Donald Trump’s press secretary claimed a million “Stop the Steal” protesters on the streets of Washington on 14 November to block Biden becoming US president.
It was more like 10,000-20,000, organised by far-right activists, but supported, tacitly or explicitly, by Republican Congress people.
It looks harder and harder for Trump to pull any sort of “coup” between now and 20 January, but that 86% of his voters believe his denunciation of the election count bodes ill for the next four years.
Although Biden won on 3 November, Trump got more votes than in 2016 (ten million more and counting...)
The Republican Senate and Supreme Court will block the mildest reforms Biden attempts, and to make it difficult for him even to appoint a Cabinet. On the basis, then, of indicting a “do-nothing” (and, they’ll say, illegitimate) administration, the Trump faction can continue to build its right-wing base.
If the coming years promised boom and prosperity, the right-wing agitation might well die away, as McCarthyism died away after 1954. Instead they promise economic chaos.
The fewness and timidity of the Republicans differentiating from Trump even now shows a big, and long-brewing, shift in US politics.
Until recently, and since the early 20th century at least, ideologically, Democrats and Republicans overlapped heavily. The Democrats were broadly considered more to the left; but “liberal Republicans” would be to the left of the Southern Democrats (the “Dixiecrats”), and fascists found space in the Democratic Party, like Frank Hague in New Jersey.
The US Republican and Democratic parties have been less like two political parties on the European model, more like two electoral structures between which individual politicians can choose for making their careers, often more on the basis of geography and connections than of ideology.
The “two-party” character of the system is structured by law (ballot access, primaries, and in a stricter way since the 1970s), in a way that Tory-Labour “two-partyism” in Britain between 1950 and 1974 wasn’t.
Big new laws have rarely been pushed through Congress without both Democrat and Republican support. The Social Security Act of 1935 passed with only six Republicans voting against it in the Senate, and the Wagner Act for trade union rights the same year with only 12 out of 25 against.
The Republican Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, winding back those rights, overrode the Democratic President’s veto by the majority of Democrats in Congress voting for it. The Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, winding back further, was a joint Democrat-Republican initiative. So was the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was initiated by a Democrat President, but got through a Senate filibuster by racist Democrats only with Republican support.
Making law expeditiously often depends on decree: via the Supreme Court (as on abortion rights, with the Roe-Wade judgement of 1972, or in its judgements weakening the Voting Rights Act), or via Presidents’ executive orders and proclamations, to which courts rather than Congress set the limits.
The right-wing surge in the Republican party dates back to the 1970s at least, and has rolled on through the decades. Until Trump, it promoted conventional right-wingers as presidential candidates, and they had limited control of Republicans in Congress.
With Trump, the Republican right has a leader of full authoritarian temper, and with an unprecedented hegemony. The miscellaneous militia groups, now estimated to organise over 100,000 people, originating in the mid-1990s but previously outside official Republican politics, have been pulled into the Trump coalition.
The elements of full-scale authoritarian politics are still neither coalesced, nor fully hegemonic. Large sections of the capitalist class backed Biden on 3 November, and the US’s big cities and “mainstream” media are anti-Trump or critical of Trump.
But compare Mussolini in Italy. It was liberal governance’s incapacity for expeditious action that brought him to power in 1922, not a calm decision by some capitalist conclave that they wanted to replace functioning liberal government by fascism.
In 1921 Mussolini’s fascist movement was growing and violent, but patchy, unstable, and full of vague bluster. He declared: “We permit ourselves the luxury of being aristocratic and democratic, conservative and progressive, reactionary and revolutionary, accepting the law and going beyond it…”
The elderly Liberal prime minister Giovanni Giolitti brought the zigzagging fascists into a “National Bloc” coalition with himself for the May 1921 election. In August, Mussolini signed a “pact of pacification” with the Socialist Party and the trade unions.
Unstable Liberal governments succeeded each other in 1921-2: Giolitti, Bonomi, Facta. The king called Mussolini to office in October 1922 after Facta resigned. No-one else was strong enough to rule against Mussolini (thought enough of the ruling class) — and bringing him in was the only way to get effective government.
In some new crisis, the complexity of the USA’s constitutional “checks and balances” could accelerate a push to authoritarian government (as the only way to “get things done”) as much as restrain it. The much-ballyhooed US constitution is little protection. It did nothing to stop the US South being a white-supremacist one-party (Democratic) regime from the 1880s through to the 1960s.
Trump’s ability to expand his voter base does not come from a broad drift of opinion in the USA to the right. Contrast the huge George Floyd protests, the fall in support for organised religion, more favourable attitudes to immigration and to unions, and stable majority support for abortion rights. Rather, the Trump Republicans have been able to leverage diminishing right-wing sentiments to increasing political effect.
The evolution of the Democrats has helped them. The US passed federal anti-union laws earlier than other countries, in 1947 and 1959, and then industry improved on them from the 1960s by moving to Southern states with state laws more hostile to unions. Where unions were advancing in Europe in the 1970s, they were already on the retreat in the USA. “1968 radicals” played a big part in union life in Europe in the 1970s and 80s; much less in the USA.
The Democrats shed the Dixiecrats. Yet the unions have been beaten back further and further. The neoliberal “New Democrats” advanced. With changes in political campaign financing, more and more of most Democrat politicians’ lives are focused on getting donations from the wealthy. The “end of welfare” and the prison-filling Crime Act of 1994 were pushed through by the Democratic president Bill Clinton (with the prominent help of Joe Biden). Democrats sought to make right-wing agendas “theirs”, rather than the Republicans’, then the Republicans went for yet more right-wing.
The Republicans have been transformed in large part from the bottom up (though also from above by big money like the Koch family). The Democratic transformation has been more from the top down, and so a “space” has remained for left politics in Democratic primaries.
In a strange twist, a new rise of socialist sympathies in the USA has wriggled through that gap. The Democratic Socialists of America, for long a small lacklustre group in Democrat “left field” (though not exactly or institutionally “in the Democratic Party”), has grown, mostly out of the Sanders campaigns, into an activist and much-wider-than-electoral movement of 80,000. Worker militancy, if not union membership, has had an uptick.
The pushback against the continuing Trump threat will depend on the ability of those activists to find a way to build a socialist movement able to take ideas directly to the sections of the working class seduced or cowed by Trump, and to leverage increasing left-wing sentiments to increasing political effect.