The events on Capitol Hill in Washington are being furiously analyzed and commented on from every possible angle. This is to be expected. There remains much to be known or revealed as to who was involved, in what way, and what diverse motives were at play, from longstanding grievances — imagined or otherwise — to the immediately recent grievance of believing Donald Trump that the November 3, 2020 election was stolen from him. A certain humility might be in order, even if in short supply, as the relevant investigative authorities do their job and the analysis evolves. Nevertheless, the “big lie” by Trump that the election was a fraud seems to have been the final decisive catalyst for what happened on January 6, 2021. Even former senate majority leader Mitch McConnell says so, however belatedly.
Nevertheless, it is still possible, and hopefully useful, to offer some historical observations about how America arrived at this terribly dangerous place in its history: how a number of political, economic, and cultural toxic streams came together to create the context for Trump, and ultimately for the fuel that Trump set on fire with his post-election big lie.
Neoliberalism sets the scene
As I see it, though there are unique factors at play in America, like the whole story of slavery and civil war, much of what troubles America is the result of 40 years of what is often called neoliberalism, which goes back to 1980, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan spearheaded the destruction of the post-war social contract and sense of solidarity that had seen the benefits of economic growth distributed reasonably fairly, if not perfectly.
Instead, Thatcher and Reagan embraced an idolatry of the market, targeting unions and anything else that detracted from the profit strategies of the corporate elite.
Thatcher once said, “There is no such thing as society.” When she said this, there was more “society” than there is now, but 40 years of the market have proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Many social and economic bonds have been broken as deregulation, privatization, outsourcing of manufacturing to cheap labour markets, and so-called free trade combined with anti-union laws, conspired to enrich the powerful and make it harder to make ends meet as wages stagnated, and compensating social programs shrunk in the name of austerity so that corporate taxes could be further cut.
Then there was the arrival of “shareholder capitalism” through which corporations abandoned any pretence of caring about community or country or employees, and cared only about the value of their shares. This was aggravated further when corporate CEOs could acquire shares, so they had a personal interest in increasing share value no matter what damage was done to do so.
All of this is by way of explaining why democracies are in trouble.
Everything I have mentioned so far helped to make governments much less able to act in the interests of the common good, greater equality, and the environment for that matter. Less revenue, thanks to corporate tax cuts. Less revenue due to the disappearance of well-paying jobs. Less room to maneuver, thanks to the strictures of trade agreements, and less public ownership of key sectors of the economy like railways and airlines.
This often self-inflicted or supine powerlessness on the part of democratic governments led to a combination of cynicism and despair about government, a feeling that no matter who was in power, not much would change. And of course there was much truth to this. The whole neoliberal thing was designed to limit the power of governments.
Ironically, at least for a while during this same historical period, there was a proliferation of new democracies. But as I remember observing at one point, this was not because the world, as some said then, was being made safe for democracy. In my view the world, through the policies I have discussed, was being made safe from democracy. How wonderful to celebrate more democracies when you knew they were prevented from doing anything economically meaningful for their people.
Throughout the West and the East, after the fall of the Soviet Union, where an even more savage form of capitalism was unleashed, the neoliberal worldview took over, with China being a prime exception to the rule. Instead, China took advantage of American and other corporate elites’ willingness to abandon their own country’s workers for the excess profits on offer by investing in production in China to take advantage of low wages. Trump’s preoccupation with how China was part of the American problem was not unfounded. Characteristically, he even poisoned that with his persistent reference to the COVID-19 virus as the “Chinese” virus. He also said little about how China needed the co-operation of American investors to take advantage.
Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, New Labour and Tories in the U.K., Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany, and more significantly for America, Republicans and Democrats, all embraced the neoliberal ethos — either out of enthusiasm on the political right, or a combination of accommodation, resignation, and political cowardice on the political centre-left. Witness Clinton, Chrétien, Blair, Schroeder, for example. This was often referred to as the Third Way.
The cowardice was made worse as corporations made more and more money, and used that money, in America in particular, to influence more and more politicians on both sides of the aisle in Washington. Only some third parties like the NDP in Canada didn’t buy in, but they were voices crying in the wilderness, ridiculed for living in the past, and not getting with the program like everybody else.
So when Donald Trump came along in 2016 and told Americans that they had been screwed by their elites, he was not wrong. Many who had gotten the short end of the stick of neoliberal corporate globalization heard a ring of truth in what he was saying, and voted accordingly. Beyond those who traditionally voted Republican, this was also true of many in the so-called “rust belt” states who traditionally voted Democrat, but had watched as Democrats allowed many good manufacturing jobs to migrate elsewhere in the name of global market efficiency, leaving them with empty promises of new jobs that never materialized, or if they did, offered wages that were pathetic compared to what had been the case before.
How many of these folks would have voted for Bernie Sanders had he been the Democrat nominee for president we will never know. He offered a similar, but distinctly left-wing analysis of how working people had been sold out by bipartisan capitulation to neoliberalism. But Sanders put the blame only where it belonged, instead of sweetening (poisoning) the argument by throwing in immigrants and other grievances. One suspects, unfortunately, that the Sanders approach, while superior, might not have had the same regrettable allure as the Trump approach.
It has been noted by some that in the days following January 6 that many, if not most, of those who invaded Capitol Hill were not economically oppressed, having the means to fly there and hang out in expensive hotels, before and after the event. This may well be true, but it would be a mistake to let this get in the way of continuing to appreciate the economic reasons why many average Americans voted for Trump in 2016 despite his obvious lack of other attractive presidential attributes. For many of them, “Make America Great Again” rang more like “Bring Back the Past When We Had Good Jobs” — too much to put on a hat.
Of course Trump didn’t rely on economic distress alone. He supplemented it with a toxic brew of xenophobia that blamed illegal immigrants coming across the border from Mexico and other “others” like Muslims for America’s problems, trading on a long-standing American tradition of demonizing newcomers while at the same time bragging about welcoming them. Ask the Irish, ask Catholics, Mormons, Chinese Americans, etc.
But the other thing that distinguished him was his hostile attitude towards Barack Obama, going back to his role in the “birther” movement, whereby it was claimed that Obama, the first Black American to be elected president, hadn’t been born in America and was somehow an illegitimate president. Being featured in such a movement meant it wasn’t much of a stretch for many Americans, particularly white supremacists, to suspect that they had an ally in Trump, and he did nothing to discourage that perception, before or after the election. His contemptuous and unsympathetic attitude towards Black Lives Matter and uncritical backing of the police, no matter how many Black Americans were being victimized, stands out among other examples.
Needless to say, white supremacy has a long history in America, combined as it is with the unique American history of slavery. But it seems to many, in retrospect, that Obama’s presidency, instead of being an unambiguous victory for racial equality, may have awakened many white-supremacist sleeping dogs, dogs that Trump knew were there and knew how to whistle to. Having an African-American president was a bridge too far for them, and Trump was the guy who obviously shared their feelings.
One could argue that the Republican Party in general, if not all Republicans individually, have a dose of white supremacy when it comes to American democracy. I am referring, for example, to their passion in some places for “voter suppression.” Voter suppression sounds negative enough, democratically speaking, but when you consider that in practice such suppression almost always translates into measures to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote, you get the picture.
An early manifestation of the environment Trump created after being elected was the clash in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 between those participating in a Unite the Right March that included neo-Nazis and counter-protesters. A young counter-protesting woman was killed when someone from the other side drove a car into them. After this arguably milestone event in which white supremacy was openly morphing into white-supremacist violence and terrorism, Trump made headlines by arguing that there were “good people on both sides.”
Charlottesville also illustrates the unique role that unresolved issues relating to the American Civil War play in the U.S. political scene. Earlier that year, Charlottesville had been embroiled in a controversy surrounding the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. At the end of his presidency Trump threatened to veto a routine annual defence spending bill because it included provisions for renaming military bases currently named after Confederates.
As a relevant aside, a recent conversation with a Canadian who has lived for years in California was revealing. He spoke of how relieved many of his gay friends were when gay Democrat primary candidate Pete Buttigeig withdrew from contention. According to him, they were very worried about what might happen if he won. They were worried that an anger comparable to that directed towards the African-American community after the election of Obama would be directed toward the LGBTQ community.
In Charlottesville the right-wing protesters could be heard shouting about how they were not going to be “replaced.” “Jews will not replace us” was a frequent chant. Such a display of rabid antisemitism is not surprising for neo-Nazis, but it seems obvious that antisemitism is sadly another one of the toxic streams, however small, hopefully, that is contributing to the larger malaise.
Fear divides white Christian America
Having said this, the “not being replaced” mantra points to a real, instead of hatefully imagined, demographic fear that is at play in what is happening in America. It is the fear that white America, for so long the dominant majority, is on its way to being one minority among others. This fear is particularly acute in white Christian America, which feels itself not only under demographic siege but also under cultural siege. Or I should say, white evangelical Christian America, which has been on the losing side of the so-called culture wars over issues like reproductive rights and gay rights.
One must add, of course, all the white men, not necessarily all evangelical, who are angry at the erosion of patriarchy and the ongoing successes of the struggle for women’s equality. This, combined with loss of breadwinner status thanks to the disappearance of well-paying jobs, contributed another toxic stream into the river of anger now pouring over the dikes that no market mentality could contain.
Roman Catholics too have been on the same losing side of the culture wars, and worked with their evangelical brethren on various issues. But for a variety reasons that can’t be expanded on here, they have not wrapped themselves in the Trump flag in the same way. At the very least this may have something to do with Pope Francis, who was at odds with Trump from the start, and who, in addition, has counselled Catholics to be less obsessed with the issues that dominated the culture wars and more with issues like climate change and poverty. Still, it must also be said that there are many conservative Catholics who probably supported Trump, and who find their current Pope to not be as infallible as the ones they agreed with.
Nevertheless, it may well be that, in terms of the culture war over abortion, Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court and the conservative majority they make up, will deliver on that issue when that issue finally finds its way to them. But maybe not. Judges have a way, once appointed, of adopting lines of reasoning that disappoint those who appoint them or who applauded their appointment. A recent Supreme Court decision on LGBTQ rights saw two conservative judges join with liberal judges in a decision that disappointed many conservatives.
Outside the strict parameters of the culture wars, the other way that Trump catered and then delivered to elements of the evangelical Christian community was by moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Doing so, in the minds of certain evangelicals, was necessary to the fulfillment of how they see history evolving, and ending, pursuant to their understanding of the Bible.
In this respect, what is happening is a continuation of the split within the Christian community, or more precisely within Protestant Christianity, that goes back to the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, a trial that set fundamentalists against modernists over the interpretation of Genesis and evolution, with one side arguing that evolution should not be taught in schools. At its root, it is of course a disagreement about how to read the Bible, something that becomes particularly dangerous when important geopolitical and national considerations are being made on the basis of contested biblical interpretation.
Josh Hawley, the junior senator from Missouri who distinguished himself by voting against certifying Joe Biden’s victory in a free and fair election, and then further distinguished himself by saluting the assembled mob on his way into the Capitol building, is a case in point. Hawley represents a particular strain within the large American universe of evangelical Christianity. What unites them all, with varying intensity, is a hostility to pluralism and secularism, and a fear of Islam. At the extremes, where Hawley seems to be located, are those who believe they have a mission to re-establish America as a Christian nation, despite the fact that America’s founding fathers were clearly creatures of the Enlightenment. Authority for the mission comes from a selective reading of select biblical passages.
The argument that Hawley advances often takes on a populist tone, whereby he has been known to rail against the liberal and cosmopolitan economic and cultural elites that have done well as so-called citizens of the world, taking advantage of globalization, while ordinary Americans have taken an economic and cultural beating. Of course what is also true is that Hawley, like the elites he despises, wants to impose his own view of Christianity on everyone else, an imposition guided and delivered by the Christian elite he would like to see take over America. An often-associated theme is a focus on “religious liberty” which usually means the freedom of such Christians to discriminate, and the lack of freedom of others to practice their religion, or beliefs, without harassment from such Christians.
Again it is possible to detect elements of a certain left-wing criticism of the ruling class in all this, minus the Christian mission. It is also true that not all white supremacists share the aforementioned Christian mission. In their case, racism and racial paranoia seem to suffice.
And that racism and paranoia was heightened in 2020 after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis when Black Americans dared to march under the banner of Black Lives Matter to protest racial profiling by police and the frequency with which unarmed Black Americans are killed in encounters with police. The BLM protesters not only received no sympathy from Trump, but they were also demonized by him as rioters, thugs, and ideologically motivated. Police, on the other hand, were sent signals that they could do no wrong, something Trump had been doing from the beginning of his presidency and before.
This politically convenient uncritical idolization of police was hard to find on January 6 when Capitol Police were overrun, injured, and even killed. At the same time, ironically, the police treated the January 6 insurrectionists with kid gloves, prompting many to contrast this treatment with the heavy-duty police response to earlier BLM protests in Washington. Black protesters matter more, it would appear.
And piling irony on irony it is also the case that many elements of the far-right groups involved actually view the police with hostility, as agents of the state they despise. Those who are armed often cite possible police reaction as a reason for being armed. It seems to work. And it actually has real constitutional roots insofar as the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution providing for the right to keep and bear arms was initially conceived not as a means for individual protection against criminals, but as a means of protection against the possible tyranny of the state.
Toxic streams converge
Which brings us to another toxic stream in the narrative: the uniquely American fascination with guns, the proliferation of gun violence, school shootings, the strong desire to do something about it by many, and the strong desire of others to resist anything that might curtail ownership of their favourite weapon. Most of the latter believe that if the Democrats could, they would take some or all of their guns away from them, and Trump catered to them by repeated invocations of their Second Amendment rights at his rallies and other occasions. Many who were part of the January 6 attack were, among other things, there to protest the idea of gun control.
In reflecting upon how fear of control by the state is a major ingredient of the mentality of the far right, it would be a mistake not to speculate that the COVID-19 pandemic in all likelihood aggravated all this somehow. The resistance to masks and the politicization of masks by Trump is a case in point. For far too many captured by conspiracy theories, the pandemic was suspected of being the next step in extension of state control over their lives. Why the whole world collaborated in this conspiracy against these Americans was never fully explained, not even by Fox News. Indeed the role of right-wing media like Fox News has to be included in the analysis. Fox News, combined with the role of social media in spreading and amplifying what they and Trump were saying, or lying about more often than not, was another toxic stream. Not to mention the toxic torrent of Trump on Twitter.
At the end of the day, many complementary factors contributed to the perfect storm that followed the November 3, 2020 election. Obviously there are many overlapping sets and subsets. Books will be written.
Having said this, I believe it is also true that there were tens of millions of ordinary Americans who, though they voted for Trump, have a less feverish dose of all that has been discussed here. These are the people that President Biden might be able to win over, if not to the Democrats, then at least to a Republican Party less captive to extremism, conspiracy theories, lies, and delusion.
A good start would be reclaiming the role that government can play in actually changing and improving the social and economic well-being of ordinary Americans, instead of standing helplessly by while the corporate elite eviscerated the middle class, the working class, and the poor in the name of the “market,” something too many Republicans and Democrats did for way too long.
Bill Blaikie, former MP and MLA, writes on Canadian politics, political parties and Parliament.