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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

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FEB 2021 Issue
Field Notes Editor’s Note

The Coup That Wasn’t

One might have thought that Trump’s departure from the White House would put an end to the constant worry—and not just on the part of left-leaning pundits—that he represented a rebirth of fascism.1 In the event, the typically bizarre way in which he dealt with his electoral defeat led to a surge of worry about the black- or brown-shirted specter from the past. Historian Timothy Snyder, writing for the New York Times Magazine, recoiled before “The American Abyss” opened by Trump’s disdain for electoral democracy: “It was clear to me in October,” Snyder wrote, “that Trump’s behavior presaged a coup…”2 The behavior he had in mind was above all Trump’s propensity for lying, and his attendant description of information sources that contradict him as “fake.” In his account, the heart of fascism is the “Big Lie”: “So long as [Trump] was unable to enforce some truly big lie, some fantasy that created an alternative reality where people could live or die, his pre-fascism fell short of the thing itself.” For Snyder, that bridge was crossed with the president’s insistence that he had won the election by a landslide, and his call for his supporters to march on the Capitol to prevent the certification of the fake victory of his opponent.

It's hard to grapple with the insipidity of these ideas. Fascism, a politics aimed at harnessing national energy in the struggle for political-economic power, is reduced to a propensity for telling tall tales; the notion that “when we give up on truth, we concede power to those with the wealth and charisma to create spectacle in its place,”3 pretends that the power of the ruling class actually rests on the consent of the governed. In the end, even Snyder has to accept the fact that there was no coup, and to defer the real danger to the next election. Still, it’s easy to see why those who really run things—the corporate CEOs who are for the moment cutting their contributions to Republican PACs, the “two billionaires from California” who “did what legions of politicians, prosecutors and power brokers had tried and failed to do for years,” shutting Trump up by blocking his Facebook and Twitter accounts4—are appalled by the demonstration at the Capitol. The disaffection from social stability as defined by the norms of American electoral democracy is just as disturbing to the official devisers of ideology, in the press and in the academy, who are discovering how far disregard for their conceptual authority has gone.

70-odd million people voted for Donald Trump, after four years of seeing the man in action (and inaction, with regard to the COVID-19 crisis and so much else). Since he did not actually deliver any of the things most of them supposedly voted him in for—from funding infrastructure jobs to bringing back the coal industry, ending political corruption, or even building a big, beautiful wall to keep out immigrants—clearly this level of political support is a response to something on the symbolic level. The little squads of white supremacists and the presence of the Confederate battle flag, along with the general color and gender distribution of the crowd that invaded the Capitol, suggest the importance among the Trumpists of the well-worn sentiment that the most victimized group in America is white males. These are certainly the terms in which Trump has consistently represented himself.

Of course, unlike Trump, his followers are in fact pretty badly treated: the small business people so prominent in the ranks of Trump voters and “Stop the Steal” demonstrators are being driven out of business as economic stagnation, now accelerated by the pandemic, inexorably transfers more and more wealth to fewer people and larger enterprises; the “white working class” has been experiencing wage decline for a generation, along with the precaritization of their jobs, when they still have them. Joe Biden, old Dixiecrat-ally and anti-busser, the man who told Anita Hill he “felt for her,” found it necessary to choose a woman of color as his running mate—as if the horror of one Black president wasn’t enough to inflict on the White Male—while it’s hard to find an advertisement today, for breakfast cereal or wealth management consultants, not featuring Black models. The truth is that, even while wealth and power of all sorts remains securely in (a few) white hands, the Age of the White Man is over. Not only will European-Americans soon be a demographic minority in the United States, but America—even if it remains the leading power—has entered economically as well as militarily into decline on the world stage. The domestic economy, with its profitless zombie companies, tech-stock bubble, and increasing debt, personal, corporate, and government, requires the general immiseration of the lower orders.

America was built on racism: on slavery and genocide. Its expansion across the continent and then the world was justified by the idea that “Anglo-Saxons,” as representatives of progress and civilization, had the right to exterminate inconvenient peoples and force those rendered convenient to work for them. The triumph of industrial capitalism over plantation slavery in 1865 was sealed by a bargain between the elites of North and South that enforced white domination despite the abolition of slavery. But through the twentieth century, as the US displaced Great Britain in economic, military, and political importance, the development and globalization of the economy—driving African-American workers from the South into northern industry and American executives, politicians, and generals into the Middle East, Africa, and Asia as well as Europe, not as conquerors but as dominant partners with local bigshots—made the ideological bases of white supremacy increasingly untenable. If Nixon’s Southern Strategy marked the adoption of racism by the Republican Party as the basis for an electoral coalition serving the preoccupation of business with undoing the meagre reforms of the New Deal, lip service to “diversity” became the hallmark of the neoliberal forces striving to move American capitalism into the global environment of the 21st century. The current disarray in the Republican Party is the result of the conflict between the two principles, of white supremacy for the lower orders and transnational business for the handful in the upper class. What has held them together so far is the dominant whiteness of the top and the obedient acceptance of the status quo by those at the bottom.

It’s disheartening to learn how far people can be from understanding what’s happening to them and what to do about it. On the other hand, despite the numbers adhering to all the battle flag has come to stand for, the crowds that turned out for Trump in Washington (not to mention Florida, where a mighty 20 people welcomed him) were meagre compared to the masses who demonstrated for months on end for the principle that Black lives matter; the vandalizing of the Capitol was minor compared to the burning of police stations and vehicles. A small number may have toted automatic weapons, but they were not used. While an armed nut here or there can be expected to kill people or blow things up—mass shootings and bombings are hardly a new, Trump-dependent phenomenon—these are not well-organized paramilitary squadristi, and there is no serious political force in sight that wishes to form them into such. Mob members pooped in Democratic toilets at the Capitol—they did not take over the TV stations and the armories. Carried out by a band of militant anti-maskers, this was more a selfie-taking super-spreader event than a bid for power. Antisemitism, it was said, is the socialism of fools; Trumpism is at most the proto-fascism of fools: America just cannot be made great again.

The conspiracy enthusiasts, the mini-militias, the militants for the right to reopen small businesses and demonstrate their individual liberty by courting illness—these represent reactions to the more important abyss that has opened up before America, and the world: the abyss of economic stagnation of a depth and duration suggesting an acceleration of capitalist decline. Because governments must draw their resources from the economy, this decline itself hinders the ability of states to manage it, to contain the damage and stabilize society. More imaginary trillions can be pumped into the financial system, but this will not restore the profitability of private enterprise; evictions can be postponed, but the problem of unpaid rents and mortgages, for tenants and owners alike, will not thereby disappear. Characteristic institutions of present-day society, such as electoral democracy, are breaking down along with the foundations of that society. Neither the backward-looking celebration of individual initiative, waving the 1775 Gadsden Flag, nor the equally backward-looking revival of anti-fascism, demanding a renaissance of the New Deal, will lead to a way out of this abyss.

In contrast, last spring’s demonstrations, demanding something new—the end of the systematic oppression of some people by other people and an end to the state’s policed defense of the status quo—showed the possibility of a way forward, just as did the attempts of people all over the world to meet the challenge of COVID-19, in the face of government incompetence, by their own efforts. Now apparently exhausted not just by disease and death but by the failure of the Movement for Black Lives to make much headway against the forces of order, that movement will have to revive and reconfigure itself as a struggle for mass survival if the abyss is to be traversed. In the current chaos of information, misinformation, fear of disaster, and desire for life, it is on attempts to create a new way of life, not to preserve or revive an old one, that we must focus. There is no going back, only forward, into the abyss or across it.

January 20, 2021

  1. For discussion of this question in the Rail, see Michael Mann, “Is Donald Trump a Fascist?” Field Notes, May 2017, and “Editor’s Note: End Times Politics,” Field Notes, April 2020.
  2. T. Snyder, “The American Abyss,” New York Times Magazine, January 17, 2021, p. 33.
  3. Ibid., p. 32.
  4. Kevin Roose, “In Pulling Trump’s Megaphone, Twitter Shows Where Power Now Lies,” New York Times, January 9, 2021.
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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2021

All Issues