This Is Not Your Parent’s Neighbourhood

I wish to say a few words about the grinning, tongue-wagging, swindling, lying-in-your-face, neo-fascist ideologues who are hiding in our neighbourhoods. I would like, in other words, to comment briefly on our neighbour, Chip, who lives down the street. You know the one I’m talking about. He and his wife, Karen, win all the yearly competitions for the best neighbourhood Christmas decorations. He has a Reagan ‘It’s Morning Again in America’ campaign slogan banner that his grandfather hand-made conspicuously hanging inside his garage beside a faded portrait of ‘the Gipper’ from the Ronald Reagan Collector’s Edition Magazine. It’s overshadowed by a Trump flag featuring the former president decked out as Rambo. Chip’s parents come to visit every few weeks. Clearly, they are worried about Chip and his family. While Chip’s parents are registered Republicans, they are not Trump supporters. Since the 1960s, his father, a neoconservative, had the National Review delivered to his mailbox at the end of his repaved suburban driveway. The mailbox was situated under a custom-made wooden sign that read: Proud to be a Republican: Patriot, Capitalist, Constitutionalist. Traditional Values, Strong Borders & Defence, Fiscal Responsibility, Lower Taxes, Less Government, More Freedom. Chip once had an argument with his parents during the impeachment of Donald Trump. His parents were in favour, and this infuriated Chip, who blamed this on his parents’ embrace of neoconservatism throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, and their stubborn refusal to follow in the footsteps of paleoconservative hero Pat Buchanan. He blamed them for secretly being social democrats and globalists. He once gave his dad a book by Leo Strauss for his birthday as a prank. During the Trump administration, he accused his parents of being RINOS (Republicans In Name Only) during a Thanksgiving dinner, instigating a screaming match that could be heard more than a block away.

Chip is a product manager at the nearby Walmart. He likes to brag about how much he is indebted to Walmart’s Performance-Based Incentive Awards and Other Great Benefits, which enabled him to purchase two cars for the family. The minute he leaves the store at the end of the day, he puts on his red MAGA hat, which he likes to sport at a jaunty angle, and heads for a couple of bourbons at a local bar frequented by Trump supporters (where vodka and gin drinkers are thankfully shunned, and the one television is set permanently on Fox News).

On weekends Chip lifts weights in the garage and washes and waxes his Land Rover and Cadillac. His kids are enrolled in a Christ-Centred, Low-Cost College with Conservative Christian Values. Growing up, he was a ditto-head and worshipped the late Rush Limbaugh. What he doesn’t tell you is that in more recent years, he was a regular visitor to Alex Jones’ Infowars and the neo-Nazi site, The Daily Stormer. Now he has become much more hardcore in his internet habits, posting under a pseudonym on Gab and communicating in far-right chat rooms on the Dark Web using encrypted messages only (which doesn’t apply to his porn sites, which are relatively mainstream). He has a secret collection of neo-Nazi paraphernalia that he keeps in a locked cabinet in the basement (along with over a dozen firearms and ammunition) that he will only share with his closest friends, or his new buddy, Spike, whom he met at the infamous Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville. He hates Black music and tries to avoid Black people in general but will tolerate Kanye West because of his public admiration of Hitler and his Anti-Semitic comments (‘that dude has balls’ he was once heard muttering to a friend). He’s excited, in fact, about the Ye-Nick Fuentes partnership and admires Trump for not denouncing Fuentes – the racistmisogynisticantisemiticAmerica-hatingChristian fascist leader of the white nationalist America First movement. He doesn’t want his neighbours to know that he has friends among the Proud Boys and that he once joined them in disrupting a Drag Story Time event at a library across town. He’s wary that there are too many ‘libturds’ in the neighbourhood, although that hasn’t stopped him from putting up a ‘Stop the Steal’ sign in the window of his den, at the risk of blocking a direct view of his bowling trophies. One of the neighbours, who is known to be a close confidant of Chip, claims that Chip has been spending evenings working on a manuscript, which he describes as ‘Chip’s manifesto.’ Chip’s wife is too busy with her own obsession with QAnon to help Chip pinpoint on a map the exact locations of synagogues in the city.

Chip is part of a new generation of MAGA extremists, White Nationalist Conservatives who are using as a wedge issue against the Democrats theocratic-sounding pronouncements against LGBTQIA2+ agendas and progressive approaches to the teaching of history, particularly with respect to understanding the historical development of slavery through the lens of critical race theory. These attacks are likely to expand and include critical pedagogy. Many in Chip’s generation have been duped by Stop the Steal propagandists and QAnon conspiracy theorists who claim that the Democrats have rigged all elections not won by Republicans, are really alien paedophiles disguised as human beings, and that, under the command of Satanic forces, they are grooming our children to change their gender, or even identify with other species by becoming ‘furries’ who choose litterboxes as their preferred sites in which to defecate – all of which have been a very useful wedge issue for Republicans, especially during elections. Christian nationalists are continuing to spread myths about Antifa and Black Lives Matter, organisations which Trump has accused of supporting terrorism. Any criticisms of Trump are gaslighted as communist. White nationalist ideas have been normalised and institutionalised while white nationalist conspiracy theories such as ‘The Great Replacement’ and America’s ‘Open Border’ policy are weaponised against Democrats and calibrated to elicit rage and political violence among Trump’s firebrand base.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Trump recently released a collection of digital trading cards that portray him posturing vaingloriously in a series of heroic costumes and that sold out in less than a day, netting US$4.5m in sales. He announced the limited series card collection on his Truth social media platform and promised these cards would be more exciting than traditional American baseball cards (some vintage versions of which net hundreds of thousands of dollars to the lucky collector). The cards present Trump in implausible but impressively intrepid poses, symbolic of those Herculean heroes so beloved by the American public that include ‘the 76-year-old former commander-in-chief in a boxing ring, preparing to wrestle, as a race-car driver, an astronaut and on a football field. Each card has his presidential number, 45, stamped on it.’ Should Trump succeed in becoming US President for another term, it is easy to imagine these images of Trump appearing on billboards and building facades all over the country, in much the same way as Hitler and his architect, Albert Speer, envisioned Hitler’s image decorating the fantastical architectural landscape of imperial Berlin, the symbolic centre of his thousand-year Third Reich. After all, for a president who wished his face to be added to Mount Rushmore, it’s not far-fetched to imagine a statue of Trump modelled after one of Trump’s cards (perhaps the one where he appears as a superman figure), placed next to the Statue of Liberty (perhaps a few inches taller).

All of these developments fuel today’s expanding instantiations of fascism. Jon Schwarz reminds us of some of the high points of intrigue shown among Americans with respect to fascism, such as the massive 1939 fascist-style rally of the American Bund in Madison Square Garden; the collaboration of over 20 members of the US House and Senate with a Nazi propagandist to discourage the US from entering World War II; the business partnership between Prescott Bush (yes, the father of George H. W. Bush) and Nazi Germany that continued even after the attack on Pearl Harbour; the recruitment of top Nazi war criminals by the CIA; Ronald Reagan laying a wreath at a cemetery filled with German war dead including Waffen-SS members; Donald Trump’s dinner with Hitler admirer, Kanye West and the singing of the song, ‘Stomping Out the Reds’ by attendees at the 2003 national convention of the College Republican National Committee. The song is sung from the perspective of German Nazis:

Stomping Out the Reds

(To the tune of ‘Bringing in the Sheaves’)

Meet the Left in action, put them all in traction,
Get great satisfaction, bashing in their heads!
Hear each girl and boy sing, triumph loudly voicing,
We’ll advance rejoicing, stomping out the Reds!

Stomping out the Reds, stomping out the Reds,
We’ll advance rejoicing, stomping out the Reds!

Lib’rals who pooh-pooh them, radicals who woo them,
Pinkoes who debut them all are dunderheads!
Gladly we’ll imbrue them, hew and barbecue them,
Passing bullets through them, stomping out the Reds!

Stomping out the Reds, stomping out the Reds,
Passing Bullets through them, stomping out the Reds!

Bayonets bright gleaming, panzers forward steaming,
Hear the Commies screaming underneath our treads!
Scorn their masses teeming, and their traitors’ scheming,
We’re the West redeeming, stomping out the Reds!

Stomping out the Reds, stomping out the Reds,
We’re the west redeeming, stomping out the Reds!

The lyrics above, which clearly ‘exult in barbarism,’ were written by a Yale graduate, the editor of the songbook of Yale’s Party of the Right, or POR, founded by the famous arch-conservative William F. Buckley. Schwarz reports that Doug Henwood, the progressive economics writer, was a member of the Party of the Right during this period. Henwood recalls the following regarding those days: ‘[W]hen I was first at Yale, hanging with my new POR comrades, one senior member was paging through The Old Campus, which is what Yale called its freshman Facebook, looking at the pics of women and judging their character and intelligence by their skull shapes and hairlines.’ According to Schwarz, the ‘Federalist Society, possibly the most powerful organisation on the right – six current Supreme Court justices are current or former members – was founded by three alumni from the POR.’

All of these developments make me wary of today’s expanding fascination with and instantiations of fascism in American culture and political life. Today I can easily envision the United States becoming a fascist state. The fact that The Pentagon announced this week that a $2.4 billion warship would be named the USS Fallujah has done nothing but reinforce my fear, especially when you consider the US war crimes and slaughter of innocents during those infamous battles in Iraq. Prior to Trump, it was more difficult for me to imagine that the US would tolerate fascism. But clearly, as has been evident since 2016, supporters of Trump revel in its implications for authoritarianism, censorship, promise of executions and revenge against the ‘woke’ crowd.

As Trump drags one of his quislings – a former OAN host – around the golf course, who shares flattering media coverage with Trump between swings of his clubs, he can more easily picture himself as one of the heroes he is hawking in his trading card grift while he tries for a hole-in-one: ‘The former host, Natalie Harp, ‘shows him ‘uplifting’ news articles and online posts,’ per Dan Ladden-Hall. ‘In a story looking at how the former president has been spending his time since leaving the White House, The Washington Post reports the former One America News host … rides alongside Trump in a golf cart fitted with a “laptop and sometimes a printer” to show him the positive coverage while he plays.’ As Trump enters the teeing ground to practice his swing, he can count on podcasters such as Steve Bannon to be ranting on to millions of his listeners, supporting Trump’s call for suspending the constitution in order to reinstate him as president. As Trump enters the green and pulls out his putter, he can be sure that there are extremist pastors somewhere livestreaming their sermons, calling for the execution of abortion doctors. Even after a quadruple bogey, he can always manage to crack a smile knowing that Young Republicans who are getting rich from America’s growing political chaos are calling for ‘total war’ in the streets from their fashionable perches in New York’s Upper East Side. For those who think that democracy is not under siege in America, consider the recent collection of smirking radical right figures who gathered in Manhattan for the New York Young Republican Club’s (NYYRC) annual gala. The Southern Poverty Law Centre reports that the gala featured white nationalists Peter and Lydia Brimelow of VDARE, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump Jr. Also in attendance were representatives from an Austrian political party founded by World War II-era Nazi party members.

As Hannah Gais and Michael Edison Hayden report,

Republican speakers repeatedly voiced an anti-democracy, authoritarian ideology, and extremists in the audience cheered wildly. White nationalists such as the Brimelows of VDARE and leaders from extreme far-right European parties like Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), whom German officials placed under surveillance for their ties to extremism, and Austrian Freedom Party (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs, FPÖ), ate and drank in the same room as newly elected Republican congresspeople, such as Long Island and Queens-based George Santos, Georgia-based Mike Collins and Florida-based Cory Mills.

The gala was attended by a veritable rogues gallery of barking mad fascist operatives such as Jack Posobiec, who pushed the #Pizzagate disinformation campaign, which falsely suggested that Democrats ran a paedophile dungeon in the basement of a Washington, DC, pizzeria.

Many of today’s contrarians are styling themselves as ‘free thinkers’ emboldened by what Kali Holloway describes as a ‘delusional victimhood and overblown estimation of their own iconoclasm.’ The echo chambers of the internet are bursting at the seams with acts of fashionable apostasy by these self-described ‘martyrs’ and their ‘intellectual’ kin whom Holloway characterises as ‘like-minded “debate me” bros, “free speech absolutists,” Intellectual Dark Web aspirants, libertarian edgelords, professional devil’s advocates, “I’m just asking questions” dudes, right-wing trolls and garden-variety shitposters.’ Holloway concludes:

Somehow, all these ‘free thinkers’ let their minds explore forbidden psychic territories and still arrived at the most conservative, traditional conclusions. Anti-racism has gone too far! Transgender people should just pick a sex! The old identity politics – the ones that centred whiteness – were cool, but the new identity politics are bad! Black people’s absolute refusal to entertain derailing tactics like ‘Black-on-Black crime’ and ‘but Chicago,’ and debates over whether they deserve the rights conferred upon whiteness, are chilling my speech!

When asked by his neighbours about his political leanings, our neighbour Chip replies that he fancies his politics as fitting into this ‘freethinking’ vein that includes Steve Bannon, Chris Rufo, Tucker Carlson, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen, spokespersons from the Claremont Institute and Hillsdale College and anyone from the reactionary right that he assumes will increase his credibility with his fellow Fox News addicts. What Chip doesn’t mention is his night time reading of Mein Kampf, novels by Ayn Rand, The Turner Diaries, The Camp of the Saints, The Last Confederate Flag and Bedford, A World Vision – any novel with neo-Nazi, neo-Confederate, anti-immigration or antigovernment themes. Chip desires with every fibre of his being to live in a spiritually regenerative Anthroposophist universe – a true American Volksgemeinschaft – where existential truths are non-negotiable and he can feel justifiably free to persecute anyone harbouring censorious and illiberal ideas with sadistic glee, knowing his actions are both legal and morally justified, not to mention spiritually cleansing.

For years, critical pedagogy has been in the crosshairs of Republican operatives, but, for now, Critical Race Theory has been the key focus of Republican derision. Clearly, this is just the beginning of an all-out war against any and all theories associated with the generic term ‘critical.’ Critical pedagogy is one such theory. It borrows the insolent lucidity of Marx’s critique of political economy. Critical pedagogy’s ability to create the conditions of possibility for learners to perceive social, political and economic contradictions and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality – a skill that Freire linked to conscientizaçāo (loosely translated as ‘critical consciousness’) – has, over the last half-century, lay buried in controversy in the catacombs of subversive history. Critical pedagogy came into existence long before it was codified as such in more recent times and cast aside by its capitalist opponents. It lay latent in the earliest challenges to existing systems of domination, whether these occurred in the family, the local community, the church, the government and so on. It was not merely a studied defiance that marked it as a species of pedagogy but an attempt to reveal the moral consequences of remaining politically neutral in a world of oppression. It was also a means of analysing the impact certain social relations have on the organisation and well-being of human life. More than a concentrated expression of the class struggle, critical pedagogy signalled the introduction of a specific practice of the self into a way of servicing and repairing the wider society that remains steeped in race, class and gender antagonisms. Admittedly, there is a paralysis in its practical applications if one takes as a measure of success its impact on school boards across the nation. But in the calculations of modern history, critical pedagogy remains in its nascent stages of development, yet, in a short span of historical time, it has managed to increase its voltage across the terminals leading to freedom, moving from its initial charge of criticising schools to a critique of all those social relations that constrain human flourishing. This has led to a new social and moral philosophy and pedagogy of liberation. Those who helped to codify this new pulse towards liberation did not offer anything that was not already in the minds of cultural workers across the country, but they managed to formulate a new language that still struggles to achieve wide social expression. It might be too late to introduce Chip and Karen to this new language of critique, hope and possibility, but it might not be too late for his children.

During these times of toil and tribulation, we cannot let fascism gain more purchase on today’s collective subjectivity, on the ‘general intellect’ of the people. Which makes the sensationalist assaults on teachers by the Republican establishment, whether from white supremacists in their midst or civic nationalists, all the more dangerous and calls upon all of us to defend critical cultural workers everywhere.

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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.