Who would have thought that American liberals (unlike leftists) would be rooting for a scenario in which the military would be mobilized by Democrats to remove Trump from the White House if Biden gets elected, Trump calls the election rigged, and then refuses to leave. How far would we be at that point from a military coup?
In reality, the arbiters of a scenario in which Trump refuses to acknowledge a Biden win in November could well be the State electors who are supposed to be ratified by state legislatures in December to represent the majority vote of a State. State electors should, by convention, pledge their support to the majority candidate in a given state. But state electors can be technically “faithless” and pledge their votes to the minority winner in a state. There are many reasons why the U.S. constitution does not have a high standing in the world, and why even American constitutional scholars do not recommend it as a model for a new constitution in fledgling democracies. While such a move by electors would end up being challenged in court, the ensuing chaos, and Trump’s ability to instrumentalize it, would be devastating. Trump is all about the performative gesture. He needed only a few days of camouflage-clad unidentified federal agents invading Seattle protests to instill the fear of “radical anarchists and leftists” in his die-hard or potential voters.
Once again, in November, the survival of even a long-flawed democracy in the U.S. will come down to just how successfully Trump and other right-wing demagogic Republicans can fan the flames of white working-class and middle-class resentment to re-elect the “blue-collar billionaire.” Decades of Republican and Democratic allegiance to unregulated globalized capitalism resulted in massive work disenfranchisement. For Republican politicians this is just about the inevitable winners and losers in a zero-sum game. Democratic politicians purport to care. But rather than address the problems through wealth-redistribution policies, the majority of them have long gamed elections to try to win by razor-thin margins. For decades they gambled that there was no harm in having a college education be accessible to only 35% of the U.S. population at the same time that industrial and unionized jobs disappeared, agri-business closed down hundreds of thousands of family farms, and automation pushed people into unemployment or the precarious gig economy. It’s no coincidence that when Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, it was via the two states with huge numbers of tech jobs.
“Populism is ultimately always sustained by the frustrated exasperation of ordinary people, by the cry ‘I don’t know what’s going on, but I’ve just had enough of it! It cannot go on! It must stop!’ ”
Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, 2009
The mass paranoia and the obsession on the part of his base with conspiracy theories, which have been so useful to Trump in the last five years, is built into the populist imagination because, as Zizek points out, political populism requires a disavowal of knowledge and a projection toward an enemy somewhere out there. It requires that the populist subject refuse (and I would argue be unable): “…to understand or engage with the complexity of the situation, [giving] rise to the conviction that there must be somebody responsible for the mess – which is why some agent lurking behind the scenes is invariably required.” Some agent lurking behind the scenes – hence, the rants about the “deep state,” the rigged elections, the crooked media, etc., and the scary rise of QAnon.
“1% of the global population possess 46% of available resources.
10% of the global population possess 86% of the available resources.
50% of the global population possess nothing.
“…so we have an oligarchy of 10%, and then we have a destitute mass of almost half of the global population, the mass of the destitute population, the overwhelming majority of the African and Asian masses. …There remain the other 40%. These 40% are the middle classes…who laboriously share out between them the remaining 14% of the world’s resources. It is largely a Western class. It is the mass support for local democratic power…I think that we can say that a very important aim of this group is not to fall back into, not to be identified with, the immense mass of the destitute.
…This is why this class, taken as a whole, is porous to racism, to xenophobia, to hatred of the destitute. These are the subjective determinations that threaten this median mass which defines the West in the broad sense, or the representation it has of itself; and they are determinations that fuel a sentiment of superiority.”
Our Wound is Not So Recent, Alain Badiou, 2016
60% of non-college-educated whites voted for Trump in 2016. That most of them may be racist, misogynist, xenophobic, homophobic, anti-semitic, anti-arab, etc., is unquestionable. But it is their inability to understand how they are positioned in relation to capital that makes them particularly vulnerable to demagogic manipulation by the political right. It is their paranoid projections that embolden the Republican politicans who are primarily out to consolidate corporate power and push wealth ever upward, but will actively exploit racism and other deadly prejudices if that provides a cover for the destruction of the “administrative state.” If state legislatures wreak havoc in November, it will be because Republicans overtly fan the flames of resentment, while Democrats have done so by default for decades.
“Powerful political forces benefit from abusive, aggressive, and invasive policing, and they are not going to be won over or driven from power by technical arguments or heartfelt appeals to do the right thing. They may adopt a language of reform and fund a few pilot programs, but mostly they will continue to reproduce their political power by fanning fear of the poor, nonwhite, disabled, and dispossessed and empowering police to be the “thin blue line” between the haves and the have-nots.”
The End of Policing, Alex S. Vitale, 2017
Globalized capital is making billions off of mass pandemic suffering – shorting investments that depend on bankruptcies and loss of jobs and climate disasters, consolidating markets, and getting unlimited federal stock market subsidies. Chaos is the operative word. Capital always welcomes chaos because there is profit in lawlessness (the ultimate deregulation), as long as militarized police are willing to protect the privileged. Global corporations and finance capital have long set the stage for the election of a lawless crook. If Trump hadn’t arrived on the scene, it would have been someone like him. Why else have the 1% been so eerily silent during the pandemic – even during the anti-racism uprisings? They need not do anything public while corporate political hacks and inchoate right-wing resentment do the dirty work for them. And even if the Democrats manage to win this November, 2024 will be the ultimate nightmare if they don’t manage to attend to mass precarity.
According to Freud, it is when people’s self-love is threatened that they resort to extremes. Far from being humbled, they tend to lash out in narcissistic self-defence. We are in a vicious circle if it is true that there are no limits to what people will do to hold onto their belief in themselves…A group is nothing if not the struggle to preserve its ideal image of itself…In psychoanalytic terms, you might say that narcissists are so frantic and demanding because of the extent of the internal damage they are battling to repair.
Jacqueline Rose, “In Our Present Day White Christian Culture,” 2004
Coda: Following the Republican Convention I notice the usual befuddled and astonished references by Democratic pundits, politicians on news shows, and journalists to the irrationality of a Trump base that is willing to follow him to the death, given Trump’s failure to curtail the pandemic and its ensuing economic collapse, etc. But those who do not include the recognition of an unconscious in their analyses cannot understand that self-destructive behavior often has its own logic beneath the surface. It is the group identification aspect of that base that keeps itself coherent, hence the unwavering 42% approval rating that Trump has had for four years. It will take actual capital-challenging policies to dislodge that mass identification over time, but it will also take an understanding of mass psychology – either self-consciously or instinctively – for politicians and mass cultural producers to create fissures in that seemingly unmovable base. Liberals and centrist democrats can delude themselves into thinking that we don’t need to budge that base, but rather just continue to game the electoral system. But that is one very dangerous game to play.