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  • American Fascism
  • Liane Tanguay (bio)
The Terror of the Unforeseen
Henry A. Giroux
Los Angeles Review of Books
245 Pages; Print, $17.00

Henry Giroux takes his title from the late Philip Roth's The Plot Against America (2004), an "alternate history" that sees Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh defeat Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 Presidential election. The "unforeseen," Roth wrote, was "what we schoolchildren studied as … harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable"; its "terror" is "what the science of history hides." Later, in the Times Book Review, Roth explained that his intention had been to "defatalize the past … showing how it might have been different and might have happened here." Thus, it is not unreasonable to read Giroux's latest denunciation of neoliberalism—a political, economic, and ideological project now fifty years in the making—as sounding the alarm that it is "happening here." Casting the Trump administration as simultaneously a "symptom," a "symbol," and an embodiment of a new and historically distinctive "American fascism," Giroux chronicles how the "full-fledged liberation of capital" enabled by decades of neoliberal policymaking has converged with an "out-and-out attack on … populations considered disposable," the politics of "disposability" being no longer a coded byproduct of neoliberalism but rather a deliberate strategy explicitly articulated in a racist and exterministic discourse.

Anyone feeling overwhelmed by the barrage of offenses committed by the Trump administration, and gaslit by his equally relentless strategy of deceit and denial, will find some reassurance in Giroux's book, which serves among other things as a repository of misdeeds otherwise too frequent and numerous to retain in working memory. More helpfully, the book, in keeping with Giroux's impressively consistent and outspoken mission to make the discontents of neoliberalism intelligible to a broader public, contextualizes the "unforeseen" in a history of "authoritarian economic tendencies" that have eroded "notions of the social, systemic and public" since the 1970s: "As the political sphere is corrupted by ever-greater concentrations of wealth and power," he writes, "the institutions, cultures, values, and ethical principles that make a democracy possible begin to disappear," making it easier for authoritarian populism to take hold. The "disintegration of democratic social bonds and obligations" facilitates an "ethos of cruel indifference" now manifest in a wide range of deliberate policies of which, according to a now axiomatic phrase coined by Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer, "the cruelty is the point."

Readers will question whether "fascism" is an appropriate handle for the symbolic and structural violence unleashed here by the Trump administration (and elsewhere by authoritarians such as Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, and Viktor Orban, among others, as Giroux is aware). But they may be missing the point: not only is present-day fascism, reconfigured in a "liberal democratic register," unlikely to directly resemble the fascism of 1930s Germany—an observation shared by a range of theorists and historians cited in the book—but we might also do worse than recall the dictum about the smell of a rose by any other name. The state of affairs Giroux describes (in sometimes wearying detail) is undeniably urgent and intolerable by any standards of human decency, and the mere fact that opposition is allowed to exist does not negate the abuses inflicted upon populations dismissed as "disposable" by Trump, his administration (including behind-the-scenes actors like Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, whose white supremacist sympathies are well documented), and his supporters in Congress and the general public. Further, as Giroux and others have argued, the waning of historical memory and the consequent failure to "connect the dots" only facilitates the neoliberal "closing of the political" that it depends on for its dominance. Fascism has "multiple histories," Giroux reminds us, and it thus necessarily has something to "teach" us about the present and how it might be otherwise.

"Teaching," unsurprisingly, emerges as a central theme: Giroux made his name, after all, in the field of critical pedagogy, drawing on the legacy of Paulo Freire among others to (correctly) cast education as a "political" project "connected to the acquisition of agency." As...


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