determination and freedom, have resulted in the opposite of their intended effect – revealing the hoary cruelty, ideological arrogance, epistemological ignorance and obsessive refusal on the part of MAGA cultists to acknowledge, much less to rebuild, the misery-ladened and shambolic world of their own creation. Pedagogy of Freedom is an essential restoration-based project that veers away from an arcadian-Dionysian approach but chooses to be informed by justice for the poor and downtrodden, crucial for taking on the task of such a rebuilding that will be vitally necessary if Trump really does carry out a bloodbath in the literal sense.

In contemplating the essence of Freirean pedagogy, it is imperative not to elevate it to the status of dogma but rather to embrace it as a guiding principle informing our educational practice. Paulo Freire discerned that marginalised learners harboured deeply ingrained self-perceptions, largely crafted and imposed by their oppressors, which rendered them impotent in effecting change within their own lives and shaping historical trajectories. Central to Freire’s approach was the creation of an environment wherein learners could scrutinise the boundaries and potentials of their existential realities, often fraught with trauma and deprivation. Critical consciousness, according to Freire, necessitated a rejection of passivity and the cultivation of dialogical engagement, wherein learners could identify the contradictions inherent in their lived experiences and ascend to new levels of self-awareness as agents within a world that tends to relegate them to mere objects. Indeed, Freire’s critique of ‘banking education,’ the practice of depositing knowledge into passive students, is a cornerstone of his philosophy. Interestingly, this critique resonates more readily with North American students than with counterparts in other educational settings, as evidenced by my experiences teaching graduate classes in China.

Freirean education transcends the traditional model of acquiring theoretical knowledge for subsequent application. Instead, it advocates for critical interaction with the material world, enabling learners to grasp the essence of their surroundings actively by exercising their protagonistic agency as a form of revolutionary praxis. The ‘oppressed,’ as Freire termed them, perceive a world preordained and often exclude themselves from its narrative. Through critical consciousness, they embark on a journey of self-realisation, challenging the hierarchical structures that define their existence and rewriting their narrative through proactive engagement with the world. At the crux of understanding human development lies the intricate interplay between self-activity or practice and the concurrent transformation of circumstances. Here, individuals engage in the ongoing process of self-creation. Every labour process, regardless of its external manifestation within the formal production sphere or its indirect impact, inherently contributes to the cultivation of human capacity. This continuum becomes particularly evident when considering the pursuit of popular self-development as an explicit goal. In this struggle, individuals are compelled to transcend existing limitations, thereby expanding their capabilities and readiness to engage in the perpetual endeavour of reshaping the world.

At the heart of Marx’s philosophy lies the profound concept of revolutionary praxis – a dynamic interplay between the transformation of external circumstances and the evolution of human agency. Marx’s concept of revolutionary praxis is crystalised in the phrase ‘the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change.’ This conceptual nexus unveils a fundamental truth: every human endeavour yields dual outcomes – not only the alteration of material conditions but also the metamorphosis of the individual engaged in the act. Michael Lebowitz makes this very clear in his own work. In essence, alongside the tangible fruits of labour, there exists an intangible yet equally significant product – the human product. Thus, whether consciously pursued or arising organically within the fabric of societal dynamics, the dialectic of human development and self-activity remains a fundamental driver of social progress, imbuing individuals with the agency to navigate and reshape their circumstances to pursue a more equitable and just society.

Freire underscores the symbiotic relationship between societal transformation and cognitive revolution, positing that both are intrinsically linked. He contends that genuine societal progress necessitates a corresponding evolution in thought and vice versa. For Freire, human development, including cognition, is inherently social, rooted in the collective endeavour and informed by critical consciousness. By embracing Freire’s methodology, educators can empower learners to confront their lived realities, drawing from their own experiences to navigate the world’s complexities. While critical pedagogy, inspired by Freire’s principles, has gained traction in certain educational circles, challenges persist, particularly in environments where discussions on race, class, and gender are met with resistance. Ultimately, the essence of Freirean pedagogy lies in fostering critical self-reflection among students, transcending the transmission of knowledge to engender a deeper understanding of societal structures and individual agency. It is through this transformative process that learners become active participants in shaping history, transcending the confines of determinism to realise their ontological potential as fully realised human beings.

Indeed, when we delve into the discourse of liberation, we must acknowledge its profound implications for both personal and societal transformation, recognising the intrinsic interplay between the two realms. To delineate self and social relations as discrete entities is to engage in a fallacy of abstraction; rather, they coalesce in a dynamic interrelationship characterised by constant interaction and mutual influence. This dialectical understanding underscores the essence of praxis – the fusion of theory and practice into a cohesive whole. At its core, praxis begins with individual agency, conscientious engagement with the world and the initiation of transformative actions. It is through the iterative process of practice and reflection, wherein individuals engage in dialogue with others to critically assess and refine their actions, that praxis unfolds as a mode of experiential learning. This self-reflective, purposeful behaviour, constituting what Freire (and Marx before him) describes as a type of revolutionary praxis, entails a collaborative exploration of philosophical ideas vis-à-vis the exigencies of everyday life, with a view to transcending oppressive structures and fostering emancipatory change.

Paulo Freire’s ascent as a public intellectual was a testament to the potency of his written works, his unwavering activism, and his eagerness to engage in critical dialogue with fellow thinkers worldwide. However, navigating the landscape of public discourse in his era posed formidable challenges. The avenues for disseminating ideas to broad audiences were limited to publishing bestselling books. Moreover, the mere act of expressing dissenting views risked alienating institutional support and subjected intellectuals to the peril of being ostracised or labelled as radicals. This is very much the case in the US today. The emergence of soundbite media formats further compounded the predicament, rendering the nuanced ideas of public intellectuals susceptible to misrepresentation and distortion. Those who ventured into the media spotlight encountered attempts to manipulate their image for sensationalism.

Reflecting on my academic journey, I was fortunate to audit courses with luminaries such as Umberto Eco and Michel Foucault, whose insights into the concept of ‘dangerous knowledge’ profoundly influenced my understanding of the challenges confronting public intellectuals. Today, the proliferation of social media platforms has democratised access to information, yet it has also fostered echo chambers where individuals gravitate towards like-minded voices, reinforcing their existing beliefs without regard for empirical evidence or reasoned debate. The erosion of critical thinking skills has engendered a culture where subjective opinions hold sway over objective truth, perpetuating societal polarisation and deepening divisions. In this milieu, Freirean dialogue offers a beacon of hope, fostering a shared commitment to collective liberation and mutual empowerment. The legacy of Freire, alongside that of Chomsky, bell hooks, Henry Giroux, and others, embodies the essence of authentic public intellectuals – individuals who transcend mere thought leadership to engage in transformative praxis to advance human freedom and social justice.

As our nation grapples with unprecedented divisions, the voices of authentic public intellectuals like Freire are more indispensable than ever, offering a pathway towards healing and reconciliation in a fractured society. Freire’s seminal work is the connective tissue that binds many of us to the pursuit of liberation. However, the contextual intricacies from which his theories emerged, rooted in the rural landscapes and urban fringes of Brazil, posed challenges to their universal application. Freire’s ideas often faced the risk of oversimplification or misappropriation, particularly when transplanted into diverse educational contexts, both within and beyond Brazil’s borders.

Indeed, Freire cautioned against the wholesale exportation of his methodologies, advocating instead for a process of reinvention tailored to the specific cultural, social, and political realities of each locale. This adaptability was exemplified during Nicaragua’s National Literacy Crusade, where elements of Freirean pedagogy were integrated into the campaign’s framework, albeit with modifications to suit the local context. Central to Freire’s pedagogical ethos is the concept of dialectical learning, wherein knowledge is not acquired through a linear progression of epistemological and ontological shifts but rather through an embodied engagement with lived experiences. This materiality of existence underscores the holistic nature of learning, which encompasses both cognitive and corporeal dimensions, interwoven with the fabric of everyday life. Crucially, Freire posited that critical consciousness arises not as a prerequisite to transformative action but as a consequence thereof. Rooted in a profound love for humanity and the world, praxis – the dynamic interplay between theory and action – serves as the catalyst for societal change. This ethic of engagement prioritises reflection on one’s actions to effect meaningful, systemic transformation.

While some critics contend that Freire’s framework overly dichotomises society into oppressor and oppressed, I maintain that such criticisms overlook the nuanced complexities of his work. Freire’s approach transcends simplistic binaries, emphasising instead the imperative of ethical engagement and critical reflection in the pursuit of justice and human dignity. It’s tragic to see right-wing public intellectuals such as Christopher Rufo armed with pseudo-criticisms and boundless distortions and the patter of a con man try to defame one of the greatest intellectuals to ever grace public life. We need to engage the ideas of Freire now, in the public square, for as long as we can sustain one in these fascist times.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2024). The Politic Rhetoric of Bloodbath Politics: Freire, Trump and the Challenge of Meaning. PESA Agora.

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.