As Trump era closes, Washington cannot rule in the old way
President Donald Trump, left, remains on stage as then-Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden, right, walks away Oct. 22, 2020. | Julio Cortez / AP

As Joe Biden assumes office, and a potential new wave of right-wing violence lurks, the U.S. ruling class is in a panic.

The House of Representatives quickly (and justifiably) impeached Trump for inciting an insurrection. Major corporate donors, who give millions to both dominant parties, have promised to withhold donations from politicians who encouraged the Jan. 6th coup attempt. Speaker Pelosi apparently extracted promises from military officials to block Trump’s ability to order a nuclear strike in a fit of derangement.

Calls for the resignations or expulsions of Republican Party politicians who egged on the coup attempt have flooded the media and the inboxes of elected officials. Major social media outlets have blocked Trump’s accounts, along with those of tens of thousands of his followers who spread paranoid conspiracies about the election.

The FBI has launched a massive investigation of individuals involved in invading the Capitol building, destroying or stealing public property, or threatening public officials. Numerous inquiries into the failures of the Capitol Police and the role of some of its members in aiding the coup attempt are ongoing. In an unprecedented move, top military officials announced their support for the election outcome and denounced the coup attempt, even launching internal investigations into the political loyalties of service members who may be assigned to the inauguration.

Visitors to the Capitol since Trump’s coup attempt describe the current lockdown as under a military occupation.

These actions signal a general panic in Washington, across party differences, about its ability to rule.

Desperate measures and the political disaster they aim to forestall signal a crisis in the legitimacy and capacity of Washington’s elites to dominate the political system to manage the loss of U.S. prestige globally, which has been in the making since Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Trump’s ascendance to power reflected one set of anti-democratic, anti-working class solutions to that incapacity. By asserting an “America first” nationalism in the political and economic realms, U.S. elites hoped for a return to dominance. They hoped for the restoration of the U.S. system fractured by economic collapse and general unrest since the Great Recession of 2008. Since then, however, popular uprisings such as Occupy Wall Street and #BlackLivesMatter, driven by deep social inequalities manufactured by American capitalism, only exacerbated that flailing and desperate leadership.

The nationalist agenda feeds on white supremacist ideology, the lurking pathology that infects American social institutions and its claims to superiority. Fascist-oriented militias and organizations swelled to an antagonistic prominence, mainstreaming abuses against immigrants, promoting anti-Black racism, and fueling open anti-Chinese xenophobia. Trump’s supporters regularly threatened and staged violence to build their movement. Killers armed with assault rifles and Trump-flag-bearing pick-up trucks stalked the #BlackLivesMatter uprisings. Militias developed plans to kidnap public officials whom Trump labeled as his enemies. Right-wing organizations celebrated violence, racism, and hatred and surged into the streets. Republican Party officials regularly defended these actions.

Supporters of this political regime relish the return to dominance of a narrow conception of U.S. history and culture that celebrated white racist power. They long for an economic and political turn inward that might see the country cut ties to parts of the world whose people they regard as racially and culturally inferior.

This general political orientation, an enduring feature of the Republican Party’s bedrock ideology and echoed by many Democrats, depends primarily on the promotion of fear and hatred, delusion and anger, to achieve dominance.

But an ideological and cultural system founded on these emotional reactions to change is a recipe for disaster. The U.S. government’s failed response to the COVID-19 pandemic is only the most egregious example of this calamity. Trump attempted to manage public perceptions of the pandemic by promoting a belief among his followers that scientists, the media, and public officials who called for a rational public health response could not be trusted. He encouraged the notion that only he could provide the truth about what he called a hoax. He had long-sought opportunities to foster this authoritarian mentality and now was his big chance.

Trump’s callous and deadly response to the pandemic promoted resistance to the public health emergency, which in turn encouraged the view of Trump as infallible leader and his critics as dangerous enemies who should be silenced, imprisoned, or even killed. This mindset gripped millions of his followers to the point that they became convinced that Trump’s political challengers could only rob him of a second term.

Since March of 2020, 400,000 Americans have died. The vaccine rollout appears to have been mishandled, as many states report the Trump administration overstated its promises about the quantities of the vaccine available.

This is where the U.S. is right now. Political terrorism lurks within nearly every public action. Right-wingers dismiss calls for accountability for Trump and his provocateurs in the name of unity. Some Republican members of the House who wanted to support Trump’s impeachment refused to do so, citing death threats. The FBI warns that Trump’s followers may instigate violence around the country.

With a growing incapacity to govern this country, Washington will need to seek a new consensus to fend off a total devolution of the American system into chaos. The Biden administration will attempt to shape that consensus after Jan. 20th.

A return to a neoliberal agenda will only deepen the crisis. People can no longer accept a system dominated by billionaires and millionaires—from either major party.

This consensus must involve using the mandate and the power handed by the voters to the Democratic Party to materially improve the lives of working-class people. This can be done with a minimum wage increase, student debt forgiveness, unemployment, and pandemic relief, expansion of Medicare, a Marshall Plan for education and financial relief for the states, elimination of the human rights abuses inflicted against migrants, and the rooting out of white supremacists and their ideology from social institutions, including but not exclusively the police. On the global stage, the U.S. government must abandon Trump and Pompeo’s paranoid foreign policy that diminished the capacity for global cooperation to fight the pandemic.

But a progressive agenda is not enough. There must be new power relations. The leadership in the state, dominant social institutions, and in the economy by democratic and the multi-racial working-class leaders, forces, movements, and organizations is a must. They are needed as the remaining sliver of optimism for social harmony and progress.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu is the author of Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century (International Publishers) and The Collectivity of Life (Lexington Books).