January 17, 2021

Darkness after Noon, Capitol on Fire

Nilotpal Basu

THE darkest nightmare came alive on January 6, 2021. The venue was the most exalted symbol of American democracy, the Capitol Hill, which houses the Congress and the Senate. Images and live streaming videos invaded television households not just in the US, but across the world, with explosive fury.

The setting for this extraordinary ‘insurrection’ was the holding of the Congress and the Senate for confirming the formal election of president – elect, Joe Biden. All possible institutional and legal challenges by Donald Trump to deny the results had been exhausted. Therefore, constitutionally there was no obstacle to hold back the proposed business slated for January 6th.

The primary requirement for legitimacy in an electoral democracy is the acceptance of an election verdict as such, if not with a degree of grace by the vanquished. Not only have been these outrageous developments failed to fulfil that basic requirement; but, the plain thuggery which followed would perhaps, shame banana republics.

No wonder, sharp comparisons are being invoked. German foreign minister, Heiko Maas reacted to the storming of the Capitol and President Donald Trump’s attempted coup —referring to Hitler’s seizure of total power started with the burning of the Reichstag in 1933. The apocalyptic imagery reflects on the global perception of the US. It also tends to recall France’s February 6, 1934. That day, rightwing crowds, fuelled by anti-semitic fantasies and fascist myths, tried to storm the Assemblée Nationale and overthrow parliamentary democracy.

Televised scenes showed thousands of Donald Trump-supporting rioters and criminals, QAnon conspiracists, Proud Boys, Catholic Evangelists and such ultra-right outfits, people in military-style gear, some carrying zip-tie restraints, largely white and typically mask-less, descending on the nation’s largely Black capital. They held alternate-reality rallies. They heard speeches intended to recklessly inflame emotions and not-so-subtly encourage violent confrontation.

Despite the mobsters’ extraordinary disregard for the rule of law, for agents of law enforcement, and for social norms regarding government property, and government processes, a near-mythical graciousness was shown to the insurrectionists. They were allowed in after the fences were breached. And they were free to wantonly roam the United States House and Senate hallways, entering offices, intimidating elected officials and their staffers, and taking selfies on a cell phone, at times with willing Capitol Police in sharp contrast to the strong fisted clampdown of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests.

Therefore, though its institutions have shown resilience, temptations to see America as a Hollywood movie cannot be ruled out; a pantomime show full of guns, violence and cartoon characters that fundamentally change nothing.

As the New York Times have editorially commented –“ It is fitting that some carried the confederate flag as they attacked the seat of American government and forced the suspension of congressional debate. They shattered windows and broke doors, clashing with overwhelmed security forces as they shouted their support for Trump and their defiance of the lawful results of the 2020 election. One woman was killed. The nation’s leaders were sent scurrying for shelter. Explosives were found in the Capitol and multiple locations around Washington”, clearly underlined the extent of outrage.  But, what stands out is the image of the President, himself goading the extreme mobs with his “fight like hell” for undercutting the rudimentary principles of democracy.

Without any shred of doubt, Donal Trump and what has now come to be termed as Trumpism, played the lynchpin in engineering the outrage. What is the distinctive feature of this brand of politics which was hitherto absent?

He had to heavily depend on delusional politics! As a columnist notes, “From their 19th-century inception, political parties of the right have faced an electoral disadvantage since, for the most part, they emerged as vessels for the wealthy, a definitionally small coterie. Their growth seemed further constrained by the fact that they could never match their opponents’ enticing promises of government largesse because their wealthy backers steadfastly refused to pay higher taxes…”

To improve prospects, the Republican party had to widen its outreach by adding toxic content to its political ideology helping win sections of the white working class. Bred in the protracted neoliberal discontent, Trump’s 2016 victory can be largely attributed to address the deep discontent among the white workers and their acute sense of victimhood. Trump pounced on this to set deeply polarising agenda around this issue blaming the Democrats for this, notwithstanding that the US had come to this pass thanks to policies pursued by both administrations! It has done so by appealing to faith, patriotism, racial prejudice, and the so-called core American values.

Trump was brazen in representing the Democratic party as being against god and American values and freedoms (including the right to bear arms), and responsible for disenfranchising white voters by weakening voting laws and following pro-immigration policies. Even the obvious need to wear masks during the Covid- 19 pandemic was projected as an attempt by Democrats to undermine the fundamental rights of American citizens.

Add to this, purveying of falsehood! In his 1987 book, Art of the Deal, Trump outlined the notion of ‘truthful hyperbole’: “I play to people’s fantas¬ies … People want to be¬lieve that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spec¬tac¬u¬lar. I call it truth¬ful hy¬per¬bole. It’s an in¬no¬cent form of ex¬ag¬ger¬a¬tion.” Not that innocent when applied to baseless claims of election fraud, the illegitimacy of political opposition, and demands for total cult-like loyalty from all – and a coup d’état against the democratic government. A relationship of devotion develops between the leader and followers that is unmediated by the institution’s tempering logic. The leader provides the followers with meaning, with a view of the world that speaks to their anxieties!

Extensive obnoxious details are tumbling out on not just the failure to stop the mob on Capitol, but the facts of wilful disabling and coordination for staging the insurrection. But regardless of what inquiry will bring out on the entire episode, surely exorcising Trump will not eliminate Trumpism. So long as the socioeconomic, political, cultural and imperial infrastructure remains intact, the threat can come back with vengeance!

This was waiting to happen. There is no George Bush-style chest-thumping in the wake of 9/11 –“US is under attack”! Instead, president-elect Joe Biden said during Wednesday’s siege “Let me be very clear: The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America. Do not represent who we are.” Clearly, the new administration is in denial!

To say that the attack on the US Capitol is not part of contemporary US, nor part of its politics, not part of its history is brazen. But this is unsurprising. In aftermath of catastrophes, Americans are invariably in denial.

Bernie Sanders wrote in an opinion piece in NYT, “We are the richest country in the history of the world, but at a time of massive income and wealth inequality, that reality means little to half of our people who live paycheck to paycheck, the 40 million living in poverty, the 87 million who are uninsured or underinsured, and the half-million who are homeless.” The pandemic exposed the extreme inequality of the US society. He added, “  three people own more wealth than the bottom half of the nation and tens of millions live in economic desperation — struggling to put food on the table, pay for housing and education and put a few dollars aside for retirement?”

Inequalities that contributed to the rise of Donald Trump, whose cruelty and incompetence have cost American lives during this pandemic need to be addressed. Starvation wages must be substituted by decent-paying jobs to able-bodied, quality education to all Americans needs to be guaranteed, massive construction programme that ends homelessness needs to be undertaken, ensuring affordable housing and conditions for communities free of pollution leading the world in combating the existential threat of climate change needs to be ensured.

Data shows that the US today is home to extreme discrimination and social injustice, African Americans, Latinos, migrants face severe odds. ‘Black Lives Matter’ brought out the everyday reality of the infrastructure, security dimension of this injustice. Ironically, Trump articulated obnoxious hate-filled rhetoric against these very sections to mobilise white workers, even though his economic programme continued to benefit the billionaires. Without addressing these domestic fault lines, the spectre of Trumpism will continue like an albatross around the neck!

Under the US tutelage, contemporary neoliberal capitalism appears to have reached a dead-end without unleashing a further ultra-right trajectory, if it is wary of democratic course reversal.

In this oligarch driven landscape, the new reality which some describe as ‘disaster capitalism’ is throwing up a new spectacle.  The theorist of this distortion, Steve Bannon advocates the “deconstruction of the administrative state”. Chaos is the profit multiplier for the disaster capitalism on which the new billionaires thrive. Every rupture is used to seize more of the assets on which peoples’ lives depend. The repeated meltdowns and shutdowns of government under Trump: these are the kind of deconstructions Bannon foresaw. As institutions, rules and democratic oversight implode, the oligarchs extend their wealth and power at our expense. The killer clown style political helmsmanship offer the oligarchs distraction and deflection. While the kleptocrats fleece the people, they are mesmerised too, as George Monbiot , the Guardian columnist explain, “channel the anger that should be reserved for billionaires towards immigrants, women, Jews, Muslims, people of colour and other imaginary enemies and customary scapegoats. Just as it was in the 1930s, the new demagoguery is a con, a revolt against the impacts of capital, financed by capitalists”.

The bipartisan US foreign policy has been denying people of Asia, Africa and Latin America, the free choice to shape their own destiny and have the government of their own choice. The Venezuelan government of Nicolás Maduro noted on the episode in the Capitol that “with this unfortunate episode, the United States is suffering the same thing that it has generated in other countries with its policies of aggression.” The irony could not be more eloquent!

However imperfect their vision might have been, the early generation of US political leadership, George  Washington in his farewell address had warned about the danger of “hyper-partisanship” — “alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge” — turning into a “frightful despotism” at some point. It is obvious the inclusive democracy had envisioned has gone sour.

It was more explicit on the imagining of the Statue of Liberty - here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand a mighty woman with a torch, whose flame is the imprisoned lightning, and her name ‘ Mother of Exiles’. From her beacon-hand glows world-wide welcome and she exhorted "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

The challenges that US society faces today is an assault on precisely those ideas. Without refashioning the current paradigm, the present downhill journey will erupt to yet another episode akin to what happened on January 6th.