Liberals and authoritarians
Joe Biden does not, cannot, understand the MAGA movement. Daniel Lazare looks at his September 28 speech and finds something rotten in the state of America
Bourgeois liberals claim to oppose rightwing authoritarianism, but invariably end up feeding it instead. This is the takeaway from a speech that Joe Biden gave in Arizona last week on Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) movement and the threat it poses to US democracy.
The threat is quite real. With the Republicans emerging as the party of ‘J6’ (the January 2021 Capitol Hill insurrection), a Trump victory would not only mean a presidential pardon for all or most who took part, but would also spell the end of anything resembling free presidential elections. Instead of voters, rightwing mobs - or their leader in the Oval Office - would determine who wins and who does not. Since America barely qualifies as a democracy to begin with, this would tip it over into outright authoritarianism.
That is authoritarianism, as in Augusto Pinochet - or perhaps Anastasio Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator of whom Franklin D Roosevelt famously remarked: “He may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Whether or not leftists will be tossed out of helicopters is unknown. But with Trump and Ron DeSantis, his nearest Republican rival, both vowing to round up and summarily expel “six or seven million” illegal immigrants, it could lead to scenes that are hardly less gruesome.1
So it is no joke. But what stands out about Biden’s September 28 speech is how it characterised the Trump campaign, as an assault on American patriotism:
Seizing power, concentrating power, attempting to abuse power, purging and packing key institutions, spewing conspiracy theories, spreading lies for profit and power to divide America in every way, inciting violence against those who risk their lives to keep America safe, weaponising against the very soul of who we are as Americans.
That is how he summed up MAGA’s goals. Biden went on:
This MAGA threat is the threat to the brick and mortar of our democratic institutions. But it’s also a threat to the character of our nation ... that gives our constitution life, that binds us together as Americans in common cause.
Since Trump wants to divide America, the solution is to bind it together ever more tightly. “We have to stand up for American values embedded in the constitution [and] the declaration of independence,” Biden said, “because we know the MAGA extremists have already proven they won’t.”2
Fending off MAGA extremism also means fending off ‘bad’ conservatism (as opposed to the ‘good’ conservatism that Biden fondly remembers from his 36 years in the US Senate). This means celebrating the life and times of the late John McCain, the ex-prisoner of war turned Arizona senator, whom Biden regards as a patriotic hero, even if he was a Republican and whom he spent the first eight or nine minutes of his speech praising to the skies:
While in Hanoi, I visited a marker depicting where John ... had endured all the pain. Imprisoned five and a half years. Solitary confinement for two years ... He was beaten, bloodied, bones broken, isolated, tortured, left unable to raise his arms above his shoulders again.
As I stood there paying my respects, I thought about how much I missed my friend ... I thought about something else as well. I thought about how much America missed John right now, how much America needed John’s courage and foresight and vision. I thought about what John stood for, what he fought for, what he was willing to die for. I thought about what we owed John, what I owed him, and what we owe each other ...
So McCain is anti-Trump, and the way to defeat one is by celebrating the other.
To be sure, McCain, who died of cancer in 2018, was a Barry Goldwater-style Republican with a pronounced libertarian streak, which is why he voted with the American Civil Liberties Union more often than not.
But he was otherwise a hawk’s hawk who rarely met an imperial war he did not like. In 2000, he called for a programme of “rogue state rollback”, in which the United States “would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically-elected governments”.3 He called for a US invasion of Iraq just months after 9/11, sang “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ ‘Barbara Ann’ in 2007, at a time when Washington was revving up hostilities against Tehran, and called for the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi a few months into the Arab Spring. He championed Islamist rebels in Chechnya (“Yes, there are Chechen terrorists, but there are many Chechens who took up arms only after the atrocities committed by Russian forces”), and he was on the phone “several times a day” with Georgian nationalist Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched the South Ossetian war against Russia in 2008.4
He also travelled to Chile for a “friendly and at times warm” meeting with Augusto Pinochet,5 travelled to Syria in 2013 to meet with Sunni terrorists who had taken part in the kidnapping of 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims a year earlier (he claimed to have had no knowledge of the incident),6 and, during the Euromaidan uprising in Kyiv, met with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the anti-Semitic Svoboda party, who had said of Ukrainian nationalists during World War II: “They took their automatic guns on their necks and went into the woods, and fought against the Muscovites, Germans, Jews, and other scum who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.”7
In short, he’s just the sort of Washington warmonger whom Trump followers love to hate. So, in playing up McCain as a patriotic hero, Biden wound up reinforcing a MAGA Weltanschauung that divides US society into two groups: super-hawks who continually call for war; and the poor grunts on the ground who have to fight them.
Biden did not help matters by also lavishing praise on political institutions that are looking more and more shopworn. “For centuries, the American constitution has been a model for the world, with other countries adopting ‘We, the people’ as their North Star as well,” he said. “For all its faults,” he added, “... American democracy remains the best [path] forward to prosperity, possibilities, progress, fair play, equality.”
This was just two days before those same “democratic institutions” brought the country to brink of a government shutdown due to growing chaos on Capitol Hill.
Passing budgets is something other countries do as a matter of routine, but which America finds more and more difficult due to its broken-down constitutional machinery. The New York Times neatly summed up the problem, once a 45-day spending bill went through: “Dysfunction is the new normal.”8 A growing portion of the public apparently agrees. According to a poll released by Pew Research on September 19,
- 63% of Americans express not too much or no confidence at all in the future of the US political system.
- 63% say they are dissatisfied with the presidential candidates who have emerged so far.
- 81% say that America’s elected representatives do either a somewhat or a very bad job of “keeping their personal financial interests separate from their work in Congress” - a roundabout way of saying that four out of five see the legislative branch as corrupt.
- Trust in government, which once hovered in the mid-70s, is now down to just 16% - an historic low.9
This is what society looks like when it is on the verge of a political breakdown. With the budget deadline looming, a far-right Virginia congressman named Bob Good recently raised eyebrows by declaring that people should not worry about a shutdown, because “most of what we do up here hurts the American people”.10 This is an example of how Republican neo-Confederates cannot stop trashing government nearly three years after a fascist mob stormed Capitol Hill. But if fed-bashing still works, it is because it accords with what a growing portion of the population believes - which is that America’s decrepit political system is a millstone around society’s neck.
What Biden does not understand, of course, is that it is not Trump’s fault. The Orange One is a symptom rather than a cause. “Polycrisis”, the favoured term among academics these days, suggests that a variety of global problems - inflation, climate change, mass migration, political breakdown, etc - are coming together to form a single Big Bang. But it is misleading, because it implies that the problems are disparate in nature, when in fact they all flow out of a single cause: a capitalist ‘uni-crisis’ that is multi-dimensional in an increasingly powerful way.
After all, capitalism is not merely an economic system, but a political, military and technological system too. Fossil fuels have been the central driving force since the invention of the modern steam engine in 1778. Huge mechanised armies have enabled capitalist powers to conquer vast new territory and carve out new colonies. Popular elections, the penny press, mass education, etc have created a society of technically advanced workers and sophisticated consumers. To the degree America has given capitalism its own special stamp, it has been by pioneering new forms of mass production and mass consumption, in which suburbanisation, motorisation, Hollywood and the mass media all played a role. The US also pioneered new forms of limited democracy, in which Americans could noisily campaign for any candidate they wished, as long as he or she belonged to one of two bourgeois political parties. It pioneered new forms of free expression, in which they could spout off as loudly and vociferously as they liked, as long as what they said remained safely within bourgeois bounds.
But now a US-led system of globalised production and consumption is coming undone. Rampant fossil-fuel consumption is leading to a growing climate emergency, imperial aggression is leading to more and bigger wars, and motorisation is leading to pollution and sprawl, and intensifying racial conflict across urban-suburban lines. In the US, where rising standards of living are practically a birthright, median real weekly earnings are up just nine percent since 1979, while the home prices have risen 78% in real terms and college tuition over the same period has multiplied more than a dozen-fold.11 With US life expectancy down 2.7 years since 2019, even health is collapsing due to suicide, obesity, gun violence and roughly 100,000 fatal drug overdoses per year.
The political crisis is thus one aspect of an all-sided capitalist crisis. Yet because constitutional paralysis is all-consuming, there is no way out. A political explosion is brewing as a consequence, but, the more it remains within constitutional bounds, the more irrational it will become. Instead of a modern socialist revolt, it will more likely resemble a medieval jacquerie, in which peasants burn down the manor house that they see as the source of all evil and oppression.
It is a disaster. Yet all Biden can do is blather on about the glories of a country that is pitching downhill:
Any room I walk in and no matter what heads of state I’m with, everything stops. Not because of Joe Biden, but because I’m president of the United States of America. We are the essential nation. We are the essential nation. The rest of the world is looking, so we have to stand up for our constitution, our institutions of democracy, because MAGA extremists have made it clear they’re not going to.
So US workers have to stand up for the US as it presently exists, even though it is falling apart - that is the message to a disgruntled and pessimistic nation, in which political democracy is hanging by a thread. Yet Democrats wonder why it is just not getting through ...
The full text is available at www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2023/09/28/remarks-by-president-biden-honoring-the-legacy-of-senator-john-mccain-and-the-work-we-must-do-together-to-strengthen-our-democracy.↩︎
mishtalk.com/economics/inflation-adjusted-men-are-making-less-money-than-in-1979-women-are-doing-better; www.gobankingrates.com/investing/real-estate/how-much-new-home-cost-year-were-born; educationdata.org/average-cost-of-college-by-year.↩︎