From Pain To Possibility: Critical Education And The Struggle to Save Democracy

by Eric J. Weiner

Ours, like the moments after the Civil War and Reconstruction and after the civil rights movement, requires a different kind of thinking, a different kind of resiliency, or else we succumb to madness or resignation. —Eddie S. Glaude Jr.

Those convictions and motives, upon which the Nazi regime drew, no longer belong to a past that one can count by the intervening years: they have returned with the radical wing of the AfD – up to and including its phraseology – to the democratic everyday.Jürgen Habermas: Germany’s Second Chance

Not since the Civil War and Reconstruction has the citizenry in the United States been so divided. In our current historical conjuncture, the division can be characterized as a fight between Trumpism and “the Resistance.” As a political bloc and in its current formation, the Resistance is comprised of too many fractured groups to have a coherent ideological agenda. The one thing that these disparate groups can agree on is their fury and disdain for Trumpism and the people who support its white-nationalistic, xenophobic, misogynistic, anti-democratic, neoliberal agenda. It’s clear what and who they are fighting against but less clear what they are collectively fighting for. In contrast to the Resistance, Trumpism is a fully realized neofascist ideology with a cult-like following that won’t go away with Trump. It is a principled system that directs and solidifies a disparate constituency with differential attachments yet not at the expense of ideological cohesion and coherence. As this battle rages on in the United States, the democratic experiment teeters on the brink of failure. The election of Joe Biden to the presidency does not end the threat that neofascism represents to democracy in the United States. But it might provide an opportunity to systematically formalize critical educational strategies that can help re-enculturate a divided citizenry into a radically democratic habitus.

I know using the term neofascism to describe something other than formal state systems of uberviolence is provocative and controversial. Yet, according to Brad Evans, Chair in Political Violence & Aesthetics at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom and Henry Giroux, McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest & The Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy, there are fourteen political principles of neofascism that articulate with our current historical conjuncture even as they acknowledge that the lived reality of this new form of fascism that is germinating in the United States is substantively different from its 20th century European and South American versions.[1] If we ignore how these political principles of neofascism are undermining the democratic habitus, we are engaging in a form of “historical amnesia” and might miss, as a consequence, an opportunity to develop anti-neofascist/pro-democracy educational projects that can help reverse the rise of its popularity in the United States.

Public schooling and education must be at the center of the battle against neofascism and the enculturation of a citizenry bamboozled by the cult of personality, betrayed by liberal democracy, and suffocating under the weight of the Nation’s historical contradictions. Without a citizenry enculturated into the democratic habitus, democracy will fail. What we are seeing today in the battle between Trumpism and the Resistance correlates with the relative failure of public education to enculturate enough of the citizenry into the habitus of radically democratic life. Metaphorically, educational enculturation acts like a seasonal vaccination against anti-democratic systems that might try to infiltrate the political body. When enough people are not systematically and routinely enculturated via schooling and education (and there’s a difference) into the democratic habitus, the “herd immunity” that was established becomes compromised and as such can no longer defeat the “disease.” A dimension of this protocol requires citizens to be engaged and vigilant within the democratic public sphere. With limited opportunities to practice the enculturated skills and knowledge of democracy, citizens lose not only skills and knowledge, but the belief that self-governance is worth preserving.

What was true during Reconstruction in the United States as well as in postwar Germany is true today; schools represent an alternative public sphere for the re-enculturation and critical education of the Nation’s divided citizenry. How successful schools and other modalities of public education are (i.e., town hall meetings, Public Broadcasting initiatives, private efforts to disseminate information about the benefits of democracy, core curricular designs that support and develop democratic habits of mind and body, critical pedagogies that address the ideological nature of everyday life, etc.) in reeducating a large portion of the Nation’s citizenry to reject 21st century neofascism and the authoritarian personalities that drive its particular brand of cruelty and violence might depend, at least in part, on our ability to radically restructure the education system’s curricula and pedagogical standards. From the redesign of curriculum and restructuring of institutional oversight to the development of a system-wide commitment to Critical Pedagogy, Critical Media Literacy, and Problem-based Learning (PBL), whoever Biden appoints as his Secretary of Education must have the courage to fight against this form of 21st century neofascism as well as clearly articulate an educational project of restorative justice and deliberative democracy. Before I address these educational projects in the section of this essay entitled “Critical Pedagogy and the Development of Anti-Fascist Enculturation: From Critique to Possibility,” I will discuss the challenges of reeducation and re-enculturation during the time of Reconstruction and postwar Germany. Although different in significant ways from each other as well as from our current circumstances, these two moments of radical division and attempted healing can be read as historical antecedents to our current times.

A Short History of Reeducation during Reconstruction and in Postwar Germany

Historically, the pedagogical response within formal school settings in the United States has been relatively ineffective when confronted with the challenge of re-enculturating its citizenry to reinvest in democracy and divest from fascistic /authoritarian ideologies when they have threatened to derail the democratic project; when democracy was brought back from the brink of collapse it was in spite of the Nation’s approach to schooling not because of it. In the name of freedom and political neutrality, public education is hamstrung by its commitment to an incoherent view of democracy, individual rights, and capitalism. Its incoherence has only been amplified since the 1980s by a rigorous commitment to neoliberal ideology. Like the snake who is free to eat its own tail or starve, public education in the United State abdicates its civic responsibility in the name of political neutrality. Its abdication is anything but neutral and has left American democracy suffocating under the weight of its own contradictions.

Ku Klux Klan staging an “America First” parade in Binghamton, NY in the 1920s. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

For example, in spite of the black insurgency toward freedom and independence during the earliest days of Reconstruction, one of the most powerfully formative pedagogical forces during this same time for white people was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). They unleashed not just a campaign of terror in the form of lynching, beatings, murder, rape, and other acts of intimidation and violence, but they functioned as the primary “teachers” for the white community—sometimes poorer and less educated than the newly educated “freedmen”—who was threatened by the successes of Reconstruction in the immediate years after emancipation. The public pedagogy of the KKK included lessons about the natural superiority of whites to blacks as well as disseminating other worn stereotypes and newly constructed ones that would feed the southern racist imagination. The public pedagogy of the KKK confirmed and legitimated white supremacy for a constituency desperate to maintain its power in the south. White southerners learned their lessons well, passed them down officially and unofficially to the generations that followed, and, importantly, adapted the lessons to new historical conditions. This meant shifting the argument about white supremacy from a defense of slavery to a question of state’s rights.

For the newly emancipated population, the success of their segregated schools led to the establishment of an intellectual class who took their seat in politics, business and education. Before the Republicans gave back the south to the Southern Democrats, the success of black run and managed education during Reconstruction was a critical success across age groups. From literacy to philosophy, black folks were incredibly successful in educating each other in the formative culture of democracy and capitalism. But the hatred that white people had for blacks made their success a threat to the lie of white supremacy. Southern democrats made sure to crush the economic and educational developments that were rapidly elevating black people to power during Reconstruction. It’s worth repeating that Southern Democrats, although they surrendered militarily, never admitted defeat nor officially acknowledged that slavery was morally wrong. A hegemony of peace was established that left the seeds of discontent germinating in the Nation’s soil. Black and brown people suffered from official and unofficial sanctioning of white supremacy in and out of schools while white people were taught to believe in the big lie of American exceptionalism. The mis-education of white folks during Reconstruction helped build a foundation of white supremacist knowledge and power that critical educators in the 21st century must still confront.

In the North, the victors of war celebrated the end of slavery as though it was also the end of racism. Whether from naivety or ignorance, northern communities, unlike their neighbors to the South, tried to reconcile their social, economic and political investment in de facto segregation with the narrative that black people, now free from the constraints of slavery and by extension white supremacy, could only blame themselves for whatever ills they might be struggling to overcome. While northerners eventually came to believe that white southern racists were right to distrust black people, they did so within the comforting self-serving myth of Northern exceptionalism. While white southern racists were to blame for the continued oppressive realities of black people in the south, northern whites blamed black people for creating their own problems.

The failure to mend the social and political cleavages after the Civil War, during the period of Reconstruction, and after the successes of the Civil Rights movement through the reeducation and enculturation of white people continues to be felt in 2020 in the form of widespread economic injustice, police violence against black and brown people, white privilege, de facto segregated schools, racially biased judiciary, and the reproduction of racial stereotypes across multiple media platforms. Yet, public schools continue to be places of unrealized critical potential. What is interesting is how successful the forces of mis-education have been in their efforts to indoctrinate generations of citizens about the history of white supremacy, Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism more generally. Part of the reason for its success can be attributed to the power of cultural pedagogy to condition the social imagination. More impactful than schooling, cultural pedagogy works on the affective and aesthetic dimensions of lived experience more so than on the development of instrumental skills. It results in deep learning but not one that is necessarily reflective or critically conscious. Public schools, by adapting cultural and critical pedagogies, could realize their potential and become formative ideological institutions working in the service of the democratic habitus. I will discuss how this might happen in more detail in the next section of the essay.

More successful perhaps than the attempt in the United States to reeducate and enculturate people to divest from the ideology of white supremacy, was the Allied forces attempt to establish an anti-Nazi reeducation campaign in Germany after the war. American, Soviet Union, French, and British Allied forces agreed that reeducation was a necessary dimension of occupation. The Potsdam Declaration of July 1945 (III A 7) stated: “German education shall be so controlled as completely to eliminate Nazi and militarist doctrines and to make possible the successful development of democratic ideas.” The nature of democracy meant different things to the Allied forces, but all agreed that Nazism could not be allowed to germinate in the rubble of German society. Indeed, they seemed to have a clear sense that without a determined, coherent, and cohesive reeducation and enculturation program, Nazism would continue to appeal to the German people, maybe now even more than during the Weimer Republic or at the crest of The Third Reich’s considerable power. Franz L. Neumann, writing in 1947, states “The responsibility of the victorious powers was thus at once a negative one, the elimination of certain dangerous traits, and a positive one, the creation of a soil in which democratic ideas could grow.”

Not surprisingly, the Allied forces were not in agreement at the ideological level about some fundamental concepts like democracy, capital, and freedom. For the Soviets, the promise of democracy couldn’t be realized without the repression of capital relations. For the Americans, British and French, the defense of freedom—what Erich Fromm would later call “negative freedom”—might lead, once again, as it did during the Weimar Republic, to fascism. Nuemann writes, “One could formulate the clash between the conflicting ideologies in terms of a dilemma: In the Western zones, there is the presence of freedom with the prospect of a rising neo-fascism; in the Soviet zone, there is the presence of repression with only a vague prospect of getting democracy.” Each occupying power had its own zone to manage and each did it differently with varying degrees of oversight by military governance. Each gave over differing degrees of authority to German officials, but the real challenge for reeducation, beyond questions of “discipline” and bureaucratic management, as Neumann observes, is the “moral and intellectual problem…It consists in creating conditions for democracy in a youth that has not known it, does not particularly want it, does not have teachers imbued with the spirit of democracy, and lives in an environment unpropitious to democracy.”

In post-war Germany, it was agreed by all the Allied powers that the reeducation of students required the de-Nazification of schools. This meant identifying through various kinds of interrogations and assessments which faculty were sympathetic to Nazism. Neumann writes, “De-Nazification of teachers in the American zone (and apparently in the Soviet zone) has been carried out speedily, energetically, and successfully by the military government (MG), and about 50 per cent of the teachers of elementary and secondary schools have been dismissed.” One can imagine that some Nazi sympathizers slipped through while others might have been wrongly accused. In the shadow of McCarthyism, it’s hard not to hear in the Allies’ strategy McCarthy’s own attempt to identify and weed-out communists in the United States. Nevertheless, the process of identifying teachers who were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers suggests that the Allied forces understood the relationship between schooling and the reproduction of ideology. Teachers (not just teaching) matter and they knew this. More than a technocratic problem, teachers’ beliefs impact the most rigid curricula and scripted pedagogies. “The principles underlying American policy,” writes Neumann, “may be summarized as follows: (1) The transfer of MG authority to the Germans; (2) severe de-Nazification of teaching staffs and elimination of Nazi and militaristic texts; (3) political neutrality of the schools.” The appeal to political neutrality, of course, was to lay the contradiction out on the proverbial democratic table. It also revealed the major philosophical difference between the western forces and the Russians. “The structure in the Soviet zone fulfills the demands of progressive liberals and of the working classes, regardless of political affiliation. But the great danger is the use to which that system is put. For the Russians, education must be political, which in practice means the training of sycophants and functionaries for the state party…The education in the West is “un-political,” which, in view of the social and educational structure, means that it is actually or potentially reactionary.”

The ultimate challenge of reeducation in post-war Germany suggests the struggle to eliminate fascism is more than just an instrumental matter, i.e., redesigning curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment; it is an existential project whose tentacles extend into the crannies of everyday life. This means that for education to realize its critical potential, for it to become a transformative social and political force, we must resolve the contradiction between future goals and the ideological limitations of the present. As Neumann argues, “Education aims at the future, but present social and political attitudes determine its present status and thus prevent basic changes in the future. Without an almost revolutionary act it is quite impossible to sever this vicious circle.” This requires political courage because contradictions will arise that are, at least initially, unresolvable.

For example, regulating freedoms in the name of freedom runs against the grain of the discourses of rights. To announce the need for political neutrality in the midst of class division is to reproduce a contradiction that animated the Weimar and eventually gave birth to Nazism. To politicize education in the name of transparency, i.e., Soviet-style, leads to a form of education best described as state-sponsored indoctrination. There is always a tension between individual rights and the needs of the state to protect itself from those that would use those rights to reduce the state to a mechanism of violence and domination. Could the sustainability of democracy and not simply the protection of the elite been Madison’s concern when he suggested the need to control for “the excesses of democracy?” As the reeducation project of the Allied forces in post-war Germany reveals, education is not easily freed from the ideological constraints of the past, yet it is possible. What it also reveals, given the recent rise and popularity of neo-Nazi groups in Germany, is reeducation must be supported politically with the development of economic and political structures that encourage equity and provide all citizens a quality of life consistent with the expectations of the political class.

Although different in significant ways from our current crisis, there are important educational lessons to glean from the history of education during and in the aftermath of Reconstruction and in the Allied programs of German reeducation after WWII. While Trumpism doesn’t officially align itself with the ideology of 19th (early 20th) century Southern Democrats, the KKK, or Nazism, many in the Anti-Trumpism movement see parallels, echoes and traces of all these forces. Brad Evans and Henry Giroux, in a recent paper entitled “American Fascism: Fourteen Deadly Principles of Contemporary Politics, argue that “Fascism is never entirely interred in the past and…can crystallize in different forms.” Finding a hermeneutical balance between critiques of the past and interpretations of the present is critical if we are to avoid creating a moral relativism on one hand or, on the other, produce a form of historical amnesia. In what follows, I will use Evans and Giroux’s cogent work on the principles of neofascism in the 21st century as a dialogical framework for rethinking the future of public education in the United States.

Critical Pedagogy and the Development of Anti-Fascist Enculturation: From Critique to Possibility

As a first principle, Evans and Giroux identify the “Grammar of Fascism.” Drawing on the work of Deleuze and Guattari, they argue that neofascism as a tool of neoliberalism “operates at the level of desire.” The index of desire suggests both an affective as well as aesthetic dimension within the discourse of neofascism. As a discourse, its grammar is constructive as well as proscriptive; it doesn’t just say “no” but instead presents an illusion of freedom, what Erich Fromm called “negative freedom, which organizes people’s desires along the lines of escape and fear. Within this grammar, differences are criminalized, power is synonymous with domination, and endless war is the only means to secure and maintain peace. It’s worth noting that peace is always discussed as a temporary condition while war is accepted as a normative and permanent condition of neoliberal ideology. All of this is seductive because it taps into the human desire and need for safety and security, while being a source of fear and anxiety. Within the grammar of neofascism, the promise of freedom can be realized only when the individual “voluntarily” rejects her relation to the social, replacing it with tribal associations, which are themselves presumed subservient to the individual. In this form, the social is erased, leaving the individual, as Ernst Bloch argued, duped by the false promise of spiritual fulfillment through the consumption of material goods and superficial practices.

At the educational register, the Grammar of Fascism suggests the need for a praxis of critical literacy, as Allan Luke writes, that “sets the reshaping of political consciousness, material conditions and social relations as first principles.” Critical literacy arises from the work of Paulo Freire in Brazil, Henry Giroux, Colin Lankshear, Patrick Shannon, Donaldo Macedo, and Peter McLaren in the United States, and Allan Luke and Peter Freebody in Australia. It is a practice of literacy development that does not sever language from power, critical consciousness from the study of language, and literacy from political agency. Reading the world and the word are two sides of the same coin. Combatting the Grammar of Fascism demands a dissident form of literacy development that rejects the fantasy of originalism as this idea connects to vernacular strategies of comprehension. Originalism as a textual strategy of comprehension rests on the onerous belief that there is an indigenous location of meaning outside of the ideological context of its reproduction. This grammatical orientation reflects the fascist fantasy of purity, i.e., blood, genes, culture, religion, thereby giving birth to the other, the stranger, the subaltern.

The second principle of fascism, the “Normalization of the Emergency,” directs us beyond the truism that “neo-fascism thrives in times of crisis and political emergency” or that fascists historically have been the agents of crisis, to its “parasitic” dimension; that is, fascists glam onto economic and political chaos—whether they create it or not—to rewrite the crisis as “a fascist condition of possibility.” This notion of possibility turns the promise of what Giroux calls, “educated hope” on its head; that is, it’s the kind of hope that depends on various forms of political illiteracy, a refusal to know, and the idea that absolution can be achieved through the reconstruction of an imagined past, one animated by fantasy and mediated with a violence of forgetting. There is an important aesthetic dimension to this mediated form of fantasy; it makes beautiful and seductive that which can destroy us.

De-normalizing the emergency requires educators to learn how to leverage the power of utopian thinking to disrupt the fantasy of return. Utopian thinking activates the imagination in a way that can direct its energies to the possibilities that exist in a future time and place. By learning to be in a state of “wide-awakeness,” to be “made aware of the multiplicity of possible perspectives,” as Maxine Greene wrote, “made aware of incompleteness and of a human reality to be pursued, the individual may reach ‘a plane of consciousness of highest tension.’” This is a pedagogical challenge that correlates with Paulo Freire’s notion of “unfinishedness,” made all the more difficult under the hegemony of emergency time. But one that is ultimately necessary if schools are to be a site of contestation, intellectual dissidence and the development of a social imagination.

The third principle of neo-fascism is the “Liberation of Prejudice;” that is, “the active liberation and the effective mobilizations of prejudicial desires.” When prejudice is liberated from the principled constraints of democracy, forms of real and symbolic violence are unleashed upon society’s most vulnerable populations. Blaming the victims of predatory capitalism for their own victimization, for example, becomes a reflexive response to poverty. Compassion and empathy are replaced by a callous disregard for the suffering of others. Liberating prejudice, according to Evans and Giroux, also has the effect of pitting vulnerable populations against each other. While the ruling classes reap the benefits of crony capitalism, the rest of the population are encouraged through various techniques of propaganda, to see the “other” as a threat to their own survival.  Everyone, regardless of their place on the grid of power, is encouraged to see themselves as potential victims of violence and injustice; “scapegoating” is rationalized as a way to protect oneself or tribe against an attack. “In order for such scapegoating to become a central aspect of political discussion and awareness,” Evans and Giroux argue, “politics must be reduced to questions of survival.”

One way for teachers and students to combat the liberation of prejudice is not to repress prejudicial impulses, but to teach students how to harness their natural ability to make distinctions, measure difference, and account for delineations of power and privilege. When educators provide students experiential opportunities to problem-solve with other students who have different experiences in the world, whether due to race, class, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., they are giving them the opportunity to develop tools that will inoculate them against the seduction of victimization; that is, seeing oneself or tribe as a victim of historical violence becomes more difficult when the reality of that history can be examined in concert within communities of difference. This requires the radical diversification of the school, not just in terms of race and gender, but class as well. It is much harder to resist scapegoating “the other” when you have an opportunity to learn from and with “the other.”

Building community across our differences through curricular problem-based learning is a major strategy of resistance because it requires students and teachers to function judiciously and democratically. Principles of democracy and justice, in the model, are not superimposed upon the developing communities of difference, but arise organically as a result of a mutual commitment to learning with and from each other. Strategies of survival are replaced by a politics of cooperation, deliberation, and healing. What students and teachers come to learn in such an environment is that we are all perpetrators, victims, and survivors within various historical conjunctions. Rather than make the experiences of victimization and predation relative it makes them relational by grounding them in context; as such, we must reconstruct the contexts of predation and victimization to get a measure of responsibility, accountability, and discipline. Against the fascistic expression of perpetual victimization and its subsequent scapegoating, this kind of critical education unveils the complexity of human conflict while redrawing, through problem-based inquiry, the morphological dimensions of neo-fascist ecologies.

“A Naked Appeal to Mythical Violence” is the fourth principle and builds upon the work of Walter Benjamin. Evans and Giroux write, “What appears especially seductive for contemporary forms of fascism is a certain nostalgia for a mythical and glorious Paradise Lost.” Yet unlike 20th century fascistic articulations of manifest destiny, today it is “now re-narrated as a system of preservation.” Today’s neo-fascists demand the preservation of the “Anglosphere” which they imagine to be under siege from the invasion of the other. Borders, walls, policing, domestic militarization, caging of children, forced family separations, sanctioned police violence against black and brown people, and the right to assault weapons and other military tools of containment and surveillance are all strategies of preservation done in the name of manifest destiny.

Because “fascism, for all of its terrifying appearance, as James Martel explains, “is always and inherently on the brink of collapse…is trapped by its own violence, [it is] forced to turn to a greater and greater degree of violence as it continually seeks to ground and reground itself.” The pedagogical implications of its fragility should lead educators to reframe its violence as an opportunity for an escape into a form of what Fromm referred to as “positive freedom.” Positive freedom suggests a grammar of liberation, one that sees political agency within the context of political and social formations. Within the grammar of liberation, freedom is not realized by escaping the systemic constraints of juridical structures nor by fleeing from the principled constraints of deliberative democracy, but as partnered investors in the structures and formations themselves. Positive freedom, according to Fromm, requires an active, participatory engagement within the political and social sphere, not an escape from it. At the pedagogical and curricular registers this means helping people develop critical forms of civic literacy, as well as opportunities to exercise in schools the skills and dispositions that democratic formations require to function and reproduce.

Implied by its violence and political fragility is the ephemeral nature of its hegemony as well. As such, an anti-fascist pedagogy must be intentionally counter-hegemonic in form and function. An important dimension of this counter-hegemonic educational project involves teaching students and teachers how to participate in making collective decisions because fascism’s “power is entirely mythic and not based on any collective decisions.” Within this formulation of mythic power, violence is the only way fascists can guarantee its reproduction. Similar to the environment in the Weimar Republic in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power, 21st century North American fascism is dependent on the population freely choosing “negative freedom” as a reflex against what they were taught is a form of domination by the hidden powers of a “deep state.” At that time, the deep state was believed to be controlled primarily by the Jews and represented a threat to the purity of German identity and, as a consequence, a threat to the sovereignty of the German state. In our current time and place, the “deep state” represents a hidden source of power that works primarily in the service of socialists, communists, African Americans, LGBTQ, and, of course, Jews. Embracing a naked white nationalism, 21st century North American fascism gets traction from the mythic violence attached to the history of white supremacy, heteronormativity, Christianity, and all of the signs and symbols associated with their exclusivity, brutality and violence. An anti-fascist pedagogy would require students to confront the mythical quality of this violence as well as the real history and continued threat of violence that it poses to people fleeing into the cage of negative freedom. Only through a pedagogical commitment to positive freedom in the form of radical collectivism can we hope to expose the intrinsic weaknesses of an ideology that has terrified, hurt, and killed so many.

The fifth principal Evans and Giroux identify is the “Plague of Historical Amnesia.” They write, “The erasure of the historical in the present constitutes a form of amnesiac pedagogy…it harnesses the emotions of nostalgia, a yearning for a past that was pure, marked by a robust nationalism, and literally cleansed of its dark moments.” Historical amnesia is more about erasing than forgetting; it refers to a pedagogical process that frames the past in a way that flips the sociological imagination on its head. Public issues retreat into stories about private people. Our collective history, with all its painful and triumphant moments, gets rewritten as James Loewen describes it, as “heroification.” Little more than historical caricatures of the real people who played important roles throughout history, this process of heroification not only erases the “dark moments” of history from the official record, but it also effects people’s ability to think critically about the present and engage the social imagination. Within fascism, history is replaced by myth. The present becomes an extension of a myth from which no one can escape. Within the “negative” spaces of historical amnesia, the social imagination, suffering from a lack of perspective and context, becomes anemic. History loses its edge, flattening the imagination as if on a one-dimensional plane of existence. People yearn for a past that never was, while learning that they are powerless to change the present (i.e., “It is what it is”). The future, because it represents hope and possibility, is relegated to the margins of the political imagination.

Within the educational context, teachers must be willing and able to read against the grain of history without devolving into relativism; by making a distinction between historical facts on one hand and, on the other, the inferred truths that explain them, they can help students avoid what Peter McLaren has disparagingly called “the liberal swirl of diversity” within multicultural education. Pluralism and relativism are two different orientations to history. The former can guide historical researchers to examine the multiple experiences that people from a diversity of identities as well as from a variety of geographical and geopolitical spaces have during the making of history. By contrast, relativism assumes that there are no discernible truths nor objective facts that can be identified through research or social analysis. The slip from pluralism to relativism occurs on the slope of epistemological confusion. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge history as a multiplicity of perspectives about events of relative importance. Arising from historical relativism is moral relativism, which disallows for any distinction between right and wrong. And this is the real problem; what hides behind the veil of historical ambiguity and the appeal to multi-perspectival approaches to historical research is a form of historical amnesia. This liberal-minded approach to history education aligns with fascism’s demand that people forget those historical facts and the truths that they imply that challenge the supremacy of its grand narratives of conquest and purity.

Through the sixth principle, “Normalization of Human Disposability,” 21st century North American fascism “shows a willful disregard for human life. It has thrown millions into the abyss of human misery and despair.” Disposability is one of the formative animating reflexes of neoliberal ideology, atomizing people into consuming tribes who are in competition for scarce and/or diminishing resources. Some of this scarcity is manufactured as when agri-business destroys grains and other food products and/or obliterates the local production of food to increase shareholder profits. Diminishing resources like clean water is a result in large part of unregulated industrial pollution and privatization. The fetishization of privatization within modernity, according to Zygmunt Bauman, leaves people vulnerable to being labeled redundant. As Bauman shows, redundancy is a sign of progress within neoliberal ideology: “People for whom there is no good room in society,” he writes, “therefore they should be either separated from the rest and put somewhere in an enclosure, or completely disposed of—very often, particularly in our times, just left to their own initiative what to do with themselves.” As a principle fascism, the hegemony of disposability undermines human agency; we become predisposed to our redundancy and disposability.

Teaching against the grain of this fascist principle demands we shift our attention from redundancy and disposability not only in the context of labor and, more broadly, modern economic systems, but in relation to issues of knowledge, identity, and culture as well. The pedagogical task then is to ask what it means to guide our relations in terms that support a critical process of renewal, reclamation, restoration, and, adapting Toni Morrison’s term to our needs, “rememory.” Toni Morrison explains, “Rememory as in recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past.” The challenge is to engage in a process of reclaiming, reassembling, and restoring that which has already been disposed or identified as disposable. It means actively short-circuiting the “familiar” through a genealogical interrogation of the things and people who have been made redundant as well as thinking morphologically about the time/space formations of disposability, i.e., pre-modernity, modernity, post-modernity. Like searching through a landfill of body parts left to rot like so many memories in a brain denigrated by plaque, a pedagogy of “rememory” is potentially revolutionary because, according to Morrison, “the chances for liberation lies within the process.” As an antidote to the normalization of disposability, it requires students to reassemble, renew, and restore; to review and rewrite systems of thought that, in their current formation, cannot accommodate everyone.

Evans and Giroux’s seventh principle is “The Militarization of the Everyday.” “A defining feature of fascism,” they write, “is to wage war upon its own population, to enact a civil war where the lines of battle take place at every door, down every street, through every conversation, in every possible setting.” In the current historical conjuncture, the militarization of everyday life is relative to class and race. Poor urban centers, in particular, are militarized more than any other spaces. From schools to street corners, community policing is replaced by militarization; armored vehicles, military grade weapons and surveillance technologies, coupled with the kind of anonymous security forces that might patrol an occupied territory in Afghanistan, signal a shift in how safety and security are being defined. In areas that are occupied by the white and wealthy, militarization of the everyday is rationalized as protection. Surveillance is ubiquitous in these enclaves, but accepted as the price of safety and security. What’s less visible are the actual military weapons and vehicles. Yet they are at the ready and can be called in if and when necessary. In areas like downtown Portland, OR., a gentrified area littered with the kinds of stores urban hipsters and their white suburban counterparts like to visit, tanks and military were sent in to “keep the peace.”

More subtly, what we see in wealthy and predominately white communities is the desiring and acceptance of militarization in the form of home security systems, private security companies, and all matter of gates, bars, and walls to keep out the ubiquitous threat of perceived violence. Similar to the walls and barbed wire that protect the wealthy in San Paulo, Brazil, militarization of everyday life in the United States criminalizes those that are victims of state violence and economic oppression. Poverty, for example, becomes a potential source of violence in which the wealthy believe they need to protect what they have from those who they imagine want it at any cost. Living within the bubble of white supremacy leads white communities to believe in the need for private security. Militarization frames their response to race through the deployment of militaristic tactics of policing and deterrent.

“Militarization of the Everyday” does not however require military violence upon the citizens of the state, but simply reframes the fundamental relationship between citizens and between citizens and the state. Tactics of intimidation, the deployment of military-grade weapons into domestic events, and the threat of violence by the military become normalized and accepted. Within the fascist state, the normalization of militarization at first threatens specific groups of people more than others. In the United States, Black Lives Matter protestors and African American communities more generally have been the most targeted militaristically by government forces. But in the end, whatever groups challenge, even peacefully, the legitimacy of state power will be met with the threat of military force and be surveilled by military-backed forces. The appeal to law and order will always be, in a “free” nation, the rationalization for the militarization of everyday life. For the fascist leader, there is no contradiction between freedom and militarization; the former depends upon the latter. The population, enamored with the charismatic authoritarian leader, and believing they are free, accept and welcome the militarization of their lives. Rather than a threat to freedom, militarization becomes a requirement of it.

Teaching against the grain of militarization in a 21st century North American context requires educators to examine with their students the contradictions between freedom on one hand, and the militarization of everyday life on the other. It also requires that teachers and students engage in critical discourse analysis (CDA) because the normalization of militarization takes hold of the imagination in large part through the grammar of domination; that is, we can begin to pull back the veil of fascist power by identifying how the language of militarization has penetrated into everyday discourse. When every conflict or competition, from a holiday baking show to a sporting event, is described as a battle or war we are already trapped within dichotomous syntactical structures of win-lose, good-evil, sinner-saint, or security-safety. At the deep levels of discourse, as Voloshinov theorized, “The word [should be read] as an ideological sign par excellence.” The “word,” beyond formal linguistic codes, should include other semiotic signs as well. Within these syntactical dichotomies, the rationalization of militarization is mapped onto the vernacular of everyday life. CDA is an important critical literacy strategy that can help young people uncover the ideological meanings behind important symbols of the state and military like flags, jets, tanks, uniforms, helicopters, side arms, assault rifles, bombs, etc. They must learn to read through the veil of fascist ideology in order to understand how the grammar of war-craft desensitizes them to the threat of violence all around them.

“Violence to Truth” is the eighth principle of 21st century North American fascism identified by Evans and Giroux. “Fascism doesn’t simply talk in an untruthful or deceiving way all the time. The fascist, in fact, is an adept diagnostician and arc-manipulator, who is able to read the political moment and steer it in a particular, albeit nihilistic, direction…The endless lying is about more than diversion or a perpetual motion machine of absurdist theater, it is also about creating a media-scape where ethics collapses and a criminogenic culture of thuggery, corruption, white supremacy, and violence flourish…” Adolf Hitler wrote specifically about the “Big Lie” as a strategy of political persuasion. From Mein Kampf, “All this was inspired by the principle – which is quite true in itself – that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily; and thus in the primitive simplicity of their minds they more readily fall victims to the big lie than the small lie…”

The big lie is the oxygen of Neo-fascism in the 21st century. Although it builds on the foundational lie of racial equality at the heart of American democracy, it’s even more effective now than it was in the 20th century because the unregulated ubiquity of media technology and its mediation of social reality through the representation and dissemination of information. The big lie feeds the “deep strata” of a “free” citizenry’s emotional nature in large part because they believe they are free from coercion and possess the skills to think critically about what they consume. The 21st century fascist lies with as much success as he does because his lies do not contradict the lies that inform the fiction that Americans learn about race and the ideology of white supremacy. Repeating the big lie, as Eddie Glaude writes in his new book about James Baldwin Begin Again, is necessary to obfuscate the contradiction that the truth would reveal; that is, the ideology of white supremacy and democracy are incompatible. 21st century fascism uses this lie and the contradictions it hides to great effect. Trapped in media silos, the big lie confirms tribal biases and gains force and traction through memetic networks. The speed in which the big lie circulates in the 21st century is amplified by the digital platforms that fascists use to seed their ideology in the paranoid imaginations of a citizenry desperate to blame other people for their own suffering.

To combat the big lie, students must learn how to do more than make distinctions between true and false. As Trump and Hitler understood, if the lie is big enough and told with enough frequency and passion, people will search for any sign of credibility within it. More pernicious perhaps is how repeating the big lie from the “big platform” has the effect of turning the lie into a partial truth. The big lie has the power to construct reality; the lie becomes true by memetic force. With the insidiousness of post-structural advances in the understanding of the ambiguity of language systems at least in terms of “meaning” if not linguistic structure, almost anyone can find something credible in even the biggest lie. This is the reason why the strategy was powerful in the 20th century (and not just for Hitler) and is even more powerful now. Beyond true and false, students need to develop their semiotic and sociolinguistic skills; that is, they need to learn how meanings circulate at the cultural level and transform the way we see reality. This will make them less susceptible to propaganda and the emotional manipulations of people who mean them harm.

The ninth principal, “The Authoritarian Personality,” draws on Adorno’s work, focusing attention on the fact that fascism depends on a form of leadership that hides its monstrosity behind the veil of a “harmless” clown. The interpreters of this theater of the absurd—critics in the form of commodified artists and intellectuals—are as much to blame for the popularity of the authoritarian personality as is the leader himself. In others words, there is the play of elitism, profit, and arrogance in the criticisms of these clownish leaders. It was true for Hitler and it’s true for Trump and his lead legal henchman, Giuliani. While they “trivialize politics in a way that permits mockery,” writes Evans and Giroux, they are engaged in the most serious form of politics known in modern times; the grab for absolute power by any means and without apology. As commodified critics laugh condescendingly at speech patterns, dress codes, facial expressions, hair styles, physical characteristics, and animated gestures, these authoritarian personalities do the work of organizing the passions of their broadening base, dismantling institutional checks and balances that can curb their rise to power, exploit the arrogance of their critics by appealing to a constituency that feels disenfranchised by the practices and policies of a caricatured elite, and exposing fault lines in a system that depends as much upon tradition as it does laws.

The pedagogical challenge that the Authoritarian Personality represents rests on educators addressing the historical record, reframing the record so that it is obvious for students to identify how this personality manifests itself in current times, and interrogating how cultural arrogance can work to water the seeds of 21st century fascism. It is imperative that students learn not only how to identify the Authoritarian Personality in themselves and their chosen leaders, but to recognize how its critics can become as much a part of its popularity through commodification as from the power of its own charisma. This means teaching students to critically reflect on how social, cultural, and economic hierarchies arbitrarily delineate high and low culture. From sporting activities to books, movies, travel, and food, these cultural activities are vital sources of pride and identity in everyone’s lives. It’s in these cultural spaces that our political investments turn into passions of the first order. The rise of the Authoritarian Personality requires schools to reinforce the high/low cultural divide, ignore the pedagogical power of popular culture, and turn their backs on helping students develop cross-cultural literacies. It might seem trivial to speak about the importance of culture in the midst of a neofascist threat, yet culture is where our passion for meanings exist. Schools must do better in disrupting the hegemony of arrogance that fuels Trumpism’s appeal and begin to open up the field of cultural studies to our youngest students. In this way, the Authoritarian Personality loses some of its power to exploit those cultural divisions. When we “reach across the aisle” as Joe Biden is so fond of saying, we must do so without condescension and prejudice for those that live in a cultural world that is regularly caricatured and/or dismissed as less sophisticated and valuable than the cultural practices of the white and wealthy.

“The Spectacle of Fascism,” Evan and Giroux’s tenth political principle, recognizes that 21st century fascism is animated by the “violence of an artificial love…there is nothing to hide except the nothingness of its nihilistic embrace.” Neo-fascism makes a spectacle out of fear by turning hatred of the other into a form of entertainment. There is an emptiness at the heart of the spectacle which is insatiable; it requires constant attention or else risks losing its authority to write the narrative of vilification and difference. The rallies that fascism requires are spectacles of the first order as they consolidate a community desperate for love and recognition on the backs of a constructed scapegoat. The Spectacle of Fascism consumes the demands of democracy within its promise of salvation, manifest destiny, and purity. But like the survivor of date-rape who rationalizes and internalizes the experience as a one-night stand, the spectacle of fascism transforms violence into passion, nihilism into freedom, and domination into love.

In order for educators to combat the Spectacle of Fascism, they must reassert the importance of what bell hooks calls an “ethic of love” and Paulo Freire called a “pedagogy of love” into the praxis of teaching/learning. “Without love,” writes bell hooks, “our efforts to liberate ourselves and our world community from oppression and exploitation are doomed. As long as we refuse to address fully the place of love in struggles for liberation we will not be able to create a culture of conversion where there is a mass turning away from an ethic of domination.” Her turn to love builds upon Paulo Freire’s idea that “love is an act of courage, not of fear; [it] is a commitment to others.” We hear a similar appeal to love from Ernesto “Che” Guevara who understood that although love might begin with a feeling, if it is to gain revolutionary force it needed to be directed toward political action for liberation. And lastly, let’s not forget Dr. King’s relentless pursuit of “love with justice [as opposed to] weak love [which] can be sentimental and empty. I’m talking about the love that is strong, so that you love your fellow-men enough to lead them to justice.” For hooks, Freire, Guevara, and King, without an ethic of love, the struggle for liberation will devolve into tribalism and lead us not to justice but to new forms of bondage. Without an ethic of love, tribal interests eclipse social responsibility, resistance turns reactionary, and hope ripens into sentimentality.

Radical love transforms individuals into communities while providing a check against tribalism; it roots the practice of teaching deep in the marrow of mutuality and understanding just as it provides routes that lead us away from sectarianism (negative freedom) and toward the horizon of justice (positive freedom). Justice is realized not in the negative; that is, not in the absence of rules and regulations, but in the struggle to create systems that are balanced and fair. Positive freedom can’t be realized in isolation, only in community. Radical love speaks to a commitment to struggle and fight for someone else’s rights as though you were fighting for your own. Teachers must love their students deeply, radically, in order to teach against the grain of the spectacle of fascism.

The eleventh political principle of 21st century fascism that Evans and Giroux identify is something they call the “Faux Revolution.” Posing as a radical movement for liberation, its critique of the elites on both sides of the aisle resonates with many people who suffer from the daily humiliation of poverty, political marginalization and disposability. But the language of critique that seduces the vulnerable and disgruntled masses desperate for salvation and/or revenge soon reveals its true nature in its sadistic desire for pain and personal power. “Fascism in fact is not a revolution but an acceleration,” argue Evans and Giroux. Like fuel to a smoldering fire, 21st century North American fascism “accelerates divisions, crises, violence, denials, inequalities, [modes and degrees of] surveillance, militarization, suppression, terror, resentments, destruction, and pain.”

The pedagogical response to the Faux Revolution must be to acknowledge the pain inflicted upon the impoverished, politically marginalized, and disposable by the political classes and economic elites is real and should not be dismissed in the name of expediency, efficiency or in a reactionary stance against the critique simply because of its source. Indeed, to do so would be just another example of the kind of arrogance that fascists exploit in the service of their own interests but in the name of the disenfranchised and oppressed. In other words, we must deal with the critique that fascism lays down at the feet of the political and economic elite while simultaneously holding it accountable to its program of violence, pain and oppression.

Toward this end and beyond teaching students to think critically about “identity,” students must learn how class works in the 21st century. Interestingly, the Faux Revolution is waged, in part, on the back of PC culture. From debates about pronouns to the demand for “safe spaces” at the workplace and school, fascists have used these moves to consolidate support for its own brand of identity politics; White power/culture, heteronormativity and Christianity engorge the passions of fascism’s base, while taking attention away from the cronyism that animates its ideological investment in neoliberalism. To begin to peel back the layers of deception that drives the Faux Revolution, critical educators need to start paying a lot more attention to issues related to class, class division, class struggle, and the reproduction of economic inequality. Otherwise, critiques of the Faux Revolution risk remaining politically fractured and partial. We must begin asking students who are energized by appeals to their bio-identities, “Freedom for what? Freedom toward what? Freedom from what?” This can help guide critical investigations into how the work around “bio-identities” and opportunity leaves the question, as Stanley Aronowitz writes, of the “curriculum presupposed…but also the entire question is elided of whether schooling may be conflated with education.”

The arc of The Black Lives Matter movement was stunning in how quickly it rose across the country, bringing attention to systemic police violence against black and brown people to being reframed through the lens of Trumpism as a radical socialist organization intent on destroying “our” way of life. This demonization of black and brown people speaks to the twelfth principle of fascism, “The Racial Grammars of Suffering.” Evans and Giroux explain, “When fascism is aligned with notions of white supremacy, that is when racial violence truly becomes deadly…Every space in the U.S. that people of color occupy is militarized.” Earlier in the essay they point out that white supremacy and fascism are not the same but when they come together black and brown people are in a constant state of threat not only from the police, but from having to live within racialized structures across society that criminalize their bodies, cultures, communities, and histories. From schools and restaurants to banks and hospitals, the suturing of fascism and white supremacy creates a system in which white people enjoy either a racial grammar of hope or one of blame and victimization, while black and brown people suffocate under the blanket of militarization. This level of militarization naturally leads to more state-sponsored violence against black and brown communities, rationalizes de facto segregation, and creates a visibly invisible population suffering from the savagery of white supremacy reframed within the fascist imagination as law and order.

Rewriting the Racial Grammars of Suffering requires educators to take a position against the ideology of white supremacy in the classroom. It’s not enough to be anti-racist. The ideology of white supremacy points to a larger field of thought and behavior—a habitus—that radically informs, at the level of discourse (thoughts, language and behavior), our relationship to power and race. Teaching against the grain of white supremacy demands that critical educators reframe how the culture of whiteness implies a certain conception of blackness, one that, within the fascist imagination, represents a threat to its security, freedom, and happiness. Before educators can interrogate how the militarization of black lives leaves so many dead and injured, and in a constant state of emergency, they need to walk through the history of white supremacy in the United States, paying specific attention to Reconstruction and the rise of white supremacist organizations in response to the success of the recently liberated slave population. The militarization of black and brown culture and bodies cannot be understood without a complex accounting of the development of white supremacist ideology during Reconstruction. Although the institution slavery was foundational to the country’s inception, the ideology of white supremacy only formalized itself in a post-slavery world. Under slavery, there was no reason for the development of an ideology of white supremacy because the material structures of everyday life defined white people as superior. The structure of slavery provided its own circuit of rationalization. Only after emancipation were white people in need of an ideological formation that could reestablish their perceptions of superiority outside of the formal and formative structures of slavery. Once these formal structures fell, white supremacy as ideology took its place in disciplining both the white and black mind and body. Under a fascist political structure, the ideology of white supremacy—a racial grammar of suffering—militarizes the most intimate spaces and places of black and brown life and thereby legitimates white fear, rage, and its perception of superiority.

According to Evans and Giroux, the thirteenth political principle of 21st century North American fascism is “The Triumph of Violence.” “Fascism,” they explain, “is the triumph of violence and the move towards the eradication of all resistance. As a regime predicated upon intimidation—of the mind, body and senses, fascism cannot sustain itself without a naked appeal to violence as imagined and real…This is why countering fascism with violence is self-defeating. Fascism thrives as a suffocating force when the conditions of violence prevails.” Violence is the oxygen of fascism. This has not changed over the decades. What is unique to our time is the performance and representation of violence. Like an infinite war, North American society is under a constant threat of violence from predation arising out of economic desperation, lack of mental health support for potentially violent people, domestic militia’s sanctioned unofficially by the state, or direct militaristic interventions in domestic issues. To many of its followers, fascist violence is beautiful and represents the ultimate form of power and control.

There is a pornographic quality to violence within the fascist imaginary. Voyeurism replaces deliberation as pleasure gets reframed within a grammar of pain. As a form of high-definition pornography, fascist representations and their performance of violence is always filmed, streamed endlessly on social media, and voraciously shared and consumed across digital platforms. Real violence becomes a form of entertainment, the victims of the violence reduced to one-dimensional players in a vicious game framed on the screen of a mobile phone. Empathy is short-circuited by the memetic force of the medium. As a form of pornographic entertainment, it has a pedagogical function, desensitizing those who consume it to the pain they see and hear. Within this one-dimensional world of pain and voyeurism, there is no accountability, but plenty of accounting in the form of “likes” and “hits.” As horror film-makers have known for decades, the confluence of graphic sex and extreme violence release chemicals in the brain that produce at one and the same time arousal and fear. This cocktail of emotions animates fascist violence, both in its material and mythic formulations.

Teaching against the grain of the Triumph of Violence requires educators to engage in a pedagogy of non-violence. We must sensitize students to the violence all around them but more to the point we must teach them strategies of non-violent civil resistance. The work of Erica Chenowerth, the Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, provides an excellent pedagogical framework for confronting the violence of fascism through peaceful civil resistance. Her work builds on the usual philosophical pillars of non-violence, but brings a 21st century sensibility to the project. Essentially, educators teach students about the insatiable nature of violence for fascist regimes while also teaching them the history, philosophy and practice of civil resistance. This knowledge and skills should be put to use in real-world struggles against fascist threats. The earlier schools start teaching students how to engage in civil resistance the more effective they will be as they mature.

Building on the insights of Walter Benjamin, the last political principle of fascism, the “Fragility of Fascism,” that Evans and Giroux identify is maybe the most important and speaks to its intrinsic weakness. “Fascist power is purely reactionary” and always as Benjamin observed, “on the brink of collapse.” No less terrifying to those suffering under the real and mythic violence of fascist regimes, it nevertheless employs violence because it is the only way it can maintain control. It’s why fascist regimes relish violent opposition, chaos, lawlessness or attempt to manufacture the opposition in this way. The call for “Law and Order,” for example, within a 21st century North American fascist political machinery is a thinly veiled call for state-sponsored domestic violence. Threats of violence (i.e., “Stand down and stand by!”) and the enactment of violence by military actors are the modus operandi of a political machine without a claim to legitimate power.

Reeducating a constituency enamored by violence, seduced by violence, disoriented by violence, and titillated by violence will be one of the biggest challenges of reeducation and enculturation into the democratic habitus in the United States. The country was born from violence; it is a child of violence. The explorers that came to the Americas were, first and foremost, conquerors. The history of violence is bred in the bone of North American identity and consciousness. Violence might signal weakness and fear, but it results in a form of terror and control and demands a specific kind of courage from those that experience it symbolically or materially in their everyday lives. Do we have the courage to resist violence with non-violence? Neither flight nor fight are sufficient responses to the kind of violence fascist regimes enact on their people. Even those people who initially support fascist regimes eventually regret it. Its promises are superficial. But in the end, teaching against the grain of violence in a way that makes it less an aesthetic pleasure and more the destructive force it is could go a long way in disrupting the narrative of violence which aligns it with strength, power and pleasure.


According to Evans and Giroux’s principles of fascism, it is clear the United States is in the early stages of an insurgent form of 21st century neofascism. It doesn’t matter if the people who support Trumpism are conscious of its fascistic principles. It is certainly true that some of its followers rationalize their support in terms of its economic benefits to their class. Others rationalize their support because of its alignment with the ideology of white supremacy and a misguided belief in the economic benefits it will provide to working people. Some see a patriotic image of state power and want to support its renewal of blind nationalism. Asked if they are fascists or support fascism most would likely say no. It also doesn’t matter if Trump is a fascist or even knows what that is. Let’s assume he doesn’t and just enjoys the power and chaos because of his narcissistic personality. What matters is his role in a system constrained by the aforementioned principles. He might be a charismatic authoritarian leader out of central casting, but this makes his role no less important and no less dangerous in the political theater. Whether he wants world domination or wants to retreat, at least initially, inward, his words and actions help generate the conditions of neoliberal political fascism that, if left unchecked, will continue to destroy the traditions and institutions of democracy. To underestimate this new form of fascism germinating in the United States because Trump is a (useful) idiot is a form of elitism and intellectual arrogance that plays into fascism’s long game. It is not about Trump, but rather the concretization of political principles that have become more visible, operational, and normative under his leadership. Whether he continues to lead the country away from democracy or someone else steps in to take his place, the continued support of the people will determine how successful this new governing system will be in its destruction of democracy.

Unlike during the time of Reconstruction, where the institution of slavery drove the division between North and South, and signaled a clear target for reeducation, there is no singular issue that defines what currently divides the Nation. We are also in a period quite different from what the Allied forces were dealing with in post-WWII Germany. Anti-Nazism provided a clear pedagogical objective for the Allied forces looking to solidify their militaristic win at the ideological levels of everyday life. 20th century critical educators against Nazism and slavery had a clear target and they still, to varying degrees, failed to establish a new hegemony. The Allied forces in Germany were much more successful than anything that occurred in the United States, but even there one could argue that what they established was a neo-Weimar Republic, the same system that gave rise to Nazism in the first place.

But regardless of the success or failures during Reconstruction or in post-WWII Germany to establish a new political hegemony, the morphology of 21st century North American neofascism makes it a more difficult target for any kind of reeducation campaign. It has a “post-modern” quality; multiple tendrils twisting around familiar objects and signs, changing meanings under the veil of power/knowledge. Its power is in its relative relation to truth and its capricious attitudes about government, culture, finance, and education. Like shape-shifters from science fiction, 21st century neofascism in the United States morphs into whatever form and substance suits its drive for power. It has multiple masks and hides behind them all. In the chaos and uncertainty that ensues from this multiplicity, its mythic and militaristic violence—the main sources of its power and influence—get rearticulated simultaneously as a necessity of peace, a threat against liberty, and an aesthetic pleasure. Within this shifting plane of meaning, as Lyotard argued so many years ago, the meta-narrative function gets “dispersed in clouds of narrative language elements…Each of us lives at the intersection of many of these. However, we do not necessarily establish stable language combinations, and the properties of the ones we do establish are not necessarily communicable.” The pedagogical challenge in this new “post-modern” field of power/knowledge requires a will to freedom that might be, at this time, beyond society’s grasp.

It is unclear whether reeducation or a renewed effort to enculturate the citizenry into the democratic habitus in the United States can help push back the tide of 21st century North American fascism overtaking its democratic institutions. It is also unclear whether the country has “hit bottom,” to borrow a term from the recovery folks. It might be the case that we must go through a catastrophic political crisis before we are ready to take seriously the failure of the democratic state. It is unlikely that any of what is proposed in this essay is possible without, as Neumann stated, some kind of revolutionary action. As the Nation’s divisions become more distinct and delineated in the rise of Trumpism, and as the pull of neofascism in the nebulous form of Trumpism continues to seduce a large portion of the population for disparate reasons, education will become either an important sphere of critical hope in the form of deliberative social democracy or it will continue to be a sphere in which the foundations of neoliberal fascist ideology are taught and learned. The one thing that is clear is that education is never neutral. It is always working in the service of ideological interests. What role it will play in the next several decades might determine whether the democratic experiment in the United States finally comes to an end.


[1] Evans, B & Giroux, HA 2020, ‘American Fascism: Fourteen Deadly Principles of Contemporary Politics’, symploke, vol. 28, no. 1-2.


[2] Ibid.