Populism and the fragile state of democracy
Leading cultural critic and McMaster professor Henry Giroux weighs in on the current state of affairs
Nearly five years ago, McMaster University professor Henry Giroux warned about the rise of a new authoritarianism in the West, long before the stunning election of Donald Trump.
Giroux is considered one of North America’s leading cultural critics and he currently holds the Global TV Network Chair in Communications at McMaster.
To commemorate the donation of his archives to the McMaster library, Giroux is giving an invitation-only lecture Thursday on the rise of populism and threats to democracy.
We asked Giroux five questions that explore the concepts of democracy, authoritarianism and the impact of Trump on American society.
(Dr. Giroux’s responses have been edited for length.)
Spectator: Your book released last year is titled “America At War With Itself.” Can you discuss your premise and what impact the U.S. election has had on your thinking? Giroux: The book is basically about the emergence of Trump in the United States. What Trump represents is something really quite horrendous. And it really has echoes of what I call an authoritarian past, whether we’re talking about his appeal to ultranationalism, his regressive foreign policy, demonization of Mexicans and immigrants and Syrians, his contempt for dissent, his constant threats of violence against people with whom he disagreed, the constant mobilization of fear, the notion he is a strong man who alone can save the country.
If we really want to understand Trump, we can’t just view him as an eccentric, some kind of clown who just happened to arise out of nowhere.
In many ways, he spoke to very real fears and economic conditions that were in many ways undermining the lives and the dignity of millions of people. But he did it in such a way as to mobilize those concerns around moral panic and to suggest that while we have real problems, the answer to those problems is basically to mobilize that anger against blacks, against Mexicans, against Syrians, against Muslims and so on.
The book is really an attempt to understand Trump as a consequence of a long series of events that have been going on in the United States since the 1980s, this emphasis on self-interest as the highest ideal, that making money is the essence of democracy, that cultural cruelty is OK because you live in a society where the only thing that matters is survival of the fittest. They produced the Frankenstein monster and now they have to live with him.
Spectator: In 2012, you warned of a need to prevent a “new authoritarianism and the collapse of the ideals of democracy in North America and other countries in the West.” That seems particularly prescient, given what’s happened in the past few months. How and why did this happen? Giroux: After 9/11, you had a country all of a sudden engulfed in a culture of fear. You had a country where shared fears became more important than shared responsibilities. You had the rise of the surveillance state. You had the attack on public schools. All of a sudden civic culture starts to collapse. It’s about security.
We no longer care about justice, we care about rooting out injustices, organized around attacks on our personal selves. All of a sudden, the notion of fear takes on a very limited meaning. The stranger, or “others,” are seen as a potential enemy or terrorist.
Secondly, you have an enormous erosion of any sense of shared citizenship. You have the rise of this massive dumbingdown of the culture, a culture which increasingly commodifies and infantilizes in ways that rob people of the resources they need to be civically literate. You see it in the mainstream media, particularly in Hollywood with the endless spectacles of violence, the rise of reality TV, a celebrity culture where the Kardashians — can you imagine? — actually become models of major attention. The culture of the immediate. The culture of buy now and forget everything else. It becomes difficult for people to realize that to live in a democratic society, you have to have shared values. You have to care for other people.
Spectator: You’ve talked about the “violence of organized forgetting” and how “contemporary politics are those in which emotion triumphs over reason, and spectacle over truth.” These certainly seem to be topics of much hand-wringing these days, and not just from those in the media. How do you see this playing out and what are some of the consequences? Giroux: One of the ways it plays out, and we’ve already started to see it, is the rise in the concept of “fake news.” You have a president of the United States who not only engages in fake news constantly but actually takes the term and turns it around to use as a weapon. He begins to weaponize ignorance. He uses the term “fake news” to basically criticize any critical media outlet that is willing to take him to task for the things he says that don’t make sense.
All of a sudden, this distinction between fact and fiction begins to disappear. What disappears is the very notion of credibility. When you don’t have any sense of credibility in a society and when all those standards evaporate, you no longer have a democracy. When people can’t tell the difference between justice and injustice, when everybody simply has their own opinion, when reason all of a sudden becomes subordinated to emotion and shouting actually becomes more important than real dialogue, then the formative culture that makes democracy possible collapses.
Spectator: It’s been a long, long time since there’s been this much discussion in the United States about the concepts of democracy and authoritarianism. It’s almost beyond belief that there has been open talk of impeachment of a sitting president who has been in office barely a month. How dire — or not — is the situation in the U.S. currently? Giroux: I think it’s terrible. I don’t think there is a democracy in the United States anymore. I think what we’re seeing is the rise of a society that is truly authoritarian, in which people have very little say over the conditions of their lives.
The people who now control this government have no sensitivity whatsoever to the social contract, no sensitivity to questions of justice, no sensitivity to questions of equality. This is a very different kind of ruling elite. This is the financial elite. This is not the old conservative, semi-liberal elite that said “Hey, look, you’ve got to keep some people happy, otherwise you’re going to have a revolution.” What’s distinctive about this group is they don’t care about the social contract. They would just as soon eliminate every bit of it so they can reap as much money and as much power as they can to basically control that country. That’s an authoritarian country.
What happens in a country like that is when the social state is eclipsed, the punishing state takes over its functions.
So more and more behaviours get criminalized, kids in schools get put in handcuffs, zero tolerance policies, people who walk on the wrong side of the street all of a sudden find their behaviours criminalized.
Spectator: You have a foot in both camps, so to speak. You were born in the U.S. and grew up there. You’ve now lived in Canada for more than a decade. Has that had an impact on how you see the U.S.? Giroux: Are you kidding? Look, I’m not going to romanticize Canada, that’s silly, but I’ll tell you one thing. When you live in a country where the social contract is taken seriously, when you have a prime minister who says he welcomes immigrants, when you have a country that in some way, at least, gives lip service to the ideals of democracy, and then when I see what’s happening in the United States compared to what Canada is at least trying to legitimate in terms of the discourse of democracy, it really breaks my heart.
I’m 73 years old, I’ve lived through the ’60s, I’ve been doing this work for 40 years and I think what we see in Trump … is basically a triumph for authoritarianism and a tragedy for democracy.
McMaster University professor Henry Giroux says Donald Trump’s election is a triumph for authoritarianism and a tragedy for democracy.