When Biden won the 2020 election a year ago, I was certainly relieved. Four more years of Trump would undoubtedly have been disastrous for the US and the planet on many fronts.
But I also felt a serious sense of disquiet that took form in these distinct words: “This is just our chance to take a deep breath before the big plunge.” In the year since then, this feeling has not only persisted but has deepened, and has been confirmed by events and by other cultural observers.
Put another way, Biden’s election was not an automatic “undo” of Trump and everything he did. (Or as I would say to my geek friends: “Biden was not a ctrl+Z.”) First because some of what Trump did is virtually irreversible (like court appointments), secondly because some will take time (like rebuilding regulatory agencies) and thirdly because some is consistent with what Biden also wants (neoliberal economics, militarism).
We should also note that the full extent of the damage inflicted by Trump’s administration was under-reported by the corporate media at the time and remains off-the-radar for many people now, including too many activists. Way too much precious airtime was squandered on the Russiagate conspiracy theory to the exclusion of so many other important issues. Imagine if Rachel Maddow had given as much attention to Trump’s attacks on the environment as she did to her fever dreams about Putin.
For example, the Trump administration decided to move the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from Washington, DC, to Grand Junction, Colorado. The BLM manages nearly 250,000,000 acres of public land, which is about one eighth of the entire landmass of the United States. So in terms of environmental impact, it’s one of the most powerful entities in the nation.
The excuse for the move was that staff should be closer to the land they oversee, but the real reason was to gut the agency of its longterm staff and their institutional knowledge in order to place it even more under the thumb of oil, gas, mining and ranching interests. Environmental activists in the western states refer to the BLM as the Bureau of Livestock and Mining because of their cozy ties to the extractive industries. Far from being a protector of public land, the agency has long been a pillager.
Still, there was room for it to be worse, and the Trump administration pushed it that way, hard, with the Grand Junction move. Over 87% of the agency’s employees quit or retired rather than relocate. (See “Interior reverses Trump, moves BLM headquarters back to DC.”) That’s a tremendous loss.
In September of this year, the Biden administration partially reversed the decision and will reopen a DC office. But of course that doesn’t mean all those people are coming back and the Grand Junction office is being retained. The agency’s presence in Colorado “will continue to grow” according to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.
Other tenants in the Grand Junction building include the West Slope Oil and Gas Association, the state headquarters for Chevron, oil producer Oxy Energy and Laramie Energy. (See “The BLM Just Announced Its Grand Junction Address. It Shares The Building With Oil And Gas Companies.”) This proximity is nakedly improper, given that the BLM grants drilling leases to these industries and is tasked with regulating their activities on public land. That was entirely the point, though, to bring them even closer together, and Biden is going with it.
So, Trump made things worse, and Biden walked a few things back, but when Trump or another Rethug returns to office, things will get worse still. When it comes to the expansion of corporate power, it’s two steps forward, half a step back. This syndrome never receives the media scrutiny it deserves. The establishment media is just that: establishment, and they’re not going to rock the boat they’re sitting in.
We could talk all day about how there hasn’t been a dime’s worth of difference between the Republican and Democratic parties over the last forty years, but there’s more to the story than that.
Both parties have been shifting rightward this whole time, and now we’ve entered new territory, where actual fascism is emerging.
* * *
Chris Hedges recently wrote an essay that everyone should read: “America’s Fate: Oligarchy or Autocracy.” He opens:
“The competing systems of power in the United States are divided between oligarchy and autocracy. There are no other alternatives. Neither are pleasant. Each have peculiar and distasteful characteristics. Each pays lip service to the fictions of democracy and constitutional rights. And each exacerbates the widening social and political divide and the potential for violent conflict.
“The oligarchs from the establishment Republican Party, figures such as Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, George and Jeb Bush and Bill Kristol, have joined forces with the oligarchs in the Democratic Party to defy the autocrats in the new Republican Party who have coalesced in cult-like fashion around Donald Trump or, if he does not run again for president, his inevitable Frankensteinian doppelgänger.”
We’ve seen this in the stomach-turning rehabilitation of George W. Bush, the ridiculous recasting of John McCain as a #Resistance figure and in the grotesque glorification of war criminal Colin Powell. We’ve also seen it in the ennobling of the national security state, particularly the FBI, because they were presented as adversaries of the orange menace. As if that agency was not the proven enemy of peace and justice through its role as a perennial persecutor of social movements.
There were even suggestions of ousting Trump with a military coup which is a truly frightening scenario, especially given the increasing influence of evangelical Christianity among armed forces leadership and ranks. (See Hedges’ “America’s Holy Warriors.”) Fortunately, there was intelligent pushback against this proposal (see “We need to stop talking about a possible US military coup after the November election”) but it says something that the idea was even raised in a serious journal like Foreign Policy.
But it gets worse from here, as Hedges writes:
“In decayed democracies the battle for power is always, as Aristotle points out, between these two despotic forces, although if there is a serious threat of socialism or left-wing radicalism, as was true in the Weimar Republic, the oligarchs forge an uncomfortable alliance with the autocrat and his henchmen to crush it. This is why the donor class and hierarchy of the Democratic Party sabotaged the candidacy of Bernie Sanders–although on the political spectrum Sanders is not a radical–and publicly stated, as the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein did, that should Sanders be the nominee they would support Trump. The alliance between the oligarchs and the autocrats gives birth to fascism, in our case a Christianized fascism.”
The squashing of Sanders was a big deal. I fear that, electorally, he was our last chance for awhile. I haven’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1992 (and never for a Republican, it should go without saying), but in 2020 I was willing to join the Sanders wave despite his failings (see “The 2020 Presidential Election Really is Different”), for a couple reasons.
First, because so many young people favored him and I felt like they needed help getting what they wanted since the Boomers were so adamantly opposed. (Should there be a maximum voting age? I’ve been known to speculate about this, tongue in cheek. I mean, how unreasonable is it that all those older folks get to have their way but won’t have to live with the consequences?)
Secondly, though Sanders would definitely have faced difficulty passing his agenda, at least he would have given it a good honest try, unlike Biden, for whom retreat in the name of “bipartisanship” is the first move. Moreover, Sanders’ sincerity could have been a foil to the overbearing cynicism of our times, which itself saps energy.
But no, the DLC got their way in 2020 and in 2016, and instead of being in our second term of Democratic Socialism, we had first a wannabe autocrat and now a feckless oligarch and are headed for a fascist next. Whoever that is will have far too many tools at their disposal for domination.
As Hedges points out:
“It is, ironically, the oligarchs who build the institutions of oppression, the militarized police, the dysfunctional courts, the raft of anti-terrorism laws used against dissidents, ruling through executive orders rather than the legislative process, wholesale surveillance and the promulgation of laws that overturn the most basic constitutional rights by judicial fiat. Thus, the Supreme Court rules that corporations have the right to pump unlimited amounts of money into political campaigns because it is a form of free speech, and because corporations have the constitutional right to petition the government. The oligarchs do not use these mechanisms of oppression with the same ferocity as the autocrats. They employ them fitfully and therefore often ineffectually. But they create the physical and legal systems of oppression so that an autocrat, with the flick of a switch, can establish a de facto dictatorship.”
Some of us have been fearing this for years. Back in the ’80s, I remember radicals referring to Reaganism as “creeping fascism.” After 9/11, Bush shifted into overdrive, and it felt like the Constitution was being ripped to shreds. Obama could have rolled some of it back, but instead made much of it permanent, and piled on his own repressions: his war on whistleblowers, expansion of the surveillance state, and authorization of government propaganda. With his slick veneer, Obama was the perfect figurehead to follow the coarse venality of Bush and Cheney, and advance the agenda of the oligarchs with little to no pushback.
We’re lucky that Trump was such a bumbling oaf and didn’t engage the machinery of autocracy. That was a lucky break. We can’t count on being so lucky next time.
* * *
The Republicans haven’t had a clean win in gaining the White House since George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988, thanks to Reagan’s popularity. In 2000, W. stole it with Florida, and in 2004, with Ohio (1, 2, 3). Trump had nearly 3,000,000 fewer votes than Hillary in 2016, but prevailed in the electoral college, which is obscene. Paul Street observes:
“The democracy-flunking Electoral College requires the Democrats to massively out-perform the fascist major party in the popular vote to have any chance of winning or retaining the presidency. The Democrats’ ability to do that is deeply challenged by its cringing subservience to big money corporate and financial funders, whose near -stranglehold over candidate-selection, candidate viability and (hence) policy has been upheld in two key decisions (Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United) handed down with holy authority by the absurdly powerful, constitutionally appointed-for-life and Senatorially approved Supreme Court.”
It’s a fact that the Republicans aren’t able to win national elections anymore without cheating so, smartly, that’s where they’re putting their efforts.
This year’s state-level redistricting is being marked by brazen gerrymandering (1, 2). According to AP, “The GOP controls the line-drawing process in states representing 187 House seats compared with 75 for Democrats.”
Elsewhere, the Republicans are passing laws that reduce the number of polling stations and their hours of operation, erect obstacles for voter registration, and increase the difficulty of voting by mail, among other things. They are doing all this under the banner of preventing “voter fraud,” which in reality is an exceedingly rare crime. It is, in fact, literally more likely that a US American will be hit by lightning than that they will impersonate someone to vote.
What the Republicans have been engaging in, by contrast, is “election fraud” (i.e., disqualifying ballots, rigging voting machines, stopping counts). Though they’ve been rampant about it, the Democratic establishment has failed to call them on it. Why? Because they do the same thing, but in their own primaries, and to prevent progressives from winning.
We are saddled with the unfortunate fact that the US does not have free and fair elections, but a majority of Republicans still believe that Biden somehow stole the presidency from Trump, which is entirely delusional. We can thank the Democrats for this. By failing to educate the public over the last twenty years about “election fraud” (which is common) and to distinguish it from “voter fraud” (which is exceedingly rare), they’ve allowed the Republicans to own the “fraud” issue altogether.
Going into 2022, the playing field will be ready for the autocrats to win at all levels, from school boards to the Senate. We’ll see more laws impeding abortions, directing teachers and school curricula, criminalizing dissent, empowering militias, restricting sound public health policies, and allowing drivers to run over protesters. Culturally, we can expect more hate crimes, and more violence in general.
In 2024, Trump might well seize the White House. Don’t think it can’t happen.
So it’s dark times ahead. Given our brutal history–genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, internment camps, nuclear attacks, empire building, ecocide–it’s perhaps less of a deviation than it is a return to form after the detour of the second American Revolution that was the ’60s and ’70s, which softened things up for a bit. Which is probably a topic for a whole nother column.
Ultimately, I believe things will get better, but it seems naive to think they’ll be anything but worse in the near term. The Democrats have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they prefer oligarchy to democracy, and given the choice of autocracy or radicalism—by which I mean “real people power”—we know what they’ll take.Biden will stick to his promise to rich donors that nothing will fundamentally change. All he will accomplish is passing the ball to the next guy to kick into the net. And whenever that class scores a goal, the rest of us lose.
“The American fascists are most easily recognized by their deliberate perversion of truth and fact. Their newspapers and propaganda carefully cultivate every fissure of disunity .…They claim to be super-patriots, but they would destroy every liberty guaranteed by the Constitution. They demand free enterprise, but are the spokesmen for monopoly and vested interest. Their final objective toward which all their deceit is directed is to capture political power so that, using the power of the state and the power of the market simultaneously, they may keep the common man in eternal subjection.” ~Vice President Henry A. Wallace, April 9, 1944.