WeeklyWorker

18.02.2021
America’s founding fathers: is their constitution to blame?

Drivers that led to January 6

There was far more involved in the storming of the Capitol than an antiquated constitution and corrupt political parties. Jim Creegan responds to Daniel Lazare

The differences among the three writers Daniel Lazare criticises in ‘The meaning of January 6’ (Weekly Worker February 4) over what to call the events of that day - a farcical, bungled coup attempt (Jack Conrad), or something in between a riot and a coup attempt (Bradley Mayer and myself) - involve terminological nuances that need not detain us. We three appear to agree that the assault on the Capitol was aimed at reversing Trump’s electoral defeat and prolonging his presidency. We also seem to agree that it was a haphazard affair that, although partly prepared for in advance, lacked a concerted tactical plan and had zero chance of success, because it was opposed by powerful state institutions, especially the armed forces.

Because Daniel Lazare disagrees with what I consider the basically common assessment of the above three, I think his arguments are the most important ones to address. Lazare writes that “the attempted coup was all too real”, with “a significant chance” of accomplishing its aim and plunging the country into “the depths of authoritarianism”. He goes on to imagine a scenario in which the rioters hold the Capitol, take hostages and perhaps murder Mike Pence and a few Democratic lawmakers. Congress is prevented from certifying the election results and Trump rushes into the resulting power vacuum, declaring a state of emergency and himself president for another four years. In the face of Trump’s fiat, the army, the ‘national security’ apparatus and the courts tremble in fear, equivocate and acquiesce.

To whom, in this scenario, are these major institutions, with millions of troops and sophisticated weapons at their disposal - all of whose leaders pledged themselves to respect the election results - surrendering their might? To a ragtag mob of 5,000 without a central command - some of whom appear to be armed and determined, but more of whom seem to enjoy preening in front of TV cameras and taking selfies? Was the entire state apparatus about to bow before the inspirer of this assault - a demagogue who had been repudiated by every major centre of economic and political power in the country, apart from his Republican loyalists? This scenario defies the most elementary calculus of power, and greatly underestimates - along with Trump - the legitimacy elections confer upon capitalist rule.

Fascist

Lazare, moreover, discounts the importance of the military by arguing that fascist revolts are carried out in opposition to the ‘deep state’, not in collaboration with it. He seeks support in Trotsky’s strictures against categorising Miguel Primo de Rivera (not to be confused with his son, Antonio - a founder of the Spanish Falange) as a fascist, because the coup that made him dictator in 1923 was initiated from within the state apparatus rather than without, like fascist power-grabs. But Lazare does not appear to have grasped Trotsky’s point.

Trotsky viewed fascism as a militarised movement of the crisis-wracked, enraged petty bourgeoisie. It entered the political arena of inter-war Europe as a mass force, mobilised independently of traditional political parties and state institutions. This is why Trotsky argues that Primo de Rivera, who was installed by a military clique at the summits of power, should not be considered a fascist. Yet the fascist mass movements that did arise in Italy and Germany did not, as Lazare seems to believe, conquer power by overthrowing the ‘deep state’, but by gaining its acceptance. They could do so because powerful military and bourgeois factions became convinced that order could only be restored by annihilating the unions and political parties of the working class, which were too big and powerful to be eliminated by repressive laws or police measures; they saw the fascists as the only ones who could do the job, precisely because their mass character enabled them to penetrate proletarian precincts and combat the workers at ground level. Fascists do not lead rightwing revolutions against the existing order, but come to the power as its defenders of last resort.

Mussolini marched on Rome in 1922 to be handed power by King Victor Emmanuel III, with the support of the military. Barely two weeks after being appointed chancellor by German president Paul von Hindenburg, Hitler pledged before a meeting of the country’s leading industrialists that he had no intention of confiscating their property or interfering with their profits. His determination to leave in place the existing army and its general staff was emphatically underscored by the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ in 1934. Hitler then dissolved the SA (Sturmabteilung), the Nazi Party’s brown-shirted paramilitary force, and murdered its chief, Ernst Röhm. Röhm took seriously Nazi rhetoric about a social revolution that would upend the class order, and had ideas of replacing the Reichswehr (German army) with the Brownshirts. His brand of fascism was short-lived.

Yet Lazare seems to regard hard-core Trump supporters as Röhm-like fascists, who might succeed where the SA failed. He argues that there is a fascist danger every bit as great as that of inter-war Europe, even though the working class is not “on the march”, and the American bourgeoisie has no need of fascists to break its power. So, whereas Hitler and Mussolini, with their millions of highly disciplined paramilitary forces, could only capture, but not destroy, the existing state apparatus, Lazare would have us believe that a far smaller and more fragmentary movement of the American far right can confront and possibly prevail against the US government - which is, despite growing dysfunction, still more powerful and cohesive by orders of magnitude than the regimes of post-World War I Italy or Weimar Germany.

Perplexing

According to Lazare, the events of January 6, along with the election of Trump, are not only symptoms of decay, but signs of the impending collapse of the entire American polity and social order. Yet it is difficult to glean from his articles any precise notion of what the causes of the coming breakdown are, or of the relation among the several elements of crisis he names. Perhaps his fullest attempt to explain the current situation is to be found in his December 17 Weekly Worker article, ‘A guide for the perplexed’ - the title of which is taken from a work by the 12th century Jewish-Aristotelian theologian, Moses Maimonides, and is, as we shall soon see … perplexing.

One theme of the article is that, contrary to “bien pensant” liberal opinion, the Democrats and Republicans are equally mendacious, and will continue “grappling and clawing at one another, as they tumble off a cliff”. Regular readers of this paper will be aware that I am no apologist for the Democratic Party, but Lazare’s tendency to put an equals sign between the two parties tends to create the impression that - at least until January 6 - there was nothing out of the ordinary about the Trump presidency, and that Trump’s lies were an equal and opposite reaction to Democratic fabrications.

It is, of course, true, as Lazare emphasises, that the Democrats hugely exaggerated claims of Russian interference in the 2016 election, and promoted bogus accusations of collusion between the Trump campaign and Putin. And, when a long and thorough investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller found no conclusive evidence for this charge, the Democrats impeached and tried to remove Trump for withholding aid to Ukraine in order to pressure its chief prosecutor to investigate the shady business dealings of Biden’s son, Hunter, in that country. Trump had, in fact, used foreign aid as a political weapon in this instance. But in the Russia/Ukraine scandals, Democrats saw an easy way to discredit and perhaps get rid of Trump without promising anything of substance and branding him as unpatriotic. Neoliberal Democrats are now taking a similar tack by trying to identify the Republicans with the absurd conspiracy theories of QAnon; this way, they can present themselves as the alternative to insanity, while not encroaching upon ruling class interests.

Trump’s lies, however, were more numerous and blatant than those of the Democrats - and all told in his own personal interest rather than for any policy objectives, however reactionary. He told the public that Covid-19 was no more serious than the flu, when he knew it to be lethal and highly contagious; that mail-in voting was inherently fraudulent, when the evidence of fraud was nil. Through his personal lawyers, Rudolph Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Trump spread the meme that voting machines had been programmed by the Venezuelan government to change votes for him to votes for Biden, and that hundreds of thousands of “unlawful” paper ballots had been discovered.

It is highly improbable that the public found themselves caught in a crossfire of competing “big lies” from both parties, and did not know whom to believe, as Lazare argues. The reaction of ordinary Americans to accusations of Russian collusion and self-dealing with Ukraine was probably what it has usually been to most foreign policy matters: indifference. On the other hand, many who had voted for Trump did not care that he lied or regularly tweeted outrageous personal insults and abuse. They were committed to him for other reasons, which we will say more about below.

Far more pernicious than Trump’s casual prevarication was his open appeal to xenophobia and white racism: his branding of immigrants as rapists and drug-smugglers; his remark that there were “fine people on both sides” in the confrontation between white supremacists and anti-racists in Charlottesville, Virginia; his defence of Confederate statues and monuments when Black Lives Matter demonstrations were hauling them down; his refusal to condemn the Klansman, David Duke; his suggestion that the four female Congress members who comprised the so-called progressive squad - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar - should “go back to where they came from”, although three are American-born, and one - Omar of Minnesota - is a US citizen, who came here as a Somali refugee at the age of 13. Then there was Trump’s advice to the white supremacist Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by”, as well as his dispatch of plain-clothes federal agents to Portland to accost and shove BLM demonstrators into unmarked cars and detain them without charges, and the summary execution by US marshals in Washington State - which Trump publicly bragged about - of Michael Reinoehl, an Antifa member accused of having shot and killed a rightist demonstrator in Portland.

However constricted - and dishonest - American ‘politics as usual’ are, Donald Trump and Trumpism distinguished themselves from the Democrats in the extent to which they were willing to exceed their normal bounds.

Terminal?

In ‘A guide to the perplexed’, Lazare argues that, whatever the balance of baseness between Republicans and Democrats, it is not in the final analysis their misdeeds that are the problem: their actions merely reflect “a structural crisis undermining society and everything in it”.

Of what does this crisis consist? Lazare goes on to list a series of factors by now familiar to readers of his articles: a rigid, 230-year-old US constitution that is near impervious to change; a constitution-established Senate, which, because it is comprised of two senators from each state, whether densely or sparsely populated, gives the voters of smaller states - who are usually whiter and significantly further to the right than those of bigger ones - an inordinate advantage; an Electoral College that replicates this demographic and political imbalance; a Supreme Court whose judges are appointed for life. In addition to these rigidities, there are state laws that have over the decades made ballot access for smaller parties increasingly difficult, further entrenching the two-party system and leading to the “partisan gridlock” we witness in Washington today.

All the above assertions are true, but do they explain what Lazare wants them to? As explanations, they tend to lead the logical, not to mention the Marxist, mind to a series of overwhelming questions. Has the constitution, being rigid as it is, changed substantially since Lazare wrote his book about it, The frozen republic, nearly a quarter century ago, when the legal and social order was presumably more stable and less exhausted? If not, what has led us from this condition of relative stability to the near-terminal crisis conditions Lazare claims are now upon us? He surely would not argue that this transformation has come about as a result of tighter ballot restrictions or increased voter suppression. And why have the Republicans morphed from the middle-of-the-road party of Dwight Eisenhower into the far-right party of Donald Trump?

If Lazare wishes to argue that social contradictions have lately become too acute to be contained within the constitutional framework, the explanation must lie in the contradictions, and not the static framework. Regardless of whether one accepts Lazare’s assertions that we are on the verge of total meltdown, logic would seem to suggest that we must look to other variables as the locus of explanation for a change as dramatic as the one he claims we have experienced in the last several decades. This underscores why Marxists are more inclined to look to such things as economic developments and the relation of class forces, rather than laws and constitutions, when they seek to account for major developments in society.

Such an orientation should never descend into crude economic or class reductionism; jurisprudence has its own internal logic and history. But, when all is said and done, laws and legal systems are an expression of prevailing social relations, or at least a framework in which they can comfortably exist, and not their defining element.

Two diagnoses

Finally, a word or two about the diagnosis of the present state of things - Lazare’s and mine. I share his view that the Trump years, and their culmination on January 6, were the result of a long process of decay - if less advanced than he claims - made doubly acute by Covid-19. American global power has long been on the wane, and western countries are afflicted by outsourcing and automation. As a result, broad swathes of a working population are relegated to the margins. No longer concentrated in industry, or organised into the unions that industrial concentration gave rise to, these declassed workers have no ready means for collective deliberation and action; they are more prone than in the past to experience their plight as a series of private misfortunes.

Not only workers, but also the small businesspeople integral to former industrial communities, feel themselves to be social outsiders. For its part, the socialist left - deprived by industrial decline of the easier interface it once had, at least in Europe, with workers concentrated in factories and other worksites of scale - mainly inhabits globalised urban hubs, where its adherents take advantage of the career opportunities (mostly in academia, journalism and high tech) on offer there. This combination of circumstances has left the excluded layers more vulnerable to the rightwing populism of the Orbáns, Kaczyńskis, Le Pens and Trumps.

Yet the downward drift of working class life, though economically caused, is not always viewed by workers and provincial petty bourgeois in economic terms. For the older among them, the memory of the economic security of the prosperous post-war years is mingled with other memories: of a country at or near the apex of nations; of neighbourhoods that were mostly white, and minorities that were meeker and more minoritarian; of wives who took care of children and did the housework; of homes in which the father was the undisputed authority. It is those markers of status that have lost recognition in a society now more ethnically diverse, multicultural and sexually egalitarian. And it is the longing to regain this lost status that rightwing populism feeds. Status anxiety is the opposite of class-consciousness: instead of solidarity with all the exploited and oppressed, it elevates pride of place in a hierarchy - in proximity to those above and superiority to those beneath.

The events of January 6 were an outpouring of wounded status consciousness, raised to a fever pitch. Economic demands and slogans were completely absent. The rioters were nearly all white and overwhelmingly male. The symbols, from copious American flags to crosses, to occasional Nazi regalia, were those of nation, the Christian religion and the white ‘race’ - of those categories of people who were once at the top of the heap, but now see their ascendancy slipping away and vanishing. The guns some rioters brought were brandished to intimidate, and were perhaps intended to be fired, but they played a symbolic role as well. Those who on the far right have for years vowed to oppose gun control laws and defend their second amendment right to bear arms do not - at least where most whites are concerned - need guns for self-defence, and no-one is threatening to confiscate their hunting rifles. The gun is rather for them an emblem of masculinity, and gun control an act of legal castration. The deep sense of grievance of the marauders (call them rioters or attempted-coup-makers, as you prefer) and the many who share it, is borne of a sense of dispossession - that all the things that once set them above the rest of humanity are being taken away.

Yet the threat is not primarily to those on top, but to those on the bottom - to all those with darker skin and foreign accents who bulk ever larger in the population, and to women and gays who do not accept their former lot. The anger is directed at those above - whether in government, academia or urban professional enclaves - to the extent that they reject national chauvinism and refuse to join - or act to undermine - the defence of beleaguered white status. And lashing out at the objects of white male rage can - as we have just seen - have lethal consequences.

I have written several articles in this paper critical of the identity politics widespread on the American left, because identitarians combat the revanchist right by reversing the plus and minus signs: they divide the population into the same essential race and gender categories as the right, with the difference that they defend and attempt to advance the purported interests of the groups the right attacks. They all too often attack words and symbols instead of real conditions, and are inclined toward absurd extremes of ‘political correctness’. Advocating, as I do, a class outlook in opposition to identity politics does not, however, mean denying the reality of extra-class oppressions, or the necessity for the working class movement to combat them. Yet one finds no mention in Lazare’s appraisal of the January 6 events of the role of the one thing that animated the rioters perhaps more any other: their commitment to white supremacy.

In fact, the only instance I can recall where Lazare touches upon this subject at all is when, in a previous article, he counterposes to the slogan, ‘Black lives matter!’, the slogan, ‘All lives matter!’ I think the second slogan - which appeared at anti-BLM counter-demonstrations - is premised upon a deliberate misrepresentation - or perhaps in Lazare’s case a misunderstanding - of the first. ‘Black lives matter!’ is not intended to imply that black lives are the only ones that matter, or that they should matter more than the rest, but that they should matter just as much as white lives. In the US - now, as throughout its history - they have counted for much less: most recently in the instances of police brutality that gave rise to the BLM protests.

I am sure that Lazare does not misconstrue the above slogan out of any softness on racism. But it is one more example of his tendency to pay scant attention to the elements of the current conjuncture apart from the one to which he attaches transcendent importance: the US constitution and legal system. Economic trends, social struggles, political shifts do receive an occasional mention in his articles, but usually by way of digression from his singular constitutional fixation. Even his latest piece, ‘The meaning of January 6’, ends by stating that “[Bradley] Mayer is right to point to ‘the antiquity of a state founded at the end of the 18th century - … and unchanged in its foundations to this day - as the prime cause’ of the current crisis”. The article then trails off into an arcane discussion of the separation of powers under the Tudors, and the attachment of the pilgrim fathers - who landed in Massachusetts in 1620 - to Elizabethan state forms.

Far be it from me to deny the importance of tracing historical roots, but I am sure many readers will find bizarre and bewildering the claim that a document that provided the legal basis for the American government for 230 years, in addition to its even older provenance, can be invoked instead of living social forces to explain the eruption of January 6 - or the terminal crisis that Lazare thinks we are now in.

Jim Creegan can be reached at egyptianarch@gmail.com