There is a feeling that the US imperial homeland is on the brink of a descent into an abyss. The concerted attack on the US Capitol of 6 January, fuelled by baseless claims of election fraud, the continued support of an extreme right-wing Republican party for the assault and President Trump’s role in inciting it, in the context of a Senate trial to potentially convict the former president, sends a powerful message to world: do not rely on the United States to be a solid and stable partner.
It also says something to all Americans: Nancy Pelosi, House majority leader, summed it up when she called the white supremacist faction in the House the “enemy within”. The crisis of 6 January is now institutionalised at the heart of the Capitol, symbolised by the QAnon supporting congressional representative from Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and numerous other Republican congressmen with active links with the far right including the organisations that were involved in the 6 January Capitol invasion and looting. The attack left 5 dead, and nation in shock. How could such a thing happen here?
What can President Biden actually do to change things for the better, tackle the impacts of the pandemic that is devastating lives and livelihoods in the United States, and simultaneously take on board the fact that the Republican party has a powerful faction of white supremacists and conspiracy theorists in the House, and who remain solidly behind the lie that’s justified fascistic attacks on the US and state capitols, and empowered Donald Trump? Indeed, the FBI and other agencies warn that extreme right-wing domestic terror attacks are likely in the next few weeks.
In practice, the politics of the pandemic especially the necessity of a massive relief programme costing almost $2 trillion, and the far-right character of the Republican party, are intimately related. Such an extreme right-wing party is not willing to support or advance an agenda of change and reform, let alone subsequent massive expenditures to re-build national infrastructures of health, schools and transport. Indeed, the GOP as a mass does not even endorse the legitimacy of the election that brought President Biden to power. And they are shouting that from the rooftops every day, and are likely to prevent the conviction of Trump in the Senate. What is Trump’s defence? That the election was stolen. That Senate Republicans will likely acquit Trump on the basis of that defence will send shockwaves through America and the world: the world’s lead state has a major party that has knowingly departed from the world of facts to a nether world of conspiracies, and justification of insurrection. It’s not just a major party – it’s one of just two main parties; half the US political system.
This is the toughest challenge of the Biden presidency, the key to his administration, his legacy, and the global reputation of the United States. He must simultaneously pass a massive relief bill and extirpate Trump and Trumpism from American political life, and the pedestal on which it stands that challenges the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty. Biden said that he is engaged in a battle for the soul of America. He’s right in the heart of it now, armed with 81 million votes in the November election, and a landslide in the Electoral College. He has a mandate to manage America’s crises.
The impeachment trial goes way beyond Trump alone. It involves numerous simultaneous congressional investigations of the power and connections of the far right, its extension into the GOP and law enforcement agencies, not to mention the underlying neoliberal philosophy underpinning and necessitating a coercive state to stem the tide of popular resistance. As Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez argues, without a thorough investigation of the forces behind the 6 January insurrection, those forces will escape accountability and remain a danger to US democracy.
President Biden has control of the White House, the House of Representatives, and a wafer-thin advantage in the US Senate. This provides him the political opportunity to shift approach towards concerted state intervention, but Democratic party ideology and corporate donorship threaten to place brakes on any radical agenda. On the other hand, the incendiary character of the political environment in America indicates urgent need for far-reaching government and government-coordinated efforts to deal with underlying social, economic, political-ideological, racial-cultural issues and divisions.
In Biden, we may have the basis of ‘pragmatic radicalism’. The sheer depth and extent of the pandemic, and economic, social, and international-systemic challenges or crises could be the mother of ‘pragmatic radicalism’ – meaning that no democratic government could or should continue in the old way of doing things because they have not worked, or have only exacerbated the crises. This will not be driven a change of philosophy but pragmatic realisation that the old ways cannot deliver political stability or global power projection.
A key factor weighing towards pragmatic radicalism is Biden’s age, and possibly health, which suggest a one-term-only outlook going into the White House. This brings into play Biden’s sense of his legacy into calculations: how does he want to be remembered by history? Is it as a leader who extirpated Trumpism and the legacies of division and climbing inequality, or one who did business-as-usual elite politics? Anything approaching the latter may well pave the way for Trump II, or Trumpism without Trump.
If Biden’s claim is true, that what forced him to run against Trump was the president’s support for the white supremacist and neo-Nazi riot at Charlottesville in 2017, then we may expect a thorough-going effort to get to the roots of Trumpism in the GOP.
Yet, the Democratic party’s national leadership had little to say after armed militias invaded the capitol building in Michigan last summer and the FBI subsequently arrested over a dozen right-wing extremists plotting to kidnap and assassinate Governor Whitmer. And the Biden White House media spokesperson refused to challenge the crazy conspiracy theories of Marjorie Taylor Greene, nor defend the positions taken by Nancy Pelosi about the “enemy within”. Those silences may well prove instructive.
The strategy Biden elects to pursue will tell us a great deal about him, the character of the Democratic party, the strength of Trumpism in the GOP, and the future of American politics.
Indeed, his strategy is a litmus test of what America stands for in the world.
Written by Inderjeet Parmar
- twitter @USEmpire
Inderjeet Parmar is Professor of International Politics at City, University of London, Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics, a columnist at The Wire (https://thewire.in/author/iparmar) and a regular guest commentator on CNN, the BBC and Al Jazeera.