The storming of Capitol Hill by Donald Trump loyalists and far-right terrorists on 6 January summarises the crisis and decline of liberal democracy in the US. Liberals and autocrats around the world must have watched in horror or with a smile. If this could happen in America, it could happen anywhere. US hegemony has suffered a massive setback due to the attack on US lawmakers at a time when the Trump administration remained incapable of coping with the pandemic. Taken together, Covid-19 and a riot in Washington exposed the disarray of American politics and government at home and abroad.
Do we really understand the anger and deep resentment expressed by those who stormed the Capitol or the toxic tribalism of American politics? The US is an unrivalled superpower with an economy, technology, and hegemonic culture that are the envy of the world. The US dollar is the global currency backed solely by the health of America’s standing in the world. Global financial institutions are dominated by Washington’s foreign policy, and multinational corporations are the source of Wall Street’s financial power. Americans, it seems, have it all, so why the anger? What do those who stormed the Capitol want? To find the answers we need to look at how the US came to such a state of affairs that we witnessed what some have called an attempted coup in Washington on 6 January.
Since Trump took office in 2017, scholars have debated whether US politics has taken a nationalist, populist, or fascist turn and whether the trend is here to stay. The events of 6 January vindicates those such as political theorist William E. Connolly, who argued in his book, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism, that Trump fits the profile of the “aspirational fascist”. He explained that Trump seeks to intimidate democratic institutions to shape them according to his will. Trump is a charismatic figure who knows how to stoke resentment and anger in the minds of the masses for the purpose of mobilisation to challenge democratic norms and rules for personal gain.
Yet US democracy was already in crisis before Trump’s arrival in the White House. His presidency was a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis. The mob rage we witnessed last month was due to the dominance of identity politics in the absence of class politics and the role of government to mitigate societal and political change. Fringe groups who are openly nativist, racist and fascist have always existed on the margins of US politics with limited impact. Historically, they become potent during times of crisis. They are able to capture the anger and resentment due to a loss of economic status and frame them in terms of identity grievances scapegoating those who are weak, different or alien to the dominant culture. The anger frenzy lures those who are motivated by grievances such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender or American foreign policy towards a perceived international adversary. These grievances are best managed and mitigated when politics and elections provide remedies to economic and status decline; this is especially important for the cohesion of an immigrant nation.
The support that Trump received in the 2020 election is indicative of grievances that are decades old. To understand how we got here, it is necessary to examine the historical events that permanently changed the trajectory of American politics and government behind the current enmity and polarisation of the electorate.
Since World War Two, domestic politics in the US has been dominated by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal programmes that were originally designed to combat the Great Depression (1929–1933). The New Deal provided the US with a third path to resolve the global economic depression beyond fascist and communist economic solutions. Two shattering events at the domestic and global levels changed the trajectory of American politics and effectively reversed the Keynesian economic policies of the New Deal. The first was the Reagan Revolution announced during President Ronald Reagan’s inaugural address when he said that “…government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” The second was the end of the Cold War that culminated with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The dovetailing of both events solidified the domination of Reagan’s neoliberal economic order and the dissolution of the New Deal economic protections and social programmes.
Reagan deregulated the market and encouraged entrepreneurship by cutting taxes for the business sector while cutting social safety nets for disadvantaged groups. The logic was that it is market competition rather than government that provides effective solutions to social problems and social services. Tax codes on individuals and corporations that once were at the level of Western European social democracies declined steadily on the wealthy to encourage the trickling down effect of the “invisible hand of the market”, ensuring prosperity for Americans. Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War freed the economic elite from the fear of the spread of communism among the American working class. What followed was a transfer of manufacturing around the globe in search of cheaper goods in order to increase profit margins; American workers were left to their own devices because the social safety net once provided by the state was no longer available.
The combination of the Reagan Revolution and the end of the Cold War made economic globalisation inevitable. The US economy grew to a staggering degree that made the dollar and financial institutions stronger. In the process, though, politics was severed from economics. Voting is no longer an effective way to mitigate the effects of the economic transformation. With President Bill Clinton’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the Reagan Revolution permeated political parties and the culture of US politics, making it almost impossible to distinguish between the economic policies of Republicans and Democrats. Both parties deregulated the market, cut taxes on the wealthy, and rolled back social programmes.
The US Supreme Court provided the legal backdrop for the consolidation of the Reagan Revolution by rolling back laws passed by Congress in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010) and McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission (2014), opening the floodgates for private money in elections and politics. Private money ensured that politics and economics stayed well apart. The Court also abdicated its role by looking the other way while both political parties practiced hyper-partisan gerrymandering based on identity politics, allowing for the absurdity whereby politicians get to pick their voters rather than be accountable to them. The economic domain of politics was transferred to the domain of identity politics as the sole dividing wedge that motivates people to vote.
Finally, the deregulation by the Federal Communications Commission of broadcast standards in 1987 under the Fairness Doctrine established in 1949 coupled with the relaxation of media concentration ownership rules allowed a handful of giant media corporations to profit from the grievances and discontent of Americans without any regulation. These changes in US media laws poured fuel on the fire of the identity divide allowing fringe groups who are openly white supremacists, xenophobes, Islamophobes, and anti-Semites to hijack the grievances of the white working class.
Trumpism is here to stay because it gave a voice to a sizable new electorate who voted for the Republican Party to “drain the swamp” of perceived government corruption on behalf of “the forgotten men and women” who are supposedly only white. Beyond the racial aspect of the slogan, what Trump supporters want is for politics and economics to be connected once more so that voting really matters and politicians deliver on their promises. This is actually the source of discontent among the supporters of both political parties and it is here to stay.
The reconnection of the political and economic domains is possible when the interests of the economic ruling elite are threatened by another state actor. Decades after the end of the Cold War, it is apparent that US democracy is now in need of such an international adversary. Only when a crisis becomes economic and threatens the standing of the US dollar as the global currency of exchange, and international institutions are no longer controlled by Washington, can the political and economic domains be reconnected in America.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.