August 15, 2020
During the height of the Cold War when it was viewed as disloyal and compromising to show a sympathetic interest in Marxism or sympathies with Soviet ideology, someone at the U.S. military base at Frankfurt distributed to the soldiers stationed there, a handwritten version of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the U.S. Constitution, in the form of petition. Very few of the soldiers approached were willing to affix their signatures, most alleging that this seemed a subversive document circulated by enemies of the United States, and was Soviet propaganda. Somehow the Western propaganda message that the Cold War was about the defense of ‘the free world’ against a totalitarian enemy had made no impact, or alternatively, that the free world had nothing to do with the substantive elements of freedom as social practice.
For me, and for the person who was using the petition to assess the commitment of Americans to the values of a free and democratic society, it conveyed the reality that what freedoms exist can be easily swept aside by an opportunistic or autocratic leadership. This perception has been confirmed, at least provisionally by Trump’s extreme encroachment on American institutions and civil liberties during his first term as president. A final confirmation would occur if Trump is able to hold onto power either by being reelected in November or by somehow managing to remain in the White House even if defeated by his electoral opponent.
There is another more subtle interpretation of the Frankfurt test. The political reality of systemic racism and discriminatory practices is so engrained in the lived experience of America as to make the U.S. Constitution seem indeed a radical document that must represent the views of an adversary ideology intent on undermining the American way of life. In effect, to implement fully the Bill of Rights would require nothing less than a revolution, and in this sense a cross section of American soldiers were undoubtedly not so minded, and acted appropriately by refusing to endorse such drastic departures from their experience.
More disappointing to me is the degree to which Trump’s electoral victory in 2016 exhibited massive support for a regressive and demagogic leadership by an alienated American electorate. Of course, there were attenuating factors. Hillary Clinton, despite a poor campaign and a militarist foreign policy profile, won the popular vote by three million votes. Part of the rightest populist backlash reflected a global trend, which was a result of the alienating impact of neoliberal globalization, and its production of drastic forms of inequality and its tendency to homogenize identity. Additionally, the American experience emphasized hostility to immigrants and Islam blamed for destroying the quality of life and bringing terrorism, crime, and drugs to the country, as well as losing a white identity for America as prefigure by the Obama presidency.
Now almost four years later, there is even less reason than in 2016 to regard Trump as an acceptable candidate even for Republicans who subscribe to a social contract that is based on a governing process of laws not men, and upholds ideas of separation of powers, checks and balances, and judicial independence, as well as the Bill of Rights. On matters of material interests the two party system is hobbled by the persistence of the Cold War ‘bipartisan consensus’ that creates commonality of views on militarism, Wall Street capitalism, and Israel/Saudi Arabia. Such a consensus means that there is no pragmatic reason for Democrats or moderates to vote for Trump to uphold liberal/moderate self-interest and worldview.
Although Republican campaign strategy and Trump rally rhetoric uses inflammatory rhetoric to portray Biden and the Democratic Party as ‘socialist’ and ‘radical’ to make the middle of the voting spectrum to fear the material threat to their class interests if Democrats control the White House and Congress. In reality, only progressive have reason to ponder not voting or voting for a third party candidate as Biden, seen in abstract, offer little to hope for and nothing to inspire.
In the end, the future of the United States, and indirectly the world, rests on whether the fear of fascism exceeds the fear of left liberalism, as the balance plays out given the peculiarities of the electoral college system. It seems clear that the Trump base responds positively to Trump partly because he offers the prospect of a fascist future for the country premised on white racial supremacy and partly because of indifference to his ideas, giving their support having succumbed to the numbing excitement associated with his demagogic style of leadership even if it could cost them their life.
For many in the muddled political middle, distressed by the Trump base but also wary of the more radical demands of Black Lives Matter and AOC Squad, the challenge is one of choosing the lesser of evils, which is analogous to the dilemma of progressives who wonder whether they can persuade themselves to pull levers that favors Democrats and Biden. The difference being that the moderates believe that the Democratic Party even with Biden will be pushed toward adopting the progressive agenda while many progressives believe that Biden will be ‘a feel better’ version of Trumpism, leaving the plutocratic and militarist pillars of neoliberal capitalism, somewhat deglobalized, but as sturdy as ever.
The immediate future of the United States will likely be determined by the results of the November election. For the first time in my life the prospect of a peaceful transfer of power respectful of the will of the people cannot be taken for granted. Unless Trumpist support shrinks dramatically the fascist threat will remain part of the scene even if Trump loses and leaves the White House without putting up a fight. If Trump should lose the election, despite rigging and gerrymandering, and yet refused to leave the White House, the resilience of the constitutional order will be severely tested, and left to the tender mercies of the military leadership, the deep state, and private sector elites, which in turn will assess the intensity of public outrage and the risks of civil strife.
Trumpism will also be tested as to whether its fascist leanings and demagogic submission are sufficiently belligerent to launch a second American civil war rather than loosen their grip on state power.
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Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.
And since 1985, he’s been a TFF Associate.