Slow-motion civil war
Donald Trump is gearing up to run in 2024 and the ground is already being laid for another coup attempt. It is time for ‘we, the people’ to act, says Daniel Lazare
As every car-owner knows, mechanical problems do not fix themselves. Until you take the old jalopy in for a repair, they will just get worse and worse.
The same goes for constitutions - especially ones as antiquated and mechanistic as the US variety. Until and unless “we, the people” intervene and perform the ‘repairs’ ourselves - not in a piecemeal fashion under the constitution rules, but in a revolutionary way over the document as a whole - the breakdown will continue to the point of total system collapse.
The latest example is a nine-member select committee that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives appointed in July to look into the January 6 Capitol Hill insurrection. Headed by an obscure Mississippi Democrat named Bennie Thompson, the committee is currently locked in battle with Donald Trump advisor Steve Bannon over what he knew about the events leading up to January 6 and when he knew it. It is clear why the committee is so anxious to hear from Bannon: the man seems to have been remarkably well-informed about what was to occur.
The day before the insurrection, he declared that the country was facing a “constitutional crisis” that was “about to go up about five orders of magnitude.” He told a radio audience:
All hell is going to break loose tomorrow … It’s not going to happen like you think it’s going to happen. OK, it’s going to be quite extraordinarily different … So many people said, ‘Man, if I was in a revolution, I would be in Washington.’ Well, this is your time in history.
“It’s all converging,” he added, “and now we’re on the point of attack tomorrow.”1
This was 24 hours before Trump told a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally that “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country any more” - words that sent a mob surging past police barricades on Capitol Hill, smashing through doors and windows, and then rampaging through Congress itself.
Considering that Bannon and Trump were reportedly in frequent contact in late December and early January, his testimony would therefore seem to be a logical starting point for an investigation into what took place and how. But nothing is easy in a system as decrepit as the American, which is why efforts to get to the bottom of January 6 have met with repeated setbacks. The problem began just weeks after the uprising when Senate Republicans blocked an attempt to convict Trump on charges of “incitement to insurrection” during his second impeachment trial. The acquittal allowed the perpetrator-in-chief to go free, while prosecutors went after hundreds of small-fry rioters instead.
This was illogical and unfair. Next, Senate Republicans blocked an attempt to launch an investigation by Congress as a whole. When members of the Democratic-controlled House then opted to investigate on its own, Republicans boycotted the effort, excoriated two members of the party for daring to participate, and then took turns sniping from the sidelines. They voted against the Bannon subpoena and will undoubtedly step up the fight even more if Joe Biden’s department of justice files criminal charges for refusing to testify.
Political lines are hardening. Trump has declared war on the committee, while launching a counter-offensive on behalf of Ashli Babbitt - a 35-year-old California woman, who was shot and killed by Capitol Hill police during the uprising and who is now being hailed as a Republican martyr. “We must all demand justice for Ashli and her family,” Trump said in a recent video on the occasion of her birthday:
I offer my unwavering support to Ashli’s family and call on the department of justice to reopen its investigation into her death on January 6. Like all Americans, you deserve a fair process, you deserve answers, and you deserve justice.2
Instead of going after those responsible for the assault, Trump wants the department to go after those who tried to fend it off. It is yet another sign that the hoped-for reconciliation after the trauma of January 6 is never going to happen and that the two sides are digging in for long-term trench warfare.
Bannon is meanwhile an example of the type of rightwing extremist who thrives in a period of accelerating decay. He occupies roughly the same position vis-à-vis Trump that ‘Eurasianist’ Alexander Dugin occupies relative to Vladimir Putin: ie, the house intellectual whose job is to whisper ultra-right sweet nothings in the chief executive’s ear.
Where Dugin grew up with a military family in Moscow, Bannon was brought up in a blue-collar, Irish Catholic family on Long Island. Where Dugin has called for a “genuine, true, radically revolutionary and consistent fascist fascism” that only Russia can provide, Bannon, a naval officer turned investment banker and Hollywood producer, was hailed as “the Leni Riefenstahl of the American Tea Party movement”, before going on to serve as chairman of the alt-right website, Breitbart News.3
Bannon is a Catholic traditionalist who has absorbed a host of far-right influences, from the Italian fascist, Julius Evola - a Dugin favourite as well - to Charles Maurras, the founder of the anti-democratic Action Française. He’s a nationalist who abhors immigration and free trade and admires Il Duce. “He was clearly loved by women,” he told an interviewer in 2018. “He was a guy’s guy. He has all that virility. He also had amazing fashion sense, right, that whole thing with the uniforms. I’m fascinated by Mussolini.”4
Trump appointed him to head his presidential campaign in 2016 and then named him “chief strategist” after taking office. But they went their separate ways after journalist Michael Wolfe quoted him in his 2018 tell-all bestseller, Fire and fury: inside the Trump White House, calling Ivanka Trump “dumb as a brick” and dismissing her father as a “scumbag” and a crook.
It was a monumental political break-up. But growing authoritarianism brought the two men back together. Trump’s refusal to say prior to the 2020 election whether he would abide by the results placed him increasingly in the anti-democratic camp - as, of course, did his insistence, on the basis of zero evidence, that the Democrats had stolen it. After all, if elections are to be regarded as fixed unless he wins, why bother at all? Why not skip the formalities and go straight to the coronation, to cries of “God save the king”?
Bannon was of the same opinion. According to the select committee, he announced that Democrats were going to steal the election and then urged Trump to “focus on January 6” - the day Congress was supposed to count the Electoral College votes and certify the results. In addition to issuing incendiary calls for Trump supporters to “strap in” and get ready for a showdown, the committee says that Bannon huddled with a group of Trump lawyers and advisors in a hotel “war room” the day before the insurrection to plot strategy. Besides the notorious Republican dirty trickster, Roger Stone - who reportedly was accompanied by bodyguards from the far-right militia known as the Oath Keepers - the participants included a conservative attorney named John Eastman, who had written a memo a few days earlier laying out precisely what Mike Pence should do in order to halt the certification process in its tracks.
The memo leaves no doubt that January 6 was not a show or a fraud, as certain left-leaning sceptics have maintained, but the real thing. After reading off the state tallies in alphabetical order, it said that Pence in his capacity as Senate president should then stop when he got to Arizona and “announc[e] that he has multiple slates of electors, and so is going to defer decision on that until finishing the other states”. After doing the same with six other states, whose results were also in contention, according to Republicans, he should declare that “because of the ongoing disputes … there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those states. That means the total number of ‘electors appointed’ - the language of the 12th amendment - is 454” instead of the usual 538.5
The effect would have been to invalidate 84 electoral votes belonging to Biden. Since Trump at that point would be the leader by 10 electoral votes, “Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected.” If Democrats object - as, of course, they would - the memo further advised that Pence should refer the question to the House, where Republicans enjoy a built-in advantage according to the 12th amendment, adopted in 1803. Either way, Trump would wind up the winner despite trailing by seven million popular votes.
It would have been the steal of the century. The only reason it did not happen is that Pence had balked at going out so far on a legal limb - hence all those “Hang Mike Pence” chants on January 6. But the Eastman memo is a guidebook for what might well happen in 2024. With state legislators in Texas passing laws allowing Republican activists-turned-poll-watchers to move freely about voting places and sue or seek court orders against election officials who get in their way, the goal is not only to intimidate and disrupt, but to establish a legal basis for tying up state election returns in the courts.6 If Republicans are successful in enough states in 2024, they will be on firmer legal ground the following January, when they try to throw the entire contest into the House.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This is the nightmare facing American politics: the ultimate political manoeuvre aimed at rendering voting irrelevant and ushering in a ‘rule of law’ on the basis of a rickety 18th century constitution that is grossly out of date, yet impossible to change. Instead of “we, the people” choosing their president, rightwing cabals will do it for them.
Last week, Senate Republicans used the filibuster to block a Democratic election reform bill designed to prevent any such electoral hijacking. It was the second time Republicans have done so this year and, since Dems lack the votes needed to repeal the filibuster, a parliamentary manoeuvre that allows a mere 41 out of 100 senators to veto just about any major bill, the way is now clear for Republicans to do what they wish in the next presidential election.
Forcing Bannon to testify may shed light on one attempted coup, but it will do nothing to prevent a more effective one from taking place in 2024-25. Until the people step in and tackle the job of democratising the constitutional structure from top to bottom, the deterioration will continue until what little is left of political democracy vanishes in a puff of smoke.
That is what decrepit systems of government do when they persist long past their sell-by date. They lose steam until they finally collapse and drag society down with them.
The committee report is available at www.documentcloud.org/documents/21088101-bannon-contempt-report.↩︎
J Green, ‘The new vast rightwing conspirator wants to take out both Clinton and Bush’ Bloomberg Businessweek October 8 2015.↩︎
The memo is available at www.cnn.com/2021/09/21/politics/read-eastman-memo/index.html.↩︎
See my ‘Approaching train wreck’ Weekly Worker October 21: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1368/approaching-train-wreck.↩︎