Throughout the political career of President Donald Trump, the mainstream — and that is most of us — have repeatedly declared him finished with each fresh outrage.
This goes all the way back to the presidential campaign, and the Access Hollywood tape. Remember that? Trump caught on tape saying he could get away with groping women. It seemed unimaginable that his campaign could continue. But it did.
Through the last four amazing years, we’ve developed some understanding of Trump’s capacity to transform politics rather than be destroyed by it. But we’re never fully on top of the transformational process.
When the ragtag army of far-rightists invaded the Capitol yesterday — a mix of delusional MAGA-head Trump worshippers and ideological fascists who regard him as a useful buffoon — and Trump gave them a peekabo endorsement, everyone was in agreement that that was it, it’s over, dust off the 25th amendment, re-impeach, etc.
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And then that evening the Republicans trooped back in and nearly 150 of them voted to reject certification of an election in which there is no evidence of statistically significant electoral fraud. Simultaneously, a YouGov poll was released showing that 45% of Republicans, and 20%-plus of the whole country thought the Capitol invasion was justified.
One suspects that such support is a mix of hard-right fervour about an election stolen by “woke communists”, and a touch of Jeffersonian anarchy, the belief that the whole system needs a real shake up now and again.
One has to admit that one’s outrage at such events is dependent on who’s doing it. If a bunch of actual yippies had managed to breach the defences of these stone halls in the 1960s, I’d look at it with admiration and a chuckle, and the same would have been true during, say, the refusal of the Republican Senate to confirm an Obama Supreme Court judge in 2016. Gutsy, I would have thought.
So too, many will be seeing the invasion as a salutary smack on the nose against a progressive “elite” who just won all three parts of executive-legislative government.
It’s not the first time the Capitol’s been targeted. President Washington had to lead an army to put down the Whisky Rebellion in 1794; the British burnt it in 1814; the Confederacy spent four years trying for it; Puerto Rican liberation fighters staged a shooting there on 1954. Further out, federal troops and Southern state troops squared off during school integration in the 1950s.
There is far more real division within US federalism than in our pallid rail-gauge version, or in unitary technocratic post-war European governments.
But the great switcheroo here — compared to recent times — is that this is coming from the right not the left, after decades in which the US right has sought to establish itself as the party of order, virtue and anti-fanaticism, and seeking to marginalise progressivism as an un-American minority cause. That worked well enough until 2008, when the polarities switched suddenly.
The final collapse of mass industry coincided with the rise of the knowledge economy, for which progressivism — a devotion to equality, scorning inherited tradition — is simply the hardwired worldview. Many of the hard right’s cells are ideologues whose commitment pre-dates the cultural-political crisis that began in 2008.
But that crisis has provided the context in which… well, in which nearly half of all Republicans approve the lethal storming of their own temples of power. Such political force sits atop a founding contradiction — that of a revolution of British men and women, claiming the rights they saw as an expression of an English ethnos, creating a new country founded in documents of abstract and universal rights.
Conservatism is usually fealty to an indivisible ethnos; in the US it is also fidelity to a revolution’s principles. The country’s history is a series of civil wars within those dual conceptions, which is why the myth of mass electoral fraud catches on so easily.
The progressive coalition that powered Biden to victory discards unitary tradition, calls on multiple ideas of citizenship; such a sundering, for some, ungrounds life to such a degree that it can only be made sense of as a concrete conspiracy by others.
Anarchy — with Trump as a sort of gonzo Jefferson — is the path to restored order. Congress can be invaded in the name of the higher congress being sought. Over the decades, north Euopeaness (whiteness) has replaced Englishness, but the defining “others” (Latin and Black cultures) remain the same.
Trump therefore may be finished this time, because he has ceased to bridge these contradictory expressions of the American right. Any amount of vulgarity could be brought into political life — modern US politics began with Andrew Jackson’s attacks on the northern elites in the 1820s, and his own vulgar style. Trump’s revolution was to abolish the division between elite style and US popular culture; Jerry Springer-style reality TV as new national discourse.
That’s one thing. But if you’re going to foment insurrection, you better make sure you have ’em by the balls, so hearts and minds will follow. In psychoanalytic and political terms, pussy-grabbers soon find they have hold of nothing at all.