Pyrrhic victory over populism
However clownish Donald Trump is in defeat, a far-right resurgence is on the cards, reckons Paul Demarty
For us, two images stand out from the weekend’s events in the United States, when news agencies one by one called Pennsylvania for Joe Biden, bringing that bizarre 96-hour election night to a close.
One is the sight of spontaneous mass celebrations in American cities. There is a lot of chatter about the class composition of the Democratic vote at the moment, but these were not (or not only) the street parties of socially-liberal venture capitalists and adjunct lecturers in Africana Studies. A broad swathe of the American masses breathed a sigh of relief that - barring a constitutional coup - the nightmare of Donald Trump’s presidency is over, and the rather shorter one of his potentially sneaking an election that proved too close to call.
The other is - what else? - the bizarre press conference held by Team Trump at a garden centre on an industrial estate in the outskirts of Philadelphia. As Rudy Giuliani stepped up to the podium, he might have reflected on how life can turn; from mayor of New York to a flunkey of one of its most notorious sons - reduced to prosecuting an apparently hopeless legal struggle to overturn an election from a windswept Philadelphian roadside. We could put it no better than Saturday Night Live writer Zack Bornstein:
I could write jokes for 800 years and I’d never think of something funnier than Trump booking the Four Seasons for his big presser, and it turning out to be the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot between a dildo store and a crematorium.
The two scenes we identify are ones of humiliating defeat - the losers muttering darkly about vote-stealing conspiracies like Speakers Corner nutjobs, and the masses telling the outgoing commander-in-chief not to let the door hit his ass on the way out. Indeed, if someone had fallen into a coma in 2001 and woken up this weekend to look at the election results, they might not have found anything remarkable in them. Joe Biden - who they might remember as a bloodless centrist senator - won a convincing, if hardly crushing, victory. He won the popular vote by over four million, and is likely to top 300 electoral college delegates, once the Trump campaign’s kicking and screaming is over.
Such a person would, of course, be a little confused to find Donald Trump in the top job, with Giuliani at his right hand and a legion of conspiratorially-minded far-right superfans behind him - who, that Donald Trump? The one with the cameo in Home alone 2? The road that led, this millennium, to the podium in front of the Four Seasons Total Landscaping front door does not terminate there. If Trump is the loser of this election, the long-term winner will be Trumpism, whether the man himself has another tilt in 2024 or there is another standard-bearer for repellent national chauvinism.
Exhibit A for that rather grim outlook is, of course, the peculiar course of the election itself. As expected, turnout soared - with a massive increase in absentee and early voting, and a pervasive sense of national crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, it could hardly have been otherwise. That change in turnout was what led pollsters and pundits to predict a Biden victory. Indeed, the post-poll progress of the counts rather gave the impression that turnout changes in core Democratic constituencies told, as voters in cities like Atlanta, Milwaukee and Philadelphia slowly overturned Trump’s lead.
The unavoidable truth, however, is that this historic turnout did not save us from a bum-squeaker of a contest, and the reason for that is that Trump’s vote also enormously increased over 2016. He got 8.5 million more votes than last time: Biden beat Hillary Clinton’s total by 10.3 million (subject to the final ballots trickling in). Trump’s percentage of these ‘new’ votes, in other words, is around 45% - which is to say, plumb in the range that Trump’s presidential approval rating has sat throughout his entire reign, despite accusations of treachery, articles of impeachment, and now his catastrophic handling of the pandemic. It is the latter issue which stands out as truly astonishing - in the midst of what could well be the worst dereliction of duty in the entire history of the American executive branch, the sitting president found 8 million new votes from ... somewhere.
Reading the liberal media at this time is a curious experience. On the front pages, there is gloopy, adulatory coverage of Biden and his vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris: the former ending a long nightmare of misrule, and the latter - according to liberal anti-racist cliché - making history on behalf of all African-American and/or Indian-American women, and so on. Leaf on through to the comment pages, however, and it is almost like reading about a different election. Pundit after pundit looks horrified at the solidity of Trump’s vote, the Biden failure to take the Senate (excepting some miracle in run-off votes in January), and grimly concludes that the ‘populist’ dragon has not been slain after all, but merely waits, gathering its strength.
No sober observer can expect the reckoning for Joe and Kamala to begin too far into the future, even if we take an unusually bullish view of Biden’s personal vitality. Biden has fought this election precisely on the basis of Trump’s clownish mismanagement of the pandemic. The point, of course, is that a sensible president - even one forgetful of names and ends of sentences - would have the power to ‘sort it out’. The problem is that Biden does not. Getting through the next two years without control of the purse strings - as will be the case in the likely event that the Republicans maintain control of the Senate - will be essentially impossible. Biden talked about a trillion-dollar-plus stimulus package, but Senate leader Mitch McConnell is perfectly capable of vivisecting anything of that sort. Such a ghoul is well aware that not he, but the White House, will be blamed for the failure to do anything remotely adequate in response to the burning needs of the day. After all, it was Biden - not McConnell - who promised it to voters.
It is difficult to foresee anything other than a crushing victory for Republicans in the 2022 midterms, and a victory moreover for individual congressmen after the pattern of QAnon wingnut Marjorie Taylor Greene, newly seated in Georgia’s 14th district. That will set us up nicely for 2024, where Harris (presumably) will face off against god knows who (according to some reports, Trump himself, but also possibly his idiot son, Don junior - or Tucker Carlson, the bow-tied ultra-reactionary cable news troll). She will be forced to defend a record of total failure. Perhaps she will hope, by the end of it, that Ms Taylor Greene turns out to be right after all, and a deep-state conspiracy puts her out of her misery and replaces her with a body double.
Reality of class
So far, we are at one with the liberals (or at least the intelligent liberals). We both wait for the other shoe to drop, and indeed - for all the likely madness of the lame duck period - expect the disasters to truly begin in the early days of Biden’s ascension to the executive. What divides us is the past.
Like our liberal papers’ coverage of the election, there is a peculiar split-brain phenomenon in liberal aetiologies of Trumpite ‘populism’. The fact that anyone dared to hope for a return - in the words of that other corrupt and intellectually bankrupt Republican president, Warren G Harding - to “normalcy”, rather implies that Trump’s rule arrived as a bolt from the blue (just as Wilsonian interventionism seemed aberrant to a US ruling class, whose ambitions for power were still decidedly regional, rather than global, in scope). Yet it is simultaneously characterised as an outworking of the great original sin of the American polity, white supremacy. It is like old video games that readers of a certain age might remember, where the action happens on a 2D plane in the foreground, and some landscape scrolls in parallax in the far distance behind it, but between these two flat surfaces there is just nothing.
Marxism, like nature, abhors a vacuum. For us, both ‘planes’ of liberal explanation are partly true, but radically incomplete. History moves in a punctuated equilibrium: there are moments of catastrophe, and the Trump presidency amounts to just such a catastrophic failure of political regime; but what such moments reveal is the structure of the preceding period.
Meanwhile, the ‘original sin’ interpretation of white supremacy - recently epitomised by The New York Times’ 1619 Project - correctly rebukes the idea that deep history is easily transcended: after two centuries of black slavery and a further century of black disenfranchisement and acute oppression, it is simply naive to suppose that all those economic, political and cultural ghosts should be exorcised in a mere 50 more years. But white supremacy is simply too abstract a proposition to do for an explanation: an amalgam of plantation slavery, lynching, redlining and elite workplace micro-aggressions simply does not describe a single, coherent phenomenon, but rather a grim half-rhyme between different historical periods and social contexts.
What has disappeared is the very thing that Trumpite populism makes its calling card - class. Secretly, the history of racial oppression is read backwards from the speaker’s subject-position - so the micro-aggressions the Africana Studies adjunct lecturer faces in the private college seminar room are the inheritance of the post-civil rights backlash, which in turn are the child of the violence the civil rights movement faced, themselves the inheritors of the strange fruit of the hanging trees, whose roots were in plantation slavery.
But slavery was an economic system, whereby unfree labour was exploited by a peculiar agrarian-capitalist caste; it continued because it made people very rich; and because the weak confederal basis of the early United States gave such people outsized influence in the government; and because that was in the interests of the global hegemon, which needed a ready supply of cheap cotton to fuel its nascent and then booming textile industries. Jim Crow, too, defended a semi-free system (sharecropping) and the sectional interests of white workers as against those of the working class as a whole. It too was a class politics - not only a class politics, for sure, but able to survive for as long as it did because it crystallised real economic interests.
The Civil Rights movement coincided with the period between the New Deal and the stagflation crisis of the 1970s and the end of the post-war long boom. Beyond its immediate demands - an end to disenfranchisement, to arbitrary violence, to racial segregation - the movement necessarily divided. Some - even among the more ‘respectable’ elements, such as Martin Luther King junior himself - began to identify the struggle for racial equality with more or less concrete visions of ‘economic justice’, or indeed overt socialist programmes (as with elements of the Black Panthers and similar). With the neoliberal counter-offensive, however, prominence drifted towards a new black professional class, whose demands were based on the idea that individual success for black people elevated the whole ‘community’, whatever that was (hence the gushing over Kamala Harris).
The identification of progressive politics with the interests of career politicians necessitates the suppression of class as the fundamental political category. It does not, however, negate the reality of class. It merely leaves that phenomenon, felt very acutely in a deindustrialising country, to the care of the right. It invites demagogues to declare that the problem is that a cosmopolitan and effeminate elite has abandoned the working man; that it will not defend its industries or its borders; that (in the words of the alt-right) it is full of ‘cucks’, cuckolds; and what is needed is a true elite, someone with balls, someone who will drain the swamp. Someone who will ride to the rescue on a white horse - or, failing that, a golf cart. In 2016, we declared that Hillary was not an alternative to, but the cause of, Trump. The past two weeks have regrettably reconfirmed that diagnosis.
In the last five years, the American left has begun - haltingly, in great confusion - to detach itself from this putatively progressive consensus. That is a truly important development, which could be of far greater consequence than the ascendancy of Trumpite populism. But only if we get it right - and in time to break the political cycle before it collapses into the tyranny threatened in the last four years. Like Pyrrhus, we can ill afford any more ‘victories’ after the fashion of Sleepy Joe’s.