Donald Trump is addicted to violence. It is the principal force that shapes his language, politics and policies. He revels in a public discourse that threatens, humiliates, bullies and inflicts violence. He has used language as a weapon to humiliate women, a reporter with a disability, Pope Francis and any political opponent who criticizes him. He has publicly humiliated and waged symbolic violence on members of his own Cabinet, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, not to mention the insults and lies he perpetrated against former FBI Director James Comey after firing him.1 He has humiliated world leaders with a discourse that in its infantilism uses language to insult and belittle.
In the case of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, he has not only insulted him with the war-like moniker “Rocket Man,” he has appeared before the United Nations and blithely threatened to address the nuclear standoff with North Korea by wiping out its 25 million inhabitants.2 He has emboldened and indirectly supported the violent actions of white supremacists, and during the presidential campaign encouraged right-wing thugs to attack dissenters — especially people of color.
During his presidential campaign, he endorsed state torture and pandered to the spectacle of violence that his adoring crowds treated like theater as they shouted and screamed for more. As Sasha Abramsky observes in The Nation, Trump’s embrace of torture made clear that he not only was willing to normalize the unspeakable, but was more than willing to turn the American government into a criminal organization.
She writes: Torture …in the campaign, [became] Trump’s leitmotif — and he did far more than applaud the waterboarding sanctioned by George W. Bush’s administration, as if that weren’t bad enough. Time and again, Trump urged his crowds of supporters on by dangling before them the prospect of violence for violence’s sake. Time and again, he flaunted his contempt for international norms by embracing torture — the word, for so long taboo, as much as the deed — as an official policy of state
Under such circumstances, violence for Trump became performative, used to draw attention to himself as the ultimate tough guy while signaling his embrace of a criminogenic ethic that allowed him to act as a mafia figure willing to engage in violence as an act of vengeance and retribution aimed at those who refused to buy into his retrograde nationalism, regressive militarism and nihilistic sadism. The endless call to “lock her up” signaled more than an attack on Hillary Clinton; he endorsed the making of a police state where the call to law and order become the foundation for Trump’s descent into authoritarianism.
On a policy level, he has instituted directives to remilitarize the police by providing them with all manner of Army surplus weapons — especially those local police forces dealing with issues of racism and poverty. While addressing a crowd of police officers in Long Island, New York, he endorsed and condoned police brutality.4 During his presidential campaign he stated that he would pay the legal costs of a thug who attacked a black protester. These are typical examples of many ways in which Trump repeatedly gives license to his base and others to commit acts of violence. He also appears to revel in producing representations of violence suggesting it is the medium by which to deal with news media, or the “fake news” crowd, that hold him accountable for his actions and policies. For instance, he tweeted an edited video showing him, body-slamming and punching a man with the CNN logo superimposed on his head during a wrestling match.5
This adulation of violence is mimicked in many of Trump’s domestic policies, which bear the weight of a form of domestic terrorism — a term I’m using in this case to describe an act of violence intended not only to harm or kill but also to instill fear through intimidation and coercion in specific populations. For instance, Trump’s call to deport 800,000 individuals brought to the United States as illegal immigrants through no intention of their own and who know no other country than the United States reflects more than a savage act of a white nationalism.
It also suggests the underlying state violence inherent in embracing a politics of disappearance and disposability. Couple this cruel and inhumane policy with Trump’s pardon of the vile Joe Arpaio, the disgraced former Arizona sheriff and notorious racist who was renowned by white supremacists and bigots for his hatred of undocumented immigrants and his abuse and mistreatment of prisoners in his tent city jail. This marriage of a culture of cruelty and Trump’s backing of a sadistic racist offers support for a society of violence in the United States that before Trump’s election resided on the margins of power rather than as it does now, at the center of power.
What Wendy Brown calls Trump’s “apocalyptic populism” has reinforced a savage form of neoliberalism that, as Pope Francis has pointed out, produces an economy that kills.6 Trump’s militarized disregard for human life is evident in a range of policies that extend from withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change and slashing jobs at the Environmental Protection Agency to gutting teen pregnancy prevention programs and ending funds to fight white supremacy and other hate-producing, right-wing groups.
At the same time, Trump has called for a $52 billion increase in the military budget while arguing for a revised health care bill being sponsored by Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) that would cut $4 trillion in health care over 20 years while allowing 32 million to lose health coverage by 2027. These figures speak clearly to Trump’s passion for violence, but his embrace of this form of domestic terrorism cannot be captured fully in critical commentaries about his ruthless domestic and foreign policies. The real measure of such policies must begin as Brad Evans argues in “the raw realities of suffering” and the terrible price many young, old and vulnerable populations pay with their lives.
For instance, Trump has added a new dimension of cruelty to the policies that affect children, especially the poor. He has supported cutting food stamp programs (SNAP) to the tune of $193 billion; slashing $610 billion over 10 years from Medicaid, which aids 37 million children; slashing $5.8 billion from the budget of the Children’s Health Insurance Program which serves 9 million kids; defunding public schools by $9.2 billion; and eliminating a number of community assisted programs for the poor and young people. Trump’s proposed 2018 budget is an act of unbridled cruelty given its draconian cuts in programs that benefit poor children.
As Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children’s Defense Fund observes: Our nation’s budget should reflect our nation’s professed values, but President Trump’s 2018 Federal Budget, “A New Foundation for America’s Greatness,” radically does the opposite. This immoral budget declares war on America’s children, our most vulnerable group, and the foundation of our nation’s current and future economic, military and leadership security. It cruelly dismantles and shreds America’s safety net laboriously woven over the past half century to help and give hope to the 14.5 million children struggling today in a sea of poverty, hunger, sickness, miseducation, homelessness and disabilities. It slashes trillions of dollars from health care, nutrition and other critical programs that give poor babies and children a decent foundation in life to assure trillions of dollars in tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires and powerful corporations who do not deserve massive doses of government support. The cruel Trump budget invests more in our military — already the most costly in the world — but denies vulnerable children and youths the income, health care, food, housing and education supports they need to become strong future soldiers to defend our country.
These draconian and cruel cuts merge with the ruthlessness of a punishing state that under Trump and Attorney General Sessions is posed to implement a vicious law and order campaign that criminalizes the behavior of the poor. It gets worse. At the same time, Trump supports policies that pollute the planet and increase health risks to the most vulnerable and powerless.
Violence runs through the United States like an electric current and has become the primary tool both for entertaining people and addressing social problems while also working to destroy the civic institutions and other institutions that make a democracy possible. Needless to say, Trump is not the sole reason for this more visible expression of extreme violence on the domestic and foreign fronts. On the contrary, he is the endpoint of a series of anti-democratic practices, policies and values that have been gaining ground since the emergence of the political and economic counterrevolution that gained full force with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, along with the rule of financial capital and the embrace of a culture of precarity. At one level, Trump is the unbridled legitimator-in-chief of a gun culture, police brutality, a war machine, a culture of violent hypermasculinity and a political and social order that expands the boundaries of social abandonment and the politics of disposability — especially for those marginalized by race and class. Trump has emboldened the idea that violence is the only viable political response to social problems and in doing so normalizes violence in its multiple expressions.
Violence that once seemed unthinkable has become central to how Trump’s understanding of American society now defines itself. Violence in its multiple hard and soft forms has become the very condition of our existence, both as a powerful structural force and an ideology wedded to the reproduction of human suffering. Language in the service of violence has a long history in the United States, and in the current historical moment has succumbed to what I have called the violence of organized forgetting. As memory recedes, violence as a toxin morphs into entertainment, policy and world views that embrace it less as a regime and practice of terror than as a template to guide all of social life.
What is different about Trump is that he relishes in the use of violence and warmongering brutality to inflict humiliation and pain on people; he pulls the curtains away from a systemic culture of cruelty, a racially inflected mass incarceration state, and in doing so refuses to hide his own sadistic investment in violence as a source of pleasure. Jeffrey St. Clair has argued that Trump is the great reveller who pulls back “the curtains on the cesspool of American politics for the inspection of all but the most timid” while going further by insisting that Trump is the bully-in-chief, a sadistic troll who has pushed the country — without any sense of ethical and social responsibility — deep into the abyss of authoritarianism and a culture of violence and cruelty that is as unchecked as it is poisonous and dangerous to human life and democracy itself.
At the current moment, it may seem impossible to offer any resistance to this authoritarian order without talking about violence, how it works, who benefits from it, whom it affects and why it has become so normalized. This does not have to be the case once it is recognized that the scourge of American violence is as much an educational issue as it is a political concern. The challenge here, in part, for progressives is to address how people might be educated about violence through rigorous and accessible historical, social, relational analysis and narratives that provide a comprehensive understanding of how the different registers of violence are connected to new modes of American authoritarianism. This means making power and its connection to violence visible through the exposure of larger structural and systemic economic forces. It means illustrating with great care and detail how violence is reproduced and legitimated through the manufacture of mass illiteracy and the reproduction of dead zones of the imagination. It means moving away from analyzing violence as an abstraction by showing how it works concretely at the level of everyday life to inflict massive human suffering and despair.
The American public needs a new understanding of how civic institutions collapse in under the force of state violence, how language coarsens in the service of carnage, how a culture hardens in a market society so as to foster contempt for compassion while exalting in a culture of cruelty. How does neoliberal capitalism work to spread the celebration of violence through its commanding cultural apparatuses and social media? How does war culture come to dominate civic life so as to become the most honored ideal in American society? Unless Americans can begin to address these issues as part of a broader discourse committed to resisting the existent authoritarianism in America, the plague of mass violence will continue and the promise of a radical democracy will become nothing more than a relic of history.