American crisis mounts
The current fraught situation highlights the huge breakdown that is in the offing, argues Daniel Lazare
Like a slow-motion train wreck, the Trump crisis is finally approaching a head-on collision. Last Saturday’s ‘Million MAGA March’ was a turning point, in which hundreds of Proud Boys, Three-Percenters, ‘Groypers’ and other fascist groups converged on downtown Washington and attacked leftists and Black Lives Matter supporters.
Trump egged the ultra-rightists on by waving from his limousine, as he drove off to play golf and then blaming leftists for the ensuing violence: “ANTIFA SCUM ran for the hills today they tried attacking the people at the Trump Rally, because those people aggressively fought back,” he tweeted. “Antifa waited until tonight, when 99% were gone, to attack innocent #MAGA People. DC Police, get going - do your job and don’t hold back!!!”
But it was not the left that was responsible, but ultra-right street-fighters who tore down BLM signs, chanted “Fuck Antifa” and “Commies go home” and pummelled any and all counter-protesters within reach. “At a typical Trump rally, half the people who show up are militia, Boogaloo boys,” said journalist Zach D Roberts, who has been photographing rightwing protests for close to 20 years.1 But, rather than cheering from the sidelines, far-right forces this time took the lead. A video of a phalanx of rightwing brawlers rampaging down a Washington avenue went viral on social media.2 So did a video showing them stomping on a leftist who had fallen to the ground.3 Many Proud Boys wore T-shirts with the slogan, “Stand Back, Stand By” - a reference to Trump’s statement at his September 29 debate with Joe Biden that they should “stand back and stand by” because “somebody’s got to do something about Antifa and the left.” Although the president tweeted a video showing a leftist apparently sucker-punching a pro-Trump supporter, more complete footage made it clear that it was the latter who started the melee and the counter-protestors who merely fought back.4
“Antifa ends tonight,” tweeted Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio, as his forces went into action. “The President needs to create a 7th branch of the military,” he added on the rightwing website Parler. “Department of the Proud Boys. The DOD [ie, the Pentagon] can pay us in beer. We’ll do the rest for free.” It was an invitation to a second beer-hall putsch - not in Munich this time around, but in Washington.
The escalation shows how America’s long-running constitutional breakdown is no longer confined to Congress or the courts, but is instead spilling out into the streets. Although the crisis has been building for decades, the latest stage began in July, when Trump made it clear in an interview with Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News that he would challenge the election results in November if he lost. Upping the ante over the ensuing weeks, he repeatedly declared that the vote was “rigged” and millions of mail-in ballots were clearly fraudulent. Hence, when mail-ins showed him losing by a larger and larger margin in the days following the November 3 election - the latest figures show him behind by 5.6 million popular votes, or 3.7% - he erupted in fury, declaring that the election was fixed and the tallies a lie.
“Rigged election!” Trump tweeted two days prior to the Million MAGA March. Biden may have won “in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA,” he added the day after. “I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!”
Reports that Republicans have begun peeling away from their commander-in-chief have thus proved meaningless.5 Not only is the party holding firm for the most part, but the gap between the two sides continues to widen. Since Trump is obviously in no mood for compromise, some sort of rupture is in the works, although when it will occur and what form it will take is unknown. But there is no doubt that the pace is accelerating, as a series of crucial deadlines heaves into view.
On December 8, for instance, states must choose members of the Electoral College to formally select a new president. On December 14, electors are supposed to meet in their respective state capitols and cast their votes. On January 6, both houses of Congress are supposed to add up the results, while on January 20 a new chief executive is supposed to take office. But the Republican strategy is clear: by delaying the count and perhaps dragging in the courts, the goal is to snarl up the process, so that it is left to Congress to sort it all out.
If so, the US will enter a no-man’s-land, in which the usual procedures fall by the wayside and constitutional mechanisms that have lain dormant for centuries suddenly spring to life. Language in both article II of the US constitution, adopted in 1787-88, and the 12th amendment, adopted in 1804, suggests that voters do not have the final say and that Republican-controlled legislatures in Pennsylvania and other states have full power to overturn the popular vote and appoint electors committed to Trump instead. The language is “shockingly ambiguous”, one legal scholar notes.6 But the bottom line is that Congress has whatever leeway it needs to accept or reject state-appointed electors at will.
All of which is profoundly upsetting in a country in which people have gotten used to electing presidents themselves rather than leaving it to others to do it for them. What is worse is that the 12th amendment stipulates that, if the election reaches the House of Representatives, members may not vote individually, but must vote by state - a requirement that would provide Trump with a key advantage, since Republicans control 26 out of 50 state delegations despite being in the minority overall.
The result would be another stolen election à la 2000 or 2016, since 40 million voters in an overwhelmingly pro-Democratic state like California would have the same clout as 579,000 voters in Republican-leaning Wyoming or 762,000 in pro-Republican North Dakota. But, since the constitution says it, the Democrats would have no way of saying no, because the constitution, according to article VI, is “the supreme law of the land”. To be sure, the preamble says it is “we the people” who created the constitution in the first place, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice and so on. But the clause has long since fallen into desuetude, with the result that it is now the constitution that determines and the people who do as they are told.
Why is this all happening now? Ultimately, the great American breakdown is a reflection of a larger capitalist crisis. Profit margins have been sliding since the 1970s and have dipped even more strikingly since the financial crises of the late 1990s and 2008. Covid-19 has added another blow by sending the system into the worst crisis since the 1930s.
But capitalism is not merely a matter of economics. Rather, it is a multi-dimensional system that rests on a dense network of political structures - all under strain, as the underlying crisis grows. The United Kingdom - the polity that gave the world classic liberalism and the industrial revolution - is coming apart at the seams thanks to Brexit, while centrifugal forces continue to tug at what is left of the European Union. Nato - the organisation that has cemented together the western capitalist powers for more than seven decades - is under increasing strain, thanks to military tensions between Turkey, Greece and other members as well.
And so on. But it is in the United States where the crisis is most acute, due to a pre-modern constitution that is growing more and more rigid and out of date. Curious 18th-century constitutional clauses are no longer possible to ignore, as the minority dictatorship they impose grows more and more suffocating. The Electoral College, for instance, triples the clout of thinly-populated rural states that are largely white, rural, pro-gun and conservative. The Senate allows the 46% of the country that lives in 40 states to outvote a 54% majority that lives in just 10. Given that the top 10 also have 57% more minorities per capita than the bottom 40, the system is growing more racist as well. While the House is supposedly the more democratic branch, in reality it is a lopsided mess, thanks to rampant gerrymandering at the state level. It consistently provides Republicans with a built-in advantage of up to four percent.
After winning the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, Democrats have clearly emerged as the popular party. Yet they are consistently cheated, when it comes to divvying up political power. This does not make them any less reprehensible, since they are just as imperialistic as the Republicans - if not more so. But the effect is to short-change voters at large by denying them an equal say in their own government.
While no-one knows where all this is leading, one thing that is clear is that any attempt to override the popular vote will lead to civil war. This is not an exaggeration. With memories of two stolen elections still fresh, a third such theft will cause an explosion. It will cause pro- and anti-Trump forces to go at one another hammer and tongs - not on the op-ed pages, but in the streets. It would be a repeat of the Million MAGA March, but on a grander scale. If the German breakdown was the big story of the 1930s, the American breakdown will be an even bigger one in 2020s.