American midterms are an index of political crisis
And the left must ensure its candidates are accountable, writes Paul Demarty
It would be rather a stretch to call recent terrorist incidents in America ‘surprising’. We have had - in quick succession - the foiled mailing of pipe bombs to various American Democrat types, from Hillary Clinton to George Soros and Robert de Niro, and an all-American gun massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
A liberal, reform-Jewish place of worship, the Tree of Life had apparently incurred the ire of the anti-Semitic, white-supremacist prime suspect, Robert Bowers, for not only being a Jewish place of worship, but supporting initiatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society - a charity dedicated to assisting refugees in making new lives in America.
The bombs, meanwhile, seem to be the work of one Cesar Sayoc, who was quickly arrested and charged in Florida. Sayoc’s personal history is one of bouncing between dead-end jobs and attempts to run his own business. He appears to have been living in the van where he was arrested, having become estranged from his mother, with whom he lived before. He might have severe mental health problems. He is certainly very fond of the current president, though his little stunt cannot have done Donald Trump any favours.
Both these crimes now bundle about in the characteristically American purgatory of whether they are to be counted as ‘terrorist’ or not. Liberals and lefts in the States tend to view the conservative and wobbly centrist tendency to talk about these kinds of incidents as ‘lone wolf’ attacks by random lunatics in a very different light. The fact that every last bomb planted in the name of the liberation of the global ummah, from no matter how alienated an individual, gets hoovered up into the prosecutor’s armoury in the ‘war on terror’ is proof that ‘anti-terrorism’ is merely a cover for anti-Islam bigotry and racism.
There is certainly something in this, although it seems on the face of it that imperialism rather than racism lies beneath the double standard. On the other hand, there does seem to be a real difference - not moral, but factual - here. It seems to be far more overwhelmingly the case that rightwing terrorists in America do act essentially alone.
We have painted a rather sad picture of Sayoc; as for Bowers, let us quote a CNN journalist on the scene in Pittsburgh: “What is most terrifying about Robert Bowers is what an unassuming, placid exterior he presented to his friends, people who lived near him; and just how deep the hatred and anger ran privately in this man.”
Does this sound somehow familiar? Have we heard this story before? Surely we have - there are few enough examples of exemplary acts of racist or far-right terror in this period that are conducted by organised groupings as such. Very much more pre-eminent among the Islamists are groups, even incompetent local cliques. It is not so much the brown skin or the muezzin call that dominates the mental image of the terrorist, but the idea of the cell, the invisible conspiracy. But who will be convicted along with Robert Bowers for conspiracy?
This mismatch in collectivity might be just a matter of media bias. But it seems more likely to be an effect of wider American culture on its ethnic majority. The US political system is Bonapartist: the monarchical president is duplicated in every state governor and city mayor. First-past-the-post elections have the usual effect of driving towards two unwieldy, unsympathetic megaparties. The pervasive open primaries, moreover, make party membership a largely symbolic matter; thus the parties are essentially bureaucratically engineered electoral lists. There is actually very little to do in American politics if you are not a professional politician, or at least aspiring to be one - or someone with a lot of money to spread around.
The result is a lack of forms of authentic political collectivity, and so - in the first instance - the displacement into religious-reactionary forms. That may be, in the American context, evangelical, moral-majority Christianity (or for that matter Catholic agitation against abortion, gay rights, etc), or in some cases identification with the global religious struggle of al-Qa’eda, Islamic State and friends. But that is a very particular kind of match; it does not suit everyone, and there is the risk that the shame of failure and the sense of injustice become poisonously privatised, returning acts of vigilante violence. The dishonesty in the ‘terrorist versus lone wolf’ presentation is the implication that Islam has a terrorism ‘problem’, whereas the lone wolves are merely random lunatics. In reality, they are as American as muscle cars and Thunderbird wine.
This brings us back to the political context. This round of midterm elections are not, to understate the case, without interest. Though the US constitution outlines different roles and rights to the executive and legislative branches of government, the primary choice on offer to voters is about the executive, even when officially the reverse is the case. Rarely has this been more true; these midterms are interpreted as a referendum on Trump, with a rather apocalyptic air hanging over proceedings. It is this acrid atmosphere that gives us our ‘lone wolves’, who in turn add to the stench.
There are, naturally, conspiracy theorists who believe that these crimes are ‘false flag’ operations to smear the president and upset his national revolution. Though plainly unfounded, they at least correspond with one’s ‘natural’ intuition that far-right violence will not play to Trump’s advantage. While he rapidly condemned the attacks, he is clearly on the defensive; and he insistently downplays his own influence on Sayoc in favour of his mental illness. This is not a president who likes to spend time on the defensive, however, and he is also promising to abolish birthright citizenship by executive order, in order to gird the loins of his core vote.
For the time being, things look pretty finely poised; the statistics wonks reckon that the House will fall to the Democrats and the Senate stay in the hands of the Republicans, though the success rate of wonkdom is pretty poor at this point. If that does turn out to be the case, however, Trump’s domestic agenda will be hampered; but it will not be enough to scare the ‘Grand Old Party’ into impeaching him. For, while more ‘traditional’ Republican types were happy to denounce Trump on the campaign trail, the reality of his presidency has given them no incentive to abandon him. Most significantly, he has not lost his base, and the swathes of evangelicals disgusted by his uncouthness and moral laxity that were conjectured to exist in the far-off days of October 2016 have melted into thin air. The result is that GOP congressmen fear to oppose him, for his acolytes can easily replace them in primaries with true believers. It would take a truly seismic electoral rebuke to give them courage, and that is exactly what is not on the cards.
It has been common for the best part of a decade for the American establishment to lament the ‘polarisation’ of politics. That situation effectively gave us Trump’s candidacy, based on an omnivorously unfocused story of national decline that takes in the balance of trade, the sexual prowess of politicians and the violence of tackles permitted in American football. By the end of the presidential campaign, there were reports that many Republican voters considered his opponent, Hillary Clinton, to be a demon - as in the sulphurous spawn of the Accuser himself.
From our point of view, this polarisation is both real and fake. It is real, in that it concerns real issues especially of personal liberty - abortion rights, equal treatment of homosexual and heterosexual love, and so on - and that it is sincere. It is fake, in that there is a certain displacement going on; the problem with seeing Clinton as a demon is not only that it is - in point of fact - very likely false (and by extension the ever-longer list of conspiracy theories about her popular on the American right), but that there are very real reasons to distrust her, and the self-enriching political caste she represents so well - none of which are the ones actually imputed to her. Thus the right believes nonsensical fantasies, which on its own is well enough for the left; but the left rallies behind Clinton. Because she cannot shake the mistrust, however, it does not actually work. Vote Clinton, get Trump ...
The paradoxical result is that, while landmark decisions like gay marriage have gone the way of American progressives recently, everything seems somehow under worse threat than before. Neoliberal Democrats have proven themselves unable to forge the new consensus of cosmopolitan, capital-friendly pro-imperialism so ably exemplified by Hillary Clinton. The one advantage that she had over Bernie Sanders in the primaries - besides the blatant partisanship of the party machine - was that she could actually beat Donald Trump. But she did not.
The silver lining of this electoral cycle, then, is that there really is some kind of leftwing resurgence going on in the Democratic ranks. The most prominent index of that is the selection of several candidates from the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America - a long-standing social democratic ginger group thrust to prominence by association with Sanders. Three candidates for the House and one for the Senate have won their primaries; Rashida Tlaib is unopposed in her Michigan district, and so - barring some calamity - will certainly be elected. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who sensationally unseated an incumbent, is expected to win her race too.
In spite of the DSA’s many political flaws, this is a most welcome development. A far worse outcome than the election of Trump to the presidency - hell, even the re-election of Trump two years hence - would have been wasting the Sanders surge and going back to zero. It is probably true that we have the acute directionlessness of Democratic ‘moderates’ to thank for this as much as leftwing initiative, yet that crisis of the right is long overdue, and it is most pleasing to see them on the back foot.
This turn of events poses practical issues for the DSA - not just the hard core who have ploughed a lonely furrow since the days of Michael Harrington, but the new recruits that have doubled its number in the last two years. Foremost among them is an old sore point on the socialist left: you can get Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez into Congress, but can you keep them once they are there? Lobbyists prowl the halls; deals are struck; who signs off? Shall America’s ‘socialists’ rise to the challenge of the times, and offer an alternative centre of political authority to the failed state that is the Democratic National Committee? If so, it must be able to impose discipline on its elected representatives, and not merely bask in the feel-good glow of their election.