American showdown

HANNAH SELL reviews one of the numerous recent books looking at the events in Washington DC on 6 January 2021 and their aftermath, examining the crisis in both the Republican and Democrat parties and the prospects for huge movements shaking the US.

This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future

By Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns

Published in the US by Simon & Schuster, 2022

This Will Not Pass, a new book by two New York Times journalists, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, was published prior to the start of the current House Committee hearings into the events of 6 January 2021. It covers much of the same ground, although its revelations about the storming of the Capitol are tame compared to some of the evidence given to the hearings. Moreover, despite the promising title, it is light on conclusions about how the ‘battle for America’s future’ will develop, not least because it barely references the experiences of working-class Americans, their organisations, and how the working class is developing its consciousness on what needs to be done to find an answer to the American crisis.

Nonetheless Martin and Burns do describe well events in Washington DC on January 6, including Trump whipping up the crowd, declaring “we will never give up, we will never concede”; while his sidekicks like Alabama congressman Mo Brooks told the crowd to start “taking down names and kicking ass” and Rudy Guiliani called for “trial by combat” over the election results. Meanwhile inside the Congress buildings politicians were hiding under desks and writing last messages to their families. It depicts “Republican president candidate Mitt Romney being seconds away from ‘colliding with a throng of insurrectionists’ that had breached the Senate, and him raging about ‘what this says to country and the world’ and ‘the only time this ever happened before was in the civil war’.”

The authors conclude that, “in some respects, the story of January 6 is of a near miss with catastrophe. The riot at the Capitol was a national disgrace, but there was no massacre of lawmakers, no assassination of the vice president or the house speaker, no revolt in the armed forces – and no attempt by President Trump, with rank-and-file lawmakers locked down in office buildings and congressional leaders sequestered on a military base, to seize and hold power by brute force. But as a raw political trauma, it exceeded any other event in the history of the modern Congress”.

This is a reasonable summary of what took place. Trump and his supporters not only claimed that they had won the election but took a series of actions to try and make the lie reality. For example, major pressure was put on the Justice Department to back Trump. When senior officials repeatedly told him that they had investigated and found no substance for the allegations of widespread election fraud, Trump argued they need not find evidence. “Just say the election is corrupt and leave the rest to me”, he told them. And when the officials refused to comply, Trump planned to remove the acting attorney general and install a loyalist, Jeffrey Clark, to do his bidding. Only the threat of a mass resignation at the department forced Trump to back down.

Bullshit coup

However, for all Trump’s thunder, this was not a coup attempt with the remotest possibility of success. No significant section of the state machine supported his campaign, and even within his immediate coterie, most considered his claims to be “bullshit”, that were “doing grave, grave disservice to the country” as the Trump’s former attorney general, William P. Barr, put it. Even his daughter, Ivanka Trump, has given testimony to the hearing that her father’s assertions were baseless.

Nor did Trump succeed in creating a mass mobilisation in his support. There have been no official estimates of the numbers that took part in the January 6 protests in Washington DC or nationwide. They were not large, however. The demonstrations currently sweeping the US in defence of abortion rights dwarf the pro-Trump January 6 demonstrations. Estimates for attendance in Washington DC were in the thousands rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands, including it seems only hundreds from each of the different far-right groups like the Proud Boys.

Nonetheless, it is a sign of the deep-rooted problems of US capitalism that its outgoing president attempted to block his successor taking the presidency, falsely claiming the election was stolen and urging the crowd at the Capitol to “go wild”. And it has now been revealed, responded to demonstrators chanting for the vice-president to be hanged, with “yeah maybe he should be”. His actions undermined the myths use to sustain confidence in US ‘democracy’, and with it further undermined the stability of US capitalism. His legacy has also included massively undermining the authority of the unelected Supreme Court, by appointing the judges who have allowed the overturning of Roe vs Wade. More worryingly for the serious strategists of US capitalism, Trump, and Trumpism, is very far from being a spent force. The most recent polls show that around 60% of voters believe Joe Biden was fairly elected, but this falls to around 25% among Republican voters.

This book clearly aims, like the hearings, to discredit Trump and his supporters among Republican voters, and to pressure the Republican Party to vomit them out. However, there are precious few signs of that so far. As the founder of the ‘Anti-Trump Republican Accountability Project’ put it to the New York Times, “I hope that there is room for a sane wing of the Republican Party to become ascendant again” but “the chances of that are extremely low”.

Martin and Burns confirm her pessimism, vividly depicting the Republican Party stepping back from taking action against Trump in the weeks that followed January 6. In its immediate aftermath Mitch McConnell, Republican leader of the Senate, is quoted as calling Trump a “despicable human being”, who Republicans “had to fight politically”. Describing his efforts back in 2014 to stop insurgent ‘far right’ candidates being selected as Republican candidates he asserted, “we crushed the sons of bitches, and that is what we are going to do in the primary in ’22”.

By the end of the book, however, McConnell is singing a very different tune, having retreated in the face of Trump’s strength among the Republican base. Republicans who “had broken decisively with Trump” were going to “retire or would likely never run again”. McConnell was “confronting the dispiriting prospect that he might have to settle for Senate nominees like Mo Brooks, the extreme-right Alabaman who had addressed Trump’s mob on 6 January before they rioted”. In fact Brooks has not proven to be a shoe-in for the Alabama primary, but only because Trump has ‘unendorsed him’ in favour of another equally Trumpian candidate, Katie Britt.

In the Republican mid-term primaries – now halfway through – the candidates that have so far dominated are those that support Trump’s claim that the 2020 election ‘was stolen’. This is true for state as well as federal elections, including for state governor, secretary of state and state attorney general positions, which will have significant influence on the administration of the 2024 elections.

The book reports considerable detail about the discussions taking place within different parts of the ‘duopoly’ – the Republican and Democratic party machines – during Trump’s presidency and afterwards. Above all it reveals the deep gloom of all the serious capitalist politicians and strategists who try to act in the interests of US capitalism, and can see events sliding out of control.

What did January 6 represent? What is the explanation for one of the two major capitalist parties in the US becoming dominated by a right-wing populist demagogue like Trump? And how can such a party be in a position to potentially make gains in the midterm elections and have a real chance of winning the presidential election in 2024? Does this reflect a decisive rightward shift among big sections of the US working and middle classes?

These questions are not answered, or even clearly posed, in Burns and Martin’s book, but it does at least make a link between the failures of US capitalism and political developments: “In less than a third of an average American lifetime, the country endured a contested presidential race in 2000; the terror attacks of September 11, 2001; the long and disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great Recession; the election of Donald Trump in 2016; and the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. That is a catalogue of failure and failure and failure”.

Capitalism wobbled and creaked

The book’s conclusion is so far the US capitalist “system had wobbled and creaked – but it had not failed. Yet it had not thrived either”. The “American two-party system cannot function well unless at least one party is politically powerful, internally coherent, and serious about governing, all at the same time. At the end of 2021 it is impossible to describe either the ruling Democrats or the Republican opposition in those terms”.

Clearly the authors fear more catastrophic failure is ahead with consequences for capitalism globally as well as for the US. From abroad, they argue, the most powerful country on the planet, “far from a vibrant and enduring republic” looks “too often like a weary and incoherent jumble of regions, capable of spending huge sums of money in times of emergency or war but otherwise incapable of solving its most important and intractable domestic problems”. They quote Biden saying during his election campaign “I certainly hope this works out, if it doesn’t I’m not sure we’re going to have a country”.

While Biden won the election, the authors recognise that he is a weak president and that things are not ‘working out’. On the domestic stage Biden’s approval ratings are now trailing at 39% with 47% strongly disapproving of his record; and just 16% strongly approving. Globally, while he has asserted that “America is back” leading the world, there have been significant limits to how far the propaganda has been equalled by reality. First came the undermining of US authority as a result of its headlong withdrawal from Afghanistan; then the invasion of Ukraine. While Biden has undoubtedly used the latter to try and rally the Western imperialist powers behind the US, the very fact Putin’s regime felt confident to invade is an indication of the ongoing decline of the US’s predominance. And while the invasion has temporarily increased the impression of Western imperialist unity, divisions between the NATO powers remain and are likely to come to the fore, as the stalemate drags on and, particularly, when the current war reaches its end game.

Ultimately, both the weakening of US imperialism’s strength on a global stage, and the instability at home, are a reflection of the ailing character of US capitalism. US living standards have been stagnating, at best, for decades. US workers, unlike their European counterparts, have never had a mass political party that they could look towards to fight for their interests against those of the elites. Historically, the absence of such a party exerting pressure on the capitalist class has allowed the USA’s highly dysfunctional electoral and legal system to develop grotesque excesses. It was also a central factor in the much more limited welfare state gained by US workers compared to Western Europe. Nonetheless, during the post-war upswing in particular, the living standards of broad sections of the working class improved after the nightmare of the 1930s, fuelling the myth of the ‘American dream’ and the social basis of both Democrats and Republicans.

However, since the end of the post-war upswing in the mid-1970s, the share of wealth taken by the bottom 90% has plummeted, while that of the tiny capitalist elite has soared. Had the division of wealth remained at post-war levels for the half a century since, $50 trillion more would be in the pockets of the bottom 90%! If this gigantic increase in inequality had been combined with improving living standards for the working and middle classes it would not have led to the enormous discontent that has developed. That has not been the case, however. Instead the Great Recession, the Covid pandemic, and now growing inflation have all been major shocks to already stagnant incomes. Even before the pandemic 40% of US households couldn’t cover a $400 emergency expense; 28 million Americans had no health insurance at all, while another 44 million were underinsured.

Trump taps discontent

An important element of Trump’s electoral base stems from his ability to tap, in a very distorted way, into the growing discontent of sections of the middle and working classes. In 2020, while he lost to Biden, his vote increased by 11 million. Clearly, he relied heavily on whipping up racism and nationalism, as well as doubling-down on the decades long reliance of the Republican Party on the Christian right. In 2020 84% of white evangelical Protestants voted for Trump.

However when Trump demagogically promised to ‘drain the Washington swamp’, he harnessed the disappointment at the Clinton, Bush and Obama presidencies, which all carried out neo-liberal pro-rich programmes. In 2020 56% of voters who had no post-school educational qualifications voted for Trump, compared to 41% for Biden. This was an increase from 51% for Trump in 2016. Himself part of the super-rich, Trump nonetheless managed to exploit real issues which the Democrats had no answer to, while offering a pipe-dream of a better future, of ‘making America great again’, which was able to appeal to a layer of mainly, but not exclusively, white working-class voters.

Particularly in 2016 the Bernie Sanders campaign for the presidency gave a glimpse of how it would be possible to make a successful appeal on economic and class issues to some of those attracted to Trump. This Will Not Pass reports Trump actually recognising this, telling Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, that he did not fear Biden, but did fear Sanders because he would “promise the voters huge new government benefits. That, Trump said, would be popular”.

However, in 2016 Sanders’ appeal was cut across by his support for Clinton and then, four years later, his supportive approach to the Biden presidency. Martin and Burns make several references to how much more “agreeable” Biden has found his dealings with Sanders and the left Democrats, compared with the extreme right of his party, despite being “ill at ease with the far left” and “most comfortable working within the established system”. In other words Biden is a capitalist establishment politician to the marrow of his bones, but has been able to work with left Democrats because the left have been retreating at every stage. Yet Biden’s presidency is presiding over a sharp fall in living standards as inflation soars, which in turn can further fuel support for ‘Trumpism’ in the absence, as yet, of a clear working class alternative to the duopoly.

Of course, alongside economic issues, social questions – including racism and women’s rights – are very important factors in US politics. The majority of the US capitalist class are horrified by the overturn of Roe vs Wade, above all because of the scale of the popular movement of opposition it could spark. For the Democrats, however, it offers an opportunity to try and increase their vote in this year’s mid-term elections by promising that, if they win with a decisive enough majority in both the house and senate to enact it, they will pass federal legislation to protect abortion rights on a national basis. That this is a cynical ploy will not be lost on many voters given the Democrats’ failure to try and pass such a law up until now, and Biden’s own historic support for moves to undermine abortion rights. Despite that, voters desperate to fight for reproductive rights may now turn out in large numbers for the Democrats in November. For other sections of the working class, however, the desire to protest against their falling living standards under Biden will be more pressing.

Nonetheless, the capitalist media portrayal of the US population as being divided into two completely antagonistic camps on social issues is a gross oversimplification. A third party – a workers’ party – that fought on economic and social questions, could begin to cut across the polarisation that exists. Just months before the last presidential elections, at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, 74% of Americans supported the movement. Support was lower among Republican voters, but a large minority – 40% – said they agreed with the protests. Undoubtedly many of them went on to vote for Trump. Similarly the overturn of Roe vs Wade by the US Supreme Court is opposed by the majority of the US population but also by a substantial minority – 41% – of Republicans.

Dysfunctional ‘democracy’

Increasing votes for right populist politicians is clearly not only an American phenomenon. Le Pen in France and Bolsanaro in Brazil are some of the most obvious examples. Britain’s prime minister Johnson has been summed up as a ‘pound shop Trump’ and, like him, came to power within an establishment capitalist party by posing as being in opposition to it.

Nonetheless there are specific characteristics of the situation in the US that pose particular dangers for its capitalist class. No capitalist democracy gives the population more than a very limited ability to influence the actions of governments. US ‘democracy’ is particularly curtailed and dysfunctional, however. The presidency is not decided by popular vote but by the electoral college where, state-by-state, the winner takes all in the electoral college votes in all but two states. Designed by the founding fathers to avoid the ‘tyranny of the majority’, and to protect the political hegemony of the Southern slave-owning states, the electoral college is weighted in favour of the small, predominantly white and Republican rural states. Urbanisation is increasing these built in historical inequalities. Those dwelling in cities increased by 12% from 2000 to 2010 and have grown further since. As a result, in 2020, a single elector represented more than 700,000 people or under 200,000 depending which state they represented. In addition undemocratic measures to limit voting, gerrymander voting districts and even remove voters from the electoral roll, most often people of colour, are being stepped up in a number of states.

In 2020 Trump received more than seven million fewer votes than Biden. In 2016 he ‘won’ despite being almost three million votes behind. It is possible that Trump or a Trumpian Republican candidate could win the electoral college with an even smaller share of the popular vote in 2024. Trump’s last victory was met with a mass outpouring of anger on the streets, but it would be dwarfed by the explosion of anger that would be seen next time around. Conversely a narrow Democrat victory could lead to a new campaign claiming the election was stolen.

Either scenario would lead to a further period of instability in Washington. It would also intensify the centrifugal forces acting on the US, which has always had a highly federal character. Trump ramped up tensions between the federal government and states when he was president. At one stage in the pandemic he threatened to impose a federal quarantine on the Democrat-led states of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Andrew Cuomo, then New York governor, denounced it as a “declaration of war”. During the BLM movements Trump threatened to send the army in over the heads of state governors and city authorities, and did so with federal law enforcement agents being sent into Portland, the largest city in Oregon. Even Nancy Pelosi, the pro-capitalist Democrat House Speaker, demagogically tweeted that “Trump and his storm troopers must be stopped”.

These kind of tensions are currently escalating in the struggle for abortion rights, and will grow further. Already support has grown for the idea of the US breaking up. Prior to the last presidential election a Hofstra University Poll found that nearly 40% of likely voters would support state succession if their candidate lost. YouGov last June found that 37% of Americans supported a “willingness to secede”. While this mood is strongest in the South and among Republicans one poll found 41% of Biden supporters (as well as 52% of Trump supporters) were at least somewhat in agreement with the idea “that its time to split the country, favouring blue/red states seceding from the union”.

Clearly for the US capitalist class as a whole the break-up of the US would be a disaster, marking their nation’s demise as the global superpower, and it is not posed in the short term. Nonetheless, that does not mean that US capitalism has any means to overcome the multiple problems it faces, including the growing fragmentation of the nation state. Nor does the US capitalist class have one unified position on many of the key issues they face. Before the 2020 election Forbes did a survey of US billionaires. Of those that replied 43% identified as Republican, 33% as Democrat. However, 48% of them were voting Democrat in order to stop Trump. While there is a limit to the conclusions that can be drawn from a survey of individual billionaires, this does indicate that they saw both the Republicans and Democrats as parties of the capitalist elite, but also that a majority wanted a more reliable representative of their interests in the White House than their fellow billionaire Trump.

However, beneath the chaotic demagogy, Trump’s views do match with those of a minority wing of the US ruling class. Fearful of the relative decline of US imperialism, some do want to adopt a crude ‘America First’ policy, rather than Biden’s attempt to work with other Western powers to assert the interests of US imperialism. Some also, fearing the potential for socialist ideas, support an onslaught on the working class, and recognise that whipping up right populism can aid attempts to do so.

While the majority of the US capitalist class do not want to go further down this path at this stage, understanding that it would spark a backlash that could threaten their rule, they also have no way forward. The most far-sighted of them can see that the ‘duopoly’, which historically worked well for them by giving an illusion of choice to the US population, is now in a severe crisis, but that does not mean they can find any means to overcome the problem. These divisions between different sections of the capitalist class will therefore also tend to be played out in tensions between states and the federal government, and big cities too. It easy to see how this could develop, for example, between Texas and other states – backed by the oil billionaires, if a federal government was to take any significant steps towards cleaner energy which threatened their profits.

Workers start to act

The one force that could overcome the problems facing US society is also the one force that the capitalist class are united in fearing: the potentially mighty US working class. Over the last decade support for socialist ideas, in a broad sense, has grown rapidly in the US. In the most recent poll 41% of all adults saw socialism positively. At the same time, post pandemic, trade unions are more popular than at any time since 1965. This is not – as yet – fully reflected in the level of strikes, but there is an upward trend there too. Prior to the pandemic in 2018 the number of US workers involved in strikes and lock-outs involving 1,000 workers or more reached half a million, the first time since 1986, with 2019 only marginally lower. Now, post-pandemic, there are further signs of growing combativity. Last year there was a 50% increase in the number of ballots for union recognition in the US.

The organised working class has the ability to prevent attempted coups a thousand times more serious than Trump’s 2020 posturing. Martin and Burns make no mention of the discussions that took place in the workers’ movement about how to react to Trump’s claims the election was stolen. The question of a general strike was being debated, however. For example, the Rochester-Genesee Valley Labor Federation in New York State voted to support preparing for a general strike “if necessary, to ensure a constitutionally mandated peaceful transition of power”. Nor was that an isolated case. Resolutions calling for a general strike if needed were passed by local union federations in Western Massachusetts and Seattle, among others.

Even the generally pro-capitalist tops of the US trade union movement discussed the issue. An AFL-CIO executive council resolution was passed which declared that “democracies are not, in the last analysis, protected by judges or lawyers” but “the determination of working people to defend” them. It’s true that when interviewed about it, Michael Podorzer, a senior advisor to the President of the AFL-CIO, said that at the moment “a general strike is a slogan not a strategy”. However, had Trump’s coup gained any traction, the potential would have been there for a general strike to become not just a slogan, but a reality. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants who called for a general strike to end Trump’s federal government shutdown in January 2019, put it succinctly in the run-up to the 2020 election: is “the labour movement prepared to conduct a general strike? No. Can we do it though? Absolutely”.

As US workers move into struggle the question of how to forge a party which stands in their interests will also be posed. More than at any time for decades the conditions for the emergence of an independent workers’ party will develop in the next period. Such a party would need to fight for economic and social demands, linked to a socialist programme for the huge wealth of US society to be taken out of the hands of the super-rich and be democratically run by working-class people. It would also need to raise a programme of democratic demands. These would include challenging the undemocratic electoral college, the unrepresentative senate, and the supreme court, and the sweeping away of all the barriers which stand in the way of candidates outside the duopoly getting on the ballot.

Far from Trump’s eviction from office marking the end of instability in the US, the country is at the start of a turbulent new period. Mass protests, like the wave now sweeping the US over the repeal of Roe vs Wade, are the music of the future. It was, of course, the mass movements which engulfed the US in the 1960s and 70s which won abortion rights in the first place. Today, however, unlike then, ailing US capitalism has much less room to manoeuvre; above all it has less capacity to improve the living standards of the working class. The struggles that will engulf the US in the coming period are therefore likely to rise to a higher level than in the 1960s, and create opportunities for the socialist transformation of society in the most powerful capitalist country on earth.