Liberal fecklessness: The US is on a precipice and time is running out
A year on from the Capitol riots, the failure of Democrats to protect American democracy could return Trump to the White House
Beset by a seemingly never-ending pandemic, soaring economic insecurity and inequality, widespread distrust of government, and Trumpist efforts to subvert election boards and amass power locally, the US is hurtling towards catastrophe.
Joe Biden’s election victory bought time. Given Barack Obama’s 2016 assessment that Donald Trump was a “fascist”, Hillary Clinton’s recent warning that Trump is an aspiring tyrant, and Biden’s declaration that the 2020 election was “a battle for the soul of the nation”, you might have imagined that, upon achieving a congressional majority and the presidency, Democrats would have seized the opportunity to pass an emergency package of reforms to protect American democracy. Sadly, you would have been wrong.
A year on from the 6 January Capitol riots, the US seems to be further than ever from resolving its political crises. Neo-Nazi extremists are regrouping and continuing to organize. The archaic, anti-democratic filibuster stymies progress by effectively requiring a 60-vote Senate supermajority for most legislation. Rather than jettisoning the filibuster posthaste, the Democrats equivocate. As late as July 2021, Biden nonsensically defended the filibuster. It took until October for the president to cautiously support a limited exception for voting rights reforms. Only now are the Democrats inching towards rule changes that might allow them to actually get things done.
Then there was the episode with Elizabeth MacDonough, an unelected Senate parliamentarian, who torpedoed a minimum wage increase that would have materially improved millions of people’s lives, and the Democrats kowtowed to her rather than firing her. Most critically, they have failed to enact the For the People Act, a desperately needed overhaul to the creaky machinery of American politics which would enhance election security; strengthen ethics requirements for officials; and introduce voluntary public campaign financing, same-day voter registration, and automatic voter registration.
If enough of us speak up, we'll be able to protect honesty in public life.
Trump’s election was devastating. I knew his administration would be disastrous. But I was skeptical of centrist hand-wringing about Trump being a wannabe Mussolini, despite reports that Trump kept a copy of Hitler’s speeches by his bed and allegedly praised Hitler in 2018, as well as repeated accusations that various Trump advisers had ties to neo-Nazis. I’ve studied Hannah Arendt and Erich Fromm and Theodor Adorno extensively. I’ve read ‘It Can’t Happen Here’ and ‘The Plot Against America’. I’ve watched ‘The Man in the High Castle’. I’m largely immune to the rhetoric of American exceptionalism. I even analyzed political violence in Trump’s speeches. Despite all this, it was hard to imagine the US succumbing to authoritarianism. The banality of evil is easy to pay lip service to; fully internalizing the idea that evil may masquerade as buffoonery is challenging.
I’m no longer skeptical that Trump’s re-election would end American democracy
In the ‘Eighteenth Brumaire’, Karl Marx quipped that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”. Part of my resistance to contemplating American fascism may have been influenced by history. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo’s actions culminated in World War Two and the Holocaust. Compared to that, Trump seemed merely farcical. But American journalists portrayed Hitler and Mussolini as clowns in the early 1930s, as did the Chaplin movie ‘The Great Dictator’. And in 1934, Mussolini himself called Hitler “a mad little clown”.
Another aspect of my reluctance to contemplate American authoritarianism even now may stem from my unwillingness to accept that we haven’t learned anything from history. We know how Weimar and the Spanish Republic fell. We know the Nazis’ first putsch failed. We know that fascists sowed distrust in authority, especially mass media, science, and verifiable truth. We know that fascists trafficked in the politics of pain and fear, spreading racism and xenophobia, and that they organized in broad daylight. We know non-fascist conservatives wrongly thought they could control Hitler. We know that capitalists preferred fascism to mildly profit-reducing redistributive measures. And we know that center-Left politicians’ inability to address economic distress, their failure of imagination and refusal to enact truly radical reforms, meant the system couldn’t self-correct. It should alarm us that all this sounds familiar.
I’m no longer skeptical that Trump’s re-election would end American democracy. Just a few days ago, Trump endorsed Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán. This fits a long pattern of Trumpian adulation of authoritarians. Even if Trump didn’t crave autocracy initially, events have their own logic. Coronavirus chaos, intensifying economic distress, and the coalescence of a far-Right movement have activated a vicious cycle.
The 6 January participants crossed a Rubicon: rioters were willing to take up arms against the government and plotters contemplated coup logistics in detail, as a PowerPoint subpoenaed by the congressional panel has revealed. Meanwhile, Republicans are steadfastly working to undermine electoral integrity for 2024. A 1 January poll suggests that 40% of Republicans believe that violence against the government is “sometimes justified”. And Trump’s ‘big lie’ about a stolen election has poisoned the well. If Trump runs again, as he has hinted, his fanatics will view a defeat as automatically illegitimate – and will presumably act accordingly.
It’s unsurprising, then, that a spate of articles and books warn of impending civil war and authoritarian takeover. American politics is in a dark place. There is still time to avert disaster, but it will require mass grassroots mobilization and a willingness to break with neoliberalism, build social democracy, and create a true democracy where capitalists’ political stranglehold is decisively broken. The Democrats must pass democracy reforms immediately. And in the next 11 months, Biden and the Democrats will need to finally find the courage to act, if they believe, as Obama said of the 2020 election, that Trump “has shown [he] will tear our democracy down if that's what it takes to win”.
Liberal fecklessness is a direct threat to the American republic. It is a luxury the world cannot afford.
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