IN A SPEECH before his execution on a cold January morning, after donning a silk nightcap to keep his flowing hair from interfering with the blow of the axe, Charles the First declared victory.
“I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where there can be no trouble – none at all,” he said, confident, as so many are at the hour of their condemnation, that history would absolve him. As his head was ignominiously dropped from the scaffold, the crowd of regicides below rushed to collect grisly souvenirs –– dipping their handkerchiefs in pools of the King’s blood and scrambling to clip locks of his hair. The victory of the forces of Parliament, whose deliberative processes Charles had deemed so unfit to play a role in governing his kingdom, seemed absolute and irrevocable. John Cook, who had prosecuted the case against the King, proclaimed that they had “pronounced sentence not only against one Tyrant, but Tyranny itself”. Little over a decade later, Cook and most of the conspirators would be dead, the monarchy restored to absolute power and Charles revered as a martyred saint. From beyond the grave, the King had claimed his incorruptible crown.
President Trump’s press conference on Thursday night was a hasty affair, likely arranged after his staff finally acquiesced to his demands to be seen after almost two days of cloistered rage-tweeting in the bowels of the White House residence, watching as a flurry of mail-in ballots slowly suffocated the life from his presidency. Once again, he outrageously declared victory, although the bombastic performance of election night had by now given way to a kind of hoarse whining that suggested he was merely delaying the inevitable. His heresies against democracy were equally horrific, unmatched in their seriousness by any contemporary president, but there was the overriding sense that even Trump himself had begun to search for history’s absolution, feeling for a way to declare a spiritual victory as it became increasingly clear that a temporal one was not forthcoming.
In a rare departure from his usual blindness to anything not directly concerning his own fate, he pointed to record support amongst minority voters and the maintenance of the GOP majority in the Senate, asserting, as though attempting to prophesise his legacy, that “Republicans have become the party of the American worker.” As he shuffled off the screen, the television anchors, who had for so long seen their stern-faced denunciations and predictions of defeat evaporate in his wake, let loose a volley into the political corpse of their apparently vanquished foe who had, they asserted, finally sunk to the lowest point of his bottomless depravity. The most creative of these swipes came courtesy of CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who described the President as “an obese turtle flailing on his back in the hot sun,” much to the delight of thousands on Twitter who took every opportunity to mock the apparent demise of their tyrant king.
Surveying the coup of 1851 in which Louis Napoleon defied the constitutional limits on his term in office, Marx famously remarked that often figures in history appear twice; first as tragedy, the second time as farce. The Trump presidency has certainly provided a rich vein of both, but its dramatic figurehead has been defined more by his ridiculousness than his effectiveness. A litany of grandiose promises on the campaign trail has given way to a pettier series of cruelties, punctuated by the chorus of whines of persecution and treachery that have always formed the backbone of the President’s routine. In this sense he would now appear to be exiting political office the way he has always occupied it: in a cloud of deceit, grievance and absurdity.
There can be no doubt that, for as long as his body and attention span will allow it, Donald Trump will continue his battle for the attention of the nation through other means. Numerous figures have speculated that he might mount another bid for the presidency in 2024, whether sincerely or out of the necessity to keep the spigot of donor money flowing in order to ward off looming financial and legal ruin. Others have suggested that he may execute his original plan from 2016, foiled by his surprise victory, and start a news media outlet now that Fox News has seemingly delegitimized itself in the eyes of his voters by calling the state of Arizona for Biden on election night. Such a network, dialled into the growing right-wing alternative media universe and unrestrained by the interests of legacy capital, could certainly prove a powerful and profitable proposition.
Yet, in many ways, what moves Trump personally makes are becoming gradually irrelevant. For sure, his word still holds sway over masses of his fervent supporters –– the heavily armed crowds which laid siege to county election offices across the nation are a vivid demonstration of that –– but the rump of the political force he has become shorthand for is increasingly finding its expression in more decentralised movements such as Q-Anon.
These formations make no sincere attempt to appeal to the closed and mediated system of party politics that has, through its repeated failure, completely alienated vast swathes of society: the poor, the young, minorities –– and therefore possess a far greater prospect for growth than the MAGA campaign, which largely appealed to the interests of older white property owners. Instead of declaring its right-wing politics out of the gate, the prominent figures of Q-Anon have learned to use subtle and inoffensive slogans like ‘Save the Children’ and Coronavirus conspiracies to recruit those who would never dream of identifying with the Republican party. This is not to say that these forces have not made a mark on the electoral landscape –– Trump’s significant rise in minority support in this election, especially amongst men, suggests that reactionary ideology is putting down roots in what was formerly barren ground.
‘Trumpism’ is therefore evolving beyond the structured political apparatus of a strongman into a free-flowing regime of conspiracies, evil-doers and murderous ideation which places the believer, rather than the leader, at its centre. In this sense, the future of the reactionary mass movement resembles that of a mass delusion –– one that seizes upon disconnected fragments of historical truth revealed by a rapidly deteriorating system, combines them with pure invention, and spins them into an all-consuming, revelatory ideology. That the sustaining myth of Q-Anon, ‘The Storm’ (the moment when all the shadowy enemies of the movement will be liquidated) is simply a crude rebranding of the Nazi’s ‘Day of the Rope’ marks the emerging character of this ideology as an explicitly fascist one.
Arrayed against this diverse, fanatical and growing mass stand the forces of institutional liberalism, personified in their antiquated flaccidity by the figure of Joe Biden. While the outpouring of schadenfreude at the impending demise of The Great Orange Menace has been substantial, it has been tempered somewhat by the pyrrhic nature of the victory. Despite almost a quarter million Covid deaths and four years of previously unimaginable instability, the Democratic Party was still unable to deliver the landslide repudiation of Trump and Trumpism they and most of the world desired. Once again, they failed to provide a coherent and inspiring message that could expand its base of support significantly, and, as previously mentioned, actually saw a worrying collapse of its traditional key constituencies while Trump’s vote increased. Just as in 2016, the party appears determined to learn all of the wrong lessons from its poor electoral performance. Former CIA operative and current Virginia Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger has already begun the inevitable scapegoating of the Left that has become the reflexive response of mainstream Democrats whenever the public decide that the unambitious pablum they roll out and fail to deliver on anyway isn’t worth waiting in line to vote for.
Such sentiments reflect the staggering level to which a prospective Biden Administration, and technocratic centrism as a whole, is incapable of matching the scale of the present crisis. Early in the primaries, the former vice president promised rich donors that “nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living will change, nothing would fundamentally change”, right after attending an event for Rev. Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign. As record unemployment and historic levels of distrust in elites and institutions pushes more and more alienated people into the arms of far-right movements promising salvation at the price of death, the Democratic leadership appears to have no desire to offer a viable material alternative. Indeed, they appear content to act as the handmaidens for hyper-accelerated inequality.
So perhaps the most important contest was one of the very few that produced a conclusive result on election night: California’s Proposition 22. The ballot initiative, which would re-classify Uber and Lyft drivers as independent contractors rather than employers (and therefore remove any responsibility for the companies to provide benefits or contracts), passed by a healthy majority in what is supposedly one of the nation’s most progressive states. It was a victory fuelled by a combination of massive, unaccountable spending by venture capital-backed tech giants and shady lobbying by Democratic politicians that laundered the most radical erosion of labour rights in a generation as worker empowerment. These companies are now openly making plans to replicate the strategy on a nationwide scale –– perhaps foreshadowing the formalisation in law of the already accelerating ‘Uberisation’ of the economy. It is unlikely that such efforts will meet much resistance from a Biden administration suffused with former big-tech executives and put in office by a campaign financed by record sums of their money. From the polls to policies, Democrats have shown themselves to be incapable of effectively opposing fascism because they are incapable of opposing capital.
We therefore arrive at a disquieting truth: the tyrant king may have fallen, but his forces have only begun to fight. For now, they remain a sizeable fringe, loudly and occasionally violently imposing themselves on the body politic, but yet to be able to achieve much institutional authority beyond their online spheres. That too, however, is perhaps beginning to change. In addition to the landslide election to Congress on Tuesday of Marjorie Taylor Green, a fervent Q-Anon believer, there are signs that the political aims of capital are beginning to align more closely than usual with the goals of the conspiracy-driven far right. This was especially evident in the unity of action between pandemic conspiracy theorists protesting lockdowns and the capitalists who wished to remain open to protect their profits.
A striking example of this could be seen in the early days of the pandemic, when slaughterhouse employees were forced back to work under threat of unemployment. The vast majority of workers in animal product processing plants are people of colour, many of whom are undocumented immigrants. When they returned, they did so in cramped conditions without access to proper protective equipment and remain there today, dying in horrific and likely under-reported numbers. If they complain, their bosses will threaten to report them to the immigration authorities. If they get sick, they cannot go to the hospital for fear of deportation at the hands of waiting officials, or bankruptcy at the hands of insurance companies. If they survive the factory, the threat of the detention facility and the unknown horror the virus has already wreaked there will remain constant. They are trapped on the conveyor belt of the American Dream, designed to carry them from the labour camp to the death camp, stopping just long enough to produce a Big Mac on the way.
Much ink has been spilled since 2016 on the rise of fascism in this country, often screened through images of Charlottesville or footage of Trump rallies, yet up to this point no object or example has better illustrated the condensed ideology of a uniquely American fascism.
It is here that the nation finds itself suspended, between the blade of the axe and the roar of the crowd, listening to the last words of the vanquished king: “Stay till I give the sign”. Perhaps it has already been given.