Attention, attention must be finally paid…Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
“Once upon a time there was a place called Amerikkka…” a ’60s veteran says in a ’90s Doonesbury cartoon, passing the torch to his kinder, gentler successors (“You threw Molotov cocktails? Wasn’t that dangerous?”).
The current situation in the United States recalls the crazy switched polarities of the era. For a decade or so, from the mid-1960s onwards, American radical movements sought to destabilise the legitimacy of US government. On one hand millions were gathered in great protests; on the other thousands of bombs, literally thousands, were set off in recruiting stations, post offices, university computer centres and more.
Yet none of this came close to shaking the pillars of US government. Over the same post-war period, the French republic collapsed into near-dictatorship, civil war and revolution between 1958 and 1968. The “years of lead” in Italy produced, in 1979-80, the de facto coup the radical left had hoped would spark revolution (it didn’t). The UK, fighting a war in its Irish statelet, came close to general strike and overthrow in the early 1970s. Even Canada had the Quebec uprising, and we had the 1975 coup.
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Only the US ploughed on, every four years, its baroquely complex electoral system somehow held in place.
Now, in not much more than a fortnight, Donald Trump has achieved what no one in the US has been capable of since the Civil War. Like a demonic version of backwoods Lincoln, wielding the axe as he thinks about union, Trump has banged a wedge into the side of the American political edifice and levered away at it until the cracks began to spread.
The incessant repetition via Twitter of charges of voter fraud with no evidence has taken on a religious character, fusing with Trump’s pseudo-messianic position within American Christianity.
The conversion was instant: the old-right stance — of taking pride in the electoral process as a continuity with the founding fathers — was easily reversed. It’s the very complexity of the voting process that is now targeted as suspect, the discourse of the elites. Both the election truthers staging their street theatre rallies, and elites on the right, grouped around journals such as The Federalist, are now reverse-engineering a notion of Trump as inevitable.
He couldn’t have lost the election, they say — an argument initially made on approval ratings, achievements, economic indicators, and then simply asserted. The lawsuits then become nothing more than the thankless duty of patriots to discover the truth, the opposite of egoism.
The more Trump’s opponents mock his petulance, childishness, destructiveness, the more his followers see him as long-suffering, selfless and their embodiment. Hence the complex myth of QAnon (even if its seeding is as a hoax, which seems likely) — that Trump was working a long con with Mueller to smoke out a world-encompassing elite paedophile ring.
The stolen election can be bolted onto the Q myth effortlessly, reinforcing each other. Of course, in doing so, the Trump movement — or, by now, the outfit, I guess — loses some of its hinterland, the fervent supporters who voted for the “businessman” who can solve problems created by politicians.
But he’ll only lose some of them. The others will be converted. Challenged to jump one way or the other, they will choose again what they chose earlier: the world of concrete myth, bold assertion, against the intersection of institutional power and moral dominance which characterises the progressive movement.
In this process the hugely improbable charge that Obama was a communist has been attached to Joe Biden, a five-decade rep of the Delaware credit and chemicals industries, a man moved to pioneer occasional reforms, but who has never really thought there was anything wrong with America.
The radical argument of the ’60s left — that the two parties were one, whose leader remodelled their face from time to time as a tribute to a conned public’s residual desire for change — has become the right’s, lumping in the ever-growing Democrat party/progressive movement with the shrinking mainstream/business Republican remnant.
Long gone is the Tea Party’s Americanism, which fused constitutionalism, small government, free market economics and Christian conservative tradition — a set of values which the Tea Party presented as all essential and complementary to each other. But this is the sort of abstract reasoning that the MAGA army portrays as elite talk.
For many, there is no economy in an abstract sense — no one talks of Trump’s most significant act, appointing a low interest advocate as head of the Federal Reserve, which appears to have produced sharp economic growth in non-coastal areas. There would be no framework within which to speak of it.
Ditto with foreign policy. How would those who portrayed Obama as a traitor even begin to frame Trump’s foreign non-policy, in which giveaways, dictator crushes and old fashioned coups alternate weekly? There is simply no way to assimilate Trump and his base’s beliefs with any framework derived from what we have called “politics”.
Will it last? The “million MAGA march” of the past weekend suggested a sufficiently large and creative subculture to carry on as a movement, not crushed but nourished by Biden’s eventual official victory. What could it mutate into, if it survives, in some sort of dialogue with Trump himself, operating from within a Republican party remodeled in his image?
Could that involve, for example, regional occupations and local secessions, the full refusal of legitimacy, encouraged by Trump in some peekaboo fashion? How far into police and armed forces would the “2020 myth” run — such as would make enforcement of the law a real political problem for state and federal authorities?
The right has hitherto always folded when that crisis moment came — in the south’s resistance to school integration in the 1950s, for example — in part because of an unwillingness to damage US projection of world hegemony. But that has gone now. The Trumpists seek an America restored, beyond space and time, something to be achieved by the elite simulacrum foisted upon them.
Already in the news one can see signs that regional agents are taking advantage of US disarray, from Turkey’s sudden push for a two-state split on Cyprus, a new Israeli settlement building surge, the victorious Bolivian left’s heavy push-back against the US-supported right.
Would there be the possibility of a global “Christmas surprise”, something really big which relies on the fact that the US has two presidents — something from China or India, serving its own ends and further establishing the American century as decisively over?
Should that occur, Trump will have ensured his place in history as a significant president, someone who undermined the foundations of Amerikkka from within and without.
The whole long, strange trip from the ’60s leading to the last Weatherman in the White House, his greatness achieved not in the four years after he won the presidency but in the four weeks after it was lost to him, and in the endless, exhausting days to come.
Attention, attention must be finally paid.