Snatching Victory

Weak American Democracy Lends Strength to Trump’s Insurgent Right

January 25, 2021

On January 6, 2021, right-wing insurgents attempted to seize the Capitol building in an effort to overturn the 2020 presidential election results. The attempt was incited by Trump, his supporters, and a small faction of the GOP. This moment marks an escalation of right-wing insurgent politics, which has its electoral base and formal political representation in the GOP.

Some people (such as Corey Robin) argue that the Trump years and the resurgence of vigilantism reveal the fundamental weakness of the right. They prove, Robin argues, that allusions to fascism and authoritarianism are overblown. Others, like Rafael Khachaturian and Stephan Maher, see the attack on the Capitol as a moment of beating back the insurgent right and the reassertion of neoliberalism. Both views have some merit, but they miss the mark when it comes to understanding the political formation of conservatism, insurgent right politics, fascism, and authoritarianismboth currently and historically.

Such views fall into a form of American exceptionalism on two fronts. First, they willfully ignore how anti-Black slavery, settler colonization, and racial capitalism cultivated and continue to reproduce fascist and authoritarian political projects to the point of defining what we understand to be the insurgent right and conservatism in general. Second, they decontextualize the rise of the insurgent right, fascism, and authoritarianism in this country from its current global rise. As a result, these analysts miss a real victory for the right which is obscured by the failed but spectacular attempt to thwart the election of Biden.

The insurgent right is growing in power and is becoming increasingly mainstream after the attempt to seize the Capitol. What must be recognized after this attempt is that the insurgent right has a credible base within the party and is absolutely mainstream.

 

Base-building, but on the Right

The depth and intensity of that base within the GOP is stunning. A hundred and forty-seven Republican representatives voted to overturn the election after the attack. Polling shows that a near majority of rank-and-file Republicansalmost a third of all votersbelieve the attack on the Capitol was justified. Much has been made of large corporations and business interest groups condemning the attack, demanding that Trump step down, and in some cases pulling their support as political funders. This outpouring of public, corporate, “antifascist” sentiment and action is often presented as definitive evidence that the capitalist class does not support Trump or the insurgent right.

The data, however, is still coming in, and there are reasons to see this show of antifascist sentiment by the ruling class as shallow and contingent. As of January 11, of the 144 corporations that gave money to the Republican legislators who voted to overturn the election, fewer than twenty-five have committed to stop donating to these officials. These hard numbers are not exactly a repudiation or capitalist donor strike of Trump and the GOP members who fomented the attack.

When it comes to the GOP and  the vigilante right’s grassroots base of support, a YouGov Poll found that 56 % of voters believe that election fraud took place to support the seizure of the Capitol. 45 % of Republicans strongly support or somewhat support the seizure. 47 % percent of the GOP feel it was “mostly a legitimate protest.”

Another measure of support for the seizure of Congress, indirectly, is the number of Republican voters who don’t think Trump should be impeached: a full 76 %. Meanwhile, 69 % of Republicans maintain that the President was either “not at all” or “not very much” to blame for the attack. A majority of GOP voters also believe that the Presidential election was stolen by Biden, with 73 % affirming that sufficient fraud took place to have changed the election results.

These polls were all conducted after the Capitol siege. These data demonstrate the existence of a Republican majority or near majority that support the vigilante attack on the election count, with a supermajority support for overturning the election, and significant support for letting Trump off the hook. The same polls offer no real support for the notion, widely propagated by liberals and some on the left, that the attack on the Capitol has undermined support for far-right activists or for the elected officials who support them.

This polling also troubles the widespread assertion on the social democratic left that neoliberalism is once again ascendant and that reactionary forces are beaten back solely because their support from capital is waning. What has been shown is that, at best, capital doesn’t seem to be in any mood to discipline the GOP for its part in the attack.

The formal support of capital is an essential factor to assessing the strength of the insurgent right, but it’s not the only factor. It needs to be attached to an analysis that measures support among elected officials, donors, and the electoral base in order to understand if insurgent right-wing politics and the GOP in general is ascendent or in decline.

A different way of understanding our current moment is that there is an ongoing contestation for an emerging order where neither neoliberalism nor right-authoritarianism yet prevails. In its wake the siege on the Capitol has produced a political paralysis for neoliberals, for the right, and for the left.

 

Optimism of the Intellect

Much of the overly hopeful declarations of the death of the far right are rooted in a common yet false comparison between the right and the left. In fact, the right enjoys asymmetric advantages that make such comparisons misleading and encourage underestimation of right-wing forces and salience. While people like Corey Robin argue the right is “weak and incoherent,” this assumes they need to be “strong and coherent” in order to win electorally and have a base. But in reality, the right does not need to be particularly strong or coherent to win more votes or delivering on the political project it campaigns on in the way the left does in order to win electorally or to pass legislationit simply requires liberal acquiesce to its agenda and a lack of coherent and effective opposition.

The insurgent right is growing in power and is becoming increasingly mainstream after the attempt to seize the Capitol. What must be recognized after this attempt is that the insurgent right has a credible base within the party and is absolutely mainstream.

We see this asymmetry in effect as the GOP does not get punished in the same way at the polls for insurgent activity or for governing on hard right policies (lack of economic and public health support being but one example) electorally in the manner that the left does. Right wing politicians and blocs have the luxury of attending to a narrower base, that can turnout less but still produce more in terms capturing state power at election time. This dynamic also allows the GOP to run on its more radical parts of its platform without having to later move to the “center” in the same way that the Democrats seem compelled to do.  We can see that millions more voters turned out for the Dems this election than the GOP, but the Democrats lost or didn’t gain majorities in state and local races, and barely won the house and Senate.

Due to the asymmetry between the parties and larger political projects of right wing authoritarianism and conservative neoliberalism, the right has an advantage when it comes to winning elections due to voter suppression, the electoral college, the Senate, and gerrymandering. The willingness of its donor base to do explicit right wing ideological fundamentalist funding to political projects only intensifies such asymmetries. As we saw on the siege of the capital that asymmetry is there when police let protestors in and the lack of force shown to the protestors. The carceral state crackdown on the insurgent right has been far less severe than repression unleashed on the left.

Neoliberals in the Democratic Party, too, drive this asymmetric response, which is never as severe toward the right as to the left when it comes to law-breaking or even merely incivility. Relative impunity for elites occurs in general but especially the Republican political elite since the Dems rarely hold them accountable, choosing instead to “go high when they go low” and inevitably to “reach across the aisle” whenever conflicts arise. These are all factors that give the right its asymmetrical advantage, due to the anti-democratic governing institutions through which they are expressed, incentivizing rather than punishing the mainstream GOP’s embrace of the hard and insurgent right.

 

The Inside-Outside Strategy of Trump’s Far Right

Understanding this asymmetry helps to clarify another contested question, namely whether Trump and other Republican electeds are responsible for “incitement” of the far right in general and of the Capitol siege in particular. As figures like Vice President Mike Pence and Mitch McConnell publicly repudiate the insurgent right, just days before the presumptive end of Trump’s term, this shift has been celebrated on the left as a key bulwark against any credible fascist threat and highlighted as evidence of potential for a permanent split in the Republican Party, including by radical socialists like Mike Davis.

Instead, the move to distinguish respectable Republican rightists from militants acting outside the law should be understood as the cynical ploy it is, and one which cannot be understood separately from the 147 GOP members voting to overturn the election: a dog whistle in support of the attack, Trump, and right-wing insurrectionary politics.

To understand these two data points together, it’s important to grasp that the insurgent right and its brand of insurrection are still primarily “working within liberal institutions to achieve his reactionary, anti-democratic ends,” even as illiberalism is deployed to reinforce, consolidate and popularize the content of their politics and strategy. This is what makes them so dangerous.

The danger, in part, becomes apparent in a new social composition of public, insurgent far-right activity. Unlike the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, the siege of the Capitol was not made up primarily of official or open memes of far-right or white supremacist organizations, though undoubtedly some such affiliations are already beginning to emerge.

This action was rather populated by individuals more similar to the base of the Tea Party, largely a petit bourgeois and some upper-crust individuals, off-duty police, and military officers or elites. This grouping has over time moved from standard conservatism or apolitical apathy to a new willingness to take the law into their own hands out of rage at a political process which they view as corrupt or fraudulent precisely to the degree which it fails to reflect their positions and interests versus the larger consensus of capital. But even more importantly, for them, versus social groups they see as enemies: people of color, immigrants, leftists and protesters, cultural elites, queers and the like.

 

Policing the Party

The participation of and collusion with the siege by police is a crucial element indicating the underlying and still tight connection between insurgent right wing militants and the Republican mainstream. It’s important to remember that police and incarceration are in fact industries that create and sustain their own interests and with it its own electoral and political bases. Those bases and the unions that represent them have fervently supported Trump and police nationalism. The CPD police union president supported the capitol attack, and off duty police officers participated in the insurrection and there was lack of any meaningful condemnation by police unions, outside of requesting Trump to deescalate. The insurgent right isn’t a fringe of the GOP, it is of and for the mainstream of the GOP. A consequence of the insurgent right being of the GOP mainstream is the increase of right-wing violence under Trump and if the attack on the capital seems to be any indication it doesn’t appear to be dissipating.

The move to distinguish respectable Republican rightists from militants acting outside the law should be understood as the cynical ploy it is, and one which cannot be understood separately from the 147 GOP members voting to overturn the election: a dog whistle in support of the attack, Trump, and right-wing insurrectionary politics.

The steady escalation in right wing violence coupled with its mainstream GOP nature, means right wing insurgents are in a position of power to fight for its vision of authoritarianism. It would be better to view this as a continuation of many attempts by the insurgent right to enforce anti-democratic policies it seeks to implement using right wing violence to achieve its ends: the murdering of Black Freedom Movement organizers who were registering Black people to vote, the violent white mobs who attacked the Freedom Riders who were seeking to end Jim Crow when it came to interstate travel and the violence that came with it, the Wilmington coup that  overturn elections of Black elected officials, and the anti-abortion bombings that sought to overturn women’s reproductive rights. The insurgent right fighting for anti-democratic policies of the mainstream right-wing and seeking to overturn elections is not a heel turn for the right wing. This isn’t particular to Trumpism, this is right wing-ism. Trumpism is just the most recent mainstreaming and intensification of a long right-wing tradition of insurgent right-wing politics.

 

Measures of Failure

The attack on the capital was a moment of escalation for the right insurgents and GOP. Its “failure” to overturn the election doesn’t speak to the weakness of the Trump, GOP or the insurgent right. The point of the attack was never to win on those terms. A better way to measure its failure or success is in the polarization of  a public  now forced to choose a side and the potential for this spectacle to energize its core base of support. When looked at in this way, the attack on the capital was a success.

Polarization that has followed and deepened following the siege cements the far-right agenda,  justifying and consolidating the existing norm of racist, anti-working class voter suppression, gerrymandering, and felony disenfranchisement that plays directly into Republican hands. It also has the potential to neutralize a swath of left opposition, in part by appealing to left and to the wider working class ambivalence about elections rooted in their undemocratic structure and functioning.

It is widely and correctly understood by working class people that capitalist money in politics limits severely the degree to which elections represent “the people,” and that this is borne out by a consistent absence of “electable” candidates running on pro-working class and left political platforms. It’s apparent even to casual observers that this political system lacks meaningful mechanisms to hold elected officials accountable once in office, while the Electoral College has been repeatedly exposed as something more sinister than a historical quirk of American democracy. Instead, it has repeatedly produced outcomes in which the popular vote and the legitimating selection by electors are split between two candidates, making plain the original purpose in limiting the functional weight of popular democracy.

All of these all-too-real, open, failures of democratic functioning give weight to right-wing claims that the 2020 election was a fraud, however baseless these are in their specifics. In turn, these claims, and the fundamental flaws of American elections, created an opening and a basis for the far-right’s most recent direct anti-democratic attack on Congress, the most structurally democratic branch of the federal government, and on the legitimacy of democracy in general.

Fascist Creep?

Badly-needed left-wing insight into this dynamic has been largely overshadowed by point-missing debates over nominalistic definitions, mostly aimed at whether or not the insurgent right, Trump himself, or, more broadly, the American system as a whole is or is not fascist.

This genre of discourse misses the point by attempting to quantify a paradigmatic “this is fascism moment” or by insisting that one or another criteria is the singular way to measure the rise of authoritarianism.  As Mark Bray explains “the probability of an actual fascist government is actually beside the point in terms of everyday organizing. Fascist violence is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Even in relatively small doses, it can be quite dangerous and therefore deserves to be taken seriously.”

Taking it a step further, it is helpful to understand fascism and authoritarianism as a project already latent in liberal democracy, especially in the carceral, military and security apparatus of the state: police, border security, surveillance and incarceration. The possible political conditions of fascism and authoritarianism (most explicitly seen with Blue Lives Matter and police nationalism) are able to socially reproduce themselves within the industries and the people who work for, manage and control the carceral apparatus.

With this context we can see that fascism and authoritarianism within slaver-settler democracy and racial capitalism are a feature of US political life, not a bug.

A conservative and crude estimate suggests that these industries employ well over four million workers directly. This doesn’t include the contractors within those industries. The prison industry alone contracts out to 4,100 corporations. We see the politicization of such industries through the police union and border patrol union endorsements of Trump.

But this analysis shouldn’t be read as suggesting a flat declaration that the USA is all in on fascism or authoritarianism. Even with respect to police union and individual cops’ political donations, the numbers are relatively evenly split between the two parties. This simultaneously suggests a still healthy partisan contestation that defines bourgeois democracy, and

the degree to which carceral security and military industries, and their interests in increasingly authoritarian state policy finds political purchase across the spectrum of possible representation in this system.

 

Stony Road to Perdition

The specific formation of these industries in the United States have their historical roots in the genocide of America’s indigenous people, in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and in the development of chattel slavery and the plantation system. The un-freedom and torture of Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, and historical development of racial capitalism reveal that many of the defining features of fascism and authoritarianism have long been the norm rather than the exception of American liberal democracy, global capitalism’s tendency toward imperialist expansionism, and the logic of the capitalist state.

Nikhil Singh articulates this relationship by arguing that fascism is“[liberalism’s] doppelganger or double—an exclusionary will to power that has regularly reemerged, manifesting itself in: (1) those zones of internal exclusion within liberal-democratic societies (plantations, reservations, ghettos, and prisons); and (2) those sites where liberalism’s expansionist impulse and universalizing force has been able to evade its own ‘‘constitutional restraints’’ (the frontier, the colony, the state of emergency, the occupation, and the counterinsurgency).”

This conception complicates a common, reflexive left-wing understanding of the relationship between neoliberalism and authoritarianism. Instead of seeing them as projects pitched against each other in a battle for hegemony, it is illuminating to see them as Stuart Hall did when explaining neoliberalism’s ascension with the election of Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and her famous declaration that “there is no alternative” to capitalism.

Hall argues that in order for neoliberalism to overtake social democracy, with a law-and-order society and electoral project he called “authoritarian populism,” not only do the structure of class relations need to be transformed, but simultaneously, so do the basic expectations and the horizon of political possibility as understood by the working class and the electorate as a whole.

Through Hall’s analysis we see how institutions (police, prisons), policies (tough on crime bills, anti-welfare bills) and right-wing political parties are the forms of authoritarianism needed to bring about and sustain neoliberalism, and how this transformation intensified core components  of 20th century fascist ideology—racism, xenophobia, homophobia and reductionist conceptions of the working class— in the everyday life and worldview of neoliberal subjects.

This pushes us to see the broad overlap between features of fascism and neoliberalism’s tendency toward ever-more restrictive limits on the political sphere, toward intensified state violence, and toward an emphasis on “culture war” as an outlet for conflicts that cannot be resolved within the limits of neoliberal politics. This formulation calls into question the relevance of debating whether any given moment or movement is “truly” fascist, pushing us instead to see the institutional, policy, political forms that naturalize the daily brutalities of capitalism and their ideological justifications. Which is to say, Halls conceit reveals that neoliberalism produces fascism as a lived experience, and primes conditions that invite its reemergence as a viable movement, and ultimately as a systematic possibility.

Writers like Samuel Moyn and Corey Robin have argued we should understand Trump and the rise of the insurgent right within the tradition of conservatism, and the forms of racism, xenophobia and sexism it produces rather than in the fascism of Mussolini and Hitler. What this analysis misses is that this distinction is far from clear cut, and that it never has been. The history of conservatism and right-wing politics in general betray this truth.

In the USA, the line has never been bright between conservatism and an anti-democratic, openly racist, brutally murderous authoritarianism. In the period after the Civil War and Reconstruction, the conversative movement, through insurgent means, installed the formally racist, authoritarian regime of Jim Crow, long identified as fascistic not only by Black radicals, but also by liberals and notably by Black soldiers making comparisons to home after liberating Europe’s concentration camps during the Second World War.

Using Sarah Churchill’s definition of fascism as “nostalgia for a purer, mythic, often rural past; cults of tradition and cultural regeneration; paramilitary groups; the delegitimizing of political opponents and demonization of critics; the universalizing of some groups as authentically national, while dehumanizing all other groups; hostility to intellectualism and attacks on a free press; anti- modernism; fetishized patriarchal masculinity; and a distressed sense of victimhood and collective grievance. Fascist mythologies often incorporate a notion of cleansing, an exclusionary defense against racial or cultural contamination, and related eugenicist preferences for certain “bloodlines” over others.” One can’t help but think of the overthrow of Reconstruction as a form of fascism.

What is most striking about the example of Reconstruction is that the political class that led the right-wing insurrection (dare I say “coup attempt”?) suffered from the same failings that many on the left use to argue that the insurgent right is weak. If anything, you could say the southern conservative political class at that time was far weaker and suffered a far greater total defeat than anything we see now with the GOP and the insurgent right.

Yet they successfully managed to turn back almost all the victories of Reconstruction. This history should serve as a warning against  assuming that Trump, the GOP and the insurgent rights are weak, especially when it comes to them achieving their anti-democratic goals of overturning elections, massive voter disenfranchisement and a hyper buildup of the carceral and military state. Especially because these remain the goals of the mainstream GOP.

With this context we can see that fascism and authoritarianism within slaver-settler democracy and racial capitalism are a feature of US political life, not a bug. This also allows us to better understand Trump’s rise, his push to overturn an election and the insurgent right-wing violence that came with as part of a hegemonic political tradition instead of as a marginal one.

Liberals only want to destroy fascism in the formal sense, pushing them back into acting solely in the realm of legal electoral action. The left wants to abolish fascism, the right, and liberal capitalism.

It also invites us to historicize the BIPOC left organizing tradition within the United States as one that has always been paradigmatically anti-fascist. The struggles to abolish slavery, end Jim Crow, and abolish settler society are all part of such a tradition and should inform how we go about contesting this moment of heightened insurgent right-wing politics.

There is an assumption that a primary focus on stopping fascism or right-wing insurgent politics needs to come at the expense of organizing to end neoliberalism. This is also the underlying assumption within most of the debates on “if we are on the road to some form of authoritarianism”, or “if the governing right wing is weak or strong” in this country. The idea being having such an analysis can better inform what strategy and tactics to take on. For the most part this is true. The concern here being that a primary focus on fascism or insurgent right-wing politics will allow for coalitions with neoliberals or that such a focus will allow neoliberalism to reassert itself fully.

This view assumes of course that leftist anti-fascist and anti-insurgent right-wing organizing is focused only on beating back the insurgent and fascist right wing. I contend leftist anti-fascist and anti-insurgent right wing organizing as an organizing and political tradition has always been about defeating liberal capitalism and seen the defeat of liberal capitalism as foundational to any effort to defeating the right and fascism. I would go further and say this points to what separates liberals from the left. Liberals only want to destroy fascism in the formal sense, pushing them back into acting solely in the realm of legal electoral action. The left wants to abolish fascism, the right, and liberal capitalism.

 

Fight the Right

After all this, the reader may be inclined to ask “what bearing do these arguments about the questions, of whether the right is powerful or weak and whether fascism is on the rise, have on how leftist organize in this moment?” This is a fair question and one I wrestle with myself. I would argue that a weakness on the left, especially the social democratic and electoral socialist left is the unseriousness with which it treats the right in general. In its efforts to take on liberals, liberalism, and neoliberalism, many times it misses the intensity with which the right organizes and fights to win and the institutional asymmetric advantages the right possesses. This orientation perhaps stems from an overcorrection for the left’s failure to take on Obama when he was in office.

Within this lack of focus it views right-wing violence and extreme right-wing views as episodic, instead of the norm, especially when it is assumed such acts and views undermine their class position as capitalists. This obscures how racial capitalism came to be as it relates to its political formation and misunderstands what is and isn’t the right-wing conservative project in this country. But this usually assumes a static capitalist class position that is invested in liberal democracy due to class interests. This is misguided because it assumes a capitalist class interests cannot change in response to changing economic, social and political conditions. Especially when those changing economic, political and social conditions are creating issues for the capitalist class itself. The history of the emergence of neoliberalism shows no guarantees to the fidelity to the existing order by capitalist.

More importantly an insurgent right wing is an accelerant to fascist and authoritarian tendencies. Our country’s history speaks to this reality. Brazil and Bolivia also speak to this reality. Many of the “the right is weak” or “the right isn’t fascist” arguments ignore recent events in Brazil and Bolivia where relatively marginal right-wing forces came to power against mass-based leftist political projects through insurgent violence, lawfare, and legislative means. The rise of authoritarianism is a global phenomenon. When left in this country takes an American exceptionalist approach, it does us no favors in our quest to defeat neoliberalism, an insurgent right, fascism, or authoritarianism.

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