Did the United States face the threat of a fascist takeover with Donald Trump’s failed coup attempt?

The meaning of January 6

A riot, a coup attempt or something in between? Daniel Lazare responds to three recently published articles in the Weekly Worker

The January 6 storming of the US Capitol would have been a mega-event if it had happened in Europe, Japan or the People’s Republic of China. But the fact that it took place in the capital of the global hegemon makes it all the more monumental.

Was it a temporary interruption in the business of capitalism or a sign that the United States is heading for a major breakdown? Was it merely a riot or an attempt at a full-fledged coup d’état? Was it a perturbation that the corporate establishment will have no trouble containing? Or does it mark the first stirrings of a fascist revolution of the right?

The Weekly Worker has published three articles on the topic in addition to my own writings: Jack Conrad’s ‘Goodbye Donald Trump’ (January 21), Jim Creegan’s ‘Republicans at odds’ (January 28) and Bradley Mayer’s ‘Old regime is cracking apart’ (also January 28). All warn against making too much of last month’s insurrection. Conrad describes January 6 asa half-hearted, half-baked coup attempt” that lacked anything by way of a “realistic plan” and was therefore a “farce”. Creegan says the US ruling class “has no need of fascists, and every interest in maintaining the sanctity of elections and the ‘rule of law’”, which “is why elite circles are now making a big show of severing ties with Trump”. Mayer says, quite accurately, that the rioters’ goal was “to dislodge the presidential confirmation proceedings - not merely for hours, but for days - where the still president Trump could possibly declare a state of emergency and block the January 20 inauguration”.

But then he goes on to say that such efforts “did not rise to the level of a coup, as they lacked any real institutional support from the security, intelligence and military agencies of the US regime - agencies that certainly know how to pull off coups.”

So January 6 was half-baked, unplanned, lacking in expertise or proper institutional support - more Keystone Kops, in other words, than 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. But such views are seriously off-base. Rather than a farce, January 6 was the genuine article: an attempted coup that was all too real. Had it succeeded - and there is a significant chance it could have - it would have plunged America into the depths of authoritarianism. After all, once Donald Trump had succeeded in grabbing a second term, there would have been few constitutional guardrails left in place to prevent him from wreaking vengeance on a mile-long list of enemies. The courts, the Democrats and the corporate media would have all trembled before the spectacle of unrestrained executive power.

The threat was quite real. So let us take the three writers one at a time and see why they are heading off in the wrong direction.

Jack Conrad

First, Jack Conrad’s ‘Goodbye Donald Trump’, where he concedes that the rioters invaded the US Capitol in order to overturn the government. As he puts it,

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.

Then, quoting former secretary of defence Chuck Hagel, he adds: “Unmistakably, their ‘intent was to overthrow the government’.”

This certainly sounds serious. But then Conrad piles on the qualifications. The rioters lacked a plan, he says. They lacked military backing. Ten ex-secretaries of defence had signed a statement to the effect that “there is no role for the US military in determining the outcome of an American election”. Since the military brass swears an oath to defend the constitution, the question of which side the officer class was on was never in doubt. As he puts it,

If martial law had been declared, we would therefore guess that Donald Trump would have been discreetly frog-marched 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.

But it is not true that Trump lacked a plan. Determined to hold onto the presidency at all costs, his goal was simple: send his supporters into the Capitol, disrupt the proceedings and create a power vacuum that he would then somehow fill. The details may have been vague, but Trump is a master of impro, so it is not impossible that he would have found a way. Besides, what if the rioters had taken hostages? Instead of merely chanting, “Hang Mike Pence”, what if they actually killed the vice-president and perhaps Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as well? (“I did not know if I was going to make it to the end of that day alive,” she later told the press.) Amid the shock and horror, would the two parties have agreed to postpone certification of the Electoral College vote until things settled down? Would Trump have seized the opportunity to declare a state of emergency?

It is hardly unthinkable that he would, especially since the language of the 12th amendment, which governs how the Electoral College certification process works, is so notoriously vague. If so, then what would the brass have done in response? Would officers have refused an unconstitutional order outright? Or with Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer and the president barking conflicting commands - all in the name of the constitution, no less - would they have wavered?

Chances are it is the latter, at which point the ball would definitely have been in Trump’s court. No-one knows what would have happened next. But that is precisely why Conrad’s certainty that constitutional norms would have prevailed is unwarranted. It smacks of 20-20 hindsight.

Conrad gets much else wrong besides. The fact that 10 ex-defence secretaries agreed that the military should not allow itself to be misused in a constitutional crisis is meaningless, since they are part of the same ‘deep state’ that had tormented Trump from the moment he took office. The effect on the rightwing insurrectionists storming the Capitol would have been nil.

Indeed, Trotsky argued in the case of Primo de Rivera, the Spanish dictator from 1923-30, that he was not a fascist, precisely because “he accomplished his overthrow with the aid of state and military forces”.1 He was a member of the ruling class doing the establishment’s bidding rather than challenging it from the position of the radical right, as a proper fascist would do. Paradoxically, it was the absence of establishment support on January 6 that made the uprising more dangerous rather than less.

Conrad also advances a misleading syllogism. Because the proletariat is not on the march the way it was in the 1920s and 30s, there is no danger of fascism, because the bourgeoisie has no need of the ultimate anti-working class weapon. As he notes,

… 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.

If there is no revolutionary situation, then there is no fascist threat - it is as simple as that. Yet there is a problem. If Conrad is correct, where did all those quasi-, neo- or proto-fascists come from on January 6? If a revolutionary crisis did not call them into existence, what did?

The answer is historical. What Conrad fails to acknowledge is that - surprise, surprise - conditions have changed since the 1920s and 30s. Whereas workers were on the march in the decades following the Russian Revolution, they have suffered defeat after defeat since the 1970s. Strikes have all but disappeared, unions have collapsed, while the deformed or degenerated workers’ states of the Soviet bloc have collapsed as well. But, as unstoppable as free-market economics may seem, they have become a destabilising element in their own right. As governments and employers safeguard profits by slashing wages, gutting social services and throwing more and more workers onto the street, mass protests have erupted - but mass protests that have taken on a confused, populist form that has played into the growing rightward drift.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the world headquarters of confusion known as the United States. With their idiotic conspiracy theories about Russian collusion or Venezuelan-hacked voting machines, Republicans and Democrats have never been more like a couple of ignorant armies clashing by night. But what little remains of democracy is reeling under the impact. Congress has been gridlocked for a generation, partisanship grows ever more bitter, while street violence is becoming more and more rampant. The ultra-right has not yet adopted an expressly anti-democratic position - after all, the January 6 rioters’ beef was with what they regard as stolen elections rather than elections per se. But that will come, the more the larger system breaks down.

To be sure, Conrad hedges his bets by stressing: “There is no immediate danger of a mass fascist movement coming to power in the US” (emphasis added), which leaves open the possibility that January 6 was a dry run à la Munich for a better-organised coup down the road. This may well be the case. But if a fascist movement arises on a truly Nazi-like scale, it will be all the more powerful by virtue of having put down deep roots before the revolutionary crisis reached full boil.

Jim Creegan

Unfortunately, Jim Creegan relies on the same timeworn formulas in ‘Republicans at odds’. He writes:

... 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’,

So “if one of the two major parties comes unglued under the pressure of events”, he adds, the system as a whole remains intact.

But this puts the cart before the horse: the parties are not coming unglued on their own, but because the ground is crumbling beneath their feet. Formerly a unifying force, the constitution is now a destabilising element as well. Where constitutional scholars once viewed the second amendment as a harmless relic of a distant past, even liberal scholars now recognise that it packs more punch than previously imagined. As a result, a constitutionally entrenched right to bear arms has emerged as the battle cry of a burgeoning ultra-right militia movement that is taking to the streets by the thousands - not in opposition to the constitution, one might add, but in defence of what the militias regard as the real constitution rather than the phony version put forth by liberal Democrats.

Bradley Mayer

As for Bradley Mayer, he argues that January 6 was neither a coup nor a riot, but something in between: ie, “a ‘teachable moment’ - a data point on an ascending line from proto-fascist incubus to a full-blown fascist movement”. So “quasi-fascist” is le mot juste, eh? But the idea that January 6 “did not rise to the level of a coup”, because the pro-Trump forces “lacked any real institutional support from the security, intelligence and military agencies” is misleading, as we have seen, since a takeover would have been in opposition to such “deep-state” forces.

Mayer is similarly on thin ice when he complains:

... the present political regime not only allowed a character such as Trump and his clique into the highest echelons of state power, but also proved unwilling or incapable of removing his administration, even as its incompetence and malignancy became manifest. Regime pusillanimity persisted to the very end in a deadly insurrection aimed at one of its central institutions.

Yes, liberals are always cowardly, according to the standard model, in that they always talk big about containing the fascist threat before ultimately caving in. But, again, this is not quite the case with the US. Indeed, Democrats could not have fought Trump more fiercely. They turned ‘Russian collusion’ into a long-running saga that dominated headlines for years and then, in January 2020, impeached him on the basis of ‘Son of Russiagate’: ie, the notion that he had acted unconstitutionally by holding up arms destined for neo-Nazi militias in the eastern Ukraine in order to pressure Kiev into investigating Joe and Hunter Biden. (As far as this writer is concerned, his only sin on this matter was not subjecting arms shipments to a permanent ban.)

Pusillanimous this was not. But not only did the campaign fail: it ended up providing a backhanded justification for the uprising on January 6. Because Dems had engaged in a long-running coup aimed at driving Trump from power, the president and his followers felt entitled to launch a counter-coup aimed at preventing Biden from taking office. By suggesting that Democrats should have done more, Mayer fails to note how both parties could not help undermining constitutional norms, hazy as they may be. This is not nit-picking, since there is a danger here of falling into the dreaded fallacy of ‘lesser-evilism’, in which Democrats are somehow transformed into the party of anti-fascism - which they most definitely are not.

But Mayer is right to point to “the antiquity of a state founded at the end of the 18th century - before the capitalist Industrial Revolution and unchanged in its foundations to this day - as a prime cause” of the current crisis. He is also correct in emphasising the role of Old Whig thinkers like James Harrington in shaping American political thought - which, in fact, is why I devoted more than a dozen pages to the subject in 1996.2 It is also why I was careful to note in the Weekly Worker that the US constitution

took Tudor-style pluralism and updated it with various 18th century add-ons: John Trenchard’s and Thomas Gordon’s writing about checks and balances in Cato’s letters, which were required reading in the colonies in the 1720s; Viscount Bolingbroke’s 1749 pamphlet, ‘The idea of the patriot king’, which laid the theoretical basis for the US presidency; Baron de Montesquieu’s Spirit of the law, which was also a key text of the day; and so forth.3

Trenchard, Gordon and Bolingbroke were all ‘Country’ stalwarts who were in opposition to the Court party of Sir Robert Walpole, which is why American colonists could not get enough of their writings.

But Mayer misunderstands my reference to Samuel P Huntington and his concept of America as a Tudor polity. It is not to suggest that colonial political development froze at a 17th century level, but, rather, that it branched off in a different direction. Puritans on both sides of the Atlantic looked with nostalgia on Elizabeth I - the English ‘Deborah’, who had sent the Spanish Catholic Armada (much of it, at least) to a watery grave. Their response to Stuart absolutism was therefore to turn the clock back to everything that made England great - to the ‘ancient constitution’, to separation of powers, to rough-hewn yeoman patriotism, to sturdy Protestantism, etc. The difference is that, where Cromwell, under the pressures of civil war, was forced to ‘new-model’ both government and the military, New Englanders, safe in their New World redoubt, were free to pursue the politics of nostalgia to the utmost. While they used Old Whig thinkers like Trenchard and Gordon to update their ideas and put them on a more sophisticated footing, the core remained unchanged. As I wrote on January 14, this meant that:

Separation of powers was the antidote to tyranny. Checks and balances were the key to stability. Loyalty to the ancient constitution was the source of national strength. These were ideas that the founders incorporated in an unbreakable legal contract they called the US constitution.

But American politics did not freeze in the 1620s. The process, rather, started in 1787 and has now reached the point where the polity is virtually encased in solid ice. Now that the block is finally starting to crack, the process can only accelerate.

The United States is entering into a period of deepening instability.

  1. L Trotsky Fascism: what it is and how to fight it: marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm.↩︎

  2. D Lazare The frozen republic: how the constitution is paralyzing democracy New York 1996, pp23-35.↩︎

  3. ‘March on Rome’ Weekly Worker January 14.↩︎