Above photo: President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden at Trump’s inauguration. Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post
The Capitol building riot of January 6 marked the messiest transition in recent history of ruling class power from one chief executive of the capitalist world to the next. If that history is any guide, the change of guard neither portends better treatment of working people nor a reduction of the threat of fascism.
Trump may have been booted off the mainstage, but the next act promises to be worse. Beyond the particularities of either Mr. Trump’s or Mr. Biden’s personalities or even the parties they represent, fundamental institutional factors have and will likely determine the trajectory of neoliberal capitalism towards an ever more authoritarian state, austerity for workers, and imperialism abroad.
Trajectory of neoliberalism
Neoliberalism is the current form of capitalism in the US, replacing the New Deal regime that incorporated elements of social democracy. Jimmy Carter foreshadowed the neoliberal era with his mantra of deregulation and small government. The “small” referred to the state’s role to ensure the social well-being of its constituents, but not its coercive functions, which would expand.
Next came the full-blown neoliberal Reagan Revolution. When Democrat Bill Clinton became president, he did not reverse the trajectory of neoliberalism. Instead, he extended it by passing NAFTA, ending “welfare as we know it,” contributing to mass incarceration, deregulating banking, and launching wars of his own. And in those endeavors, he was assisted by then Senator Joe Biden.
While Republicans and Democrats are not the same, no lesser an authority than then President Obama explained that the “divide” is “not that wide” with “differences on the details” but not on “policy.” Differences between the two parties lie in their “rhetoric and the tactics verses ideological differences.”
Biden may bring some relief: he will be better about wearing COVID masks and he is rejoining the voluntary Paris Climate Agreement. Otherwise, there will be more distinctions without differences as with the two parties’ response to the existential threat of global warming: one denies it; the other believes in it but fails to combat it. Under oilman George W. Bush, US oil production declined. Under his Democratic successor, production nearly doubled with Obama bragging, “we’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some.”
Biden defended fracking, promised the military-industrial complex that war appropriations would be maintained, and guaranteed Wall Street “nothing would fundamentally change.” Next Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the new administration’s imperialist policies would follow Trump’s, but will “more effectively target” official enemies such as Venezuela and will double down on Russia.
The devolution of Donald Trump
According to the rulebook for bourgeois democracy, the POTUS serves the interests of the owners of capital. To legitimize this arrangement, elections are staged to give the appearance of choice, but only those who can raise billions of dollars can successfully run. The blatant buying of candidates by the rich is protected as “free speech” by the US Supreme Court.
The presidential primary is an audition contest where the hopefuls prove they can appeal to the voters while being vetted by the funders. Donald Trump gamed the extravaganza riding on his TV reality show celebrity and personal wealth. He was lavished with billions of dollars of free TV coverage because his antics boosted ratings. Hillary Clinton and the DNC, as revealed by Wikileaks, abetted his campaign.
Against expectations, Trump became number 45. His rule, through most of his presidency, was garden variety neoliberalism with a veneer of racist, nativist populism. Despite hyperbole from left-liberals, Trump was no more a fascist than was Biden socialist.
Trump erratically made rhetorical feints against establishment orthodoxy “to get out of endless wars to bring our soldiers back home, not be policing agents all over the world.” He railed: “Unelected deep state operatives who defy the voters to push their own secret agendas are truly a threat to democracy itself.” Last spring and into summer such maverick utterances gave way to anti-China, anti-BLM, and anti-socialist rants. The veneer of hard right populism became increasingly Trump’s essence as he careened towards the debacle of January 6.
Was January 6 a riot or a coup?
The event of January 6 was a demonstration turned riot, leaving five fatalities. But did it rise to the level of a coup?
After storming the Capitol building and taking selfies, the demonstrators simply left after a few hours. Regardless of the intentions of the inscrutable Mr. Trump, the clumsy and violent attempt to influence the electoral process by disruption did not and could not have led to the seizure of state power because all the institutions of state were aligned against him along with a nearly unanimous ruling class.
The Democrats, most of corporate media, and much of the left reported a premeditated attempted coup, focusing on the violence, collusion by police and Republican politicians, and the racist nature of elements of the crowd. Their emphasis afterward has been on punishment of the Trumpsters so as not to “embolden” fascism, while downplaying the need to address root causes: treating the symptoms and not the disease.
Some rightwing media claimed that the Trump walked into a trap designed to discredit and isolate him. A poll taken shortly after the incident found 68% of Republicans believed Antifa incited the violence. Although such involvement is highly unlikely, the poll suggests many Trump partisans did not favor the violence and thought it was a false flag operation.
Putting the event to the cui bono test (who benefits), the outcome went badly for Donald Trump. The flight into the Democratic Party’s big tent precipitously accelerated by members of Trump’s own party, his administration officials, military brass, and security state spooks, leaving a sitting president with little more than his next of kin to comfort him. His prime creditors, the Deutsche and Signature banks, dropped him. Cutting to the quick, even the US Professional Golfers’ Association canceled their scheduled tournament at one of his golf courses.
The present danger lies in the preparation for fascist rule
Fascism is a form of capitalist rule where the legitimizing role of elections is done away with in favor of more authoritarian means of maintaining elite hegemony. If the façade of bourgeois democracy can be maintained, the ruling elites have no need to impose a dictatorship over themselves to preserve their class rule.
Analogies made of Trump to Hitler are misleading. While material conditions for many Americans are distressing, they are not as dire as Weimar Germany. Nor do the Proud Boys and company approximate the hundreds of thousands of trained and armed paramilitaries under Hitler’s direct command. Most important, the mass working class Communist and Socialist parties in pre-Nazi Germany were positioned to contend for state power.
As long as such contending forces are absent, the US ruling elites have little incentive to resort to fascist dictatorship. But that does not mean that they need not prepare for the contingency of fascist rule, which is where the present danger resides.
The collateral damage of the Democrats’ offensive against Trump may turn out to be the left. Bans from social media and broad definitions of sedition have been and will be used to suppress progressive expression and action. Particularly misguided is the leftist acquiescence to the establishment’s call for yet new repressive legislation, such as Biden’s domestic anti-terrorism measures. Even existing hate crime legislation has been used to disproportionately target people of color.
Already on the books, Obama’s abrogation of habeas corpus and Biden’s incarceration state legislation facilitate fascist rule. The Democrats’ romance with the FBI, CIA, and other coercive institutions of the unelected permanent state may be harbingers of a dystopian future. That supermajorities of Democrats in Congress voted to extend the Patriot Act and for the war budget should be warnings that supporting Democrats to defeat Republicans risks falling into the pit of preemptive fascism.
Proposed cures for Trump’s purported fascism may cultivate the disease. The blowback from the victory over Trump is criminalizing resistance to the government.
Trump’s second impeachment
The left-liberal framing of January 6 as a violent fascist assault has some validity, though it paints the tens of thousands of demonstrators all in one color, failing to put to the forefront the underlying causes of right populism. Underplayed is the distress that has fed the movement led by Trump.
That 74 million voted for such a repugnant figure is proof that folks are hurting and looking for relief. Not all Trump voters identify with the racist, populist right veering towards fascism. Many are traditional Republicans, fiscal conservatives, and simply people – seeing the bankruptcy of liberalism – who voted for what they perceived as the lesser evil. Within that assemblage, from a progressive point of view, are those that can be won over, those to be neutralized, and those to be defeated.
The second impeachment of Trump was a gift allowing the Democrats to appear to take decisive action. This symbolic gesture did not cost their donor class, nor did it address relief from the pandemic and the economic turndown. Had timely $2000 stimulus checks been distributed, some of the wind might have been taken out of the Stop the Steal demonstration on the 6th.
With Democratic majorities in both houses, Congress refuses to vote on Medicare for All at a time when record numbers of people have lost their health insurance while being threatened by a deadly virus. The Squad demonstrated that they were more beholden to their party’s leadership than their constituents’ health but got off the hook of #ForceTheVote with the distraction of the Capitol building riot.
The neoliberal order’s impending crisis of legitimacy
Neoliberal capitalism is heading into a crisis of legitimacy as the system proves itself increasingly incapable to meeting the needs of its people. Class disparities during an economic recession are ever more evident.
US billionaires added $4 trillion to their net worth since the onset of the pandemic. That obscene windfall was a product, not of a rising economy, but of a bi-partisan policy to benefit the class the politicians serve. Meanwhile the politicians are still bickering over a stimulus package which will be a fraction of what was already gifted to the superrich.
Petty partisan sectarianism by both major parties is on full display. Republicans believe the Democrats stole the 2020 election; Democrats believe the Russians stole the 2016 election. Three-quarters of the US population agrees the country is heading in the wrong direction. Overall, the failing institutions of bourgeois democracy are being seen as fraudulent.
Although conditions appear ripe for fundamental challenges to the capitalist system, incipient challenges have either been defeated or coopted. The November presidential election was noteworthy, given two truly unattractive candidates. Rather than rejection of the two corporate parties through abstention and third-party resurgence, the opposite happened with the absorption of a historically vast popular mobilization contained within the two major parties of capital.
Trump’s and Sanders’s campaigns both spoke to popular discontent, though with different messages. That these potential insurgencies could be contained within the two-party duopoly is a testament to the current strength of bourgeois institutions. Trump’s stepped out of bounds and was crushed. The other attempt was derailed by the DNC, and the campaign coopted into supporting neoliberalism.
Bernie Sanders has been unfairly criticized for not leading a progressive insurgency out of the Democratic Party. But Sanders has always been a principled epigone in the Democratic Party who would not bolt for fear of facilitating a Trump victory. Sanders is kept around for his ability to give the Democrats a false patina of progressivism.
Had the Resistance been the genuine article and not the Assistance, the political landscape would have been different. Instead, the progressive movement massively capitulated.
The slogan “dump Trump and then battle Biden” of the self-described “progressive thinkers” was at best ingenuine, because they surrendered their guns – their vote – before going into battle. Now these leftists of faint heart – having passed the “we have to hold our nose and vote Democratic” phase – are in the “hopeful” phase of their perpetual four-year lesser-evil cycle. This soon will be followed by the predictable “so terribly disappointed” phase and then a brief “we’ve been sold out” phase.
The Trumpsters are more perceptive; they go directly to the “sold out” phase. Ashli Babbitt recorded a video, yelling “you guys fail to choose America over your stupid political party.” Shortly thereafter, draped in a Trump flag, she was silenced, fatally shot by Capitol Police. The system failed her and millions more, and it is at our peril to ignore their cries of anguish. She had no illusions about failed liberal pretentions, which is a clue why rightwing populism is on the rise in the US and globally.
Indicative of the current state of the left is that “red states” are rightwing. Ralph Nader has been haranguing the liberal-left to get outraged for decades. No one has to make that plea to the populist right, whose outrage is manifest and dangerous. Trump may recede, but right populism will not because the conditions that foster it continue.
As the neoliberal state’s crisis of legitimacy matures, anti-terrorism laws and the institutional apparatus of fascist repression are being perfected to use against future insurgencies. The left is faced with serious challenges, from (1) the neoliberal state and (2) right populism precipitated by failures of that state, and will need to develop effective means of struggle on both fronts.
Roger D. Harris is on the state central committee of the Peace and Freedom Party, the only ballot-qualified socialist party in California.