After a string of far-fetched legal attempts to topple the elections, capped by a shocking attack on the Capitol, the Trump period appears to be over. On the day of the Capitol attack, Trump addressed his supporters, claiming, “They will never retake our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong … If you don’t fight like hell, you will have no more land.” Two days later, amid an angry and widespread backlash, Trump was forced to step back on his bellicose stance and deliver an anodyne speech calling for peace, claiming that “those who engage in violence and destruction … do not represent our country ”and almost admitted that a change of power would take place. It has now.
It was a shameful conclusion to a historic moment measured by its implications for years to come. Long before the 2016 elections, many saw Trump’s rise as a turning point in American politics towards authoritarianism or even fascism. For some, the Trump presidency was an “ambitious autocracy,” for others an example of it tyranny. Lots discussed the applicability of the fascist label. For others, however, these concerns overlooked the persistent illiberal and anti-democratic tendencies that have run like a thread throughout American history. So rather skeptical ArgumentsThe focus on Trump’s possible authoritarianism has both mythologized and obscured the years before Trump, how ineffective and weak his tenure had been.
While these recent events confirm political defeat for Trump and the restoration of a shaky centrist-progressive coalition, the United States continues to experience a slow-burning legitimacy crisis that shows no sign of easing. While the 2016 elections did not cause an immediate political crisis in the state, they exacerbated the anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies that were already ingrained in American society and political institutions.
These tendencies were in the making for decades. The American security state, which had already been built on decades of funding and training against the left, had acquired a new luster with the war on terror. The lingering aftermath of the great 2008 recession played a major role in the 2016 political establishment crisis and Trump’s unexpected rise to the top of the Republican Party. This year alone, Covid-19 mismanagement has resulted in the deaths of over 400,000 people, exposed key workers and those vulnerable to a deadly disease, and frayed the country’s already ragged social institutions, while structural racist violence brought millions of people on the street amid this pandemic.
These factors have accumulated and sparked the worst legitimacy crisis since the late 1960s. We still don’t have enough space to assess the long-term impact of the Trump administration. Even so, we shouldn’t try to understand the Trump years by viewing them as a radical break with what came before. Instead, they perpetuated broader and pre-existing authoritarian tendencies in American politics – a tide only temporarily halted by Trump’s departure from office.
A fragile democracy
In recent years, many political scientists have raised concerns about the risk of democratic collapse and relapse. Some have pointed to growing economic inequality, the expansion of executive power and the illiberal turn of the Republican Party’s mainstream in at least the past decade. Others, like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 bestseller How democracies diehave argued that the stability of democratic institutions rests on the maintenance of norms such as mutual tolerance and indulgence towards political opponents. Center-right and center-left parties are therefore important goalkeepers in preventing the rise of more extreme factions on their sides of the spectrum. In this picture, Trump’s erosion of these informal norms and the collective absence of the GOP have brought the United States closer to crossing the threshold of authoritarianism.
It is true that party polarization and negative partisanship have been at all-time highs throughout the post-civil war period. But like Aziz Rana pointedly arguedTerms such as norm stability and non-partisanship were themselves extraordinary, based on a past Cold War consensus that had as much to do with American imperialism abroad as it did with implicit social cohesion at home. If the Trump moment is viewed as an unprecedented threat to an otherwise self-correcting constitutional and political order, there is a risk that the exception will be viewed as the rule. It misrepresents both the supposed stability of this order and its possible conditions.
To their credit, Levitsky and Ziblatt acknowledge that bipartisanism of the period from roughly the end of reconstruction to the 1980s was based on the ongoing democratization of the South under the Jim Crow command. The south stayed one authoritarian enclaveThis means that the United States as a whole can only rightly be called a liberal democracy from the date of the civil rights and voting rights laws (1964–65). Despite the parallel rise in mass incarceration, voter identification laws and an anti-majoritarian political structure, this designation was always very conditional. This gives us all the more reason not to view the Trump moment as exceptional. Instead, it is the last stage in a lengthy historical struggle between progressive democratic and reactionary elements that are embedded in the history and social fabric of the country.
Much ink has also been spilled comparing Trump to various contemporary illiberal leaders and, more controversially, to interwar European fascists. What has obscured the analogy to European fascism, however, is the possibility of an indigenous American fascism that carries all the known tropes of American national myth. This political burden can be traced back at least to the suppression of the reconstruction order and the confirmation of white racial rule under Jim Crow.
Fascism emerged as a global phenomenon in the 1920s and gripped the historic crisis of political liberalism after the Great Depression. However, their effect strongly depended on the specifics of national and international politics. The American variant of reactionary policy shared this common turning point of 1929 with European fascisms, and that was influenced the racial regime of German fascism.
If in Germany and Italy liberals and leftists could not prevent fascist movements from coming to power, the relative success of the New Deal prevented that possibility in the US. The New Deal, however, left the reactionary Southern Democratic bloc untouched and immediately sparked a reaction from business conservatism. Even if it was beyond the political center, this current of opposition to the New Deal persisted, forging an ideology that combined racial democracy, natural hierarchy and anti-communism. It not only remained in the heart of the South Democratic bloc, but also regularly established itself in republican politics as Bircherism or Buchananism. It also left its mark in mainstream forms associated with various leaders: Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and now Trump.
This typically American type of reactionary policy has its roots in the country’s origins as a settler colonial state. During the 20th century, both the relative success of the New Deal and America’s rise to Cold War-era international hegemony explain why it did not take root in the interwar period, but has grown in importance over the past decade.
The fact that reactionary law has only come into the spotlight in the last twelve years, rather than decades ago, is the result of both systemic changes in the capitalist world since the 1970s and the landscape of American politics since the Great Recession. The emergence of the far right and the crisis of liberal democratic institutions in the United States is today a localized version of a broader pattern that can plausibly be termed “authoritarian neoliberalism”.
As the overall size and role of the state in regulating societies increased in the 20th century, it also became increasingly vulnerable to demands for political and social rights. In the United States, through a combination of advanced policy-making and popular mobilization, the New Deal implemented the framework for a social safety net and some level of economic redistribution. These measures were also a reinvestment in both labor productivity and consumer purchasing power, both of which were intended to stabilize the economy and help maintain favorable profit conditions. Equally important is that these and similar measures in the global north after the war have helped these states gain democratic legitimacy as fairly neutral mediators in the conflict between the capitalist and working classes.
The economic and political crises of the late 1960s and 1970s across the Atlantic world altered the balance of these class compromises and helped usher in the political changes we now largely associate with neoliberalism. As Quinn Slobodian has shown that neoliberal intellectuals and policymakers sought to protect the fragile global capitalist order forged after World War II from popular democratic demands at the national level. Rather than downsizing the state, as the anti-statistical ideology of neoliberalism has claimed, the continued need for national macroeconomic management has actually further cemented executive and bureaucratic power. By the end of the 20th century, transnational institutions such as the World Trade Organization and the European Union – along with the global hegemony the United States – became the centerpiece of this arrangement.
In the global north, these reforms have helped maintain and generate economic growth while engaging the emerging working classes and rulers in a new consensus. However, this shift was increasingly at the expense of the state’s claim to democratic legitimacy. As the center-left parties turned to wealthier and educated voters, the representative rulings of the post-war order began to change for good. The long-term effect of this breakdown in democratic representation was the resurgence of more personalistic forms of political leadership, in which the connection between political leaders and the masses was mediated less through internal party processes, but rather on an alleged direct connection to the “authentic” people. From Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orbán to Trump, the current rise of so-called “populism” around the world cannot be understood, apart from the neoliberal erosion of previous representative institutions.
This legitimacy crisis was supplemented by the adoption of increasingly enforced measures, with secret networks connecting the state administration with its repressive institutions (including the fabled “deep state”). In the United States, the cancer state’s remarkable growth since the 1970s – much of it driven by local rather than federal incentives – is closely tied to the neoliberalization of the broader US political economy. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Marie Gottschalkand others have argued that crime and border security have long been a point of bipartisanship in American politics, involving both extensive investment in repressive institutions and the persistence of the “law and order” discourse. Thus, a line can be drawn between the rise of the prison industry in California in the 1970s and 1980s and the boom in the war on terror at home, which can be attributed to the current importance of the ICE karzeral complex under Trump. Overall, these institutions serve as a breeding ground for reactionary politics and promote the erosion of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.
This summer’s uprisings were remarkable not only for their intensity and breadth, but also in that both parties agreed on the message of law and order to differentiate civil disobedience of “good anger” from “vandalism” of looting. As we witnessed the police violence and the National Guard stationed in major cities across the country, it became clear that repression has become increasingly necessary to maintain the stability of the authoritarian neoliberal order and that we are now in the midst of an acute representative crisis Institutions and democratic legitimacy.
A protracted crisis
According to Juan Linz influential argumentPresidential electoral systems like the American model are more prone to instability as the legislature is elected independently of the president. Faced with this “double legitimacy” risk, the United States has historically been dependent on the existence of a broad two-party consensus based on the American imperial project after World War II. In recent decades, however, this has given way to the phenomenon of the “external motivators of the communist bloc and the general drift of the war on terror”.weak parties and strong partisanship. “If the general role of the state is to bring together the diverse interests of the different segments of the capitalist class into a relatively stable and lasting political consensus, the 2016 elections have highlighted the current ideological and political rifts between and between the two parties.
Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican Party was seen as a sign that the Republican elites are abdicating what Levitsky and Ziblatt call their gatekeeper responsibilities, as well as liberal democratic values in the broader sense. There are undoubtedly strong ideological continuities between Trump and the far-right Republicans who emerged on the political scene in the 1990s and which the Republican elites have tolerated. But the institutional design of the American state also played a decisive role here. In contrast to the rise of fascism in interwar Europe, the right-wing extremist party did not enter the state through an anti-systemic mass party in 2016. Instead, one of the two parties already covered by the two-party system was colonized. With a proportional representation model the temptation to split up into one’s own party would have been far greater. Without this possibility, the right-wing extremist party has developed from the fringes into a key component of the republican coalition in 2015/16.
In terms of the Trump coalition’s social base, he enjoyed widespread support among Republican partisans in both 2016 and 2020. In the previous election he won a victory by bringing enough suburban moderates and conservatives, and in some ways enough workers, from the Midwest. Despite this fascination with the “white working class” of the rust belt, which was decisive for Trump in 2016, his true social base increasingly resided in the suburban and suburban middle classes, who first became power players in the Reagan era. The mobilization and amalgamation of that base with the support of the big extractive industries, construction, large retail, manufacturing, small business owners and just enough support from technology and finance proved sufficient to win an office in 2016.
As I have argued In the early months of 2017, when Trump came across an economic populist message promising to improve the neoliberal order, his administration instead prioritized standard Republican economic policies, using all available government institutions for personalistic gain and gutting those that didn’t served such purpose. Steve Bannon’s grand vision of “destroying the administrative state” was realized through massive sales at every level of the federal bureaucracy as competing administrative decision-making centers staggered the government from one priority to the next. Over the past four years, this deliberate undermining of state capacity, most recently used to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process, has been used to further undermine public confidence in the ability of state institutions to address social issues. Trump’s tenure can therefore be called Patrimonial, “Nationalist neoliberal” administration that governs for the benefit of the above capital sectors while maintaining the relative approval of the finance, insurance and real estate sectors.
Four years later, while keeping his partisan base, Trump lost just enough from the white suburban election to offset his unexpected gains among black and Hispanic voters. It remains to be seen whether and how “Trumpism” will continue as a political movement after this election setback and the uprising in the Capitol. On the one hand, while its merger with the Republican Party was largely seamless and mutually reinforcing, the Trump movement managed to break a foothold in other key parts of the state – particularly within the military, the National Security Institute, and large sections of the federal bureaucracy. Although major media outlets like FOX and the New York Post became the government’s virtual propaganda weapons, the White House never exercised or threatened control over opposition media networks and newspapers. As the police and border control became hotbeds of pro-Trump sentiment, Trump’s inability to submit the armed forces to his personal and political goals meant that the rifts within repressive institutions weren’t deep enough to help, at least for now Reach for power.
At the same time, in line with the move towards authoritarian neoliberalism, we have seen not only the decline of representative mechanisms, but also the decline of the civil and political rights that define liberal-democratic regimes. The exemption of the voting rights law in court, the disenfranchisement of criminals at the state level and now the myth of systematic electoral fraud – all against blacks and minorities – have undermined the achievements of the civil rights movement. Furthermore, we cannot ignore the possibility that cancer-causing and repressive institutions could become the new centers of power for post-Trump law. There is still a great deal of overlap between paramilitary activities by groups like the Proud Boys and official repressive apparatuses like the police and the National Guard – as the counter violence and repression of the anti-racist uprisings this summer demonstrated. Whether it is kidnapping activists in the street in broad daylight or deploying militarized police and national guards in almost every major city, the vigorous repression of the right to civil disobedience suggests the use of counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism tactics, domestic ones To suppress disagreements.
Taken together, these developments – the erosion of state capacities and formally democratic institutions, the restriction of civil and political rights, and the increasing reliance on oppression as a means of crisis management – are both due to a general pattern of authoritarian neoliberal governance in the North and the specific form that adopted it in the context of the Trump administration. Contrary to the hopes of some progressives, it is likely that these increasingly enforced legal, institutional and policy measures are too ingrained and the structural power of capital too strong for us to return to the welfare of the post-war years. However, they are just as likely to prevent a return to the familiar neoliberal form of the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, a new phase of the neoliberal regime could emerge, characterized by uneven economic recovery, political standstill, sporadic outbreaks of state-sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, and the continued democratization of representative and civil institutions.
With top CEOs from various industries To meet In the days immediately following the election to plan a unified response to Trump’s election wall, the message was clear: the past four years have proven too politically turbulent for sectors like finance and big tech that were not entirely sold to Trump at all. Following the attack on the Capitol, even representatives from sectors that had previously supported Trump, such as the National Association of Manufacturers, issued statements denouncing his takeover by Hagel Mary. In addition to this lack of business support, both the federalized nature of the electoral system and the relative weakness of American political parties have made it difficult to coordinate a large-scale effort to undermine the choice – though clearly not for lack of experimentation.
Despite Trump’s electoral defeat and Democratic victory in both Senate races for Georgia, the institutional fragmentation of the American state still has a disproportionate impact on the Republican Party. In addition to the republican reshaping of the judiciary (Trump has appointed three Supreme Court justices and over 200 state and county judges), both the electoral college and Senate are dramatically under-represented in urban areas. Having lost the referendum in all but one presidential election since 1992, the Republican Party can re-commit to further counter-majoritarianism by focusing on its centers of power in court, the impending census redistribution, and the leverage it has as a minority of the Senate has supports. Instead of forging and mobilizing new majority voting blocs outside of their partisan base, the Republicans could be content with portraying the near future as a party of minority rule.
Equally serious, if Republican lawmakers’ willingness to support Trump’s frivolous lawsuits and support for the Capitol Hill insurrection are indications, a deep divide within the GOP may grow right now. This would put a mobilized Trump base against those establishment leaders who would be satisfied with Trump’s tax cuts and judicial officer appointments and ready to return to a more stable order. But here, too, due to the zero-sum nature of the electoral system and the persistent negative partisanship, it is more likely that the conflict will be resolved within the party rather than bringing about a major realignment or the collapse of the two-party system as a whole.
In return, the future Biden government has so far shown itself in the role of national unity, stability and reconciliation – all attractive prospects for fractions of capital who are tired of Trump’s instability and are concerned about the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 recession. With Democrats ready to control a unified government for the first time since 2010, expectations for a new stimulus package and other progressive measures are high. How these plans will be implemented and whether they will receive enough Republican support to signal a new bipartisan consensus is currently unclear. Still, it is possible that we will see such a reconfiguration of the political and economic elites to update and extend the neoliberal project.
What is certain is that Trump’s electoral defeat in no way dissipates the underlying forces that made his rise. The attack on the Capitol was widely condemned by political and economic elites. But it also clearly shows that there is still energy behind the white-supremacist and neo-fascist movements that he led to the mainstream. With mass polarization, the persistence of irregular right-wing violence, the anchoring of the repressive and carcinogenic complex, and the ongoing fragmentation and drift of the political class, the social forces that made Trump possible will also outlast his exit from the political arena.
Extraordinary interpretations of the Trump era as an unprecedented break with “good governance” include the dynamism of the far right, the de-democratization under previous administrations, and the counter-majoritarian character of the American political institutions that brought Trump to power and through which his presidency has its greatest Leave an impact. Only by following these continuities with the United States’ past at home and abroad can we take a critical distance from the past four years and begin to understand the persistence of the social conditions that made it possible.