House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Republican California), surrounded by fellow House Republicans, speaks during news conference outside the Capitol

Republicans at odds

Following the events of January 6, Jim Creegan looks at the state of play within the Grand Old Party

Nothing better exemplifies Republican strategy than the campaigns of the party’s two Georgia Senate candidates, who were defeated in the January run-off election that handed control of the US upper chamber to the Democrats.

One contender, Kelly Loeffler, was the richest member of the Senate, married to the chairman of the New York Stock Exchange. In her earlier political career, Loeffler was a supporter of Mitt Romney, the present senator from Utah and GOP presidential candidate in 2012. Romney is perhaps the party’s chief ‘moderate’ opponent of Donald Trump - the only one from his side of the aisle to have voted for the president’s conviction in his first impeachment trial before the Senate a year ago. The financial consulting firms that Loeffler headed donated to Democratic candidates when it served their interests, as well as to Planned Parenthood, which provides abortion services.

Yet in 2020 Loeffler campaigned as a fervent Trump supporter. She backed Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat in the polls, and criticised the state’s Republican governor and attorney general for rebuffing the president’s demands to doctor election results. She denounced her centrist black Democratic opponent - a pastor of Martin Luther King’s old Atlanta church, Raphael Warnock - as a radical and a communist, and sold herself to voters as a ‘right to life’ (anti-abortion) stalwart. She appeared on the same platform as Marjorie Taylor Greene, a member of the House of Representatives from Georgia and a supporter of QAnon, the online purveyor of demented conspiracy theories.

The other defeated candidate, David Perdue, also presented himself as a staunch Trump loyalist, vowing support for the president’s “America first” economic nationalism. Perdue, however, entered the political arena after a lucrative business career, most of which was spent in a consulting firm specialising in the export of jobs in Georgia’s textile industry to low-wage countries. He accused his victorious Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff, of having a shady relationship with the Chinese Communist Party, because a film production company Ossoff ran once accepted a payment from a Hong Kong-based firm. Perdue himself, however, had earlier set up a personal office in Hong Kong to orchestrate the outsourcing of American jobs to China for the clothing line of the Sara Lee company.

The Republican leadership operated on a national scale much like Loeffler and Perdue, fostering popular prejudice to distract from their real aims. No Trumpian infamy called forth even the mildest rebuke from most party leaders; they were content to let Trump prevaricate and bully as he pleased, as long as he lowered taxes on corporations and the wealthy, gutted government regulation of corporations and appointed business-friendly judges to the federal bench. They never seemed to entertain the possibility that Trump and the base he had built could become a political force beyond their control. Hence, when Republican legislators found themselves under siege along with Democrats in the halls of Congress on January 6, they confronted their own creature run amok.

Donald Trump and the frenzied mob that attacked the Capitol were the culmination of a strategy long in the making. Republicans had always known that their class agenda could not stand the light of day, and had to be retailed under more seductive labels. So they cultivated the myth - agreeable to many of the country’s numerous small business owners - of the free market as the only true medium of individual expression, under threat from meddlesome government bureaucrats. They stoked the anger of white southerners, who felt the Democratic Party had thrown them overboard to embrace black civil rights. They flattered the fanaticism of evangelical Christians, who saw themselves as besieged by an ever-encroaching secular society, awash in sexual deviance, abortion and moral relativism. They filled the void left in the lives of white workers by neoliberal Democrats, who long ago abandoned any pretence of defending their economic interests - or taking much of an interest in their lives at all between elections - with a faux populism that paid them more attention, if only to play upon their status anxiety and resentment of educated professional condescension.

Add to the above the garnishing of the steadfast loyalty of anti-Castro Cubans in Miami and the support of fanatical Zionists like the recently deceased Republican mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson, and one can understand how the most rightwing factions of the capitalist class succeeded in welding together a voting bloc that endured for 40 years.

Fracturing bloc

That bloc is now in danger of fracturing along the previously concealed fault line between manipulators and manipulated. The assault on the Capitol has been denounced, and Trump repudiated, by major bastions of American and global corporate power. Twitter and Facebook have banned him; two of the most reliably rightwing capitalist political groupings, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, have denounced the mayhem he incited on January 6, and called for an orderly transition of power; Deutsche Bank has severed all business ties with him; New York City has cancelled contracts with his companies; many of the party’s wealthiest private and corporate donors have fled:

“Bye bye, Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley and Donald Trump,” one of the president’s top campaign bundlers said, also mentioning the two Republican senators who led objections to Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory. “He’s done …”

A former White House official, who worked with business leaders while in the administration, was just as blunt when asked whether corporate figures would side with Trump after Wednesday’s riot … After Wednesday, “who the hell is left?” this person said.1

And in the snub most irksome to Trump personally, the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) called off its plans to hold its 2022 tournament at his New Jersey estate.

Knowing well which side their bread is buttered on, several top Republicans, who have until now refused to break with the Trump cult for fear of offending his impassioned base, have at long last taken their distance. Declaring “enough is enough”, former presidential cheerleader senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina refused to join the White House in questioning the results of the presidential election, and vice-president Mike Pence incurred the wrath of Trump and the Capitol invaders (some of whom called for him to be hanged) for having refused to block the certification of Biden’s win in the Senate. Liz Cheney, the House of Representative’s number-three Republican (and daughter of Dick Cheney, the Darth Vader of the George W Bush administration) led 10 fellow House Republicans in calling for Trump’s impeachment. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution”, Cheney declared.

Most significantly of all, the leader of the outgoing Senate Republican majority, Mitch McConnell - who, to the exasperation of Democrats, refused to utter a whimper of reproach against Trump for the past four years - has now not only refused to question the election results, but indicated his openness to voting for the former president’s second impeachment. The conviction of Trump by the Senate would require a two-thirds majority, unobtainable without 17 Republican votes. If convicted, however, Trump could be prevented by a simple Senate majority from ever again holding public office - perhaps the object of McConnell and others. It appears, however, that the needed votes for conviction will not materialise: most Republican senators apparently hope to put the Trump era behind them without having to do the thing bourgeois politicians most dislike - taking a stand.

Yet the urge to rid the party of Trumpism does not appear to have penetrated to the grassroots. Only two days after the storming of the Capitol, the Republican national committee unanimously elected Rona McDaniel, a staunch Trump supporter (and niece of Mitt Romney) as national chair for the next two years. She condemned the violence at the Capitol, but failed to mention the former president in connection with it. An earlier breakfast phone call to the meeting from Trump himself was greeted with applause. The New York Times noted “the evolution of the committee from a body filled with canny political professionals and power brokers in their states to one dominated by dogmatic partisans well marinated in Fox News and Facebook memes”.2

While Republican voter support for Trump has declined somewhat in recent weeks, polls indicate that a majority are sticking by him. A January 19 poll conducted by The Washington Post found that fully 76% of Republicans, including 71% with university degrees, thought Trump received more votes than Biden (who actually got seven million more votes than Trump). Sixty-four percent, according to an Axios poll, said they support Trump’s recent behaviour, and 57% want him to be the Republican candidate in 2024. One poll had two thirds of Republicans believing the QAnon canard that the Capitol riot was a false-flag operation by the leftwingers of Antifa, staged to discredit Trump. These figures indicate that Trump’s lies are still potent in Republican ranks. Fifty-eight percent of white voters cast their ballots for him in 2020, and he remains by far the party’s most popular figure.

The widening gulf between the Republican base and top is also reflected in the Congressional vote to certify the presidential election results - usually a formality, but this time the occasion of a last-ditch Trumpian manoeuvre to overturn Biden’s victory. In the Senate - by far the more elite of the two Congressional houses - only six senators voted against certification. But in the House of Representatives - far more sensitive to popular moods - a majority of the Republicans in the house - 146 - voted on January 7 not to accept the verdict of the November polls, even after the events of the previous day.

Stars and Stripes fascism?

In the past few years, I have explored in this paper the possibility of the Democratic Party splitting along class lines, and considered tactics that could lead to such an outcome. But, since Biden won the primaries in March, the Democratic right and left have tended to downplay their differences in favour of a common anti-Trump effort. Ironically, it is the Republican Party that may be first to fracture along something resembling a class divide. Yet those who stormed into Congress bearing handcuffs and pipe bombs, along with Confederate flags, Nazi symbols and social media-generated death warrants for elected officials, do not represent the kind of revolt from below that any socialist or partisan of the working class would welcome.

A detailed sociological analysis of the participants in the January 6 assault has yet to be made. The nearest thing is an occupational breakdown by Lambert Strether in the Naked Capital blog of the 107 Capitol rioters arrested thus far. The top three occupations were small business owners (10), police (five) and estate brokers (three). Strether writes that this breakdown “screams petite-bourgeoisie to me”. He adds: “The working class rioters are flexible in their arrangements; no Amazon workers, but a contractor, a programmer, an arborist/chimney sweeper, etc. This flexibility shades over into the lumpenproletariat …”3

In previous articles, I have resisted characterising the Trump phenomenon as fascist, pointing to the small numbers and lack of centralised leadership of the far-right paramilitary groups. The events of January 6 have, however, made the fascist designation seem a little less far-fetched. If Strether’s small sampling is at all representative, we seem confronted with a typical fascistic combination of enraged petty bourgeois and lumpens, apparently with significant support amongst local police - evidenced not only by the participation of out-of-town cops on January 6, but also by the near-friendly attitude of some Washington police to rioters on that day (and on other days in other cities) in contrast to harsh tactics deployed against Black Lives Matter demonstrators last summer.

The Capitol rioters - still organisationally heterogeneous - displayed a greater degree of coordination and common purpose than in the past. They now also have a medical/economic crisis of enormous proportions to exploit; the absurd lie of the ‘big steal’ - that Trump was robbed of his electoral victory - to sustain them; their violent attempt to reverse the election results as their founding event; a media network in which to fashion their own alternative reality; and, if Trump is able and willing to remain politically active, a leader - or at least a figurehead - to give them national cohesion.

Rightwing paramilitary groups have existed on the fringes of American politics for a long time. The passions that animate the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Boogaloo are far from new. White supremacy has, of course, been a constant in American politics. The hostility to the federal government and the bizarre conspiracy theories like the ones spun by QAnon were analysed by Richard Hofstadter over 60 years ago in The paranoid style in American politics. Yet far-right groups have grown in numbers and boldness during the Trump years, and their pathologies seem more contagious under current conditions.

They represent, in concentrated form, sentiments that are shared in varying degrees by broad segments of the white population. Many of the 74 million Trump voters - more than have voted for any presidential candidate in US history, save Biden - are doubtless more concerned with shrinking pay cheques and job opportunities than with racial issues, and most who do harbour racial animus were probably no more in favour of laying siege to the Capitol than most orthodox Muslims support actively waging jihad. But in both cases, extreme actions strike sympathetic chords in more circumspect souls. Many small business owners who had to close up shop due to Covid experienced government-imposed restrictions as intrusions on individual freedom. The election of Barack Obama - which called forth the Tea Party in 2009 - and Black Lives Matter protests have reminded whites that they are on course to becoming a minority in a country some have always viewed as theirs by birthright.

Not needed

Yet the fledgling American fascism that may have made its debut on January 6 differs from its European antecedents in one crucial respect: the German and Italian ruling classes of the early 20th century turned to fascism as a last resort to break the class stalemates that existed in those countries by annihilating unions and working class parties. But no such stalemate exists in the US, where there has never even been a reformist workers’ party, and union density and strikes are at historic lows. The American bourgeoisie has no need of fascists, and every interest in maintaining the sanctity of elections and the ‘rule of law’. This is why elite circles are now making a big show of severing ties with Trump.

The following Trump has acquired can, however, still pose serious difficulties for the Republican leadership’s attempt to direct reactionary sentiments back into mainstream channels. Although most Republican senators are cynical opportunists in the mould of now minority leader Mitch McConnell, a good number of Republicans in the House of Representatives are Trump’s true believers. Will the party leadership be able to straddle this divide to achieve cohesion in voting? Moreover, establishment Republican candidates who are seen to have deserted Trump may face widespread primary challenges from rightwingers who brand them as traitors. There is even talk of starting a third, Trump-loyal party.

The Republican Party faces the additional problem that its old slogans and rallying cries have a distinctly shop-worn feel. The ‘market magic’ trope largely lost its lustre after the great recession of 2008-09; the shibboleths of small government and deficit reduction are decidedly out of place in a conjuncture that calls for broad measures of government intervention and relief. How to revive the racial and xenophobic innuendo the party has trafficked in for years, when open racism and xenophobia have been unleashed?

These are a few of the dilemmas the Republican Party is bound to face in its efforts at post-Trump recomposition. How successful it will be and how long Trumpism will last are still open questions. (It is already being reported that the Proud Boys now regard Trump himself as an apostate for having - belatedly and unconvincingly - dissociated himself from the Capitol break-in).

But there is another question: if one of the two major parties comes unglued under the pressure of events, how long will the Democratic Party be able to contain the class tensions - now submerged but hardly vanished - that have arisen within it?

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com

  1. The New York Times January 7.↩︎

  2. Ibid January 8.↩︎

  3. ‘The class composition of the Capitol rioters (first cut)’ Naked Capital January 18.↩︎