With the US inauguration the site of a major ideological offensive, David Jamieson argues the now regime has implications for us all.
An assault “on the citadel of liberty”.
This was how US President elect Joe Biden lead the carnival of hyperbolic responses to a swarm of Trumpists, drunk on their paranoid delusions of a stolen election and riled-up by their President, storming the nation’s legislature and briefly disrupting the certification of November’s election outcome.
The imagery evokes two vital elements of modern US imperial ideology. America’s ‘exceptional’ historical role (repudiated by Trump) as a “City upon a Hill” was first suggested by English Puritan settlers in the 17th century. It is now combined with a newer mood (for the centre ‘left’ anyway) of existential threat from internal dissenters linked to foreign influence. The McCarthyisation of the centre has advanced beyond an easy and cynical attack on opponents right and left, to an illiberal, paranoid world view.
An arc of ideological influence that reaches from the state and powerful layers of civil society, through corporate and social media and embracing many on the broadly defined left, has hallucinated a “coup” and “insurrection” aimed at overthrowing US democracy. Few really believe the protest at the Capitol was any of these things, nor that it represents one of the “darkest days” in US history. Instead, what is happening is the formation of a founding myth of Bidenism.
Conducted from a centre made up of state and major corporate institutions, the guard change in Washington DC is the season of choral chanting by the western middle classes. There are people in Morningside, Wimbledon, Blackrock and Charlottenburg saying things they know aren’t true in a vast extended court around king Biden. Journalists and commentators, influencers, diplomats, academics, think tanks and NGOs profess that a coup has been – perhaps is still being – thwarted and democracy saved. They are also making sure they are being seen to profess.
What we are witnessing is the seamless transmutation of ‘the Resistance’ into the early period of a restorationist, authoritarian-liberal administration. The framing of a ‘salvation’ of democracy, along with all that is wholesome, ‘progressive’ and patriotic, will be the leitmotif.
Both traditional and social media are prominent in the performance. The BBC has widely reported the “attempted coup” and “insurrection” myth, and CNN has apparently experienced a nervous breakdown; a banner scrolled across its website reading “America confronts dark forces”. The language is eerily redolent of the Evangelist right and figures like Pat Buchanan or, more recently, Alex Jones. The enemy is foreign not only in the location of its instigators (Moscow, Beijing etc) but also in spirit. ‘UnAmerican’ is back in fashion as an accusation.
Every major social media platform engaged in a purge of Trump and many of his followers. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explained the banning of Trump for “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government”. There is no precedent in history for the censoring of the world’s most powerful elected official from most of the world’s media by a handful of unelected businessmen. Of course, these same figures profited enormously from the traffic the Trump phenomenon brought them. But capitalists of this size are invariably political actors, and they too must join the chant.
How will the Biden administration use the authority thus drummed-up? Not for a serious reform of American capitalism, which has created malaise from which Trumpism emerged. Indeed there are no prominent voices among the Democratic party making this the central response to the events of Capitol Hill.
Rather, a securitisation response is in preparation, with new domestic terror laws already dubbed a ‘Patriot Act 2.0’. The first half of 2021 is likely to be a period of tension, with potential outrages and violence from fragments of a disintegrating Trump movement (and that is a real threat) supplying ready excuses for further authoritarian measures. Various branches of the US military have signed a joint statement swearing to stand by the new administration and “defend the constitution”. The second impeachment of Trump – advanced in the House of Representatives in the language of militant patriotism and the sacred ideal of Christ’s hill-top citadel – is designed to spearhead this approach.
The mood of ‘emergency’, the fostering of anxiety, the hysterical language about threats to democratic systems and ways of life will likely continue throughout a prolonged transition, where we are constantly reminded of the threat posed by Trumpism – the greatest mobilising force for ‘official’ American liberalism in the history of the state. This focus will certainly mutate in other directions, towards other alleged threats instigated abroad. A new coalition is forming in western countries around strategic confrontation with China, and some on the populist right will seek rehabilitation in this effort.
The inauguration itself is likely to be a work of grand propaganda to these ends, with the National Guard streaming into Washington DC in their tens of thousands. As troops gathered in the city ahead of Biden’s inauguration one congressman, Jason Crow, tweeted: “My heart is breaking as I walk Capitol Hill. I served in Iraq and Afghanistan so we could enjoy peace at home. It’s hard to see the pantheon of our democracy fortified like the war zones I used to know.”
The radical left in the US must separate itself from these ideas and undermine them as quickly and as sharply as possible. The European left faces this task as well. In tandem with authoritarian liberalism, we are likely to see a renewed Atlanticism.
Indeed in the UK we are already seeing it, with John Kerry on behalf of the new administration demanding the 2021 Glasgow climate summit become a pageant for the new vogue. The EU too will become a major cog around which restorationist attempts will turn. Environmentalist, ‘progressive’ and liberal anti-populist opinion will be recruited to the new project, which will also be sponsored by political figures such as Keir Starmer, Nicola Sturgeon, Emmanuel Macron and the outgoing ringmaster of Europe Angela Merkel. This will be a global effort to shore up the western axis.
We shouldn’t assume that this campaign will meet with long term success. None of the conditions for lasting stability exist. Civil society remains hollowed out. The ruling elite can wield massive institutional power, but not sustained popular support. Indeed, the hyper-emotional qualities of the current operation points to its inherent weaknesses. This isn’t the kind of slow-burn ideological strength built on traditions from time out of mind. It is a sugar rush of fantasies precipitating an eventual crash.
The atmosphere of threat will be maintained for as long as possible, but it cannot resolve the growing imbalances in the US and world systems. The only meaningful response to both the authoritarian centre and the radicalisation of the right, is a politically independent attack on the fundamental social and economic conditions of the whole system.