Part of an ongoing debate: see here for all the contributions
US democracy is in its greatest crisis since the civil war of the 1860s. The depth and seriousness of that crisis was demonstrated by President Trump’s clumsy, many pronged attempts at a “constitutional” coup d’état against those who voted him out of office in November 2020, climaxing in the insurrectionist invasion of the Congress building on 6 January by an armed mob chanting “Hang Pence” (that is, Trump’s out-of-step vice-president), forcing legislators to hide in fear of their lives, It is a crisis rooted in the shambolic and undemocratic nature of the political system.
For more than two decades, the relationships within the different parts of the US political system have been modifying and shifting and redefining an already undemocratic system. Power had shifted from Congress to the President. Despite his wish to undo Trumpism, circumstances force Biden to continue the drift to a “strong” presidency.
Of the five presidential elections this century, two gave power to the candidate who got less of the popular vote, George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016; and indeed, Bush won the 2004 election only because he was the ruling president.
Both Bush and Trump were made President by the Electoral College, and Bush in 2000 also by the Supreme Court. Both were exceptionally bad and incompetent presidents who did great harm to the people of America and the world.
In Donald Trump, the US political system produced its Presidents Caligula and Nero in one man. A lumpen half-crazy millionaire fussed and fiddled and lied spectacularly while the raging corona-inferno consumed the lives of over 400,000 Americans, so far.
One of the central functions of elections is to manufacture consent or the semblance of consent of the governed for those who rule. The 2020 election did not do that, in tens of millions of Americans. About a third of the US electorate now believes that the presidential election was rigged and that Trump, not Biden is the legitimate US president.
That lie led to a big crowd on 6 January trying to strong arm the US Congress. On all precedents, including the USA in the 1990s, that will generate right-wing terrorists like Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995.
In four years Trump ripped apart the culture of agreed ways and means, agreed procedures, unwritten rules and conventions of decades and centuries by which the top layers of US politics has regulated itself.
At the end, Trump challenged the foundation ritual of all bourgeois democratic government, the peaceful surrender of power by those who lose elections.
Without that, bourgeois democracies such as those of Western Europe and the USA would be impossible.
Trump tried to destroy that keystone of bourgeois democracy, first, by questioning the possibility that an honest and fair election could lead to his ejection from office. If he lost, he said it would be positive proof that the election had been rigged and stolen from the legitimate president, “President Trump”.
He sabotaged the US Postal Service, to try to obstruct postal votes. He called on supporters to rally at the polling booths to deter anti-Trump voters.
Then he lied that the election had been rigged. He tried to disqualify the votes of electors in key areas where black voters predominate. He tried to get state legislatures to ignore the popular vote and give the Electoral College votes to Trump.
Then he brought over 60 cases of alleged electoral fraud, every one of which he lost. Finally, he told an armed body of his supporters to march down the road to the Capitol, and be “strong”, that is to strong-arm Congress. Representatives and Senators inside the Capitol became hunted fugitives from an enraged mob of Trumpists.
One measure of the crisis of U.S. democracy is that on the night of the armed assault on the Capitol, most Republican members of the House of Representatives still voted for Trump, i.e. against the House of Representatives endorsing the certification of the president elect and confirming that Joe Biden had been duly elected president. 121 voted to reject the Arizona result, 138 to reject the Pennsylvania result.
By any one of a dozen tests, Trump is a fascist. He has control of the Republican Party to the degree that a majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives associated themselves with armed insurrectionists and voted to obey the demands of the insurrectionists and overturn the presidential election, that is, to organise a coup in Congress against the electorate and President-elect Biden.
The Republican Party, as of now, is no longer a party of bourgeois democracy. On what will happen inside that party in the aftermath of the insurrection and the ejection of Trump depends the fate of the existing bourgeois-democratic US system of government.
Trump ripped up not only the cultures underlying and shaping US politics in Washington, but also the culture of rational discourse in US society itself, such as it was.
Journalists have counted the number of Trump’s political lies. It is past 30,000 in four years, reaching a crescendo in the election and its aftermath.
In place of rational discourse, Trump installed demagogy, the appeal to raw, unfiltered feelings. the exploitation of people’s real grievances and just sense of being wronged and excluded. Explicit disregard for facts, truth, reasoning based on facts and objective reality. Wallowing in lies, assertions, prejudices, secondary narcissisms. The virtual denial of the existence of an objective, verifiable reality and of ways of assessing and testing what it is. The creation in millions of minds of a parallel reality, of “alternative facts”, so that Trump’s devotees have a quasi-religious perception of the political world.
A vast bog of emotion-regulated, ultra primitive religions in the USA and in its citizens supports Trump. That mindset, the credulity, the inability or unwillingness to think straight about nature and supposed supernature, the fusion of emotions with reason, fundamental to those religions, has spread into US politics.
Donald Trump has used TV and the social media to create a demented mass cult. The Trumpists believe what he says because he says it. Trumpism is a cultist, quasi-religious phenomenon. In their attitudes to the Covid epidemic, the Trumpists have been a borderline death cult. Trump is their pope, ayatollah, totem and purveyor of miracle-cure crank medicines.
Trump has parlayed his TV stardom and his centrality on the political stage as president into a cult status that is unique in any non-fascist, non-Stalinist, non-authoritarian society.
He has persuaded people with real grievances to accept him as their champion. Using the power of the presidency, he has bullied and corrupted a large part of one of the two main US parties into aligning with insurrectionists who seized the Capitol.
Trump’s attempts at a coup against the 2020 presidential election have been inept, clumsy, counterproductive for him. Trump’s childishness served his opponents well.
But Trump set a precedent for more able, more serious, less crazed authoritarians. The Republican Party is in flux now, but the votes of so many Representatives against accepting the results of the election exposed what that party has become.
As against the Trump movement, in summer 2020 we saw a tremendous movement all across the USA, Black Lives Matter, in which great multi-racial crowds demonstrated their anger against police ill-treatment of people of colour and their commitment to racial equality. Plainly the basis exists for the creation of a mass movement of the Left.
US socialists who fight for the allegiance of US workers, a lot of whom voted Trump in the election, need to argue for a radical transformation of the existing political system.
This must include such demands as:
• abolish the Electoral College
• make Supreme Court judges serve for a fixed term and not as now for life
• abolish the Senate
• apply the existing constitutional prohibition on establishing a religion. (In fact, the US state supports all religions by exempting them from tax: remove tax exemption for all and every religion!)
• legislate so that independent fact checkers can reply in the same print or electronic media to what political and state officials say, and have a legal right of reply
• legislate equal voting rights, removing the many obstructions to black Americans registering and voting
• access to ballot papers for duly nominated candidates, and with workable nomination thresholds
• demilitarise the police.