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Sun 1 August 2021

A crucial historical explanation for the imaginative rage of Donald Trump’s militant army lies in the Vietnam War generation, argues Anthony Barnett

What is going on with the weird, colourful yet deadly crowd of conspiracy theorists and racial supremacists who burst into the US Capitol chanting “Stop the steal”? What are the roots of the militant following President Donald Trump blatantly cultivated and encouraged?

As he faced the prospect of a close Presidential Election result in November, Trump spent a year undermining the legitimacy of the election in advance in case he lost it. His aim? To retain office in any circumstances, whatever the votes cast, the law or its processes might otherwise conclude. 

That was evident. As the electoral college votes were certified in December he had to turn to Congress to reject them. On the day of the attempted insurrection, he called on his supporters to a rally outside the White House. Again, his purpose was to pressure Mike Pence, who as Vice President oversees the process, to declare the need for a re-assessment.

By mobilising his base so openly and in so focused a fashion, Trump’s message to Pence was that, if he wanted a future in Republican Party politics, then he would have to give way or be deemed a traitor. 

Donald Trump… became the anti-political hero of racist, sexist, gun-toting, ‘winner-takes-all’ individualism, scared only by international solidarity and, above all, feminism.

Pence found that there was no legal way for him to concur and Trump found himself with an army of supporters and nothing to go on except his own self-confidence and a determination that he would have to get his way.

After saying he would be “with them”, the President told the huge crowd outside the White House that “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol. And we’re going to cheer on our brave senators and congressmen and women. And we’ll probably not be cheering so much for some of them. Because you’ll never take back your country with weakness, You have to show strength and you have to be strong”. The incitement and purpose is evident. 

But from where did he draw active supporters with the numbers and determination to gather in mid-winter and then occupy Congress? For every one of the estimated 40,000 people who were there, there were probably at least 10 others who would liked to have joined them. What was the origin of Trump’s Red Guards


Militant Tendencies

It is a mistake to think that Trump’s supporters are a cross-section of the 45% of Republican voters that YouGov claims to have identified as supporting the siege of Congress in its immediate aftermath when asked over the phone.

There is a different set of questions about the reasons for the depth and extent of Trump’s support at the ballot box. 

All demonstrations draw crazies and exhibitionists that catch media attention. In between the nut-cases and the voters, there was a movement of Trump militants. Even over four years, with tons of money distilling falsehoods and conspiracy, something on this scale needs roots to grow from. 

But most of the descriptions offered so far seem designed to dismiss the significance of Trump’s activist base. Mike Davis describes them as “a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war-surplus barbarians… taking selfies… otherwise, they didn’t have a clue”. He presents them as contingent flotsam without staying power. Perhaps there is a touch of jealousy that it was not his comrades storming the citadel. Certainly, it under-estimates the seriousness of those who organised and sent them there. 

“Insurrectionists”, says Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, seizing the chance to force her opponents into recognising Trump for the outlier that he is to their established machinery. But insurrections demand a breadth of active popular support that the confrontation of 6 January lacked – something that gives them democratic legitimacy, as I set out previously in Byline Times, citing the example of Hong Kong.

“A mob” seems the preferred term in the media. But a mob is a spontaneous rabble gathered from the streets, not people who travel from all parts of the continental USA. From the helmeted and prepared ex-servicemen, to those who brought and erected a scaffold, they had an evident sense of purpose: to secure the continuation of the Trump presidency by intimidating those who blocked it. 

Ben Smith, who spent eight years at Buzzfeed, is concerned with how far the social media culture he co-created may be responsible, rather than dark money.

“I’m already hearing what seem to be two competing explanations of what happened in Washington last week: that the overwhelmingly white, sometimes overtly racist, mob embodied old, deep unexpurgated American evil; or that social media reshaped some Americans’ blank slate identities into something radical,” he observed in The New York Times.

Both his alternatives lack history. The second manifestly so, by placing the cause in the technology of the immediate present, where no one is in fact a ‘blank slate’; the first, because mythic evil forces are not historically substantial. 

None of these descriptions offers a tangible sense of the roots of Trump’s army that had crossed America to storm Congress. 


Vietnam and Paramilitary White Power

A crucial part of the imaginative rage that fed Trump’s supporters originated in the 1960s, when Trump himself came of age – he turned 20 in 1966. 

We think of the 60s as radically leftist because 1968 was a year of revolutionary insurgency. It opened with the Vietnamese Tet Offensive, a coordinated, armed rising across the south. It was crushed by the Americans but its scale exposed the US’ de facto colonialism – it turned the growing anti-war movement into a global mass protest. 

The protest movement also divided America. Across the decade, alongside a new left, ‘the 60s’ saw the rise of a renewed right. It was there in the form of Richard Nixon, who unleashed the illegal bombing of Cambodia, after winning the presidency in November 1968. He had many supporters, not least in the armed forces.

In Bring the War Home, Kathleen Belew argues that a paramilitary white power movement emanated directly from the frustration of ex-servicemen with a war they were “not allowed to win”. It recruited from Klansmen but it was newly forged by defeat in Asia, not the Confederacy. 

The rise of a novel, post-imperial, cruel and violent right was not limited to the USA. The Cultural Revolution in China only painted itself red. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 openly crushed a democratic government.

Within the left also, macho leaders reproduced reactionary forms of patriarchy in Leninist organisations. Feminism, the greatest progressive legacy of the 60s, was in large part a reaction against the new machismo of the 60s. 

Looking back, we can see a three-way, world-wide civil struggle that began after the 60s: as right-wing, anti-state libertarians and leftist egalitarian movements, vied with established power structures and interests.

The right-wing, libertarians were the immediate victors. As the marketisation of consumer society and the sexual revolution undermined paternalism, an economic radicalism that despised welfarism gained the upper hand. The energy released by the 60s – rocket-fuelled by the long boom – encouraged the reckless growth of a capitalism freed from tradition. 

The permissive, rule-breaking, fame-f**king irresponsibility of 60s transgression found its home in the embrace of the free market. This gained its ultimate personification in Donald Trump. He became the anti-political hero of racist, sexist, gun-toting, ‘winner-takes-all’ individualism, scared only by international solidarity and, above all, feminism.

There was no place for him in traditional, established politics. Then George W Bush, a Republican, initiated two hugely expensive wars after 9/11 and lost them. This opened the way for Barack Obama and, when the Republicans lost to him again in 2012, Trump registered the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. He saw that Jeb Bush-style Republicans would be losers politically – just as they had been militarily.

He ran against the Republican establishment as well as a Democratic leadership. Neither thought it possible for him to win the presidency. His victory was not primarily thanks to the cunning of dark money or Fox News. They helped, of course, but only because he was already winning. He gained support because of the massive military and economic failures of both parties since 2000, that he alone denounced as a candidate. 


The Raised Fist

The machine politicians thought that the office of the presidency would tame Donald Trump. Instead, he lived for his rallies.

Their energy mainlined the post-60s far-right. It was not fascist in the sense of seeking a regimented order, although Trump is a would-be fascist demagogue. Instead, his defiance had a strange, jealous symbiosis with the originality and self-expression of the militant left. 

A symbol of this is Trump’s constant use of the raised fist signal to his supporters. Outside the White House on 6 January he used it again in his black leather gloves.  It echoed the raised fists of the black power salutes of US athletes at the Mexican Olympics. 

Imagine if Barack Obama had used the black power salute from the presidential podium. That would have gone down as a provocation. Trump’s use of it was too – a signal that he is not part of  ‘the establishment’ or looking for passive support.  

It is important never to under-estimate the brutality and self-interest of the American way of politics. It loves winners, despises losers and felt that it could make room for Trump, who delivered astonishing tax cuts for corporate wealth. But he wasn’t tamed and, had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic, he would have carried enough voters with him to win the electoral college a second time on his own terms and ensconce the Trump dynasty.  

Ironically, the pandemic offered him an opportunity to deploy America’s exceptional capacity for collective organisation in a way that would also, probably, have also secured his leadership. But it would have demanded accountable efficiency incompatible with the political culture that birthed him. For the heart of that post-60s hard-right is a hatred of government. 

When the end came, he had no alternative but to send his army of supporters on their crusade of defiance to the Capitol. Its police lines may have been breached, but its procedures had already been secured. The outcome was an utter debacle and he was forced to tell them to go home (he sent them his “love” as well).

It is refreshing to compare the humiliation of Trumpism to the success of Black Lives Matter, a movement that also has its roots in the 60s. BLM in the States has not been force-fed by dark funding and does not have theatrical leaders showing-off power salutes. Nor has it turned away from regular democratic politics. On the contrary, it fused with the efforts to get out the votes needed to beat (just) Trump’s growing support at the national level and in Georgia. 

The pandemic has terminated the age of market fatalism that spawned the militant, supremacist right as its latter-day shock troops. The 60s may have opened the way to a long, right-wing supremacy. In America, it has now failed in a fashion that is so spectacular that the politics of the Capitol will never be the same again. 

Everyone can see that it was the complacency and permissiveness of Congress that allowed Trump to get close to winning and subverting America’s democracy. A new and better politics can now emerge from the wreckage of 6 January.

If it doesn’t, everyone also now knows what the alternative that awaits it is: the makeshift gallows assembled on Capitol hill. 


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