Police clear the US Capitol building with tear gas as supporters of outgoing US President Donald Trump gather outside, in Washington DC, United States on January 6, 2021. (Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith)
The attack on the US Capitol by a rag tag army of president Donald Trump’s supporters has been called an attack on the American democracy and a failed coup attempt. On the other hand, it is being seen as the last gasp of a clown presidency.
True, the storming of the Capitol had in it all the characteristics of the Trump presidency---it was chaotic and lacked any coherent plan. It is doubtful if the rioting rabble knew what they wanted to do. Expectations that occupying the Capitol would put an end to the electoral count were delusional, to say the least. But that does not mean the threat is not real, or that this was merely the final act of a sordid presidency.
Consider, by way of parallel, what happened in Munich in November, 1923 in what went down in history as the Beer Hall Putsch. At that time, the German masses were seething from the humiliation of the loss in the First World War, the middle classes had seen their savings evaporate due to hyperinflation and the German government’s decision to resume reparation payments to the Allies for the war was deeply resented.
Adolf Hitler, then a little known figure and head of the extremist nationalist fringe, saw the opportunity. Inspired by Benito Mussolini’s march on Rome, Hitler thought it was the right time for a coup in Germany.
Hitler ordered his stormtroopers to surround the Beer Hall in Munich where members of the Bavarian government were holding a meeting. Forcing his way into the meeting, Hitler fired a shot into the ceiling and jumped on a chair yelling: "The national revolution has broken out! The hall is surrounded by six hundred men. Nobody is allowed to leave."
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He then announced that the Bavarian government had been deposed, that army units were marching in his support and declared the formation of a new government. Cannily, he had roped in General Ludendorff, a war hero, to support him.
But, Hitler had no coherent plan. His supporters were too few and his talk about support from the army and police was pure fabrication. His hope that the army and police units would be taken in by his nationalist rhetoric and come out in his support, were dashed.
After a night of confusion, the Nazis decided to march to the Bavarian defence headquarters, where they were met with gunfire by soldiers. Sixteen Nazis died and Hitler fled the scene in a waiting car. It was, by all accounts, a pathetic charade.
But, we all know the sequel. Ten years later, in 1933, Hitler became the Fuhrer of Germany. And, in 1939, seventeen years after the Beer Hall Putsch, he started the Second World War.
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This is not to say that the march on the Capitol will necessarily have a similar denouement. But, the US media has been full of the deep divide in that country between Trump supporters and the rest. Trump lost the election, but he did get a sizable vote share. He, or an even more authoritarian challenger, could well ride to power in 2024.
Many reasons have been cited for the ascendancy of Donald Trump. Globalization led to, in Ross Perot’s memorable words, ‘a giant sucking sound’ as American jobs disappeared over the border to places like China and Vietnam. While the elites prospered as the financialization of the US economy boosted the incomes of the rich, the working class lost out.
Some studies contend that real wages for the US working classes remained stagnant for decades. For a while, their losses were papered over by an explosion of debt, but that led to the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
The financial crisis sounded the death-knell for liberal capitalism. The central bank and government’s reaction to the crisis only led to a further widening of inequalities. The seething discontent did not benefit the Left, because the left had been discredited after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Donald Trump becoming president of the world’s most powerful nation in 2016 on the strength of a fake promise to ‘Make America Great Again’ was the outcome of these trends.
The result is a world that is turning away from globalisation, where barriers are being erected to trade, where beggar-thy-neighbour policies are being pursued, where cosmopolitanism is seen as an elite conspiracy, to be replaced by a narrow nationalism and parochialism.
The problem is that while the election of Joe Biden is a rejection of Trump, Biden is a symbol of the old liberal world. He is part of the old elite whose policies led to the emergence of Trump.
As long as the conditions that gave rise to Trump remain, Trumpism could stage a comeback. In fact, the US is fortunate that Donald Trump is such an incompetent bungler, such a pompous windbag. Future authoritarian leaders may be far more ruthlessly efficient.
As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek put it, paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters."