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Chickens come home to roost: Anti-democracy and American politics

January 6 2021 was a historic day in American politics. One filled with historical juxtapositions and paradoxes, in which an admixture of conservative currents in American society and politics, ignited by four years of Trumpism, made a last-ditch attempt to stall and then overthrow the results of the November 2020 presidential elections. 

President Donald Trump’s “Save America” rally was transformed from a mass gathering into an insurgent mob led by the Proud Boys. Millions in the United States and around the world watched as the mob, for four hours, attempted to delay and then if possible overturn the election results as they attacked the Capitol building where Congress was in session to certify the results. As they broke through feeble police lines shouting slogans — that this was revolution and 1776 all over again — they paraded Trumpian flags and Nazi symbols; proclaimed that they were there to deal with democratic paedophiles and to take back the country after election fraud. A truck parked outside the grounds of the Capitol bore the words “Stop the Steal!” 

All this was the culmination of weeks of planning after Trump announced in December that there would be a “wild” demonstration to save America on January 6. As the mob overpowered those police officers who tried to resist them (in the initial stages of the attack on the building, there were some police who took selfies with the group and, it was reported, even opened some of the barriers to the grounds), a large confederate flag was carried around the halls of the building. It was the first time in American history that the flag of the slaveholding oligarchy had ever been inside the iconic building. In a historic flash, the confederacy myth of “lost cause” depicted in numerous Western cowboy films and in the classical Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind appeared and all the issues that wracked the American republic in that brutal 19th century civil war which ended formal racial slavery were on full display.

As the events in Washington DC unfolded, 600 miles away in the state of Georgia another historic event had happened. Georgia is a Southern state. It has a long history of racial slavery from about the 1750s onwards and was one of the states that triggered the American Civil War. The aftermath of the war was followed by a period of brutal racial segregation. There had never been a black senator elected in the state. Atlanta, the capital city of the state, was a bedrock of African American civil rights and political struggles. The city is home to the iconic Ebenezer Baptist Church where Dr Martin Luther King was pastor. In the 1970s it was the home of the African diasporic radical think tank, Institute of Black World led by Vincent Harding, a close ally of King’s. 

The Senate races in the state during the November 2020 elections had been close and following the state electoral laws there was a required run off. One of the Democratic Party candidates was the African American Raphael Warnock, current pastor at Ebenezer, who was born in 1969 when there were two segregation senators representing Georgia. In an electoral race in which Stacey Abrams, now one of the most formidable black political electoral activists, along with groups such as the New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter pulled out all the stops, Warnock became the first black senator from Georgia. In the other Senate seat, the Democratic Party candidate Jon Ossoff became the first Jewish senator representing the state. 

Warnock noted as he was declared the winner: “My 82-year-old mother, whose hands picked somebody else’s cotton, now picked her son for the Georgia senate seat.” The African American demand for political equality, combined with black organising, embedded within a long tradition of Black Southern voter registration drives readapted to the present circumstances breached and opened up the American political representative system. 

America in deep crisis

The historical paradoxes of America were now open, alive and kicking. These two events, both rooted in American society and politics, but representing two different histories and visions of the American Republic occurred almost simultaneously. It was a sign that America is in deep crisis .

Since losing the November presidential election all of Trump’s authoritarian politics have been on full display. Some commentators opine that what we witnessed was the deep narcissism of the president and his unwillingness to concede power. This argument is one of the least productive analyses of Trumpism, focusing on Trump’s personality and not his politics. Of course the two cannot and should not be separated because personalities particularly drive authoritarian politics. 

In Trump’s case he has redefined American conservatism. No longer should we narrowly view American conservatism as primarily a mixture of ideas about limited federal government with enhanced regional state power. No longer is conservatism just about large tax cuts for large corporations and the wealthiest; about curbs on labour unions and vocal support for the idea of individualism as the most important social and political value. And no more is American conservatism just simply attached historically to the ideas and practices of white supremacy. Today American conservatism is the bedrock of white supremacy; it is the ideological venue for anti-science ideas; it stands with a kind of Christian evangelism which proclaims that a significant section of Americans are evil and followers of Satan. 

Reconfiguring American conservatism, Trump’s Republican Party has now embraced some of its most vocal supporters — leading figures of QAnon, the conspiracy theory group, as well as members of extreme-right militias. This alchemy of political and ideological currents is what Trump tapped into and then reworked as a political force which commentators call the “base”. In the 2020 election, Trump garnered over 70-million voters. This was a higher number than he did in 2016. Trump’s current popularity is therefore not limited to a so-called base, but to a significant segment of the American population. In a real sense there is a growing divide within America not between red states and blue states but rather about what America is and in what direction it should go.

Mass and mob

The language of carnage which Trump deployed at his inauguration, along with the slogan “Make America Great Again” consolidated a political force among a significant section of America’s white population. It also created a mob. Some political theorists have described the mob as the “residue of all classes”. It is not the masses of people but a segment in which there is the political appetite for a strong leader. Within the mob the most important form of political action are those carried outside the boundaries of liberal democracy. In Trump’s politics great attention is paid to this mob, they cannot be disavowed because they are the shock troops upon the political system and necessary to push it into an authoritarian mould. 

After the election Trump paid special attention to this mob. Although the mob is separate and sometimes distinctive from the mass, both are connected ideologically and so, for the over 70-million persons who voted for Trump whose faith in America was shattered before his 2016 victory and then restored after his win, this faith is now once again in jeopardy. 

Deeply enmeshed within the fantasies of white supremacy, there was confusion in both mob and mass. Trump and his allies had to find a reason to explain the lost election and the stalling of the revolution he had promised or at least many of his followers thought was promised. “Election steal” became his battle cry, not so much because he was personally hurt to lose to Joe Biden but rather he found the slogan useful in keeping both the mob and the white masses who still had faith in him within the fold.

The immediate post election period was therefore one of chaos in which the first objective was to find procedural ways for Trump to steal a win. Hence all the failed court cases. When this tactic did not work there were pleas to members of the Republican Party. As Trump said to the Republican electoral officers in Georgia: “I just want 11 780 votes.” 

Commentators have noted that Trump is corrupt and that there are so many court cases against him that what was driving him in all of this is a fear of possible prison time after the presidency. Although this fear may play a role, I suggest that the overriding political concern was what he considered to be the stalling of his authoritarian push and the required possible political moves to keep his movement going even during a Biden presidency . When the mass rally was being planned in December, various groups aligned to Trump had made it clear that there would be violence. The event was called “The Wild Protest.” One group on their website declared that if Congress did not overturn the election results that, “I advocate revolution and adherence to the rules of war.” Another announced, “I say take the hill or die trying.” 

These are not idle words. Both the mob and large segments of the American population feel that America is in a state of undeclared civil war. A poll taken in October 2020 showed that 61% of Americans felt that the country was on the verge of a civil war. By the end of October 2020 the rate of buying guns had risen dramatically with 17-million guns purchased in 2020, the highest in 20 years. There is no doubt that there is a deep feeling in the country that something is amiss.

Long history of overturning results 

What occurred in Washington on January 6 was not unexpected. There is a long history of successfully overturning election results in American history, particularly when it involved black voters. Here one reflects on the Reconstruction period of American history and its aftermath in which there were violent attempts to suppress black male voters. After the collapse of Reconstruction and settlement between the North and the South, there was the imposition of Black Codes and the brutal system of Jim Crow segregation. As this process unfolded we are reminded of the 1876 election in which, as one historian put it, “hundreds of gun-toting whites from South Carolina and nearby Georgia descended unto the town … ransacking black homes and shops”. 

Additionally to recall the words of the African American commentator, Brent Staples, there is the “myth of American innocence”. It is a innocence in which voter suppression against the African American population has been part of the electoral process; it is an innocence in which the wringing of hands about, “America is better than this” elides the ways in which the American state, once it proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, routinely intervened in countries overturning many a democratic election with devastating social and political consequences. Just ask the Chilean people about the 1973 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende. 

What was significant about the insurgency on Capitol Hill was that the violent attempts to overturn an election were not now occurring in the states nor outside of the territorial boundaries of the US, but were occurring at the nerve centre of the American government — the chickens had come home to roost.

Myth of exceptionalism

James Baldwin in 1965 noted that, “the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us … and history is literally present in all that we do”. The force of history travels like sedimented deposits. When these deposits are not acknowledged or not confronted, they rework themselves into our lives shaping both our beliefs and the moments we live in. Part of the crisis of America is rooted in its myth of exceptionalism, as always a force for good; as a nation in which God’s handwork is made manifest. These enduring myths produced part of an ideological configuration which does not account for racial slavery and indigenous dispossession, war and conquest as part of American history. 

It means that in part the great divide which is now opening up in the country has been produced by the historical myths which have been a deep part of the dominant country’s narrative about itself. Within the context of the present moment, Trump recognises that aspects of this narrative have been punctured over the summer by the Black Lives Matter movement which is why he established, on November 2 2020, the President Advisory 1776 Commission, “to enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States”.

These historical myths have now become fantasies that are at the foundation of many Americans’ beliefs about themselves and the country. They are the ballast of the ideology on which white supremacy is constructed. When the mob trashed the Capitol Building and its offices they were making it clear that for them American liberal democracy did not have the capacity to renew the country, that what was required was the ditching of liberalism and a return nostalgically to an imagined community based upon the historic ideas of white settler colonialism and patriarchy. Many of the mob called for a revolution, but this was a call for a revolution of the past. Nostalgia displaced the present and the future became an imagined past. In such a context reactionary violence becomes the order of the day.

Road ahead

The Biden/Harris presidency faces a long, rocky road where platitudes about healing will not repair the current divide. The political defeat of Trumpism is a necessary feature of progressive American politics. I will end with reflections which come from Atlanta. Between 1956/57 King delivered two specific speeches which I now recall. The titles of the speeches were: “The Birth of A New Age” and “The Birth of a New Nation”. In both, King called for America to transform itself and observed that the divisions in the nation would not be overcome unless attention was paid to poverty, racial domination and general exploitation. In calling then for a “Beloved Community” he was not asking for America to be an exception, but rather a community where radical forms of equality and freedom are present. To begin this journey America needs to confront its historical myths as well as create economic and social policies in which, as King said, “we will be lifted from the long night of poverty”. 

Central to any form of progressive American politics will be this black tradition of political action and thinking that King was part of. The reason is a simple one. To a large degree the historical myths which drive conservative American political ideas rest upon the material basis of racial slavery — anti-black racism. To defeat Trumpism also means to overturn white supremacy. In order to do that we might do well to call upon a tradition of political action and thinking of those who were enslaved and their long political and social struggle to create a different America.