While the November 2020 presidential elections represented a defeat for Donald Trump in the short-term, he didn’t see it that way. In the wake of the official results, the Trump camp opened up a full-on campaign to try and nullify its results. On election day itself, the Trump campaign filed 63 separate lawsuits challenging the election process across a myriad of different states. He approached scores of Republican elected officials urging them to overturn the results in their home states. Several members of Congress, encouraged by lame duck Vice President Mike Pence, indicated that they intended to open a debate in Congress about whether to accept the election results – a process that does not even exist. As we said at the time, while these moves were most likely all to come to naught, they and the popularity of the “election fraud” narrative represented something much, much more significant. Enter the January 6 insurrection.
January 6 Aftermath One Year On
If January 6 represented an earthquake in the history of bourgeois democracy in the U.S., over a year later it could be said we are still feeling the aftershocks. But not in the way many would have predicted. Despite the wall-to-wall howling of the media leading up to the coup attempt’s first anniversary earlier this month and his ban from many social media platforms, Trump has not only escaped any sort of major legal action in response to January 6 but in fact has seen a growth in his level of support. The on-going crisis of world capitalism continues and political and class polarization in the U.S. has if anything deepened. Many questions hang over the head of the most historically stable capitalist democracy.
With today’s lenses, it can be hard to remember what the atmosphere was like in the wake of the coup attempt. Outrage and disgust. Horror and confusion. After months of statements and wonky legal challenges trying to overturn the results of the November 2020 election loss, many said it was finally the death knell for Donald Trump and his brand of politics. Even within the Republican Party, more “moderate” and formerly establishment elements thought this was their chance to wrench back control from the Trumpist takeover. A newly elected President Biden entered his honeymoon period promising a “return to normal” versus the chaos of the Trump era.
However, as Socialist Alternative warned at the time, “there is the potential for fascists and other extreme right-wing elements to grow under a Biden administration overseeing deep problems of capitalism. The Tea Party grew under Obama after the bailout of the banks. We can’t effectively undermine the far right by uniting with a corporate-controlled Democratic establishment that creates the opening for these ideas and enables them by attacking the interests of working people again and again.” This analysis has been completely confirmed by subsequent events.
What the former Republican establishment found was that their party was more than just temporarily captured. Even without Trump it had been completely transformed in his political image. Barely a month after the coup attempt, 75% of registered Republican voters wanted Trump to continue to “play a prominent role” in the party. The biggest anti-Trump voice in the party, Representative Liz Cheney (daughter of Bush-era VP Dick Cheney), was removed from her post for being disloyal to Trump. And even more significant, any sort of bipartisan committee to investigate January 6 was filibustered and killed by Republicans for over six months, forcing Democratic House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi into retreating into the appointment of a House select committee with only two GOP members – one of them being Liz Cheney. Recent polls indicate that, despite everything, even today 56% of Republicans believe those that stormed the Capitol were “defending freedom.”
As for the Democrats, the last year has seen their post-coup hopes of a great revival under the Biden regime dashed. Biden’s early declaration of victory over Covid was undermined by Delta and then Omicron. The economy has been plagued by supply chain issues and the highest inflation rate since 1982. The Democrats have failed to enact any measures to address climate change, to roll back anti-union measures, enact sick leave, defend voting rights, enact abortion rights into law, or a number of other things that were promised. By August, Biden faced a majority disapproval rate and as of now that rate stands at a new high of 60%. Most alarmingly for the Democrats, a year ago 49% said they identified as Democrats and 40% as Republicans; today the position is reversed with Democratic affiliation down to 42% and Republican affiliation up to 47%. This is a dramatic shift.
As we stated at the time, the January 6 coup attempt represented the most direct attempt to steal a presidential election since 1876 when newly enfranchised Black voters were driven from the polls in the South by the Ku Klux Klan. The outcome sealed a rotten compromise where Republicans, representing Northern capitalist interests, were able to keep the White House but agreed to pull Federal troops out of the South. This marked the end of the Reconstruction period, the culmination of the Second American Revolution where slavery was destroyed and for a brief period a multiracial democracy flourished.
Despite the formal abolition of chattel slavery, the ending of Reconstruction opened up the Jim Crow-era counterrevolution, almost a century long period of mass racial terrorism and segregation, only ended de jure by the Civil Rights era and the mass Black liberation movement of the 1950s-1970s. It also further enshrined the doctrine of certain powers being reserved to the state level versus federal authority, a legal principle that still haunts the U.S. today.
This history points to several key points. First of all, the very real limits of democracy under capitalism where the political form obscures and helps legitimize the domination of the bosses. But it also shows that the working class has a stake in the defense of formal democratic rights for its own reasons. The defeat of Reconstruction was a historic defeat for Black people and the working class as a whole while the ending of Jim Crow was arguably the biggest victory for working people since World War II. The working class must defend formal democratic rights under capitalism with its own means, independent of the bosses, while developing its own democratic institutions through the labor movement and its own political party. And finally it’s no accident that the attack on democratic rights today again takes the form of seeking to suppress the vote of Black people in the Southern states. It’s an illustration of how the issue of Black liberation is inextricably linked to the question of the socialist transformation of society.
Reaction and the Attack on Democratic Rights
Whereas January 6 was nowhere near the scale of 1876 and was never going to succeed, the fact that nearly 2,500 insurrectionists, called to action by former President Trump to prevent the certification of the November 2020 election, were able to successfully storm and occupy the Capitol building of the most significant imperialist power in the world represents in stark clarity the crisis that traditional capitalist democracy in the U.S. is facing.
The two-party system has historically been a huge asset for U.S. imperialism. It has provided a large degree of stability even during periods of heightened industrial and social struggle. The ruling class can exchange one party for another when they lose favor or want a different policy angle emphasis. Just as importantly, it has enabled the establishment to prevent the development of significant political challenges e.g. the creation of a workers’ party. The unique stability of capitalist democracy in the U.S. was based on its economic might and dominant global position which allowed it to make some concessions.
And though bourgeois democracy has traditionally served the ruling class in the U.S. very well, it is not an immutable principle. Under pressure of rising labor and socialist militancy during the Great Depression, there were sections of the ruling class discussing whether to overthrow FDR in the early 1930s in favor of establishing a dictatorship – the so-called “Business Plot” for instance.
However, bourgeois democracy is still their preference. This can be seen in the response to January 6, where as of writing 753 insurrectionists have been slapped with criminal charges though the real leaders and instigators have not been touched. The leader of the far-right militia, the Oath Keepers, and 10 of his associates have been charged with “seditious conspiracy,” a Civil War era law that carries a 20 year sentence.
The declining position of U.S. capitalism, the near historically low levels of trust in civic institutions, and the precarity of life for the majority of the population is now leading to increasingly dysfunctional outcomes. It has allowed rogue right populism – Trumpism – to capture the Republicans and created complete paralysis in the Democrats.
Between Democratic paralysis and Republican obstructionism, the new reality has created a conundrum for the American ruling class, reflecting its weakened ability to take action in its own longer term interests. The Democrats, the preferred party of the ruling class through most of the past century, have not been able to pass any significant legislation, besides the infrastructure bill, to deal with the overall crisis of U.S. capitalism since the very beginning of the Biden presidency. As a result, Biden has been unable to show that “government can work” for ordinary people despite his attempts to style himself in FDR New Deal-era type clothes. Even the modest social spending bill of “Build Back Better,” now stripped of any significant measures to help working people so as to totally appease big business, has been stalled due to resistance within Biden’s own party and archaic procedural rules within Congress (e.g. the continued existence of the “filibuster” – a tactic most famously used historically to defend Jim Crow and block Civil Rights).
At the same time, the Republicans have been mounting a concerted campaign against democratic rights. The Brennan Center for Justice reported that in 2021 425 separate bills were introduced at state level that in some way sought to restrict voting access. As of June 2021 Republicans had also introduced 81 separate bills to restrict the right to protest, some which included things like absolving drivers who intentionally drive through protests and injure or kill protestors – the exact thing that infamously occurred during the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. Thirty four of the voting restriction bills have already passed across 19 states.
But beyond the more visible attacks, there has been a more clandestine campaign by the Trumpists to pack the state apparatus with loyalists. While not all of the QAnon conspiracy movement’s theories have been adopted wholesale by the Republican ranks, the one that has been clearly mainstreamed is the belief that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election. According to this view, the election was stolen by a combination of election officials, courts and bureaucrats and even if many were Republicans, they were not sufficiently loyal to Donald Trump. In fact 71% of Republicans still believe this.
In what they see as preparations for the future, eight different states with Republican-controlled legislatures or governors have shifted power away from election boards or elected Secretaries of State towards their own partisan bodies’ control. Moreover, 163 different “stolen election” supporters are now running for state offices that would give them authority over the administration of future elections. Fifty seven January 6 participants are now running for some form of general elected office.
On top of all of this Republicans have used the results of the 2020 Census to pursue a ruthless campaign of racial and partisan gerrymandering in Congressional and state legislature districts. Though some of these measures have been challenged in the courts, many will be successful especially in the context where reactionaries hold a 6-3 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court and state courts have been slowly but surely packed with GOP judges over the whole last period.
It is hard to forget that Trump implored Georgia’s Secretary of State “to find 11,780 votes” to overturn Biden’s victory in that battleground state in 2020. The prospect of Trump loyalists in such decisive posts is truly horrifying. Both the 2022 midterms but in particular the 2024 presidential elections could be exposed to a massive amount of voter suppression but also attempts at real bureaucratic fraud particularly in swing states with narrow margins.
The Far Right
Within the Republican Party base, Trump is still immensely popular. His ban from social media, which was never a solution to fighting his politics, has only increased his popularity. His favorability to unfavorability ratio has closed from 20 points a year ago to just single digits today. In fact, the Wall Street Journal recently quoted a Trump advisor who said “I don’t know a single person in ‘Trump world’ who regrets that this has happened.” Meanwhile Biden’s numbers have steadily declined. Trump and his politics’ grip on the Republican Party remain unassailable as some polls indicate that over three fourths of GOP voters want him to be the party’s candidate in 2024. But what exists outside of the right populist milieu now in vogue in the mainstream of the GOP?
The year since January 6 has not seen a disappearance of the far right. In fact, its lack of a more significant organized expression is in large part only due to the GOP itself now reflecting some of its politics. Jason Blazakis, a former U.S. Department of State counterterrorism official, estimates that “hundreds of thousands” of people now subscribe to a “far-right” ideology. Though it’s not clear what this number is based on, the extreme polarization in U.S. society makes such a figure not impossible. For instance, if that number is 100,000 and we assume that they all voted for Trump in the 2020 election, that constitutes about 0.1% of Trump 74 million votes.
The main way this might have been expressed in the recent past – the popularity of conspiracy theories – remains very steady. And though the specific claims of Qanon (about a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring trying to control our politics and media) has declined in support now just to 7% of the population from up to 18% a year ago, the “Q movement” has grown, though its anonymity makes its total reach hard to quantify. Over 40 candidates that have expressed some support for “Q” theories are now running for office.
More organized far-right groups have not faded away either, though increased attention from the state including prosecutions of leading figures of the more well known groups that participated in January 6 like the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys have likely had a temporary destabilizing effect. But instead of big national mobilizations, many of these groups have chosen to try and build a base and keep a lower profile by orienting towards state or local issues where they may gain recruits. Alarm bells have begun to be rung about these groups infiltrating the armed forces and the police though this is not a new phenomenon. And in another organized expression, there is the possibility of the development of a new but small far-right developing more fully within the Republican Party perhaps around Marjorie Taylor-Greene.
Will There Be a New Civil War?
It’s reasonable given all this and the incredible failure of the Democrats to provide any sort of alternative that among many there’s a sense of anxiety about what may develop. Those truly responsible for January 6, people like Trump himself, have not been held accountable at all. And while 700+ insurrectionists have been arrested, history has shown repeatedly that prison will not prevent the growth of right-wing ideas. Sometimes it can actually help to drive their popularity forward as these figures come to be seen as martyrs of the cause.
The corporate media establishment has been taking advantage of popular anxiety about the level of polarization to push the question of whether a “civil war” is about to develop. This narrative is not connected with any plan for how to actually reduce the support for reactionary ideas or even to rebuild trust in their own institutions. Instead the liberal media recognize the objective weakness of the “vote Blue no matter who” approach in a situation where millions are seeing the ineptitude and unwillingness of Democrats to deliver for working people. In advance of the 2022 and 2024 elections it is an attempt to use genuine horror in wide sections of the population at the growth of the right to silence criticism and drive us back into the arms of the Democratic establishment.
But in the short term, civil war is not in the cards. Despite the low levels of trust, the government is still seen as having ultimate authority. Elections have continued to proceed. Polarization on issues stemming from it aside, nearly three fourths of Americans view January 6 as having constituted a “threat to democracy.” And most significantly, despite the incredible growth in lone wolf far-right terrorist events over the last several years, politically-motivated violence constitutes barely 1% of violent hate crimes. This reflects that the majority of people do not want major civil conflict or a drift towards dictatorship. However, even a small minority can foment significant civil conflict. But an organized force that could do this does not exist, yet.
This does not mean there is any room for complacency. The right is attacking democratic rights in state after state. They seek to whip up their base around a populist, nativist and racist message. The reactionary Supreme Court is threatening Roe v. Wade, the key conquest of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s and if they succeed they could go further. The next phase of the economic crisis could be even more devastating and really open the door to the far right if a mass workers movement is not built in time. But the steady growth of the right is certainly not an inevitability. Many workers and middle class people who can be pulled to the right can also be pulled to the left with a clear working class alternative. Bernie’s mass support in different sections of the population in two presidential campaigns with a clear pro-worker platform proved that.
The continued failure of Biden, the Squad, and the leadership of the Democratic Party to actually deliver anything for working people will certainly give opportunity for the right to grow. All that the left in Congress has succeeded in doing through joining the establishment in pushing for “Biden’s agenda” is to weaken themselves. But progressive policies and socialist ideas are still very popular and the decisive factor will be the class struggle.
Big labor struggles and social explosions are on the horizon. As well, reactionary attacks can be the “whip of reaction” provoking new mass movements as the policies of the right are seen having a bigger impact on our day-to-day lives. This has happened many times historically. In addition to other important developments in the labor movement, last fall’s strike wave is likely to continue into 2022 reflecting a growing confidence of the working class to struggle industrially over the next period. Scoring significant victories in these fields could be big blows against the development of the right despite the Democratic Party’s best efforts to screw it up.
Within these movements the necessity of self organization around a platform that takes up the key issues facing the working class and young people in direct confrontation with the elites and their two parties will be central questions. This points directly to the necessity of a new party representing the interests of working people and completely free from corporate control. If a fighting labor movement uniting all the oppressed is built on the economic and the political plane, the right-wing can be put on the back foot in a more long-term sense. But ultimately it will take socialist revolution to defeat this threat for good because it is the inevitable by-product of a senile and decaying capitalist order.