Goodbye Donald Trump
The January 6 failed coup is a symptom of decay. Even with a near $2 trillion rescue package the Biden administration is unlikely to revive the American dream, says Jack Conrad
There can be no better way of beginning this valedictory article on Donald J Trump than by quoting Marx quoting Hegel. Here are the seemingly casual opening lines of The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):
Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.1
Ever since his unexpected election victory over Hillary Clinton in November 2016, Trump was busily agitating, manoeuvring, campaigning to ensure that, by fair means or foul, he would remain US president - not only till 2024, but 2028 and perhaps beyond (he talked of “negotiating” a third term, even though since the time of George Washington there has been an unofficial two-term time limit and, after Franklin Roosevelt, who won an unprecedented fourth term in 1944, this became an official limit with the 22nd amendment2).
Though Donald J Trump is a scion of the capitalist class, he never was the preferred candidate of the Republican establishment in 2016. Trump is part reality-TV showman, part billionaire property developer, part rabble-rousing outsider. In speech after speech he railed against the entire Washington blob: ‘Drain the swamp, drain the swamp’ his supporters chanted in reply.
There exists a profound disenchantment with the old order. For millions the American dream has turned into an American nightmare. Republican and Democrat administrations alike embraced neoliberalism, financialisaton, offshoring jobs and a massive growth of inequality. As a consequence, between 1979 and 2013 the top 1% saw their salaries rise by 138%. Yet despite steadily rising productivity the average hourly pay of workers “stagnated”. Wages for the low-paid actually fell by 5%; recent college graduates aged between 21 and 24 likewise saw reduced incomes, along with the burden of huge student debts.3
Homelessness, opiate addiction and irrationality correspondingly grows apace. Centre politics - the cosy middle-ground consensus - finds itself pulled, challenged, torn apart from left and right.
With Hillary Clinton the Dempublican old order had its personification and Trump his perfect foil. Her campaign hid the class interests of big capital behind a popular-frontist appeal to identity politics: feminist women, the LBGT ‘community’, the black and Latino population, labour unions, etc. Trump’s campaign hid his bid to make himself president for life, an emperor, behind the Make America Great Again slogan, which mobilised the common identity politics of the “deplorables” - not just white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the rightwing militia fringe, but rust-belt workers, the squeezed petty bourgeoisie, Christian evangelicals, patriarchal middle-aged men and in general the very deep well of social conservatism.
Once he was sworn in on January 20 2017, the GOP establishment hoped that it could “tame Trump”.4 It was not to be. Trump tweeted over their heads, communicated directly with his mass base - every inflammatory message, outrageous statement and counterfactual claim being amplified by approving or disapproving TV and radio stations and newspaper headlines (mainly disapproving). Those following @realDonaldTrump soared from 13 million on Inauguration Day to 88 million by December 2020.5
It was not the Republican establishment which tamed Donald Trump, but Donald Trump who tamed the Republican establishment. Hence the not entirely unfounded boast: “It’s not their Republican Party any more: this is Donald Trump’s Republican Party” (Donald Trump junior speaking to the Washington MAGA rally on January 6).
Never-Trump senators and representatives reluctantly became enablers … out of fear. After all, almost at a whim the hugely popular (with registered Republican voters) 45th president could conjure up a suitably enthusiastic pro-Trump challenger for the next round of primaries. Others, not least the spawn of the Tea Party, were genuine converts, as were most congressional newcomers.
All this testifies to a real loss of collective capitalist control over the Republican Party. The same could have been said if, by some fluke, Bernie Sanders had managed to become the Democrats’ presidential candidate. It is not that Trump did not benefit the capitalist class. He did. There were all manner of tax cuts for corporations, rollbacks of environmental legislation, massive government handouts to the mega-rich, etc. But - and this is the point - Trump wanted to be the master, wanted to dominate, wanted other members of the capitalist class beholden to him.
Towards that end, Trump sought to stretch, bend and go beyond what has long passed as US non-partisan constitutional norms. We saw that with the denial that Barack Obama was American born. We saw that with the appointment of a slew of reactionary judges, and not just to the Supreme Court. We saw that with the use of the national guard and federal agents against Black Lives Matter protestors. We saw it with the endless accusations that Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory was a steal, that there had been massive voter fraud. We saw that in Rudy Giuliani’s countless legal bids. We saw that with the January 6 2021 MAGA rally and the march on the Capitol. All moments in Trump’s long drawn out coup attempt.
Trump’s cabinets have been ram-packed with military men from the start and at every opportunity he sought to involve the military in US domestic affairs. Trump clearly hankered after a martial law regime and a suitably restricted electorate.
Martial law, note, involves a wholesale suspension of civil liberties, so “military commanders can issue orders to civilians”, as well as “arrest and mete out punishment based on tactical needs of war rather than the civilian law on the books”.6 The only time it has been tried on a national scale was when Abraham Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights during the civil war. He wanted to shut down pro-Confederate dissidents in the north. Even then with ‘ex parte Milligan’ (1866) a hostile Supreme Court ruled that Lincoln had overstepped legitimate bounds. Martial law could only operate in areas of “military operations, where war really prevails”.7
Nevertheless, lieutenant general (retired) Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor, openly advocated just that course in an interview with Newsmax in December 2020. Trump, he said, should “take military capabilities, and he could place them in those [swing states], and basically rerun an election”. Other Trump insiders urged him to use a declaration of martial law, combined with the powers of the Insurrection Act, to overturn Joe Biden’s election victory.8
Yet, much to Trump’s obvious frustration, there was a decided unwillingness by the Pentagon to go along with his coup attempt. “There is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election,” army secretary Ryan McCarthy and chief of staff general James McConville declared in a defiant statement.9
A stance backed by all 10 living previous sectaries of state for defence, including James Mattis and Mark Esper, who both served under Trump. In a joint letter published in the Washington Post they warned that: “Efforts to involve the US armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory,” They ominously concluded that civilian and military officials “who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”10
A clear enough message. The military top brass are sworn to defence of the existing constitution ... not one man, even though that one man happens to be their commander-in-chief.
If martial law had been declared, we would therefore guess that Donald Trump would have been discreetly frogmarched out of the White House by CIA operatives and then placed in a suitably secure mental hospital. A pliant medic would have read out a carefully drafted press statement: Donald J Trump has suffered a debilitating mental breakdown, etc, etc. Meanwhile Mike Pence temporarily moves in to the Oval office.
Unable to play the military card, Trump fared no better in the courts. Lawsuits in Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada, Georgia and Arizona all failed. Nor did his bid to take matters to the Supreme Court get anywhere. So, to date, the 2000 election is the only one to have been decided by the Supreme Court. Al Gore lost by 537 votes out of a total of almost six million cast in Florida. The Supreme Court stopped the recount and ruled in favour of George W Bush. If there was a steal this was it. The simple fact of the matter is that in 2020 Biden won the popular vote by some three million and secured an unassailable majority where it really matters constitutionally: in the electoral college.
Having run out of options Trump turned to his base. Many tens of thousands flocked to the January 6 MAGA rally near Washington’s Lafayette Park. They cheered, they were fired, when the president told them to “Fight like hell” and to “Stop the steal”. Trump’s desperate hope was that this barely organised raggle-taggle army would persuade, intimidate, force congress - vitally including vice-president Mike Pence - into not certifying the election of Joe Biden.
The upstanding vice-president refused to act unconstitutionally, but the mob had no such qualms or scruples. We now know beyond a shadow of doubt what the various far-right Trumpite MAGA groups, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, the Boogaloos, the Confederate nostalgics, the KKK fanatics, the QAnonists, the Christian second comers, etc had in mind. Talk of occupying the Capitol lit up the internet. Hunting down members of congress and putting the traitors on trial was widely floated. ‘Hang Mike Pence! Hang Nancy Pelosi!’ rang the cry. Unmistakably, their “intent was to overthrow the government” - Chuck Hagel, former defence secretary under Barack Obama (2013-15) and a Republican senator for Nebraska (1997-2009).
The FBI and other such intelligence agencies monitored each and every hair-brained conspiracy. The Washington Post says that the federal authorities were fully aware of what attendees of the MAGA rally were planning:
As of 5 January 2021, FBI Norfolk received information indicating calls for violence in response to ‘unlawful lockdowns’ to begin on 6 January 2021 in Washington DC. An online thread discussed specific calls for violence to include stating “Be ready to fight. Congress needs to hear glass breaking, doors being kicked in, and blood from their BLM and Pantifa slave soldiers being spilled. Get violent. Stop calling this a march, or rally, or a protest. Go there ready for war. We get our president or we die. NOTHING else will achieve this goal.”11
Trump would have certainly been handed this and many other such reports. So when he blessed the MAGA march on the Capitol he must have had a good idea, no matter how vague, of what would happen. If he was too lazy, too dozy to read the reports, those around him would have. But Trump was, at this stage, clutching at straws.
The January 6 coup succeeded … but for a mere day. The certification of Biden went ahead after a 24-hour delay. So this was a half-hearted, half-baked coup attempt. The president wanted a coup, but had no realistic plan. The disparate, crazed, barmy coup-makers who stormed the Capitol had no realistic plan either.
Trump reportedly refused to send national guard units to support the Capitol police, as the MAGA mob stormed democracy’s holy of holies. One must presume some police collusion - after a little push the Capitol police chief, Steven Sund, resigned.
Yet only when news came in that Mike Pence had not played his allotted role did Trump finally tell his coup-makers that, though he loved them, they should now peacefully head off back home. It was days later that he denounced their lawlessness and their violence ... in order to save himself.
On January 13 2021 the House of Representatives voted to impeach him on charges of “incitement of insurrection”. Trump’s January 2 phone call with Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger is cited, along with the storming of the Capitol on January 6. Ten Republicans voted yea, 197 voted nay.
Though Trump’s attempted coup was totally botched, it was of a classic type. An insiders job, “made in Rome”.12
Perhaps the best known study of coups is the little book authored by Curzio Malaparte, Coup d’etat: the technique of revolution (1931). Malaparte, was a dissident Italian fascist who in later life cleaved towards the Catholic church and the Italian Communist Party.13
Under the sway of Mussolini fascism, Malaparte categorised the October revolution organised by Leon Trotsky and strategically mapped out by Vladimir Lenin as a “coup”. A standard bourgeois trope. That despite the obvious fact that the Bolsheviks had secured a social majority in the soviets - they plus their Left Socialist Revolutionary allies formed a majority bloc in the only really representative institutions of late 1917 Russia. More than that, Bolshevism ushered in a system overthrow. So, no mere coup d’état.
But the real significance of Malaparte’s study lay not in his attempt to portray the Bolshevik revolution as a coup. His main thesis was that to attack or defend the parliament and ministerial buildings was “futile”. They were, he said, the “mere simulacra of power”. The main objective, for him, had to be paralysing and taking control of the “technological power points of the modern state: the rail and road centres, the telecommunications networks, the factories”. That, says, Malaparte, is what marked out the “successful” coup from the “unsuccessful” coup.14
With that in mind, Trump’s “unsuccessful” coup attempt was clearly “a farce”. He was no Benito Mussolini, no Adolf Hitler … no Buzz Windrip.15 He never really stood a chance.
What is a coup? Four features in particular stand out. Here I base myself on, though do not entirely follow, another study: Edward Luttwak’s Coup d’etat: a practical handbook (1968).
Firstly, there is a categorical distinction between a coup and a revolution. A revolution involves mass action, an overthrow, a political or economic turnabout.
Secondly, a coup is not an assault on the state from without: it is a “seizure of power within the present system”.16 The aim of the coup is to substitute, or maintain, one governing elite for another governing elite.
Thirdly, the coup, unlike a revolution, does not confront, overwhelm and “smash down”, by superior weight of power.
Fourthly, on the contrary, the successful coup uses the existing apparatus to overturn, subvert or twist the existing constitution. One elite faction is maintained or replaced by another elite faction. A successful coup sees the infiltration of a “small” but “critical” segment of the “state apparatus” in order to lever a bigger segment and send it “crashing down”.17
Trump’s botched coup was not the opening salvo of an imminent civil war. The US ruling class(es) are not split in the manner of 1861-65, when two rival systems finally resorted to muskets, bayonets and cannons. The capitalist north was based on free wage labour and wanted to develop the US into an industrial superpower. The capitalist south was based on slave labour and out of narrow self-interest wanted the US to remain a cotton-exporting British semi-colony. Nor is there any equivalence with the 1642-51 English civil war or the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Again, two systems confronted each other: rising mercantile and agrarian capitalism and a declining feudalism, defended by an autocratic monarchy.
What about January 6 as an attempt to install fascism? Besides garbled populist propaganda denigrating foreigners, corrupt politicians, migrants, preachy liberals, greedy capitalists, religious, ethnic and other minorities, etc, fascism launches physical force primarily against the organised working class.
Unfortunately, at the present moment in time, the working class represents no threat to the capitalist system in the United States. Trade unions are incredibly weak and there is nothing even approaching a real working class party. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America is an encouraging development, but it still has not decisively broken with the Democrats. True, it was ‘Bernie or bust’ in 2020 … but in the privacy of the ballot booth.
The working class threat to capitalism was palpably real in the Italy of the early 1920s, Germany in the 1920s and early 30s, France in the mid-1930s. There were hugely powerful communist and social democratic parties and it was their inability, or refusal, to deliver the final revolutionary blow that allowed, encouraged, propelled the capitalist class to turn to fascist parties and their black, brown and blue-shirted fighting squads - fascism being a terroristic variant of Bonapartism.
There were fascists and small fascist gangs involved on January 6, of course, but, to make the point again, there is no working class threat to the existing constitution or the existing socio-economic system of exploitation in the USA. If there were, then maybe the capitalist class, or at least sections of the capitalist class, might have been prepared to finance, promote and rely on a fascist movement for salvation. As things stand, though, they had no wish, no desire to even back Trump’s bid to steal the election and install himself for a second, third … term.
There is no immediate danger of a mass fascist movement coming to power in the US. After all, there is no revolutionary situation. Of course, in the name of stopping fascism, sections of the left have formed themselves into single-issue anti-fascist organisations: eg, the Antifa. This is a diversion, because it elevates the mosaic of fascist grouplets into the main enemy. Not the capitalist class, not the capitalist state.
The same essential approach also had it that Trump was a fascist - the main enemy - and therefore it was vital to vote for Joe Biden and once again trail behind the Democratic Party. Eg, the ‘official’ Communist Party of the USA. The necessity of establishing working class political independence and the formation of a working class party is endlessly put off, delayed, declared premature. After all, before Donald Trump there was George W Bush, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon … all supposedly fascists or heralds of fascism. And after Trump there will be …
In that light it would be a huge mistake to back any move by the Biden administration to clamp down on free speech in the name of preventing another Trump. The danger to democratic rights comes not only from the Republican right, but the Democrat centre. We have already seen president Trump cut off from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc. Amazon pulled the plug on the ‘conservative’ internet site, Parler. Doubtless the Biden administration will be keen to press home its advantage after the bungled January 6 coup by silencing all manner of “deplorables”.
At all times we must recognise that it is the capitalist state and the capitalist class which is our main enemy. It is the failures, the malfunctioning of a declining capitalism which gives both ammunition and sustenance to the extreme right. And, of course, the Biden administration will preside over an economy which is already on its knees.
There are already 10.7 million officially unemployed in the US.18 Biden’s near $2 trillion rescue package will not fundamentally transform the situation. It will not lead to a sustained growth of wage rates, that is for sure. On the contrary, we should expect worse working conditions and fewer employment rights in the attempt to Make America Profitable Again (MAPA). There will be no return to the 1950s-60s long boom. Even if dressed-up as a Green New Deal, it is a lie.
Communists must champion unrestricted free speech ... yes, even for Donald Trump. We are against state bans on rightwing demagogues and rightwing political outfits … no matter how deranged. State restrictions on what can and what cannot be said in political debate must be vigorously opposed. Any such bans or restrictions, even if ostensibly aimed at the right, will inevitably serve to suffocate the advanced part of the working class.
Free speech and the widest democracy provide the best conditions for the ideas of socialism, of communism, of Marxism, to test themselves, to grow, flourish and eventually, through joining them with the real class struggle, convince millions. So we have every confidence that communists can win the battle of ideas.
Communists must also be the foremost champions of democracy. Why? Alone the struggle for democracy trains and forms the workers into a class for themselves.
That explains why our response to the January 6 failed coup is not to urge on Trump’s impeachment, because conviction will bar him from running again in 2024.
No, in America communists call for the abolition of the presidency - in effect an (indirectly) elected monarch. The same goes for the senate, the supreme court, the electoral college and state rights. They are all checks and balances against democracy. Instead, we demand a single-chamber assembly elected by proportional representation and a democratic centralist state - the form best suited to the rule of the working class.
K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 11, London 1979, p103.↩︎
The Washington Post January 3 2021.↩︎
The Washington Post January 12 2021.↩︎
Tacitus wrote of the latter legionnaire Roman emperors and their coups: “Evolgato imperii avcano: the secret of empire was out - an emperor could be made elsewhere than in Rome” (SE Fuiner, introduction to E Luttak Coup d’état: a practical handbook Harmondsworth 1969, p9).↩︎
SE Fuiner, foreword to E Luttak Coup d’état: a practical handbook Harmondsworth 1969, p10.↩︎
Sinclair Lewis’s anti-hero in his 1935 prescient bestseller It can’t happen here.↩︎
SE Fuiner, foreword to E Luttak Coup d’état: a practical handbook Harmondsworth 1969, p11.↩︎