Today
Sun 1 August 2021

In the third part of his analysis of the forces leading up to the violence on the 6 January, Anthony Barnett traces the dual revolutions on the right, and now on the left

Given the role of the spectacle in the American imaginary, it is fitting that two events watched live around the world have bookended the final two decades of the era when market values dominated politics. The first was the levelling of the Twin Towers. The second, the storming and occupation of the Capitol. 

Both were forms of ‘propaganda of the deed’. Both were initiated by cunning, fascistic narcissists – Osama bin Laden and Donald Trump – each of whom apparently spent hours watching TV. Both were taboo-busting shocks played out on US landmarks; one destroyed, the other desecrated. 

Threads of violence and frustration link 9/11 to 6 January 2021. The connections are symbolised by 35-year-old Ashli Babbitt, a veteran of 14 years’ service in the US Air Force, who did tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. During that time she earned 12 medals and ribbons, including the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, the Iraq Campaign Medal, the Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon with Gold Border and the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal.

Ashli Babbit. Source: Facebook

Babbitt was a former Obama supporter who switched her support to Trump in 2016. (“I think Obama did great things,” she tweeted three years ago. “I voted for him!.. and I voted for Trump. I could not vote for Hillary.”) By 2020, she was branding her tweets with QAnon conspiracy slogans. In January this year, Babbitt flew from her home in San Diego, California, to Washington, tweeting: “Nothing will stop us… The storm is here and is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours.” She joined the ‘Stop the Steal’ rally outside the White House, watched her president speak, then marched on the Capitol with her fellow believers. As she tried to scramble over a makeshift barricade that blocked the glass doors to the Speaker’s Lobby entrance of the House of Representatives, a lieutenant in the Capitol police shot her dead.

In effect, Babbitt recycled bin Laden. Like him, she was trained by the US, served in Afghanistan, turned against American power, declared that a storm would fall upon it – and was killed. 


The Double Earthquake

The assault on Capitol Hill has unleashed a double earthquake that will transform politics around the world. Unlike the flights that brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11, these twin shocks did not come as a complete surprise: they have been building up over the course of Trump’s first term. 

The first quake is on the right. When Trump won the presidency in 2016, the desire of the traditional power structures was that he would be tamed by office. But he refused to bed down. He continuously fired staff who crossed him, was blatantly corrupt, abandoned any pretence of support for human rights, recklessly trashed the principles of environmental safeguards and prepared to turn the US into a fortress of authoritarianism directed by his family. 

For four years the political establishment, for want of a better term, hoped it would not get any worse. When he lost the election in November they were relieved: surely he and his supporters would now play by the rules. Instead, Trump escalated; he repudiated the legitimacy of the process and told his supporters to “fight like hell” and “take back our country” in a process that culminated in the Capitol insurrection. It was bad enough that Trump was personally willing to use force to retain the presidency. The bigger shock is that a majority of the Republican Party, its legislators and activists, supported him and still do. The threat of Trumpism is embedded and can’t be defeated by traditional election manoeuvres. 

The second earthquake is on the left. For decades, far longer than the period in which it underestimated Trump, the same political establishment marginalised egalitarian, democratic opposition to its policies and privileges, along with calls for climate action. The nature of its rule was to support finance and corporate capital, ameliorate the inequities and pollution where it felt it could – but always from above, to ensure its continued capacity to manipulate opinion and control outcomes. 

Ashli Babbitt has now become a heroine of this unmeasurable discontent. Reportedly, a fifth of those arrested for the Capitol Hill insurrection were military veterans, of wars that were so misconceived as to be futile. 

Confronted by the audacity of Trump’s far-right presidency, it crumbled. None of its usual mechanisms of control were able to contain him and his followers, now that social media meant he could cultivate, organise and inflame opinion in the wide-open frontiers of cyberspace, while Rupert Murdoch provided a bully pulpit on Fox News. Only a popular mobilisation on the left, unwilling to demonstrate allegiance to the core power structures and determined to link up issues of the environment, race, gender, human rights and economic fairness, provided the necessary countervailing effort to frustrate Trumpism – for the moment.

Joe Biden has said that he began to consider his run for the presidency in August 2017, when white power fascists buoyed by Trump’s success held a torchlight rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In a striking opinion piece published in The Atlantic Biden denounced the racists and emphatically excoriated the President for lending them his endorsement. In the week following Charlottesville the far-right had organised a “free speech” rally in Boston. Tens of thousands of protesters, activists, feminists and anti-racists marched to oppose it. “In Boston”, Biden wrote, “we saw the truth of America: those with the courage to oppose hate far outnumber those who promote it.” For the first time in living memory, a successful presidential bid started out with a thank you to the progressive left. 

It would not be the first time that such a campaign had borrowed left-wing energy, only to abandon it outside the portico of the White House. Had Trump proved to be just a maverick who eventually embraced business as usual, then Biden too would probably have followed the usual course. But now everyone can see that any return to elite business as usual opens the door for Trumpism to bounce back in. Without a popular counter-force, the far right will have its way.

To succeed, the Biden administration needs to work with the progressive left – and more importantly, is aware of this fact. “Progressives”, Biden’s chief of staff recently acknowledged, are now a “big part of our party”. When Biden addressed the nation from the Rose Garden to present his signature $1,9 trillion American Rescue Plan, he acknowledged at the start, “Bernie, stepping up and making the case why this was so transformational made a big difference in how a lot of people voted”. 

The implications of this will be far reaching. For now, everything depends on developments within the US – and to understand their significance we must start with how it has come about.


The Origins of Trumpism

The link between 6 January and 9/11 personified by Babbitt was more than a random echo. The US responded to the levelling of the Twin Towers by occupying Afghanistan and then launching an insane, nationalist war on Iraq to demonstrate that its wounded hegemony was intact. To legitimate the aggression, the US – along with its close ally the UK – proclaimed, falsely, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, orchestrating a massive PR campaign to convince the public. 

Deceit and deception are normal in great power politics, but this was an obliteration of fundamental domestic norms. It opened up a path that would lead to Trump’s mendacity. It leant validity to his assertion that the media disseminated fake news and the political system was rigged. As he pointed out on the campaign trail in 2016, he was part of it and he knew. 

More important, however, the rigged system failed. The scale and intensity of support for Trump is rooted in the cumulative frustration of the American middle and lower middle classes, and their decades-long experience of income paralysis and increasing insecurity, accompanied by military stalemate. The occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq were unmatched logistic and martial achievements, deploying a colossal use of firepower, that nonetheless turned into drawn-out strategic defeats. In 2008, the combination of dishonesty and failure opened the way for Obama, whose initial opposition to the invasion of Iraq gave him the standing to seize the Democratic Party nomination from Hillary Clinton, who had supported it. 

Only a popular mobilisation on the left, unwilling to demonstrate allegiance to the core power structures… provided the necessary countervailing effort to frustrate Trumpism.

As president, Obama decided that his role was not to cut America’s losses immediately, but to manage a withdrawal that preserved as much of Washington’s international influence as possible. The result was eight years of global mortification and only partial domestic change, despite the symbolic milestone of America electing its first black president.

Obama’s re-election in 2012 marked a turning point. Although he beat off his Republican challenger Mitt Romney, the Tea Party was on the rise, while Occupy had forced the issue of inequality into public consciousness. A chilling New Yorker account of America’s far-right elite, by Evan Osnos provides a revealing cameo. A wealthy Republican backer, Lee Hanley, felt there was a “deep frustration with the status quo” and commissioned a pollster to investigate further. The results recorded that the “level of discontent in this country was beyond anything measurable”. 

Ashli Babbitt has now become a heroine of this unmeasurable discontent. Reportedly, a fifth of those arrested for the Capitol Hill insurrection were military veterans, of wars that were so misconceived as to be futile. Many more came from police forces around the US and other parts of the security apparatus that identify with the military and share in the frustration. After her 14 years of service, Babbitt started a business and went bust, ripped off by a loan company.  The Washington Post reported that a high proportion of the individuals who took part in the assault have faced financial ruin: nearly 20% of those charged had previously gone bankrupt; a quarter “had been sued for money”, while one in five had “faced losing their home at one point”.

The mob that descended on Washington was no mobilisation of the poor, and many of them were down-the-line white supremacists. People flew or drove in from across the US, well-equipped and clothed for the winter weather. They were drawn from an increasingly insecure middle class, who had seen their businesses go bust and the value of their modest wealth plunge while debts rose and health costs skyrocketed. And that’s before we consider the influence of the ranting, paranoid tentacles of social media that have become their key source of news. 

In 2013, according to Osnos, Hanley “huddled” with Steve Bannon and the billionaire Robert Mercer. They wanted to use the bubbling rage of millions of Babbitts to further increase their own advantage. Perhaps they were far-sighted enough to realise that if it crystallised around a left-wing challenger they might be done for. They agreed that they needed “a populist challenger who could run as an outsider, exposing corruption and rapacity”. It seems that they thought Trump unsuitable at first, but he came through the Republican primaries in 2016 as the candidate who fit requirements. 

This is the reality from which everything else follows. Trump is not the cause of America’s discontent – he became its voice and expression, backed by billionaires who investigated the strength of the discontent and then exploited it. 

A crucial moment came in the Republican primaries, when Jeb Bush, brother of George W, was still the favourite. In February 2016, Trump confronted a hostile audience of Bush supporters who booed him continuously. “Obviously the war in Iraq was a big, fat mistake”, he told them defiantly: 

“The war in Iraq, we spent $2 trillion, thousands of lives. We don’t even have it. Iran has taken over Iraq with the second largest oil reserves in the world … We should never have been in Iraq. We have destabilised the Middle East … I want to tell you, they lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There was none. And they knew there was none.” 

Trump then stated that the trillions should have been spent on rebuilding America. 

Democrats and progressives were wrong to ignore or dismiss the quality of Trump’s judgment. Tens of millions of families across America have members who are veterans, or police and security officers. They are predominantly Republican. Trump was one of their own and when he spoke like this they lifted their heads, as did Ashli Babbitt. They knew he was right. He would put “America first”.

Trump’s opponents often ask how he “had so much support among the public” when, with the exception of Murdoch’s Fox News, the media and the establishment was so hostile to him. The answer usually turns on the financial crisis. But class issues are mobilised and resolved within national frameworks. In a terrific, forensic interview by Zack Stanton, the veteran US pollster Stanley Greenberg says that he was impressed at the way Trump brought in “all kinds of new voters” keen to protect themselves from immigration and diversity that they experienced as threats because the US was ‘weak’. Their prime motivation remains to “save the country”.

Trump had a message that addressed the US’s national reality and discontent. First and foremost Trump spoke to the millions of patriots who, like him, believed in winning. He promised to be a tough, macho leader who would stop the waste, end the defeats, stand up to China economically and withdraw the US from being a loser in the playground of globalists. Two million had served, 6,500 had died and 50,000 had been wounded, in fifteen years of victoryless conflict. What pride could the Babbitts and their families and relatives take in the costs and anxieties they had been exposed to? Trump provided the self-belief they craved, and his pledge was the answer they needed: “Make America Great Again” by ending wars overseen by the bipartisan elite responsible for the “big, fat mistake”.

Then, of all the people to challenge this call for restitution, the Democrats chose Hillary Clinton. She was the personification of failed intervention, easily portrayed as someone who acted as if she was entitled to lead, yet could not even show the door to her lying, cheating husband. 


Bringing the War Home

Elected, Trump delivered for his supporters. There were no new wasteful, endless wars. Taxes for the rich were cut, jobs boomed. Then COVID-19 struck. Despite his grotesque mismanagement, his denials and braggadocio, plus a tanking economy and hundreds of thousands of deaths, he fought back, campaigning with demonic energy. Trump increased his overall vote tally by a massive 10 million. How could this possibly mean that he had not won?

Trump is not the cause of America’s discontent – he became its voice and expression, backed by billionaires who investigated the strength of the discontent and then exploited it. 

At the heart of his apparent success was the serpent that would consume him. In the heady days of the 1960s, amid opposition to the US intervention in Vietnam, the militant left had a boastful slogan: “Bring the war home!” Ironically, it describes what Trump did half a century later. He sucked back into America the violence which had been sent abroad. Trump did not start new wars overseas, but he unleashed force against immigrants at home, hardened the country’s borders, pilloried the cultural ‘elite’ and permitted Russian intervention in domestic politics. He savaged anyone who crossed him and unleashed militant antagonism within the US. 

Ultimately, the president declared war on his own country. At a rally in Georgia on 6 December 2020, a month after the election, Trump told his supporters: “We will not bend, we will not break, we will not yield, we will never give in, we will never give up, we will never back down, we will never, ever surrender”. When I first saw a clip of this speech, I didn’t take any special notice, as it seemed merely to continue the foul rhetoric he had spewed since he first ran for president. 

That was my mistake. It was a significant escalation. 

Georgia’s Republican governor had just overseen certification of the state’s presidential election results, which delivered a narrow majority for Joe Biden. The votes had been counted twice. Trump had clearly lost there, as he had nationally, yet he proclaimed a militant defiance of the primary function of America’s political system. True to his presidency, he brought the war home. The Babbitts rallied to the call. 

But the whole point of elections is that losers concede. During the Second World War, at the height of the British Empire’s confrontation with Nazism, William Beveridge – the economist who wrote the report that laid the basis for the UK’s welfare state after 1945 – described the “essence” of democracy as the “effective means of changing the government without shooting”. It’s a striking definition. Beveridge was an upper class liberal and the democracy that his class developed on both sides of the Atlantic was not about self-determination or giving the majority its say. Its essence was to ensure the peaceful transfer of power, thus preventing dictatorship, an approach that David Runciman has described as “the minimalist theory of democracy”. 

Minimalist it may be, but the non-violent transition from one government to another, despite hard pressed conflicts of interest, is the core achievement of representative systems. It preserves government from tyranny. Thanks to this, while the US may have been oppressive, imperialist, racist, corrupt and determined by corporate oligarchy, its government has nonetheless changed hands peacefully since the end of the Civil War in 1865. 

Until now. When Trump made that declaration in Georgia, he was not planning on leading a civil war, or planning on there being shooting to keep the presidency. He never plans: he wagers. Trump’s wager was that by mobilising his supporters, he could intimidate the vice president, the Supreme Court, Republican politicians and state officials into overturning the election result. Instead, the wager culminated in the huge crowd of “patriots”, as Trump’s daughter Ivanka called them, who came to the White House on 6 January and stormed Congress in his name. 


What Prevented Trump’s Victory?

Yet if Trump represents a threatening rupture from the norms of US democracy, it is because he had been met with an equally unprecedented response in the sheer number of voters who mobilised to defy him. Last year he won 74 million, nearly five million more than any previous presidential candidate. But Biden won 81 million. When third-party candidates are included, 23 million more votes were cast in the US in 2020 than in 2016, a staggering increase. 

From early on, Trump could see that he was unlikely to win the popular vote, that postal and early voting would favour his opponents – not least as ethnic minority voters felt intimidated going to polling stations – and that his re-election depended on the electoral college votes of swing states. The president therefore began a pre-emptive campaign against the legitimacy of the outcome, culminating in his wide-ranging and well-financed effort to declare himself the winner. 

Why did this fail? There are four sets of answers. 

First, the institutions and processes held. Votes were counted and recounted accurately. Officials, even when they were Republicans, did their job, reported the data and refused to be intimidated. Courts threw out cases that had no merit in law, even when the judges had been appointed by Trump. 

Second, influential Republican funders and supporters – not least Rupert Murdoch and his Wall Street Journal – whose businesses rely on a framework of law, did not feel threatened by Biden and refused to support illegal breaches of due process. 

Third, a “coalition of activist groups”, as the New York Times described them, let officials know that they would be held accountable if they caved in to Trump’s pressure. These groups avoided provocative celebrations immediately after the election, while also making it clear that the opposition would erupt in protest if the election really was stolen. Activists, according to a report by Molly Ball for Time, had also spent more than a year working to strengthen the dilapidated voting systems of the 50 US states.

Finally, there was Joe Biden’s stirring (if vacuous) opening proclamation in his inaugural address on 20 January: “we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate, but of a cause … at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” 

The real determining factor behind all four were tens of millions of votes. I’d like to to say that it was feminism that defeated Trump, because of how much that would annoy him and his followers. In a way, it was the work of feminism, as Biden’s victory was delivered both by a significant proportion of women voters who overall broke fifty-seven per cent for Biden and only forty-two per cent for Trump – while in many cases, it was the organising efforts of women, especially black women, who got out the vote. Stacey Abrams, who led the huge effort in Georgia to get citizens registered and to the polls, is the greatest such example.  

The exemplary campaign to reverse voter suppression in Georgia proved critical in winning the State for Biden in November and then, even more important, flipping its two Senate seats in January, depriving the Republicans of their majority in the upper chamber. It was part of a far-wider and potentially much more important movement. 

Molly Ball’s report for Time described how Mike Podhorzor, an advisor to the AFL-CIO trade union federation, began to build a progressive network in 2019. By 2020, according to Ball, his weekly Zoom meetings “became the galactic center for a constellation of operatives across the left who shared overlapping goals but didn’t usually work in concert”. It included “the labor movement; the institutional left, like Planned Parenthood and Greenpeace; resistance groups like Indivisible and MoveOn; progressive data geeks and strategists, representatives of donors and foundations, state-level grassroots organizers, racial-justice activists and others”. 

An observer on some of the calls told me that while Time’s narrative of a central coordinating hub was “misleading”, the people mentioned in the piece, “alongside thousands more, all played critical roles in defeating America’s wannabe dictator”. He was most impressed by “how bottom-up the whole process was”. In response to the “flood of dark propaganda from the right wing”, progressive US civil society “developed increasingly effective network organising capabilities”. Groups on the left forged links with Silicon Valley technology experts and concerned businesspeople. By 2020, “there were thousands of organisations and leaders involved in anti-Trump networks, operating mostly without any coordination with the Biden campaign – and they knew how to play well together.” 

Some of these were alliances, such as Protect Democracy and the Voter Participation Centre, or the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. One initiative arranged for 150 organisations to ask every member of Congress to back $2 billion in election funding. (They got $400 million.) These networks also raised huge amounts from philanthropic foundations to shore up weak and underfunded state electoral systems.

This is a description of American civil society in action. Groups that are notoriously competitive or work in silos collaborated. Trade unions, along with organisations and networks like Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace and Black Lives Matter worked together to secure the integrity of the voting system and increase turnout. The scale of cooperation between trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and anti-racists is a historic breakthrough, one achieved partly through brilliant online campaigning, embodied by younger politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

In 2017, in my book The Lure of Greatness: England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, I argued that such was the extent of gerrymandering, corporate funding, and voter suppression in the US, that the country “barely qualifies as a democracy”. Millions of people who qualified to vote stayed unregistered and millions more were effectively prevented from casting their ballots. At the low point of 1988, 91.5 million votes were cast in the US presidential election, a mere 50.3% of the voting age population. 

By contrast, in 2020 the total votes cast were 159.5 million, 66% of those actually eligible to vote. This is what brought Trump down. Yes, the system withstood his pressures, his backers rejected blatant illegality, civil society made itself effective, and ‘democracy’ saved the day. But something else changed. An unprecedented number of voters on both sides, across the country, decided that their vote mattered. If that huge increase in turnout lasts, it will transform the country into a genuine democracy and permanently alter the nature of the world’s major power.

A full version of this essay — The End of Closed Democracy? – is published by openDemocracy

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