The world was watching in shock and horror as a rightwing mob stormed the Capitol during the confirmation of Joe Biden as the next democratically elected president of the US.
On the heels of Democratic victories in Georgia giving Democrats control of the Senate (to go along with the House and the Presidency), armed Trump supporters broke through the police and interrupted the proceedings. Far from being a protest, this was a terrorist insurrection that struck at the very core of US democracy.
At the heart of this violence were Trump and his Republican colleagues who have been feeding his supporters lies about a “stolen” election and the need to resist. It echoed his entire presidency which was built on a virulent mixture of conspiracy theory, white resentment, and real economic suffering. His politics was one of mob rule and populist backlash with the need to “Make America Great Again” regardless of the political or human costs.
Yet the US also now faces a clear and profound choice. Will it finally face up to the root causes of this extremism: corporate power, growing inequality, and systemic racism? Or will it continue to try to treat the symptoms without curing the disease?
Throughout his time in office, there were ongoing questions of how serious a threat to democracy Trump and his voters actually were. While his rhetoric and behavior crossed all conceivable lines of political civility and democratic acceptability, there was still hope that his reign would end with a peaceful transfer of power. Any such illusions were shattered by the recent far-right assault.
However, this extremism has always been central to Trump’s appeal and victory. He plays on fears and presents the nation as being in “extreme danger,” a crisis which requires an “extreme response.” He has cloaked his entire political ascent to a paranoid belief in the need to resist a corrupt establishment. It is with little irony that this corrupt business person born into wealth and privilege presents himself as the only person standing up to elites in defense of the “people.”
Ultimately, whatever claims he makes, his “revolution” is one of pure reaction. It is a channeling of anger against vulnerable populations and in the service of corporate interests.
Even worse, it is the trading of an entrenched oligarchy for a personal plutocracy as he has used the presidency, above and beyond all else, as a vehicle to enrich himself, his family, and his friends. Far from “draining the swamp,” he was trying to build the foundations for a gilded 21st monarchy, a Trump-branded dynasty that he could profit off of for decades to come.
Still, for those breaking into the Capitol, there was a desire for revolution, for genuine change and democracy despite it being driven by white power and nativism. Even as they concretely tried to disrupt and dismantle it, they were ironically doing so in the name of “saving US democracy.”
Watching from our homes the danger to US democracy was easy to spot and condemn in the right-wing mob overtaking the Capitol Building. Less visible but every bit as threatening to its long-term survival though was the “decent” status quo which was under attack by the very extremists they ironically helped to create.
Democracy Under Threat
Undeniably, the most urgent task is to top this literal far right assault on US freedom and popular sovereignty.
Yet this immediate responsibility must not come at the expense of dealing with these deeper issues fundamentally undermining democracy in the US and globally. The threat of authoritarian capitalism, widening inequality, and corporate imperialism will continue to give birth to extremism and destroy any and all democratic gains.
These existential threats to freedom and democracy are covered over by a politic of voting for the “lesser evil” and trumped out partisan divides. While there is an underlying pro-finance and pro-military census between “mainstream” Republicans and Democrats, this is too often hidden in media-friendly “culture wars.” Further, attempts to enact serious reforms are labeled as “naive” and politically impossible.
Trumpism arose from the corrupted soil of a democracy that was far more rhetoric than reality. This political oligarchy was matched by a civic and popular culture that promoted violence over deliberation, policing and anti-heroes over social movements, and collective attempts to create real change.
In the face of globalization that was rapidly leaving most people behind, a financial crisis with a recovery for the rich and not the poor, and endless wars with mounting casualties at home and abroad, people wanted to feel empowered and found little opportunity to do so democratically either politically or in the workplace.
The violence invading the Capitol is, thus, a reflection of the violence that has infected US society in the new millennium.
It is one where everyday people, especially Black citizens, face state-based violence of a militarized and largely legally unaccountable police force. It is the daily violence of people being allowed to go hungry, sick, and jobless while corporations are given ever-larger subsidies by the state. It is the violence of mass shootings and no serious gun laws due to the power of the gun lobby. And it is the violence of a military that regularly invades, attacks, and overthrow legitimately elected governments that challenge US corporate interests all in the name of “preserving democracy.”
Progress or Extremism
The attempted coup reveals the nation at a crossroads. One path leads to the rise of even greater authoritarianism and social division. The other to genuine solidarity and progress. Just as the myth that right-wing extremism was harmless must now be forever disregarded, so too must we dispense with the centrist myth that we can return to the status quo before Trump and expect our democracy to survive let alone thrive.
What we are witnessing is the barbarism of far-right populism. But it sprung from the savage injustices of a “respectable” politics as usual. Without destroying the latter, the former will continue to rise and rise again. The hard work will come with revitalizing our democracy in our communities, workplaces, and globally.
Right now, in front the world’s watching eyes, fascism and hate are literally trying to overrun US democracy, something sadly it has done around the world with bipartisan support. We must put our energy into stopping this threat.
Yet tomorrow, the choice between change or the status quo has never been so obvious. For popular rule and freedom to be preserved and expanded, we must begin to choose justice over hate, equality over greed, and real progress over greater and “lesser” evils.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.