Jacobin - June 19, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has now killed more than one hundred thousand Americans and constitutes a clear break in what had been our economic and social reality. Liberal critics are right to say that Donald Trump is dangerous and that he has now presided over an entirely preventable catastrophe. But a true reckoning with Trump’s threat to American norms and institutions must recognize that he is the product of both. It must also account for why a historic uprising against police violence in a Democrat-ruled city has abruptly upended the quarantine.
Liberals who had been claiming to lead the #resistance to Trump now find themselves cast as one of many targets for a mass rebellion. Obama’s national security adviser Susan Rice declared that the uprisings were “right out of the Russian playbook,” her delusion perfectly encapsulating liberal incomprehension.
In the meantime, economic conditions for everyday people remain catastrophic. Anger and necessity drove people together and brought an end to social distancing: both in the streets to protest and in workplaces, as “reopening” pushes people off the unemployment rolls. The coronavirus continues to surge. Not among masked outdoor demonstrators, but across the Sun Belt — including Tulsa, where Trump is going ahead with his plan for a large indoor rally the day after Juneteenth.
On March 12, Trump warned that this ongoing emergency might provide him with the excuse for sweeping powers: “I have the right to do a lot of things that people don’t even know about,” he mused. A few weeks ago, he threatened to deploy US troops to put down demonstrations.
Ahead of November’s election, Trump will campaign not only against familiar bogeymen like China and immigrants, but against the specter of “antifa” and “thugs,” too. Trump is a world-historic ugly figure. But his language resonates because Americans had long since become fluent in the rhetoric of xenophobia, law and order, and tub-thumping nationalism. A powerful minority remains ready to cede yet more power to our rulers in the name of security.
Trump’s authoritarian style has prioritized personal loyalty, television ratings, and his own reelection prospects over public health and science, while people are dying and the economy takes a disastrous hit. He steps into the void of establishment politics, declaring himself and the official violence that he commands to be the thin blue line separating society from its enemies. The president’s saving grace may be that his pathological narcissism results in the most incredible incompetence, making it unlikely that he will summon the strategic brilliance needed to transform liberal democracy into the authoritarian form that his detractors fear most.
However, the worst-case scenario was always that this aspiring strongman would preside over a major crisis. In January, it seemed as if that crisis might be a war on Iran. Instead, we became enmeshed in a global pandemic that has equipped Trump with terrifying authority over everyone’s life and death. Then came the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, its drawn-out sadism captured on viral video. With the curtain pulled back, the monster was revealed to be something much more ordinary and familiar than a solitary dotard in the White House.
...Liberal critics see Trump as an aberration installed by a foreign enemy, because it would be too disturbing to reckon with his mundane origins in domestic politics. Instead, they learned to love the FBI and hate Russia. Meanwhile, conservatives transfixed by Fox News discovered that their traditional love of cops did not extend to a nefarious “deep state.”
What neither side can understand is that Trump’s criminality stems from the very institutions he is set on destroying. It can’t be grasped properly because American politics is usually interpreted through a partisan lens, Republican or Democratic.
Trump has been able to violate norms and erode institutions because both were always hollow pretexts. Law enforcement coexisted with the most flagrant official crimes long before Trump was meant to have disgraced the Oval Office. Liberals and conservatives alike embraced the decade-spanning “wars” on crime, immigrants, and, after 9/11, terror. Both parties nurtured a culture of lawlessness in defense of “law and order.”
As economic precarity deepened, a bipartisan political consensus tided people over with a security agenda, combined with the stigmatization of economic needs as coming from the same unworthy, racialized parasites who were presented as security threats. The selective staging of social conflict in the form of culture wars distracted from the agreement of the warring sides when it came to economic questions.
In the 1970s, as the global economy entered a permanent slowdown, the neoliberal counterrevolution took flight: unions were crushed and wages flatlined as capitalists scoured the globe for new profit opportunities. New Democrats defeated the party’s more social-democratic wing, turning on their historic base in organized labor to appeal to suburban professionals. This pivot to affluent voters also meant that Democrats embraced a competition with their Republican rivals over security politics: on the streets, at the border, and abroad.
To appeal to professional suburbanites who were barracked within segregated neighborhoods and municipalities, New Democrats joined Republicans in backing welfare reform, which promised to safeguard the taxes of “hardworking Americans” from redistribution to undeserving poor people of color. They supported mass incarceration, because life — whether it ends in prosperity or prison — was all about choices and just deserts. They went hard on border security, because only vigilance and strength could protect our blessed national status from a deservedly chosen people’s jealous enemies.
Of course, it wasn’t just affluent professionals who supported these policies: with economic transformation or even mere amelioration excised from public debate and street violence skyrocketing, repression was now the only form of security on offer from the state. ...
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