Orwellian Hellscape v. Neoliberal Caretakers: American Politics in the “Post-Trump” Era

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Trump may be out of office, but American politics seem more crisis laden than ever between the caretaker neoliberalism of the Democrats and the creeping totalitarianism of the Republicans. On the Democratic front, although the progressive Sanders-Warren-AOC wing of the party continues to push for liberal reforms, we’ve seen “more of the same” establishment-friendly politics from the neoliberal Biden wing that’s dominated the party for decades. This will come as no shock to those of us who have lamented the plutocratic biases of the Democrats during the Obama years and before.

Disappointing Their Base: Neoliberal Democrats Rise Again

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Biden wing of the party has disappointed liberals. They campaigned on politically empowering the poor and people of color, on implementing a $15 minimum wage, on expanding access to health care through a public option, on providing relief on the student loan front, and combating the steadily intensifying climate crisis. Thus far, there has been little by way of delivery. The “For the People Act,” which is meant to combat Republican efforts to suppress voting among the poor and poor people of color, has passed the House by 220-210 votes, but remains stalled in the Senate by a few conservative Democratic holdouts – Senators Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema. The party hasn’t acted on passing a $15 minimum wage due to resistance from these senators and a few others who have also blocked action. Biden has refused to prioritize action on student loan debt relief, claiming he doesn’t have executive authority to grant it, and only calling for $10,000 in forgiveness for each federal borrower. On health care, Biden has proposed $200 billion to expand the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies, but failed to put forward as promised a proposal for a “public option,” and his opposition to Medicare for All is well known.

On foreign policy, the Biden administration delivered more of the same on Israel Palestine, granting continued military support for a settler colonial government that’s been conducting an illegal occupation for more than a half century, which is responsible for ethnic cleansing, maintaining an apartheid state, and pursues massive violence that has produced asymmetrical deaths in the latest round of the “conflict” (May 2021), with 12 Israeli civilians killed compared to 212 Palestinians – or an imbalance of more than 17:1. The U.S. has continued its support for Israel’s settler colonialism over the decades, despite this asymmetry, with 87 percent of the deaths falling on the Palestinian side in the 2000s and 2010s. None of this seemed to matter much to the Democrats – Obama or Biden – who have continued to enable the bloodshed.

Perhaps the brightest spot (or the least depressing thing) one could point to for the Democrats is their willingness to act on climate change, as Biden’s 2022 budget proposal calls for $36 billion to combat global warming – up from $14 billion in 2021 – including a renewed emphasis on clean energy projects, climate change-related research, and on green improvements to U.S. infrastructure that are geared toward cutting U.S. carbon emissions in half by 2030. But even these changes fall short of the ambitious progressive “Green New Deal” goals of Bernie Sanders and AOC, which aimed at achieving a carbon neutral economy by 2030, at a time when global warming is rapidly spiraling out of control and scientists are warning that a net zero global economy must be achieved “well before 2040” to maximize humanity’s chances for a sustainable future.

Hey, Did You Know that Joe Biden is a Neoliberal?

It’s a challenge to write about the Democratic Party from the left. It’s obviously the case that the Democrats are a neoliberal party, meaning that they produce policies that favor the wealthy, leaving the many and the poor behind. But this simple observation hardly counts as an insight after more than three decades of Clinton-Obama-Biden style neoliberalism, which has produced an endless stream of laments from left writers in an era of rising inequality and mass economic insecurity – both trends that are now widely documented by not-so-radical sources such as mainstream journalists and social scientists. If left intellectuals spend the next four years simply pointing out that Biden is a neoliberal, we will be in a very sorry position at the end of this administration. There was a place for this sort of commentary during the Obama years, when the afterglow of the first black President meant that the man with the silver tongue was able to pull the wool over liberals’ eyes with false promises of “hope” and “change.” Those promises went unfulfilled as Obama perfected the role of neoliberal caretaker-in-chief.

But much of the liberal-left base of the party became wise to the deception by the end of his 8 years in office. Turnout for Hillary Clinton and her uninspiring neoliberal brand of Democratic Party politics was low among young Americans, union households, low-income Americans, and black Americans, as exit polling indicated. Of particular note is the large decline in support among poorer Americans, 68 percent of which voted for Obama in 2008, and 63 percent of which voted for Obama in 2012, but of which only 53 percent voted for Clinton in 2016. In contrast, most Democratic voters were hardly starry-eyed when they cast ballots for Biden. According to Pew Research Center polling, 67 percent of those who said they planned to vote for Biden in June of 2020, and 63 percent in October, said that their “choice” was more one “against Trump” than it was one “for Biden.” And this sober take on “their” candidate continued after the election, with a November 2020 Monmouth survey showing that only 57 percent of Biden’s own supporters said they were “happy” that “their choice won,” compared to 73 percent saying they were “happy that Trump lost.”

Left intellectuals shouldn’t spend the coming years beating a dead horse by simply repeating tired (albeit accurate) laments about how the Democrats are a neoliberal party. As the above statistics show, the party base knows that already. The question now is what Americans can do to force the party to act in ways to implement a political agenda that will help the American people as related to wages, health care, worker rights, the environment, voting rights, and other issues. This doesn’t require those of us on the left to shill for the party – it just requires that we make demands of the people who are already in power. This will be done in the same way that it’s always been done – through mass movement building and pressure in the streets aimed at extracting political concessions. There may be little chance of a progressive New Deal style coalition taking over the Democratic Party in the foreseeable future, but that doesn’t mean that mass movements can’t demand and achieve significant change.

Totalitarianism at the Gates…

Recognizing the plutocratic biases of the Democratic Party, it’s important to avoid the mistaken notion that there’s “not a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties.” This position may have been arguable decades ago when neoliberal Republicans and Democrats converged around a pro-business agenda. It was more compelling prior to extreme Republican obstructionism of the Obama years and the increasingly neofascistic politics of the Trump era. But by 2021, attempts to draw a false equivalence between the two parties, framing them as indistinguishable, come off as dangerously naïve. One party continues to play the role of the neoliberal caretaker, granting rhetorical and occasional policy concessions to the progressive segment of its base. The other party has become an existential threat to human survival by denying that global warming is real and has embraced a white supremacist identity that’s centered on the cult of personality of a now exiled former President who is quietly setting the stage for authoritarian one-party rule and the termination of the republican electoral system of governance as we know it. These parties are hardly functional equivalents.

One need only look at recent developments regarding Republican education policy and electoral politics to see the foundation for authoritarian governance that’s being laid out in real time. Consider, among other states, the recent Iowa law, which imposes official Republican Party control over teaching on issues of race in K-12 and collegiate education. Iowa House Bill 802 is positively Orwellian in its efforts to censor educators who spotlight the ways in which American political, economic, criminal justice, and social institutions operate to systematically discriminate against people of color. In response to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, Iowa has now officially “prohibited” public school teachers and professors from discussing in any way the position “That the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systematically racist or sexist” in orientation.”

The Iowa law and others like it represent a vile effort by a vile party to destroy basic freedom of inquiry on the question of racial inequality in America. Students and faculty have been given marching orders, 1984 style by the Republican Party. They are simply not allowed to talk about structural racism and systemic racial inequality in the United States. I’ve been an educator for more than 15 years, 10 of them in a Democratic state (Illinois), and more than 5 of them in a purple state (Pennsylvania), and I’ve never seen anything like these “Critical Race Theory” laws that are now passing in red states. Whatever the corruptions that define domestic Democratic Party politics (plutocracy, neoliberalism), I’ve never seen this sort of blatant authoritarianism, manifested in the heavy hand of the state to suppress freedom of speech and thought. It’s the sort of arch-villainous propaganda and indoctrination that’s reserved for totalitarian, goose-stepping fascist regimes, not for remotely free societies with even a minimal commitment to freedom of inquiry and expression.

These authoritarian bills are designed to wipe minds of any critical capacities. It’s hard to imagine how any self-respecting teacher of professor could teach a politics or history class on racially related matters and discuss inequality in any comprehensive way without violating the letter of these laws. I teach two courses – one on the history of modern U.S. social movements and one on inequality and U.S. politics – which both address issues of structural contributors to racial, gender, and economic inequality in America. Both classes, by discussing structural factors that contribute to inequality, would clearly violate the Iowa law if it was passed in my home state of Pennsylvania. If a similar law were passed in my state, I could continue to teach these classes, self-censoring and refusing to talk about structural conditions that give rise to racial, gender, and economic inequality. But there would be little point in doing so. A class on inequality that can’t discuss the main structural contributors to societal inequality? A course section on racial or gender inequality in America that can’t discuss the main factors that perpetuate such inequalities? Why even bother with classes like that? But that’s precisely the point with these laws. They’re created to deter faculty and students from asking questions about how American society is structured to perpetuate system-level inequities.

That brings us to Donald Trump, who realistically never left American politics, and who has been plotting his return for months. A case in point is his latest op-ed, run by Real Clear Politics, in which he draws on recent state efforts to ban “Critical Race Theory” (CRT) calling for a nationalization of these dystopian state efforts to declare critical race analysis a thought crime. As Trump writes about the CRT bans, “every state legislature should pass a ban on taxpayer dollars going to any school district or workplace that teaches critical race theory…and Congress should seek to institute a federal ban through legislation as well.” Of course, any thought crime would need to be punished through an enforcement mechanism, and an effective ban on CRT requires constant vigilance on the part of students and parents, who will be expected to rely on Big Brother-style surveillance to coerce teachers and professors into silence – monitoring every document, every utterance, and every assigned reading. As Trump explains in his op-ed:

“Parents have a right to know exactly what is being taught to their children. Last year, many parents had the chance to routinely listen in on classes for the first time because of remote learning. As students return to the classroom, states need to pass laws requiring that all lesson plans have to be made available to parents — every handout, article, and reading should be posted on an online portal that allows parents to see what their kids are being taught. Furthermore, in many places, there are rules preventing students from recording what teachers say in class. States and school boards should establish a ‘Right of Record.’”

And for teachers who violate CRT bans, Trump has an answer for that too: termination. As he proclaims in his op-ed: “States need to break the tenure monopoly in public K-12 schools…Educators who are alienating children from their own country should not be protected with lifelong tenure; they should be liberated to pursue a career as a political activist.”

Trump’s attack on teachers draws on fascistic eliminationist ideology, which depicts political “enemies” as a fundamental and existential threat to the nation that endangers its very existence, and which needs to be rooted out and burned away:

“Make no mistake: The motive behind all of this left-wing lunacy is to discredit and eliminate the greatest obstacles to the fundamental transformation of America. To succeed with their extreme agenda, radicals know they must abolish our attachment to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and most of all, Americans’ very identity as a free, proud, and self-governing people. The left knows that if they can dissolve our national memory and identity, they can gain the total political control they crave.”

For those who don’t know the difference between conservatism and fascism, Trump’s statement above isn’t garden-variety conservatism. Conservatism values a nation’s traditions and history for its own sake, but recognizes the right of individuals to disagree without suggesting that those with whom we disagree are a threat to the nation that needs to be eliminated. Trump’s rhetoric ventures into fascistic territory, alluding to need to identify and eliminate existential threats to the nation and its existence, while also maintaining plausible deniability by failing to explicitly call for murder, vigilante violence, or mass incarceration against alleged “enemies” of the state. Such language has the dual advantage for fascistic ideologues like Trump of mainstreaming fascistic ideology, while allowing him to deny that he’s trafficking in dangerous and extremist ideas. In this case, the eliminationism he’s calling for doesn’t involve concentration camps and gas chambers, but instead a youth and parental coordinated mass surveillance state that destroys freedom of critical thought, inquiry, and expression.

Coupled with his reactionary education policy, Trump is setting the stage for a political-electoral return that looks to impose one-party rule and a soft coup in 2024 based on Big Lie election propaganda. Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election results were clumsy, although no less authoritarian as a result. His legal efforts in the courts to overturn Biden’s wins in swing states were widely rejected by judges as baseless. His stoking of insurrectionists on January 6 caused much havoc at the Capitol, resulting in death and destruction, but he was ultimately unable to rollback certification via his attempted coup because House and Senate Democrats refused to comply with his efforts. But authoritarians’ attempts to overturn the rule of law are always outlandish and unrealistic, until they’re suddenly not – until the day that people start taking them seriously. This is what has been happening within the Republican Party throughout 2021, as Trump has consolidated official support behind his Big Lie election propaganda. This position has gained steam via the removal of Liz Cheney – the primary Republican who has opposed the Big Lie – from her leadership position in the House.

With Cheney removed, the rest of the party moving forward won’t cross Trump, should he, and when he runs in 2024, and when it comes to challenging the next round of rhetoric about mass voter fraud. With the large majority of Republican Americans and officials now buying into the Big Lie, there’s no reason to think that Republicans in positions of power are going to certify Democratic presidential wins in swing states come 2024. The election outcome may play out in one of two ways: 1. If Republicans win control of the U.S. House and/or Senate, these chambers will simply cite baseless claims of voter fraud in 2024 and refuse to certify a potential Democratic presidential win that year, thereby turning certification responsibility back to states, in which case each state delegation will have one vote to cast to certify the winner. For red state officials who buy into the Big Lie conspiracy, it’s unlikely they will certify a Democratic win if it occurs in their state; 2. As The Guardian reports, Big Lie Republicans are now running electorally for Secretary of State positions, which are responsible for certifying state presidential election wins, in numerous swing states including Georgia, Colorado, Michigan, and Nevada. Simply put, all it will take is a few of these individuals winning and refusing to certify a Democratic win in a close 2024 race for it to provoke a national crisis.

If either of the above scenarios occurs, and Republicans impose a second Trump term contrary to a majority popular and Electoral College vote for a Democratic candidate, it will be tantamount to a soft coup. It would the functional equivalent of imposing one-party rule and a de facto Republican dictatorship. And it would mean the end of competitive bi-partisan electoralism and the republican system of government as we know it. Two-party electoralism cannot exist if Democrats are no longer able to win Presidential office because Republican states are no longer willing to recognize Democratic wins as legitimate or as occurring.

The Republican Party’s war on CRT and their Big Lie soft coup efforts are motivated by a neofascistic ideology that’s based in rising white supremacy in America. An increasingly fanatical reactionary white minority – comprised of the Republican Party’s base, has become more and more desperate to hold onto power in a country that’s steadily changing demographically in favor of an emerging non-white majority. For the Republican base, and as I’ve documented in previous writing, white identity politics became their primary political currency under Trump. The prospect of a white minority for the first time in U.S. history apparently scares the hell out of them. Especially as it becomes clearer that white Republicans can no longer win elections based on their numbers alone. This, of course, is a dangerous situation, since the party’s base is willing to rationalize all sorts of crazy authoritarian acts from their leaders that are geared toward stopping whites from being cast into permanent minority status. Like supporting a white nationalist President who promises to “Make America Great Again” by stomping out immigration, illegal and legal alike. Or who seeks to mainstream insane conspiracies about mass election theft, in the process working to overthrow republican government and impose a de facto one-party state.

Both of the scenarios above should frighten anyone who still believes in democratic governance. And the Republican Party is capable of both at a time when its leaders have been untethered from basic democratic norms by an aspiring fascist who heads their party, and a cultist base that’s willing to follow him off the cliff, risking the destruction of what little remains of American democracy to impose Republican minority rule. This Republican threat shouldn’t blind us from the other dangers we face, including neoliberal plutocracy and the emerging crisis of climate change. But those threats – and the Democratic Party’s complicity in them – become impossible to fight if the U.S. slips into a dictatorial fascist system of politics.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: anthonydimaggio612@gmail.com. A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.