Weaponizing Trauma: Neoliberalism and the Authoritarian Threat

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It was in 1947 that the poet W.H. Auden published his famous book-length poem, The Age of Anxiety, which a year later would win the Pulitzer Prize. After Nazism and a catastrophic world war, nuclear genocide in Japan, and the launch of the Cold War, it was no surprise that the term soon became a popular description for the post-war era. 

Living in a largely capitalist global social system, a world defined by extremes of wealth and poverty, perpetual wars and economic instability, and divided by what Albert Einstein called the “infantile disease” of nationalism, anxiety continues decades later to be a defining theme of modern life.

But anxiety is only part of the story. As we saw in the last year in the forced separation of migrant families at the southern U.S. border, this is also an age of trauma. This is not just trauma as some sort of inherent vulnerability of the human condition, like surviving cancer or a car accident. This is the age of systematic, deliberately imposed trauma, the age of trauma as a tool of social and political policy. This is the age of Trump. 

Indeed, the decision to deliberately separate migrant children from their parents was an act of intentional cruelty by the Trump administration, a form of government-sanctioned child abuse. For many children, the traumatic impact of such an experience will be potentially long-lasting. The recent revelation that the exact number of children taken from their parents is not even known only highlights the reckless cruelty of Trump’s immigration policy. Of course, the very act of detaining asylum seekers, who are not breaking the law, is itself draconian. Tragically, two migrant children have died in detention facilities in recent weeks, while incidents are reported of detained children being physically mistreated, pushed and dragged around by facility staff.

Inhumanity or Solidarity? 

The President’s prime-time TV appearance calling for a hundreds-mile long southern border wall, while forcing a partial government shutdown over the issue with Congress, has only escalated the climate of manufactured hysteria. As it turns out, it is not Mexico that will be paying the first installment on Trump’s promised wall, but the hundreds of thousands of government workers who went without a paycheck and the contract workers who will never be reimbursed for lost income.

The editorial board of USA Today described Trump’s televised remarks as the usual litany of “exaggerations, falsehoods and guilt-by-associations.” In fact, “illegal immigration” is actually significantly lower today than it was 20 years ago. Nor is it true as Trump claims that “illegal immigrants” are more likely to be violent criminals than native born residents.

No matter. The nation’s official abuser-in-chief desperately wants a border crisis, and brave soldier that he is, he’s willing to go where no facts have gone before to get his way. With his stock-in-trade demagoguery, Trump even warned last fall that army troops would be advised to treat “rocks thrown” at the border by the migrant caravan as if they were rifle fire. The decayed soul lurking in the heart of this political brute must really envy his Israeli counterparts, who with facile pretexts of one sort or another, just brazenly shoot down demonstrating Palestinians with military sniper fire from across the Gaza border. No doubt Trump had their example in mind when he expressed himself accordingly. 

If in that instance the president was later forced to step back slightly from his threat to shoot migrants, such charged rhetoric had the desired effect of inflaming nationalist hatreds among his grassroots base. Of course, the right-wing base doesn’t bother much with whatever perfunctory addendums ooze out of Trump’s undisciplined brain. All they know is their agitation and their animosity toward “the others.”violentborder

In fact, the animosity toward migrants at the southern U.S. border is only one part of a larger international crisis. Globally, some 40,000 people have died trying to cross borders over the past decade or more, reports Reece Jones, PhD, a University of Hawaii geography professor and author of Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso, 2016). 

In a 2018 editorial on migrant health, The Lancet, citing United Nations figures, notes the world is facing “the highest levels of forced displacement globally recorded since World War 2, with a dramatic increase in the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people across various regions of the world.” As the medical journal’s editors conclude, “this so-called migrant crisis is not a crisis of numbers, it is a crisis of policies—of policies not keeping pace with today’s challenges. For Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, we face a choice: ‘Do we want migration to be a source of prosperity and international solidarity, or a byword for inhumanity and social friction?’”

In the United States, the answer is clear: the unifying byword of extremist right-wing ideologues of every stripe, from the White House to the blowhards of talk media and the alt-right neo-fascist fringe, is inhumanity. 

The current anti-immigrant hysteria is just a loud echo of the open racism of America’s past, when immigration laws sought to exclude specific groups, such as Chinese or impose racial quotas at the borders. But as Jones notes, the Democratic Party response to Trump’s border politics xenophobia is predictably limited. While they favor some immigrants, such as Dreamers, Democrats for the most part go along with restrictive immigration policies. The party leadership doesn’t want a border wall, with all its oppressive symbolism, but has little issue with expanded high-tech border security and other measures. 

“Future generations may look back on our era and see the people violently manning the gates as the true barbarians,” concludes Jones. Where now are the U.S. political leaders who unapologetically declare for a humanitarian open border policy, one that embraces migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in search of a better life? Ironically, the reality of border controls is that mostly they don’t apply to transnational corporations, who move freely across the globe in search of lower labor costs, lenient regulations, and higher profits. In today’s world, as Jones and other observers note, high-tech, militarized border security is only for migrants and poor people. Such is the meaning of “globalization” under the governmental control of the privileged and powerful. 

Neoliberalism Laced in Fascist Toxins

These are dangerous times not only for migrants. We live in an age of a newly evolving American brand of political ugliness, hard and cruel and crawling now out of its psychological and historical cages, pounding its neo-liberal fists and looking for trouble. This is neo-liberalism laced in toxins manufactured in much older laboratories, the kind founded under fascist management. These toxins, even in trace amounts, contaminate the health of the democratic traditions that run in the people’s lifeblood. 

Of course, it’s hardly a revelation at this juncture to personally denounce Trump as a crude, authoritarian tub-thumper who encourages hatred and violence and takes no responsibility for his rhetoric or its consequences. Yet liberal critics who limit what is wrong in U.S. politics only to Trump’s noxious personality are mistaken. For the president’s bobble-headed ego is only the surface of deeper, more dangerous transformations occurring in U.S. politics. 

“Trump demagogically occupies an empty place: the place of a people unable to represent themselves,” observes French philosopher Jacques Ranciere in a recent Verso Books interview.“ He pretends to represent deep America, in the same way that Marine Le Pen evokes ‘la France profonde’, when what they are actually doing is producing a kind of imaginary identification from above.” 

In the same vein, the “talk progressive, govern corporate” politics of the mainstay Democratic Party establishment, to borrow the phrase of journalist David Sirota, teaches the lesson that social change in the neoliberal era is mostly just symbolic. It is in fact the tepid corporate liberalism of the Obama years that set the stage for the rise of Trump’s noxious politics. If “the resistance” now to Trump limits its vision to “Joe Biden in 2020” or someone similar, even if electorally victorious, the long-term threat is quite real of some new, stronger, more openly authoritarian, neo-fascist movement emerging to violently stomp into the mud what’s left of American democracy. 

Without a mass-based political alternative to the bipartisan chokehold of corporate politics, based on a progressive social program that brings tangible benefits to ordinary working Americans, not just further enrichment of the Wall Street oligarchy, the next version of Trump could prove far more politically dangerous than the unschooled blowhard currently in power. Indeed, the mobilization of violent right-wing authoritarianism, in or out of office, is likely to proceed on its not so merry way. Frankly, without popular mass resistance even Bernie Sanders in the White House would not stop this right-wing juggernaut.

Is this far-fetched? Why? This capitalist culture is a coarse destroyer of humane values. Within the psychic subsoil of American culture, the seeds for the growth of an even more monstrous political culture are already evident. Think about the 46 percent of Americans who have no problem with the use of torture on “enemy combatants,” according to a 2016 International Committee of the Red Cross poll. In 1999, 65 percent found torture in such circumstances unacceptable. Or the 55 percent of Republicans who told an Economist/YouGov poll that if even if young Brett Kavanaugh did sexually assault Christine Blasey Ford, it was not disqualifying behavior for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Is any of this surprising? We live in a nation that would elect Donald Trump to the presidency, a man with a long record of accusations of “sexual misconduct” by multiple women? We also live in the era of the permanent American war economy, of $719 billion Pentagon budgets and invasions and war in Iraq and Afghanistan and some 700 U.S. military bases spread out across nearly every corner of the globe? 

This is an unforgivingly brutal country for the “rule breakers” who are poor or minority, but for others with money and connections apparently not always so much. Think about the traumatic purgatory that mass incarceration in the United States represents to so many people, many non-violent and overwhelmingly poor and minority. Think about the 80,000 or more human beings, including youth, routinely kept in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Some individuals live in almost total isolation for months or even years, a practice mental health experts condemn as psychological torture. 

Indeed, traumatic violence is pervasive in the culture. In a recent survey, the American Psychological Association (APA) reveals that young Americans—those between ages 15 and 21, report “significant stressors” and “poor mental health” in response to current political headlines, with mass shootings, forced separations of migrant families, and sexual harassment at the top of their list of concerns. About 75 percent of “Generation Z,” as they’re known, cite mass shootings as a significant source of stress.

“Trauma is now our most urgent public health issue,” concludes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, MD, in his book, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (Penguin Books, 2015). Take note, says van der Kolk, domestic violence and firearms kill twice as many women and youth every year than breast cancer or other malignancies. 

The Consequences of Injustice: From Trauma to Revolt 

Workers_of_the_World_SymbolThe man who runs the White House is a destroyer par excellence, but he is actually less an outlier of modern society than might at first glance appear. Raised in a family with a wealthy, racist real estate developer for a father, Trump is personally very much a creation of a family and business culture that normalizes greed and elitist self-interests.

The world is full of these abusive Donald Trump types, with their fragile egos and facades of superiority, their raggedy, damaged psyches charged to lash out at others they deem weak or vulnerable. They are the men who feel some twisted sense of power from sexually harassing or assaulting women and getting away with it. They are the emotional know-nothings who stare blankly at their TV screens while migrant children and mothers flee tear gas wafting across the southern border. They are the deadened souls, incapable of compassion for ordinary people whether they sleep on nearby streets or endure bombs and bullets in faraway places like Yemen, Syria, or Gaza. Mostly, they are the privileged American elites whose only real concern, often unadmitted, is their own wealth and their selfish desire to preserve it at all costs.

The point is this: Under the right circumstances, authoritarianism and fascism feed on damaged psyches and the embittered, long-term consequences of enduring trauma. When trauma is widespread in society, it can also breed a kind of lifeless passivity, a quiescence in which people are disinclined to voice resistance. 

But not necessarily. Trauma does not always defeat or destroy people or harden their hearts, nor make them vulnerable to the manipulations of political demagogues. The experience of trauma can also spark rebellion in the human spirit. In the fires of injustice and despair, rebels and revolutionaries are also made.  

In a patriarchal society that values male power and privilege over gender equity and social justice, that values class power and wealth over workers’ rights and genuine social democracy, our solidarity is with the mistreated migrant families and youth, the teen survivors traumatized by school shootings, the women who’ve experienced sexual violence and harassment, the minority youth mistreated by police, and the workers of all generations who want a decent life for their labor. 

Among the migrant children who endured forced separation at the border, perhaps in the years to come more than one will grow into the kind of committed, idealistic activists for social justice the world needs. There is hope in the thought that these mistreated children will someday subvert the old, oppressive order and transform a society that once allowed them to be deliberately traumatized and abused. 

From an age of anxiety and trauma to an age of revolutionary change, until international solidarity prevails among all people, regardless of race, gender, or nationality, this is our hope for the future. 

 

 

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