Public hearings on the January 6, 2021, ultra-rightist mob attack on the U.S. Congress are now underway. The facts presented at these hearings offer a reminder that the effort Donald Trump led to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election was far outside the previous norms of U.S. bourgeois politics.
For this reason, we are republishing World-Outlook‘s inaugural article posted that fateful January. That analysis largely stands up to the test of time. It outlines the stakes for working people in those events.
The issues involved go well beyond establishing historical accuracy. It is still likely that Trump will run again for president in 2024. His unfounded and conspiracy-laden claim that the 2020 election was “stolen” still holds sway among the base of the Republican Party and Republican office holders at the federal, state, and local levels. Trump remains the most authoritative leader of the GOP.
It is equally possible that in both 2022 and 2024 — even if someone other than Trump is the Republican presidential nominee — rightists will repeat these challenges to the outcome of the elections if the results do not suit them.
Over the last year and a half, this much has become clear: Trump has made effective use of the technique of the “big lie” in continuing to insist the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. Many conservative politicians and their big-business backers have accepted and promoted this lie. Many others are unwilling to challenge it publicly. This suggests that these forces and the pundits who speak for them may be open to Trump’s course. They may be open to using cunning and force to change an election outcome, tossing the “rule of law” by the wayside, as a possible solution to late capitalism’s crises that are getting worse under the Biden administration.
The Democratic Party has its own agenda in organizing the current hearings. It is using them primarily to try to shore up its increasingly poor prospects in the 2022 midterm elections.
What is important to working people is what unfolded after the 2020 election. It begins with recognizing the “big lie” and the lengths to which its proponents were willing to go to enforce it.
Much of the media is drawing comparisons between the January 6 House hearings today and the Watergate hearings about half a century ago. Watergate led to the resignation of then U.S. president Richard Nixon.
More compelling than any similarities is a key difference: The ruling class united in dealing with the Watergate scandal that revealed how it uses executive power and federal institutions to govern. It claimed — falsely — that Nixon was an exception in this regard. It promised to “clean up” government.
There is no such unity today. Trump enjoys a celebrity status far removed from Nixon’s disgraced standing when he left the White House. Tens of millions across the United States continue to look to Trump for reasons the article below explains.
The Democratic Party offers no way forward for working people, as the effects of the two-year-long pandemic, raging inflation, and more are wreaking havoc in our lives.
As World-Outlook wrote 18 months ago: “Despite the promises by Biden and his running mate Harris, the new administration is unlikely to stem the decline in the standard of living of working people and threats to civil liberties and political rights, even if some of their policies seek to ameliorate these conditions. The Democratic Party remains an ardent defender of the system responsible for the crisis.”
Due to the length of the January 2021 article, we are publishing it in two parts, the first of which follows.
(This is the first of two parts. The second can be found in Part 2.)
Radicalism, Bonapartism, and the Aftermath of the 2020 U.S. Elections (Part 1)
By Geoff Mirelowitz, Argiris Malapanis, and Francisco Picado
Jan. 13, 2021 — In a culminating step to a series of developments unprecedented in U.S. politics in more than a century, outgoing U.S. president Donald Trump and his supporters engaged in a riot aimed at overturning the results of the 2020 presidential election. While Congress certified the outcome of the November vote next day, on Jan. 7, it is notable that more than 25% of members of the House and Senate, all Republicans, joined Trump’s challenge to his defeat at the polls, even after the rightist mob attack on the U.S. Capitol had been dispersed.
Trump’s dogged refusal to accept the results split the Republican Party as he insisted on his demand to hold on to political power and remain in the White House. The U.S. president and his supporters filed dozens of complaints and lawsuits to push unsubstantiated claims of a fraudulent vote. State government officials, often Republicans, state legislatures in the six “swing” states where Trump disputed the outcome of the popular vote, as well as lower federal courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court swiftly rejected these challenges.
Despite such overwhelming institutional repudiation, Trump’s conspiratorial and outlandish claims of a “stolen election” still won backing from 139 members of the House of Representatives and 8 U.S. senators, who in the end objected to certifying the election results in Arizona or Pennsylvania. They also energized radical rightist groups, which, with Trump’s prodding, staged violent protests in the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, storming the building and forcing a joint session of Congress, convened to certify the election results, to temporarily suspend proceedings. Earlier, a fringe among the U.S. president’s backers had even suggested he invoke martial law to remain in power.
Many politicians tried to brush aside as “un-American” the unsuccessful attempt to overturn the election results. They included former President George W. Bush, who said Jan. 6, this is “how elections are disputed in a banana republic, not our democratic republic.” These events, however, indicate that a not insignificant minority of the privileged classes at least considered sidestepping the legislative and judicial branches of government and handing all important policy decisions to the executive, run by an individual with extraordinary powers. One who would not act as a servant of the institutions of capitalist democracy, but who would instead be anointed to “rescue the nation,” in order to finally “make America great again.”
The accurate political term for such a course is “Bonapartism.” It was also manifested in the campaign and significant vote for billionaire Ross Perot in the 1992 U.S. presidential elections albeit as a whisper then. The challenge to the 2020 election results failed. But the danger it represents to civil liberties and the working class is palpable and will not disappear. To the contrary, all indications point to Trump and his backers using these claims to campaign against the “illegitimate” administration of Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the coming months and years.
All this is unfolding in the middle of the global capitalist economic and social crisis we are now living through, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. The history of the last century shows that such steep economic downturns start breeding radical attitudes ahead of triggering significant class battles. Before large numbers of workers become receptive to class-struggle proposals and open to political action independent of the capitalist class and its parties—the Democrats and Republicans—radical attitudes get a hearing in the middle class and among layers of workers.
The working class in the United States does not yet think and act like a class. Much of the political initiative today comes from right-wing currents. Ultra-rightist groups take advantage of their foothold within the two-party system and other ruling-class institutions. They tap into the loss of confidence in the government and suspicions of the most prominent, established politicians. Conditions are ripe for rightist demagogy and conspiracy theories to gain a wide reach.
Republican Party rift
While Trump tried to keep a tight grip on the Republican Party and originally won support from 13 U.S. senators and some 140 House members, he faced considerable pushback against his effort to hold on to power, indicating that a large majority of the moneyed men and women and their political representatives opposed a Bonapartist takeover. The rift tore through the GOP and extended to big-business executives and owners of conservative media who had backed Trump.
“The voters, the courts and the states have all spoken,” majority speaker Mitch McConnell, said Jan. 6 on the U.S. Senate floor, before the assault on the Capitol. “If we overrule them, it will damage our republic forever.”
“CEOs urge Congress to certify Biden’s Electoral College win,” said a Jan. 4 headline in the Wall Street Journal. “Nearly 200 chief executives call on legislators to uphold ‘essential tenets of our democracy’ by enabling transition of power to president-elect.”
“Stop the insanity,” read the front-page banner headline in the Dec. 27 New York Post. “Mr. President,” the Post editors, ardent Trump supporters until recently, declared, “You lost the election.” They advised their man to accept defeat and “focus on Senate races in Georgia.”
Paul D. Ryan, former House speaker and 2012 GOP vice-presidential candidate, said in a Jan. 3 statement: “Efforts to reject the votes of the Electoral College and sow doubt about Joe Biden’s victory strike at the foundation of our Republic. It is difficult to conceive of a more anti-democratic and anti-conservative act than a federal intervention to overturn the results of state-certified elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans.”
The 10 living former defense secretaries, Democrats and Republicans, signed an Op-Ed published in the Jan. 3 Washington Post, warning: “As senior Defense Department leaders have noted, ‘there’s no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of a U.S. election.’ Efforts to involve the U.S. armed forces in resolving election disputes would take us into dangerous, unlawful and unconstitutional territory. Civilian and military officials who direct or carry out such measures would be accountable, including potentially facing criminal penalties, for the grave consequences of their actions on our republic.”
These former overseers of the U.S. military were citing a statement by the secretary of the Army and the Army chief of staff, disavowing any intention of participating in a military coup. Reporting on this in a Dec. 20 article in The Atlantic magazine, David Frum wrote: “That’s a fine statement, in line with the long-standing traditions of the U.S. military. It’s alarming, though, that anybody thought it necessary at all. The next day, multiple media sources reported that President Donald Trump has been scheming about a possible coup in the Oval Office with his innermost team of advisers: Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, and Rudy Giuliani.”
On Dec. 1, Flynn, a former Trump national security adviser, had shared a message on Twitter calling on the president to suspend the U.S. Constitution, “declare limited martial law,” have the “military oversee a national re-vote,” and “silence the destructive media.” While Flynn’s views may be backed by a right-wing fringe at the moment, the more recent statements by U.S. military officials and former defense secretaries underline the danger such rhetoric poses.
Storming of U.S. Capitol
In a calculated move, Trump even pressured his vice president, Mike Pence, to try to stop Congress from certifying the November election. Pence refused. “I will keep the oath I made,” he stated, prompting his boss to slam him as a coward. “Mike Pence did not have the courage to do what should have been done,” Trump tweeted Jan. 6.
The same day, Trump addressed thousands of his supporters at a Washington D.C. rally to press his demands for overturning the election. “Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild,” Trump had tweeted Dec. 19 to build the action. “We will never concede,” he declared from his D.C. pulpit on Jan. 6, urging supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol. From the same stage, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudi Giuliani, egged on the crowd to engage in “trial by combat.”
Thousands did. They surrounded the Capitol waving flags, signs, banners, as well as sticks and shields, and pressed the message of their leader, chanting, “We want Trump!” While small numbers of police stood by, were ineffectual, or helped the mob, hundreds stormed the building. Some broke windows, scaled fences, and brandished weapons. One protester was shot by the police in the melee and later died. Six others also died, three from medical complications and three policemen, one of them from injuries suffered during the scuffle and two others from suicide. The rightist attack prompted officials to evacuate legislators and suspend the joint session of Congress, which at that time had started deliberations on certifying the November election.
Most politicians, including Pence and other top Republicans, promptly condemned the assault and called on protesters to leave the area. The D.C. mayor declared a curfew that evening. Maryland state police, the D.C. National Guard, and federal agencies deployed armed forces around the U.S. Capitol.
In a pre-taped video message released to the media that afternoon, Trump offered a tepid reaction. He thanked protesters for their support, urging them to stay peaceful and go home, but his statement opened by reiterating his baseless claims of a “fraudulent vote.” Trump later seemed to condone the riot. “These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long,” he tweeted that evening.
Trump had already heightened concerns about plans to bypass long-established capitalist electoral norms in a Jan. 2 hour-long telephone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. The transcript, made public by the Georgia Republican, reveals Trump’s demand that Raffensperger “find” 11,780 votes to overturn Biden’s win in that state. Trump also hinted that Raffensperger and the attorney for his office might find themselves charged with a “criminal offense” if they did not bend to Trump’s will. Georgia state officials declined the offer.
Mixed in with these threats were references to some of the wildest conspiracy theories Trump and some of his supporters have peddled, including the charge that 250,000 ballots or more were “dropped mysteriously into the rolls” in Georgia. Though unfounded, public opinion polls show that a large percentage of those who voted for Trump believe this claim and others.
The U.S. president had made his authoritarian tendencies clear leading up to Election Day. Trump repeatedly explained there could be only two outcomes. First, he would win. Second, he would be denied a second term through fraud and conspiracy. Echoing his assertion he had been the victim of “the greatest witch-hunt in history” while in office, he claimed that could extend to the election outcome. He publicly insinuated there was no chance he wouldn’t be the choice of the majority.
These methods—conspiracy theories, the “big lie,” the leader allegedly under unfair attack from special interests—are among the stock-in-trade of Bonapartist demagogues who assert their word must be final in all disputes.
What is Bonapartism?
More than 50 years ago, Marxist scholar and working-class leader George Novack explained the essential meaning of Bonapartism. In an essay titled, “Bonapartism, Military Dictatorship and Fascism,” which appears in his book Democracy and Revolution, Novack said, “Parliamentary government…becomes a liability to big capital when the middle classes are radicalized, the workers take the offensive and the country seems to be slipping out of its control.”
He continued: “When social tensions tighten to the breaking point, parliament is less and less able either to settle the disputes at the top or act as a buffer between the power of property and the wrath of the masses. General disappointment with its performance plunges bourgeois parliamentarism together with its parties into a period of acute crisis.”
Bonapartism, Novack explained, “carries to an extreme the concentration of power in the head of the state already discernible in the contemporary imperialist democracies. All important policy decisions are centralized in a single individual equipped with extraordinary emergency powers. He speaks and acts not as the servant of parliament… but in his own right as ‘the man of destiny’ who has been called upon to rescue the nation in its hour of mortal peril.”
Many of these factors exist today. The working class has not yet “taken the offensive,” as Novack put it, although Trump spoke for many in the ruling class when he attacked last summer’s mass actions, which included millions of workers, protesting cop brutality and racism after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. The other signs Novack described, however, are increasingly familiar. Trump’s desire to maintain and expand his individual power is no secret to any observer.
Moreover, Trump’s preference for the strong-arm role has been apparent since before he won the White House in 2016. It was expressed most clearly when Trump told that year’s GOP national convention—and the country—“I alone can fix it,” referring to the nationwide political, economic and social crises.
He alone, he claimed, would “drain the swamp” that many working people agree exists in Washington D.C. He alone could “Make America Great Again.”
There are other examples of Trump’s strong-arm tactics and his unlawful ambitions during his four years in office. They include his use of special federal agents—some operating with no identifying insignia—against cop brutality protests in Portland, Oregon, and the threat to use them elsewhere, particularly in what he called “anarchist cities,” including New York and Seattle, last year. Repeatedly, Trump suggested he could serve more than the two presidential terms allowed by the U.S. constitution.
Trump administration was not Bonapartist regime, but that danger is now clear
Despite the rhetoric, however, the overall record of the Trump administration shows it was not a Bonapartist, nor, even less, a fascist regime, as many on the U.S. left claim.
Trump did use executive orders but not in a way qualitatively different than his predecessors.
His boasting that he would clean house in D.C. was simply demagogy. The swamp of lobbyists and special interests was never “drained”—nor even touched—during Trump’s four years in the White House. His cabinet and other appointments included dozens of the same types who usually fill these posts serving both major capitalist parties. Examples include the billionaire Betsy DeVos who ran the Department of Education and Wilbur Ross Jr., the Commerce Secretary, previously named by Bloomberg Markets as one of the 50 most influential people in global finance and once an adviser to then-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Not to mention Giuliani himself.
Generally speaking, Trump did not try to openly undermine democratic institutions until last November. This changed in the aftermath of his defeat at the polls, as he openly bullied many state officials to revise the already certified vote tallies to help him stay in power, and called for street actions with the same goal. The scene at the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6 shocked the U.S. and the world.
In today’s depression conditions and acute social crises, revealed more clearly by capitalism’s catastrophic response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the danger has grown that the resolutely reactionary forces within the ruling class may “conspire to get out of their bind by shunting parliament aside and going over to a more exclusive rule,” as Novack put it. Steps can be taken along this course prior to actually shutting down the U.S. Congress, as the Jan. 6 events suggest.
As post-election events demonstrate, while Biden won the election, the political initiative today remains in the hands of the right-wing. This is not unexpected. The deepening capitalist crisis has resulted in a growth of radical attitudes but has not yet led to massive working-class struggles. Working people do not yet have a political voice on any mass scale independent of the capitalists and their parties that can lead workers and other exploited producers to think and act on the understanding that our class interests are counterposed to those of the privileged rulers.
At the same time, rightist forces who always maintain a foothold in the Republican and Democratic parties, take the lead in shaping attitudes in a heterogeneous popular mass, including among those in the middle classes and layers of workers and farmers looking for radical solutions. Many of their “theories,” like the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, alleging that a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles is running a global child sex-trafficking ring and plotting against Trump, may sound irrational to most people. But they do get a hearing because millions are trying to find answers to the irrationality of capitalism.
Incumbent presidents who have lost a bid for reelection are generally viewed as “lame ducks” between election and inauguration days. Trump made plain he would play no such role. While his wild claims of a “stolen election” were initially dismissed, he remained undeterred, and he won widespread support from Republicans in Congress as well as among the 74 million who voted for him.
Trump pushed his fantastic claims, disregarding facts, or his own past declarations, despite Biden’s clear win — 306 to 232 — in the Electoral College, not to mention Biden’s 81 million national vote tally, outpolling Trump by some 7 million votes. In 2016, when Trump himself won the Electoral College by a similar count — 304 to 227 — he claimed it was a “landslide,” despite his loss in the popular vote that year to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
(This was the first of two parts. The sequel can be found in Part 2.)
Categories: US Politics