Sep 27, 2020

Resisting Trump's coup

People across the political spectrum—from anarchists to social democrats to neoconservatives—have been warning that Trump may try to sabotage the election to stay in office. This is a realistic and serious danger. A Trump coup would have disastrous consequences and mass action is needed to stop it. At the same time, there are a number of pitfalls and potential misconceptions in how we interpret and respond to this threat. Without getting into detailed scenarios, I want to highlight a few key points that I think can help us frame the situation more clearly—and help us organize resistance most effectively.

People at demonstration holding up two hand-lettered signs that read "RESIST"
Chaos as a strategy for seizing power

If Trump makes a bid to steal the election, calling it a coup highlights that it’s an undemocratic power grab. At the same time, the term “coup” can be misleading, because it conjures images of soldiers occupying government offices and TV stations, setting up roadblocks, and arresting political opponents. Trump stealing the election would—by design—be a lot muddier than that. As Barton Gellman argues, Trump’s strategy makes use of traditional voter suppression methods—such as purging voter rolls and (probably) intimidating people at the polls—but the crux of it is not controlling the election but discrediting the electoral process itself.

For example, Trump’s efforts to disrupt mail-in voting (such as gutting the postal service) may help shift the results in his favor, but their main effect—coupled with his team’s relentless lies about the supposed danger of widespread voter fraud—is to call the validity of the results into question. Through this and other tactics, in Gellman’s words, Trump “could obstruct the emergence of a legally unambiguous victory for Biden in the Electoral College and then in Congress. He could prevent the formation of consensus about whether there is any outcome at all. He could seize on that uncertainty to hold onto power.” At that point, the outcome could depend on Trump’s control over key federal agencies and support from rightist street forces (Patriot groups, Proud Boys, etc.), but only because the election itself has been discredited.

This approach is well calibrated both to the constraints Trump faces and also to his whole approach to politics. On the one hand, as Gellman points out,
“Trump is, by some measures, a weak authoritarian. He has the mouth but not the muscle to work his will with assurance. Trump denounced Special Counsel Robert Mueller but couldn’t fire him. He accused his foes of treason but couldn’t jail them. He has bent the bureaucracy and flouted the law but not broken free altogether of their restraints.

“A proper despot would not risk the inconvenience of losing an election. He would fix the victory in advance, avoiding the need to overturn an incorrect outcome. Trump cannot do that.”
But as a strategy, discrediting the election results also makes sense because sowing confusion and chaos is one of the few things Trump does well. Trump doesn’t have the patience or skill to plan and implement a well-organized military-style operation, but he is very good at spreading disinformation. Some people believe his lies and—just as important—others don’t know what to believe. Trump has contributed to a larger shift in the political culture, in which information itself is increasingly treated as partisan, and this in turn makes it easier to leverage power through chaos.

Divided state, divided elites
For years, some liberals and leftists have warned that Trump, the far right, and the ruling class are working hand in hand to establish a dictatorship—or, as Henry Giroux put it, “neoliberal fascism.” This claim not only glosses over the far right’s complicated and sometimes hostile relationship with Trump, it also hides the contradictory nature of the Trump administration as an unstable alliance of pro-corporate neoliberals and America First populists. Trump has won support from some capitalists, but also opposition from many others—including such hardline right-wingers as the Koch brothers. He was definitely not the ruling class’s preferred candidate in 2016, and there’s no reason to think he is now. A centrist neoliberal like Joe Biden is much more in line with what the business community—and much of the Republican Party—wants than an unpredictable demagogue who is more concerned with glorifying and enriching himself than bolstering U.S. capitalism at home or abroad.

Trump also has had limited success in consolidating support within the federal bureaucracy. As It’s Going Down notes, he has used political appointments effectively to control such key agencies as the Justice and Homeland Security departments, but has had much less success extending such control over the military. This has direct implications for a coup scenario. Trump may well be able to deploy U.S. Marshals and Homeland Security agents to “prevent fraud” in Democratic majority areas, but it’s unlikely he could deploy actual troops.

Some leftists conclude, wrongly, that these limitations make a Trump coup implausible. Roger Harris of the Peace and Freedom Party argues that Trump won’t attempt a coup because capitalists don’t want him to:
“In Europe of the 1930s, sections of the ruling class in their respective countries accepted Hitler’s and Mussolini’s dictatorships for fear of working-class Communist and Socialist parties coming to political power. There is no such political contention in contemporary US.... If rule by and for the elites is accepted, why should the bourgeoisie squander this gift and opt for a more costly fascist dictatorship?

“Even if Donald Trump personally would aspire to be the first US f├╝hrer, he does not have sufficient backing from the ruling class, notably finance capital. Many military generals detest him. The foreign policy establishment does not trust him. At least half of the active-duty service members are unhappy with him. And the so-called deep state security agencies – FBI, CIA, NSA – are among his harshest critics.

“Trump might be able to mobilize some skinheads with gun show souvenirs. But these marginalized discontents would hardly be a match to the coercive apparatus of the world’s superpower.”
Harris exaggerates the ability of elites to determine political outcomes. Yes, in broad terms U.S. capitalists hold state power, and as a bloc they wield political influence far beyond their share of the population. But if they could simply dictate who was president, Trump would never have made it to the White House in the first place. This point is driven home when we revisit what Harris wrote exactly four years ago:
“We don’t have to worry about [Trump] getting elected in 2016. The ruling elites will take care that he will be lucky to win Alaska. Trump’s already fatally shaky presidential prospects will be enormously even less impressive as the corporate media continues to whittle him and his big hands down.”
The reality is that not every president—and not every shift toward or away from authoritarianism—reflects ruling class preferences. To succeed, a Trump coup attempt doesn’t require active support from the economic, political, or military establishment. Their passive acceptance, disunity, or indecision at a critical moment could be enough. At the same time, the limits on Trump’s support will constrain what he can do both before and after the election, limit his capacity to consolidate control, and leave him vulnerable to determined opposition even after a successful coup.

Not fascism versus democracy
The threat of a Trump coup is not about a struggle between fascism and democracy. As I’ve argued since 2015, while Trump promotes important elements of fascist politics, he is not himself a fascist and does not have the capacity to create a fascist state. Fascism, in my view, involves much more than repression or even full dictatorship. Among other things, it involves a systematic effort to transform society to conform to a unified ideological vision (such as Mussolini’s total state or Hitler’s renewal of the Aryan race), as well as an independent, organized mass mobilization to overthrow the old political order and implement the transformative vision across all social spheres. Trump exploits far right political themes, but he doesn’t offer any real vision for transforming society, and he has never tried to build an independent organizational base that would enable him to do so.

This is not to downplay the threat. Any kind of second Trump administration will be even worse than the first, but if Trump steals the election and gets away with it, the erosion of the constitutional, republican system of government will be dramatically greater. The formal political structures probably won’t just disappear, but they’ll become a lot weaker and hollower than they are now. (Think Putin’s Russia, which still has a parliament and even an independent press and political opposition of sorts.) We can expect a sharp increase in repression and brutality by the state and its vigilante allies, which will be disastrous for all of our movements and for the great majority of people in the United States. Yet even this uber-authoritarian version of Trumpism would be less ideologically driven than fascism—more chaotic, more disorganized, more dependent on Trump’s mercurial leadership to hold it together. This too, like the limits on Trump’s support noted above, could create vulnerabilities that we can exploit.

On the flip side, opposing a Trump coup is not about “defending democracy.” As I wrote in 2015,
“The United States is not and never has been a democracy. It’s a mix of pluralistic openness and repression, an oppressive, hierarchical society where most political power is held by representatives of a tiny capitalist elite, but where there is real political space for some people and some ideas that would not be permitted in a wholly authoritarian system, including opportunities to organize, debate, participate in electoral politics, and criticize those in power. This space has been won through struggle and it’s important and worth defending, but it’s not democracy.”
Political space in the United States has in many ways been shrinking for decades, as the state’s repressive and surveillance apparatus has been steadily expanded under Republican and Democratic presidents alike. Yet President Trump has accelerated the process through his contempt for government accountability, demonization of opponents, and blatant manipulation of state organs for personal ends. A Trump coup would sharply ratchet things up even further.

We can recognize that pluralistic space is most at risk from a Trump coup without romanticizing the political system as a whole. Navigating this double-sided reality is, I believe, a central challenge in developing radical responses to Trump. How do we call out the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the present political order, while also being clear that the future Trump offers would be dramatically worse?

Anti-Trumpers versus the left
Another challenge for leftists responding to a prospective Trump coup is the fact that many anti-Trumpers would be happy to throw us under the bus. One of many surreal aspects of the Trump era has been watching neoconservatives—who just a few years ago were the top proponents of U.S. expansionism and mass killing—repackaging themselves as voices of moderation and civility. In 2003, neocon David Brooks was a leading advocate for the invasion of Iraq, one of the most brutal and devastating acts of U.S imperialism in decades. Now he calls for mass activism to stop a presidential coup, but his rallying cry is directed almost as much against the left as against Trump.

Brooks declares that “If Trump claims a victory that is not rightly his, a few marches in the streets will not be an adequate response. There may have to be a sustained campaign of civic action, as in Hong Kong and Belarus, to rally the majority that wants to preserve democracy...” This campaign would unite “sober people who are militant about America”—including “a certain sort” of conservatives, moderates, and liberals—against “the myriad foes who talk blithely about tearing down systems, disorder and disruption.” Those foes include “the Trump onslaught” on one side, but also “the fringe of the left” on the other, people who seize “their chance at mayhem...with sometimes violent passion.” It’s classic horseshoe theory, like equating white supremacists and Black Lives Matter activists as dangerous extremists threatening civic order and “sober” discourse.

Neoconservatives aren’t the only anti-Trumpers prone to horseshoe theory centrism. For example, while demonizing antifa might seem like the special province of Trump and his supporters, recent history shows otherwise. In the wake of the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, where a white nationalist murdered antifascist Heather Heyer, liberals from Nancy Pelosi to Chris Hedges joined a propaganda campaign against militant antifascists that exaggerated and distorted their use of violence. Berkeley’s liberal mayor, Jesse Arreguin, declared that antifa should be classified as a “gang,” while the Anti-Defamation League urged the FBI to infiltrate and spy on antifascist groups. If conflict intensifies around the coming election and its aftermath, we can expect many liberal anti-Trumpers to embrace David Brooks’ “sober” condemnation of leftists.

Mass resistance and non-sectarianism
U.S. presidential elections routinely present leftists with the depressing question of whether to vote for the lesser evil or reject the options presented as a false choice. This year many leftists, but by no means all, are reluctantly supporting Biden, not so much as the lesser evil over the greater, but rather as the abysmal over the catastrophic. Wherever you come down on that question, whether you plan to cast a ballot or not, the threat of a stolen election should make clear as never before that voting in itself will not decide this. Trump needs to be stopped, and organized mass resistance is needed to do it.

Mass resistance can give the lie to propaganda about voter fraud. Mass resistance can denounce and confront poll “watchers,” federal agents, and rightist vigilantes sent to skew the results on Election Day or while mail-in ballots are being counted. Mass resistance can offer a countervailing force to Trump’s supporters and change the context in which lawmakers and judges, police and National Guard members decide how to act. Mass resistance can demand that Trump be brought down.

Mass resistance to a presidential coup has the potential to attract wide and varied support, because Donald Trump is widely hated and despised, and because this is a time of radical mass activism on a scale the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. In this context, some anti-Trumpers will present the sectarian demand that any radical impulses be stifled in favor of lowest common denominator moderation. A better and more powerful organizing framework is the antifascist principle of “diversity of tactics.” Whether or not we call Trump a fascist, the following passage from my Foreword to Shane Burley’s Fascism Today applies here:
“The fight against fascism has to be broad and allow space for people to act in different ways and with different politics. As Anti-Racist Action put it in their Points of Unity almost thirty years ago, we need to practice non-sectarian defense of antifascists—set aside our differences to support those who are serious about opposing our common enemy. Some approaches will involve direct physical confrontations with right-wing forces. Some will involve nonviolent protest, writing and speaking, legal or electoral initiatives, community organizing, or even engaging with people who are attracted to fascism to try to win them away from it. Although people often think of militant and non-militant approaches as mutually exclusive and in conflict, they work best when they complement and reinforce each other.”

However, making the mass resistance movement inclusive and dynamic is about more than tactics. It’s about ensuring that alongside the calls to “defend democracy” against Trump, there is also space to denounce the political, social, and economic order that gave rise to Trump in the first place. Voter suppression is real, but there are also millions of people in this country who don’t vote because they don’t see anyone worth voting for. Ultimately, a mass resistance movement needs to offer not just defensive holding actions, but also radical visions that speak to those for whom “Build Back Better” is a cruel joke. 

Photo credit: By James McNellis, Washington, DC, 20 January 2017. CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sep 1, 2020

Trump, the far right, and the return of vigilante repression

Trump’s relationship with the far right is just as important in 2020 as it was in 2016, but the character of the relationship has changed dramatically.

I’ve been revisiting the articles I wrote about Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, taking stock of what’s the same and what’s different, as a way to get some perspective on what we’re facing now.

One key piece of the picture is Trump’s relationship with the forces of the U.S. far right, by which I mean those rightists who are fundamentally disloyal to the existing political order, because they want to replace it with something even worse. In the 2016 campaign, Trump had a symbiotic relationship with the far right that was unprecedented—unlike anything any major party candidate had ever had in U.S. history as far as I can tell. The relationship was centered particularly on the Alt Right, which played an important role in helping the Trump campaign, particularly in the primaries but also in the general election, through its effective and innovative use of social media to attack Trump’s opponents. In return, the Alt Right got a lot more visibility and recognition and validation by having this connection with a rising and ultimately triumphant political figure.

Looking at the current situation, it’s still true that Trump has an unprecedented symbiotic relationship with far right forces, but the specifics and the character of that relationship have changed.

In 2016 the Alt Right was the far right’s most dynamic sector. After the election, they declared themselves to be the vanguard of the Trump coalition, and in 2017 they made a big push to capitalize on their success and create a broader, militant street-fighting coalition of right-wing forces. The push failed and the Alt Right suffered a dramatic decline. The murderous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville exposed the brutality at the core of their politics for everyone to see. That setback—followed by a strong counter-mobilization by antifascists, deplatforming by media companies, and a series of internal conflicts—left the Alt Right much weaker and more isolated. Since the end of 2017, the alt-right has had little capacity to mobilize much of anything.

Group of people standing outside; man in front holding a semi-automatic rifle.
Pro-gun rally in Richmond on January 20th showed Patriot
movement's ability to put thousands of people in the streets.
Today, the most dynamic sector of the far right is the Patriot movement—the people who brought you citizen militias, conspiracy theories about globalist elites, and a militarized ideology of individual property rights. Unlike the Alt Right, which is white nationalist (meaning they literally want an all-white nation), the Patriot movement has always encompassed a range of positions on race and a tension between explicit calls for white dominance and what’s been called “color-blind racism”—the ideology that protects racial oppression by denying it exists.

The Patriot movement was probably a lot bigger than the Alt Right in 2016, but it was relatively quiet after the collapse of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation early that year. By contrast, 2020 has seen a series of political mobilizations with politics much closer to Patriot ideology than to Alt Right white nationalism, notably the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, back in January and the anti-lockdown protests in April in May. So while the Alt Right in 2016 made powerful use of Internet memes and online harassment campaigns, the Patriot movement in 2020 has demonstrated a capacity to put hundreds, thousands, or even tens of thousands of people in the streets in cities across the country, which the Alt Right was never able to do.

It’s not just that a different branch of the far right is on the upswing now compared with 2016. It’s also that the Patriot movement has developed a different relationship with Trump and with the established political system than the Alt Right has had.

In 2016, most Alt Rightists supported Trump enthusiastically, but they were always clear that he wasn’t one of them. They said: Trump doesn’t share our politics, but he is useful to us; he’s creating openings for us to promote our message, he’s attacking a lot of our enemies—including the conservative establishment—and he’s buying time for the radical changes we need. The Alt Right saw Trump’s anti-immigrant and Islamophobic politics as slowing down the supposed process of “white genocide,” but they never expected him to dismantle the United States or create a whites-only society. And as his administration went on, many Alt Rightists were deeply disappointed by what they saw as Trump’s betrayal of his America First promises and his capitulation to establishment conservatism. You see this shift most starkly in the Occidental Dissent blog, where Alt Rightist Brad Griffin (“Hunter Wallace”) once supported Trump but now writes about him with loathing and contempt.

The Patriot movement doesn’t call for a white ethnostate, but it has developed its own ways of delegitimizing the existing political system, such as claiming that local governments can veto or ignore federal laws, and even creating new bodies, such as “common law courts,” that claim to have legal authority. In 2014, hundreds of Patriot activists with guns successfully faced down a large contingent of armed federal officers at Cliven Bundy’s Nevada ranch in a dispute over Bundy’s refusal to pay grazing fees on federal lands. It’s hard to think of another instance of armed rightist defiance of the U.S. government on that scale since federal troops went after the Reconstruction-era Ku Klux Klan in the 1870s.

Yet the Patriot movement has, with exceptions, been more staunchly and consistently supportive of President Trump and his efforts to expand federal policing than the Alt Right ever was. Patriot activists engage in ideological gymnastics that dismiss undocumented immigrants, refugees, and leftist protesters as tools of a sinister elite conspiracy to impose world government. This framework enables them to rationalize support for Trump’s repressive measures as defense of a populist upsurge against an elite-sponsored campaign to suppress it.

In December 2015, I suggested that one way to read Trump’s friendly relationship with much of the far right was that “Trump’s campaign is co-opting far rightists into, if not renewed loyalty, at least suspending their disloyalty to the existing political order.” That cooptation has had limited effect on Alt Rightists and other white nationalists, but it’s had a strong pull for the Patriot movement.

So it’s not surprising that Patriot activists—associated with Three Percenters, Oath Keepers, militias, and related groups—have played a major role in the wave of vigilante repression that’s crashed over Black Lives Matter protests this year. Bolstering brutal police crackdowns, armed far rightists have dogged BLM demonstrations hundreds of times in 2020. Since George Floyd’s murder in late May, right-wingers have physically attacked protesters over 100 times, and have killed at least three people. Urged on by racist cops and Trump’s “law and order” rhetoric, these activists have been functioning implicitly or explicitly as vigilantes helping the police to crack down on radical dissent.

Previous right-wing mass killers such as Dylann Roof (Charleston, 2015) or Patrick Crusius (El Paso, 2019), have generally framed their violence in terms of white nationalist or neonazi ideology. But Kyle Rittenhouse, who murdered two protesters in Kenosha last week, says he is a member of a local militia protecting local businesses and is almost a caricature in his adoration for the police. Also unlike Roof or Crusius, Rittenhouse has been endorsed by figures such as Tucker Carlson and Trump himself. It’s true that some of the recent vigilantes have been white nationalists, but white nationalists have tended to be ambivalent on whether to support cops or not, while Patriot groups have rallied to them more consistently. Closely aligned with Patriot groups have been the Proud Boys, a misogynistic organization that is “western chauvinist” but multiracial, and that has consistently tried to position itself as vigilante allies of the police, as well as Patriot Prayer, a northwest regional group with politics similar to the Proud Boys.

If internet activism was the linchpin of Donald Trump's symbiotic relationship with the far right in 2016, physical violence and harassment play that role today. Whether they intimidate Black Lives Matter protests or intensify them, far right vigilantes dramatize Trump's claims that extraordinary measures are needed to combat lawlessness. In return, his fearmongering offers Patriot activists and other paramilitary rightists validation, increased attention, and political focus.

Vigilante repression as an adjunct of state power is nothing new—it’s been integral to the United States from the beginning. For most of U.S. history, the state repressive apparatus was relatively small, and the people in power relied heavily on non-state forces of armed white men to keep subject populations—Indigenous, Black, Mexican, and Asian—terrorized and under control. During the key period of industrialization from the 1870s to the 1930s, capitalists also relied heavily on private armies such as the Pinkerton Detective Agency to intimidate, beat, or kill workers who tried to organize unions or go on strike. As recently as the 1970s, federal security agencies sponsored right-wing vigilante organizations such as the Legion of Justice and the Secret Army Organization to spy on, vandalize, and physically attack leftists. In 1979, an undercover agent of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms helped to plan the operation that resulted in the Greensboro massacre, in which a coalition of Klansmen and Nazis murdered five leftists at an anti-Klan rally.

Overall, however, vigilante repression has tended to decline over the past half century or more, as traditional outfits such as the Ku Klux Klan became a liability to the ruling class, large sections of the white supremacist movement abandoned loyalty to the state for white nationalism, and the state’s own repressive apparatus has become much bigger and more powerful. But now we’re seeing a new push to bring back vigilante repression alongside the modern security state.

Today’s resurgence of right-wing vigilantism is unstable and conditional, because it’s driven by a situation of unprecedented volatility. On one side, we have a wave of protests, uprisings, and strikes against police violence and white supremacy beyond anything the U.S. has seen in decades. On the other, we have a president who promotes supremacist politics, routinely subordinates governmental functions to his own personal interests, and both threatens and celebrates violence against his opponents. Armed Patriot activists and some other far rightists are rallying to the police partly because they’re afraid of Black-led working class revolt, and partly because, despite reservations, they still see Trump as a populist leader at war with entrenched elite power. Their de facto loyalty to the system could shift into support for efforts to keep Trump in power by extralegal means, or armed opposition if they give up on Trump* or he leaves office. A coup attempt or a civil war—I’ll discuss these dangers in a follow-up post.

* Highlighting that Patriot movement support for Trump is not a given, Oath Keepers, one of the most prominent Patriot groups, recently tweeted, “We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”

By Mobilus in Mobili, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.