It appeared that the hard right of the US Republican Party was in trouble after the 6 January 2020 Capitol Hill riot. As far-right protesters, enraged by the victory of Joe Biden in the presidential election, smashed their way through the building in MAGA hats, shaman outfits and camouflage gear, the Trumpian movement was exposed as deranged, vile and out of control.
The backlash was swift—the conservative media and corporate elites, the traditional base for the Republicans, lashed the party for its stupidity. As the riot unfolded, Fox News pundits Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade reportedly texted White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, urging him to convince President Trump to call off the protest, while the FBI signalled that it would launch an investigation into the event.
It seemed like Trump and his supporters had crossed a line and might go down in flames. Some Senate Republicans who were going to vote to sustain objections to the election results back-flipped after the riot. Commentators speculated that the Republican Party would have to purge its hard-core right wing or be frozen out of political power, paving the way for years, if not decades, of Democratic rule. Longstanding Republican strategist Karl Rove declared that Trump was “tarnished for all time and incapable of running in 2024”.
But by the end of 2021, things were looking different.
Republican Glenn Youngkin in November won the gubernatorial race in Virginia, a state that Biden had won by 10 percentage points in 2020. Until Youngkin, no Republican had won a state-wide race in Virginia since 2009. In New Jersey, which Biden had won by 16 points, Republicans came close to unseating the Democratic incumbent.
They achieved this without any reckoning with the hard right in the party. Quite the contrary. In an interview on Fox News Radio, Youngkin accused his Democratic competitor of asking Biden “to dispatch the Department of Justice and the FBI to try to silence parents in Virginia” over their opposition to critical race theory and trans kids in schools. He is emblematic of a re-energised Republican right.
“The domestic war on terror is here. It’s coming after half the country.” So begins Patriot Purge, Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson’s three-part “documentary” series, which alleges that the Capitol Hill riot was a false flag operation organised by the FBI to discredit conservatives, and that Joe Biden is on the verge of ordering the mass arrests of Trump supporters and sending them to re-education camps. The series has been watched by millions, and Tucker Carlson Tonight is the most popular cable news show in the United States.
Carlson’s conspiracy theory is repeated by Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed Republican primary candidate for Washington state’s 3rd Congressional District. Kent, a former military officer whose wife was killed in an ISIS attack, spoke at a rally in September to support those arrested during and after the Capitol Hill riot. His primary campaign has focused on attacking the Republican establishment for betraying Trump by accepting the 2020 election results.
Kent is hoping to join the Republican Party’s far-right MAGA caucus, which is trying to expand from a loose network of half a dozen congressional members into the king-maker faction within the party. Boris Epshteyn—an investment banker and political strategist for the MAGA caucus—laid out the strategy in a recent radio interview: “It’s not just about let’s add some Republican seats, it’s about let’s add MAGA strongholds”.
The ongoing strength of the Trumpian wing has affected the entire Republican Party. Representative Liz Cheney, an arch-conservative, was removed from her leadership position among House Republicans in May after refusing to end her vocal opposition to Trump.
Trump’s shadow looms large over conservative politics in the US. Thirty Republican candidates for the 2022 midterm elections visited the former president at Mar-a-Lago in December to gain an endorsement, and the Republican National Committee contributed $1.6 million to Trump’s personal legal costs to defend charges of corrupt business practices. Trump has already raised more than $100 million for various political committees, which could be spent on a 2024 presidential election campaign. According to a Monmouth University poll, nearly three-quarters of Republican voters believe that voter fraud cost Trump the presidency; almost eight in ten want him to run again in two years.
There is a softening of attitudes towards the Republican Party among the broader public—a survey by Morning Consult revealed that 34 percent of voters think that it is moving in the right direction, compared to just 24 percent after 6 January.
The troubled state of Joe Biden’s administration helps to explain this Republican revival. The new president began 2021 with the wind in his sails. Many considered him a welcome change to the chaos of the Trump years. Initially at least, he seemed to be dealing well with the pandemic and the economy. But by August, dissatisfaction with Biden was rising among the political establishment and the wider public as COVID surged and inflation crept up. A CNBC/Change Research poll now shows that 60 percent of respondents disapprove of Biden’s handling of the economy, and that 55 percent disapprove of his leadership during the pandemic.
Once again, the US is in a situation of growing instability. And there is a sinking feeling that the country is slipping back into crisis. The Republican right has jumped at the opportunity to attack the Biden administration, blaming the situation on public health restrictions, and the government’s stimulus and infrastructure bills. The problem for Biden and the Democrats is that they don’t really have a compelling counterattack. They too accept that government budgets now need to be tightened and that “welfare dependency” needs to be reined in.
But there is a deeper dynamic at play. While there has always been an audience for hardline conservative politics in the US, the Republican Party has undergone a radicalisation, which started with the election of the country’s first Black president and his response to the 2008 global financial crisis, and deepened with Trump’s presidential campaign and victory in 2015-16.
The financial crisis began in the last years of the presidency of George W. Bush, who faced a wave of conservative revolt after bailing out Wall Street. While these Republicans opposed the corporate bailouts because they violated the sanctity of free-market capitalism, they positioned themselves as populist opponents of the Washington elite.
During the Obama years, the Republican hard right coalesced into the Tea Party movement. It grew in the shadow of the broader conservative Republican campaign against the Obama administration—many Republicans who today would call themselves moderates spent these years implying that the Democrats were secret communists, dabbling in conspiracy theories about Obama’s place of birth and hysterically denouncing immigration.
Trump announced his presidential campaign against this background of right-wing one-upmanship, recognising that the base of the party would flock to whoever expressed their ideas in the most unapologetic form.
Many underestimated just how deep are the wells of bigotry and reaction in the conservative movement, and how powerful and ungovernable this mobilised electoral base could become. Everyone assumed that Trump would burn out quickly and that a member of the Republican establishment would gain the party’s presidential nomination. But it soon became clear that the far-right radicalisation was now the party’s core electoral constituency.
For capitalism to function in a liberal democracy, parties that defend at least the essential interests of the capitalist class must be able to win elections and form governments. The capitalist class is a tiny minority of the population, so capitalist parties must be able to win broader sections of the population to vote them into office. The middle classes are therefore an important base for capitalist parties—they provide the numbers the ruling class lacks, and they have an interest in defending private property in a way that the working class does not.
A substantial section of the US middle classes has been radicalised since 2008 and provides the base for Tucker Carlson, Trump and their ilk. Even though they are a minority of the population, their importance for the electoral viability of the Republicans gives them influence over the trajectory of one of the two main political parties at the heart of world capitalism.
This middle-class conservatism is buttressed by a section of the lower rungs of the capitalist class, which historian Patrick Wyman, in an essay for the Atlantic, labels the “American gentry”:
“The conspicuously consuming celebrities and jet-setting cosmopolitans of popular imagination exist, but they are far outnumbered by a less exalted and less discussed elite group, one that sits at the pinnacle of the local hierarchies that govern daily life for tens of millions of people. Donald Trump grasped this group’s existence and its importance, acting, as he often does, on unthinking but effective instinct.
“When he crowed about his ‘beautiful boaters’, lauding the flotillas of supporters trailing MAGA flags from their watercraft in his honor, or addressed his devoted followers among a rioting January 6 crowd that included people who had flown to the event on private jets, he knew what he was doing. Trump was courting the support of the American gentry, the salt-of-the-earth millionaires who see themselves as local leaders in business and politics, the unappreciated backbone of a once-great nation.”
Certain structural features of American politics have boosted these two conjunctural reasons for the revived fortunes of the Republicans.
American democracy is notoriously exclusive. In the last presidential election, just 66 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot—and this was a record turnout. Biden won with 81 million votes (out of a total voting age population of 258 million). Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats need to represent anything even close to majority opinion to score electoral victories. The gerrymandering of electoral districts has been made into an art form in the US, and the Republicans have recently scored a series of legal victories to make their fortunes more favourable.
Then there is the negligible structural influence of the working class on American politics, which is even less than the deformed influence of workers filtered through social democratic parties such as the labour parties of Australia and the United Kingdom. The exclusion of much of the working class from electoral considerations by both major parties makes American politics even more deranged: it often reflects battles within the middle and ruling classes of the country with little—outside of rhetorical—acknowledgment of workers’ interests.
It can be attractive for those outside the US to believe smugly that the Republicans win elections because Americans are stupid rednecks easily manipulated by internet fads such as QAnon. But this is a relatively narrow section of American society—the institutions of US capitalism are structured to amplify their influence over the political system, and to diminish the influence of working-class voters, particularly Black and Latino workers.
Changing the situation, and the balance of political forces, would require a frontal attack on the inequalities at the heart of US society. This the Democrats will never launch, for it would mean declaring war on the structures of power and privilege from which they also benefit. For now, the forces of the American right are organising a grand crusade to reinstall Trump in the White House and to further entrench all the barbarism and inequality of US capitalism.