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Trumpist Terrorism Divides the Right – for How Long?

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Men at a protest with the rebel flat and confederacy flag

The struggle against the right needs to be intermeshed with all-out fights tackling the immense suffering in our communities.

Armed Trump supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6, and forced the Congress into lockdown. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Today, nobody – however worried – can claim to be genuinely shocked.

How did we get here?

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, commentators debated whether Trump’s supporters were motivated by racism or by declining economic fortunes. It’s difficult, however, to assign a single overarching motivation to such a large and heterogenous group of voters, which included former Obama supporters and enthusiastic white supremacists, denizens of the Rustbelt, survivors of the opioid crisis, and the high-toned Republicans of Greenwich, Connecticut.

Politics is not just about aggregating disparate groups to achieve greater numbers, however. It’s also about cohering and transforming those groups into a new social force. This was Trumpism’s project: to take a social base riven with contradictions, and reshape it in some crucial ways. First, Trumpism demanded fidelity to the personal fortunes of Trump above those of any other principle, scruple, commitment, or even the GOP party. Second, Trumpism sought to filter supporters’ understanding of the world through a set of frameworks — Sinophobia, Islamophobia, the rhetoric of law and order, anti-immigrant sentiment, anti-communism, conspiracy theories — that together reinforced racial inequality, patriarchy, and national chauvinism. This was all undergirded by the broader commitments of the GOP to delivering policies favoring untrammeled corporate power, appointing a judiciary that delighted right-wing evangelicals, rolling back civil rights protections, and – crucially – the willingness to hold onto power through white minority rule achieved via mass disenfranchisement.

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In his four years in the presidency, Trump – assisted by the peculiar dynamics of social media and mass media – has been wildly successful in cohering and refashioning his social base. And no matter how disastrous we thought this development was, each week seems to prove that we actually underestimated the dangers it poses.

Turmoil and escalation

After November 3rd, Trumpism’s demand for fidelity to Trump above all else has become the subject of fierce contention within the GOP. As Trump promoted the theory that the election had been stolen from him, indifferent to the pandemic exploding through our communities and unconcerned with the details of vaccine distribution, the top echelons of Republican leadership tried to usher Trump off the stage without a direct confrontation. Until January 6, this strategy was an utter failure. Rather than fade into the background, Trump has escalated his attack on the election, organizing a portion of the Republican party and a significant chunk of his base into being openly and explicitly the faction of overthrowing democracy. The armed mobs storming the capitol at Trump’s behest as I’m writing this are, of course, one face of this faction and certainly the most dangerous. The other are the politicians who are intent on discrediting the results of the election through more proper channels. The general anti-democratic thrust of their politics constitutes a weapon, one that is already being used by the Pennsylvania GOP state senators that have refused to seat a Democrat whose electoral victory was certified by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

This faction is opposed by another faction of the party, which has broken with Trump over the election results. The tradition of a peaceful transfer of power is of huge importance to major sections of the ruling class both ideologically and in terms of the ability to project U.S. soft power internationally. And most of the high echelon corporate capitalists in the GOP seem to have decided that allowing right-wing populists who have a base outside their control is not in their long-range interest. They would prefer to regain “institutionalist” control over the GOP and retain actual elections as mechanisms to resolve their internal differences. They are signaling (via such things as Mitch McConnel’s wife Elaine Chao resigning from Trump’s cabinet and a call for Trump’s immediate removal by the National Association of Manufacturers that they may make a real bid to reassert their primacy.

Whether these divisions will intensify into a de facto split in the Republican Party or will get patched over is not yet determined.  Trump’s present factionalists in the GOP are motivated by personal opportunism, to be sure, but we can also expect them to try to tamp down (for the moment) the wildest actions of their militia and thug wing and turn the momentum behind “Stop the Steal” into renewed efforts to implement stricter voter ID laws, roll back vote-by-mail access, reduce the number of polling places in communities of color, and execute mass purges of the voting rolls. Most of the GOP politicians and corporate leaders who are currently denouncing Trump will be eager to join them if they believe the Q-Anon/Proud Boy current that surfaced under Trump can be pushed out of the limelight. It is not out of the question that most of the GOPers now fighting one another could coalesce around an alignment that preserved the GOP as an expression of white nationalist authoritarianism and all-wealth-to-the-1% economics but dispensed with personal loyalty to Trump as a defining characteristic.

That kind of joint effort to bolster white authoritarian rule would be matched by enormous funds poured into campaigns targeting voters of color in the hope that a segment can be won over to a right-wing populist worldview, enough to secure the party’s political fortunes. And however the divisions in the right play out,  we are likely to see a ferocious campaign of “anti-communism” by the entire GOP against even the most modest reforms proposed by the Biden administration, with more and more politicians condoning – as Rep. Chip Roy has recently – the idea that we are effectively in a state of civil war.

Hope and change

When I wake up in the morning, the first question I ask myself is, “What do we need to do to stop a red wave in 2022?” A key part of our strategy has to be winning concrete improvements in people’s lives. The struggle against the right, the struggle for racial justice and democracy, needs to be intermeshed with the pitched battle to deal with the immense suffering in our communities, a battle over who will pay for reconstructing society in the wake of the carnage wrought by the pandemic.

The victories in Georgia – the fruits of a decade of effort by determined community organizing, largely rooted in communities of color – mean we have a chance to make some headway in this fight.

We still, however, face the fact that the anti-right front is heterogeneous, and the class and ideological differences pose a challenge for us being able to win the kind of bold changes we need right now. And it’s not at all clear what politics Biden is going to try to lead with.

So what do we have in our favor?

First, through the last two decades, social justice forces have grown in sophistication and capacity. This is how we were able to make an impact on the presidential election, and on the runoff elections this week. And it may allow us – if we move quickly and boldly – to take advantage of the right’s current divisions and neutralize or win over the portion of their supporters. More than a few are genuinely shocked at the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters carrying Confederate Flags and wearing Auschwitz Camp t-shirts; others are newly open to the argument that rather than caring about their economic hardships, Trump has been running a personal-benefit con game all along.

Second, we have on our side our people’s longing for freedom and dignity. We’re still in the jaws of a crisis – of health, of housing, of hunger, layered on top of racial oppression, which will surely produce a wave of resistance. We are in the midst of a decade of upheaval – and we know that when people’s demands take the shape of mass protest it has the possibility to reshape the balance of forces and reset the agenda within the anti-Trump coalition. That’s what gives us hope.

Update (1/8/2021):

I began writing this article on the morning of the 6th, before the attack on the Capitol, and finished most of it while the attack was in progress. My thinking about the political impact of the events of the 6th are still evolving, and a few things seem clearer to me now than when I first drafted the article.

The storming of the Capitol was an enormous overreach by Trump that presents us with an unexpected opportunity to split the forces of the right. Through the election, the GOP had been largely an alliance between die-hard Trumpists (especially at the party’s base and state leadership) and those leaders and politicians who functioned as Trump enablers while disdaining, mainly in private, Trump’s instability, overt racism, and lack of interest in maintaining global hegemony. The alliance had a basis in the shared goal of entrenching the party’s rule through the disenfranchisement of voters of color.

Widening the current divide in the party will require forcing every elected politician in Congress to state clearly whether they repudiate Trump and his effort to overturn the election results, and those in the Senate and House who led that effort. Though I’m not an expert on the workings of government, impeachment and expulsion proceedings seem appropriate means to accomplish this. Some form of mass action will be required to move those members of Congress who are hesitant to take a principled position.

Driving a wedge into the GOP coalition will significantly weaken the right-wing, because newly energized GOP activists at the state and local level remain loyal to Trump and unwilling to criticize him, even until today. That’s why House leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) is suddenly calling on Democrats to “lower the temperature” and unite the country, after supporting the effort to delegitimize Biden’s victory in Congress.

Because the storming of the Capitol was the logical conclusion of the relentless campaign to delegitimize the November 3rd elections, keeping the heat on Republicans to make clear where they stand about that campaign may also help blunt the momentum behind their efforts to undermine voting rights.

Just a week ago, my assessment was that the struggle against Trumpism would last a generation. That may still be true – and even a repudiation of Trumpism by the vast majority of Congressional Republicans would not eviscerate the social base for Trumpism – but we have an opportunity to make a breakthrough in that struggle. Let’s take it.

Parts of this article draw from a talk the author gave to volunteers of Seed the Vote. Many of the ideas here originated in conversations between the author and Whitney Maxey. The author thanks Marcy Rein and Max Elbaum for feedback on an early draft.