The insurrectionary farce that played out before the whole world on Wednesday was not a surprise or an anomaly. Instead, this simulated coup was the natural culmination of the Trumpian political cycle – one which began with a revolt against the Republican Party establishment in the wake of the 2008 crisis, and was fed by a series of economic, racial and religious anxieties which Trump knew how to exploit but was ultimately unable to resolve.
This was the political paradox at the heart of Trumpism. Through his communicative abilities and charisma, he was able to represent the reactionary drive and need for self-affirmation that has excited white, conservative America over the last decade, taking it to the extreme point of assaulting the US Congress.
Yet Trump—who is himself both a by-product and architect of the neoliberal globalised order—could never translate these anxieties and concerns into a real political programme. That is why Trumpism leads to a constant conflict: without an alternative project for society, it is simply pure confrontation – a revolt against the current state of things, which, in reality, it seeks to preserve.
In this sense, there should be no surprise at Wednesday’s events, no matter how much the images seemed like fiction (the Capitol is under assault by order of the President? In the United States?). Trump’s strategy since the election campaign—proclaimed and tweeted about ad nauseum—led exactly to this point.
His refusal to recognise the results of the election was not, as has been claimed, an ‘exit strategy’ – an attempt to construct a narrative of a stolen victory which would make up for the defeat and prepare for his return in the 2024 primaries. Instead, the ‘March to Save America’ was called on the exact terms in which it played out.
Hence the cynicism of Trump’s fellow travellers who were so outraged yesterday, and of all those who have looked the other way for months or even years. To get this far, Trumpism has required the connivance and complicity of the entire American right, a Republican party in which virtually no opposition has been voiced, as well as multiple allies inside and outside the state apparatus who saw in the tumult the possibility of getting ahead and securing short-term gains.
It is probably impossible to establish how far this complicity goes. It is clear that the security forces, alerted days before about the march, could easily have ended the charade. With both houses of Congress in session, the Capitol cannot simply be stormed by surprise by protestors wielding Confederate flags. A few months ago, Black Lives Matter demonstrations in Washington, D.C. were greeted by military helicopters and the National Guard in combat uniforms.
Under normal circumstances, Trumpism would not survive the purging of those responsible for this attempted putsch, but the narrow margin for manoeuvre open to the relevant actors, as well as the chaotic political scenario, leaves the outcome far from clear. The major unknown concerns the immediate future of the Republican Party – which has so far toed the line out of a combination of loyalty to power and fear of a hyper-mobilised base.
After losing two Senate seats in Georgia, and thus the majority in the Senate that would have allowed it to paralyse the Biden presidency, it is clear by now that Trump has been heavily defeated at the polls. This has also left the Republican Party in an unsustainable position.
Complicit in, and captive to, the drift in which the country is now caught, and pressured by an increasingly radicalised militancy, the Republicans find themselves out of office while at the same time at the mercy of Trump’s whims. Indeed, he has already threatened to challenge anyone in the primaries who deviates from his strategy of institutional boycott.
How these tensions develop and are negotiated will be fundamental to the direction of US politics in the coming months. Will Trumpism survive Trump’s defeat? Will this insurrectionary simulacrum be its absurd ending, or merely the first step in an openly authoritarian realignment? Can the Republican party disassociate itself from such a drift, if it occurs? Will Democrats have the necessary audacity to halt the breakdown of the American political and social order?
In his recent speech, Biden once again promised sanity and a return to institutional normality. But these look like weak materials with which to forge a new social contract.