By Paul Feldman
Written in the name of “We the People of the United States”, the preamble to the original constitution says it is made in “Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”.
Generations of Americans have struggled against an intransigent state to turn these fine aspirations into reality, sacrificing in vast numbers to preserve the union in a bloody civil war and fighting for racial and social justice every day. Yet the goals set out in 1787 remain elusive.
The political system has decayed to the point of collapse. Yet for Donald Trump, even this tottering structure is an impediment. He, or perhaps Donald Trump Jr, intend to use the Republican Party as a vehicle to destroy conventional politics and deprive people of their rights.
The violent, mob assault on Congress, incited by no less a person than the president, is a potentially fatal blow to the constitution. What the days leading up to the scheduled inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20 will bring is anyone’s guess. A renewed civil war cannot be ruled out of the question as the opponents of the November election result regroup.
With its separation of powers, the US constitution was revolutionary for its time. It was the first in history to set out in detail a republican form of government that relied on the consent of the people for its authority, even though “the people” turned out to be mainly white male property owners. Now that constitution is shattered and no one is sure whether it can be put back together again.
Trump has inspired, led and unleashed an unpredictable, fascist-type movement across the country which is “driven by fear, paranoia, resentment, grievance, and falsehoods”, as one commentator put it. Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election, claiming widespread fraud without a shred of proof, is a modern example of the Big Lie, a propaganda tool first elaborated by Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf.
After a time, the lie takes on a material form and people are driven to act out its message. So on January 6, a “mob”, made up of white supremacists, conspiracy believers, the lower middle-class and poorer Americans became the movement’s shock troops. They tried to stop the certification of Biden by Congress because they were told even before the November election that he was “stealing the election”.
A similar group were responsible for the carnage in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 when a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring many others protesting the presence of the ultra-right rally in the city. Infamously, Trump remarked later that there were some “fine people” on both sides.
Trump retains control of key levers of a Republican Party whose populist, anti-government trends pre-date him with organisations like the Tea Party playing a prominent role. Key activists from the disgruntled white, upper middle-class Tea Party, now organised in a wealthy group called FreedomWorks which is bankrolled by a top banker, organised their own actions as the votes for president were being counted, repeating Trump’s lies about fraud and a stolen election.
Together with the mob and the disgruntled middle-class, Trump has a range of wealthy, corporate supporters who stand to benefit from the destruction of the bourgeois democratic political system and the imposition of a naked, unregulated, dictatorial form of capitalism. Giving expression to this project are media outlets like Fox News and various radio talk shows. They have repeated without qualification Trump’s conspiracy “theories” and helped to create a parallel universe in which, as George Orwell wrote in 1984, “reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else ”.
Here then is a heady, explosive fascist-type admixture that in many cities has the backing of the police, as we saw during last year’s Black Lives Matter protests. Peaceful protests against police violence and the killing of unarmed black citizens, were met with excessive force in contrast to the initial response to the attack on Congress.
As someone remarked after the storming of Congress, some lives matter more than others. That could also be said about the 330,000 plus Americans who have perished during the pandemic, a figure that would be far lower had the Trump government opted to take Covid-19 seriously.
The reluctant deployment of federal forces and the national guard in response to the storming of Congress would also indicate a more sinister support for Trump inside the state and its forces that is presently in the background.
Some suggest that the violence in Washington marks the end of the Trump era. That is to misunderstand and underestimate what has happened in America in recent decades, which is part of a universal process that has undermined existing political systems in all major capitalist countries.
Public trust in the US government remains near historic lows. Only 17% of Americans today say they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” (3%) or “most of the time” (14%), according to a mass survey that has tracked public confidence since 1958. As recently as 2004 the trust figure was 40%, still nowhere the 77% recorded in 1964.
Naturally, there is more than one cause of this precipitate decline in trust. But a major cause are the levels of gross inequality that has accompanied America’s decline as a global economic power, which was accelerated by the fall-out from the 2008 financial crash.
As former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has written:
“When Wall Street’s house of cards collapsed in 2008, so did this post-war social contract between America’s working class and its rulers… A majority of Americans were thus treated, in quick succession, to negative equity, home repossessions, collapsing pension kitties and casualised work – all that against the spectacle of watching wealth and power concentrate in the hands of so few.”
The share of the annual national product going to wages and salaries fell from a high of 51.6% in 1970 to 41.6 in 2014 before rising slightly as high earners made more after Trump’s tax cuts.
Trump – who won in 2015 when some workers turned away from the Democrats in the hope that the loss of jobs and falling wages would be reversed by the Republicans – failed to reverse this trend. Despite controlling the Senate, the Republicans were unable to devise a way forward.
That is because there isn’t one within the present social and political framework that underlies neoliberalism US style. All the key sections of American capitalism – the insurance companies who dominate health care, the pharmaceuticals, investment banks, oil corporations, biotech companies, technology-social media giants – have their interests represented by either the Democrats or Republicans in an unholy division of labour.
Both houses of Congress are dominated by lobbyists representing one sector or another, or by elected members who urge the diversion of state funds to boost the military complex in their own states or money to fund a pet project that might win them re-election. No wonder that many members of Congress are held in deep contempt by many voters.
Yet an astounding turnout by Black voters and women deprived Trump of a second term in the hope that things could only get better under Biden. A host of grassroots groups helped to turn the election tables against Trump. In Georgia, they voted in the first Black senator to come from a former confederate state, dominated by Jim Crow reactionaries.
Of course, Trump’s outright racism and misogyny will go when Biden takes office but the Democrats’ subservience to the power of capital and vested interests won’t.
Defending rights hard-won through civil war, trade union struggles and the civil rights movement requires much more than defending a status quo that works for the few not the many.
America’s groundbreaking constitution was developed out of many years of deliberation by political elites in the wake of the revolutionary war against British colonial rule and finally approved by a convention before being ratified by 13 individual states. It didn’t come easily or quickly.
Today’s crisis of democracy poses a great challenge. A campaign for a citizens-led convention to draw up a new, truly democratic constitution and political system is the way forward. Let “the people” truly mean all the people, especially those who have been largely excluded from history.
It’s time to seize the ideals of the first American revolution and turn them into reality with a second, democratic revolution.