Donald Trump’s bid to overturn the popular vote and remain in office beyond January 20 was always dependent on a steady build-up in momentum – not at the polling booths, obviously, since that was a lost cause, but on the streets, in Republican-controlled state governments and in the courts. And for a couple of weeks the strategy seemed to be working. The Proud Boys put on an impressive display of neo-fascist violence at the November 14 Million MAGA March on Washington, for instance, as they chanted “Fuck Antifa” and beat up every leftist they could get their hands on. With few exceptions, Republican congressmen and senators lined up behind their leader as well, amid polls indicating that 68% of Republican voters thought the election may have been rigged.1 Trump himself continued tweeting up a storm about election malfeasance in Michigan, Georgia and elsewhere.
The “big mo”, as the elder George Bush called it back in 1980, seemed to be on his side. But then it all went to seed.
First, there was Rudy Giuliani’s disastrous November 19 press conference, in which the president’s personal lawyer accused Democrats of “mass cheating”, while his colleague, attorney Sidney Powell, raged about “the massive influence of communist money through Venezuela, Cuba and likely China” that was being used to hack election computers and steal the election on Joe Biden’s behalf. Reporters had a field day describing the brown hair dye coursing down Giuliani’s jowls, as his rhetoric grew more and more heated. Two days later, a federal judge tossed out a Giuliani lawsuit seeking to overturn the vote in Pennsylvania on the grounds that it was filled with “strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations … unsupported by evidence”. Then Powell told a rightwing TV news channel the next day that not only were Venezuela and Cuba in on the conspiracy, but top Georgia Republicans “probably” were as well – at which point the Trump legal team had no choice but to give her the boot so as to preserve Republicans unity in the face of a Democratic bid to win two Senate seats in a special Georgia election set for January 5.
Finally, there was Michigan’s bipartisan state election board. Its job is to certify the vote, and on November 23, its four members met in Lansing to decide what to do. If the board had been deadlocked despite results showing Trump trailing by more than 150,000 popular votes, the effect would have been to throw the state’s 16 electoral votes into the House of Representatives, where obscure constitutional language gives Republicans a crucial advantage despite being in the minority overall.
But the decision was not even close. After a few hours of deliberation, one of the election board’s Republicans joined with his two Democratic colleagues in voting to certify, while the other merely abstained. The effort to move Michigan out of the Democratic column thus failed 3-0.
Individually, any of these missteps would have been a serious blow to Trump’s long-shot bid to hold onto power. Collectively, they were devastating. Sensing a change in the wind, Emily Murphy, head of the General Services Administration, the organisation that runs much of the US federal bureaucracy, announced that she would make “resources and services available” to Biden, so his team could proceed with the transfer of power. Even more dramatically striking was Trump’s follow-up tweet:
I want to thank Emily Murphy at GSA for her steadfast dedication and loyalty to our Country … Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail! Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that Emily and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.
Face-saving rhetoric aside, was it a sign that Trump was at last throwing in the towel and that weeks of threats and defiance added up to nothing more than an extended tantrum on the part of a man-child in the Oval office?
The answer to the first part is that it is impossible to be sure, since Trump has plenty of manoeuvring room in the eight weeks or so until inauguration and he seems to be growing more defiant with each passing hour. “We are moving full speed ahead,” he said in one late-night tweet. “Will never concede to fake ballots & ‘Dominion’,” he added – a reference to the supposedly Venezuelan-owned computer firm that he says is helping Biden win.
As for the second assertion about an infantile temper tantrum, the answer is a definitive no. Yes, some people like to think that Trump is nothing more than a cry baby who wandered into the White House by accident and who is now on his way out. But they are the same people who like to think his reign was “an aberration” and that his failure to hold onto power means that the constitution has “passed the test”.2
This is nothing more than wilful political blindness, since it should be clear at this point that the crisis is no more reducible to Trump himself than the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 was reducible to Kaiser Bill. On the contrary, Trumpism is a product of a political breakdown that can only deepen, regardless of what the next few weeks have in store.
This is not mere Marxist boilerplate, in which capitalism is always caught up in a crisis that is forever intensifying. Rather, it reflects real events, as they have transpired over a quarter of a century. Economically, the pattern is clear. Where the US growth rate hit 4.8% per year in the late 1990s and then bounced back to 3.8% following the dot-com bust of the early ‘aughts’, it only attained a peak of 2.9% in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown – before crashing through the floor, thanks to Covid-19. After weakening steadily over the course of more than two decades, in other words, US economic growth has finally collapsed. Since more pain is plainly in the offing, it is a safe bet that the economic shakeout is just getting underway.
Imperially, the trajectory has been the same. After rising steadily in the 1990s, US militarism positively boomed after 9/11 with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and then with the Nato intervention in Libya, the US-backed jihad in Syria, a neo-Nazi-led coup in Kiev, and finally a US-backed Saudi air war on Yemen, starting in March 2015. But then came the crash, as Islamic State went on a rampage in Syria and Iraq, terrorist atrocities occurred in Paris, San Bernardino and elsewhere, and the worst refugee crisis since World War II erupted, as millions fled war zones across the Middle East. It was the imperial bust that brought Trump to power, since it allowed him not only to promise to rev up the economy by gutting environmental regulations, but also enabled him to go on the warpath against Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Washington establishment and their ‘forever wars’ in places that few Americans could find on the map.
But, after first unfolding on an imperial and economic level, the crisis has unfolded on a constitutional level as well. This aspect also started with a boom back in 1987, when the hoopla over the constitutional bicentennial allowed everyone from arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond to Supreme Court chief justice Warren E Burger to see who could heap more praise on America’s founding document. Ronald Reagan never reached greater heights of Hollywood hokum than when he assured the faithful at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall that the constitution was divinely wrought: “After all,” he said, “both Madison and Washington were to refer to the outcome of the Constitutional Convention as a miracle, and miracles, of course, have only one origin.”
It was morning in America, the US was a city on a hill, while Reagan was nothing less than “a Prospero of American memories”, as Time magazine put it in a particularly icky Fourth of July cover story.3 But then came the bust in the form of bitter infighting on Capitol Hill, back-to-back government shutdowns, impeachment, a stolen election – and then a decade and a half of war, plus more pseudo-scandals in the form of ‘birthergate’ and ‘Benghazigate’. As jarring as all this was, what followed was even worse. Incapable of analysing why the machinery had enabled Trump to gain the presidency, Democrats opted to blame the Kremlin instead. Thanks to Russia, Russia, Russia, Washington entered into another round of civil war that was the most serious of all.
Which brings us to the present impasse. If Trump had succeeded in forcing the election into the House, the effect after all those interrelated and overlapping breakdowns would have been nothing less than explosive. Overwhelmingly black cities like Detroit would have risen in revolt, as Republicans sought to cancel the urban vote, while white suburbs and rural areas would likely have done the same. Trump might not have minded, since the disorder would have allowed him to move toward dictatorship and mass repression. But not everyone in the amorphous right-leaning entity known as the Republican Party was willing to go along with that.
So they stopped short of going over the cliff. As a result, the cry from the faithful is now the usual one about the constitution working, the system functioning as intended, checks and balances doing their duty, and so forth.
But that is nonsense, since the march to mayhem is merely on pause. A counter-democratic Electoral College, a grossly unrepresentative Senate, a gerrymandered House, a rightwing Supreme Court and a constitution that in general grows more rigid and change-averse, the older it gets – such features of a pre-modern, pre-democratic political structure are not going to go away any time soon. On the contrary, they are worsening, as widening state population discrepancies cause power to shift to white rural states all the more, further fuelling an overall drift to the right. Pious wishes that such problems will magically fix themselves will lead to nothing. After all, once a machine breaks down, the problems can only multiply, as any car owner can attest. This is why ‘we, the people’ – led, of course, by the working class – must eventually step in and do the repairs themselves. This does not mean using tools bequeathed by America’s ‘founding fathers’, since those are plainly inadequate. Instead, it means new tools that workers democratically create themselves.
Until then, the crisis – economic, imperial and constitutional – can only accelerate. This is not Marxist dogma, but the reality of post-Trump America – assuming, that is, that Trump really is on the way out.
This article first appeared in the Weekly Worker (UK).