Whether the US declines or revives, betrayal and embarrassment await both cynical and sincere enablers of white nationalists
With 25,000 representatives of the national guard standing by as security for the swearing in, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths of office on Wednesday, promising to protect and defend the US constitution from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
For any government trying to lobby the United States now, the game has changed significantly. Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom and Israel will no longer find a State Department or a senate committee that overlooks their abuses of human rights, cheers their self-sabotaging disdain for multilateral agreements, or champions military occupations as the realisation of Biblical prophecy. Those cynical calculations and Western-chauvinist delusions have fallen out of fashion in the executive branch overnight.
For better or worse, Democratic Party is now in control of both houses of congress, and the lawmakers from both parties there now have an even deeper existential dread of white supremacy, even if they were its accomplices during the previous administration.
This is due in no small part to the sight of a Confederate battle flag draped over the shoulder of a rioter who stormed the Capitol on January 6. Diplomats will have to tread with extreme care in Washington DC, lest they fall on the losing side of the ‘’uncivil war’’ that Biden in his inauguration speech said he seeks to end. He may fail to end it, but that doesn’t mean foreign capitals can expect that failure to result in the shrinking of American imperial power.
Absent former President Donald Trump as their cyber ringleader, encouraging or promoting far right radicalism in opposition to Biden’s administration, will only earn those governments a clique of unreliable and deceitful partners whose main priority will be staying one step ahead of an overwhelming suppressive response from the federal government.
For Islamophobic governments like Narendra Modi’s India, diplomatic postures towards the US that would seek to make alliances with nativist and white nationalist groups there follow the flawed logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And Modi’s embrace of Trumpism during the last four years is an example of that thinking. In the end, however, it leaves everyone involved with unreliable friends tied together by circumstance, not by values.
Foreign powers could do well to follow the example of the Ottoman Empire during the American Civil War, when Sultan Abdulaziz expressed support for the maintenance of the Union against the slaveholding rebels, and signed a commercial treaty in 1862 with the US even when its survival was not assured for anyone, especially the Americans fighting it. By the end of war, Abdulaziz’s foresight had proven right.
At the same time, British Empire, while refusing to support the rebellion outright, watched the conflict with an eye to see how they could benefit from the shattering of the American republic. And British merchants provided safe harbour for Confederate smugglers and shipping. That turned out to be a bad and embarrassing bet, especially for British aristocrats who admired the South’s feudal social protocols and the pedigree of its slave-driving planter elite.
There are serious echoes of that conflict today in Washington DC in the now departing phalanxes of national guard troops, as well as in news stories that use the words ‘’insurrection’’ and ‘’sedition.’’ And the US Defense Department is poised to polish itself into a reformed, anti-racist fighting force.
“The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies, but we can't do that if some of those enemies lie with our own ranks," Retired US army General Lloyd Austin III, Biden’s pick for Secretary of Defense, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. If confirmed, Austin would become the first Black secretary of defence.
“This [extremism] has no place in the military of the United States of America. I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault and to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve.’’
It’s impossible to know if the unprecedented presence of armed soldiers to oversee the transition of power, turning downtown Washington DC into a maze of checkpoints, was what prevented attacks against the inauguration by domestic extremist groups who consider Biden’s election fraudulent. Federal law enforcement had feared a repeat of the deadly riot at the US Capitol that briefly delayed the certification of Biden’s election.
At least one right-wing extremist group, the Proud Boys, seems to be dismayed by former President Donald Trump’s decision to leave office at all, boarding Air Force One and returning to his Florida estate. As his four children shed tears nearby at the sight of their defeated father, Trump stammered out words of conciliation about Biden.
‘’I will tell you that the future of this country has never been better. I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they’ll have great success. They have the foundation to do something really spectacular,’’ Trump told supporters in a farewell address at Andrews Air Force Base.
That must have been jarring to the Proud Boys who are now facing charges over their participation in the Capitol riot on January 6 that attempted to stop the certification of Biden’s election. They are disappointed that they and their comrades did not get a last minute presidential pardon.
“It really is important for us all to see how much Trump betrayed his supporters this week. We are nationalists 1st and always,’’ read one post on the Proud Boys’ Telegram channel, the New York Times reported. ‘’Trump was just a man and as it turns out an extraordinarily weak one at the end.”
Trump’s inability to transform into the vengeful god-king the nationalists saw him as, is, to put it mildly, not surprising. Politicians are just people, and sometimes they get tired of hearing the sound of their own voice, especially when the sound of their own voice has brought serious financial and legal liabilities. The Proud Boys can’t help Trump rehabilitate his brand, now tarnished by its connection to the threatening of lawmakers’ lives.
Biden spent his first hours reversing policies Trump’s biggest fans had loved. He removed the ban on travel from some of the poorest Muslim countries; he rejoined the Paris Climate Accords and he ended the construction of Trump’s infamous ‘’wall’’ along the US-Mexico border. He also said Trump left him a ‘’generous’’ letter.
But even as the former president’s most fervent supporters, who chanted ‘’No Trump! No Peace,’’ while destroying Black Lives Matter signs in downtown DC, wake up to an eviction from the fever-dreams of Trumpism, the US is no closer to unity in the face of economic collapse, racial tension, a merciless pandemic and the proliferation of fantastical conspiracy theories that try to make sense of a vast and menacing world as the result of a single sinister and expansive plot.
Biden acknowledged those challenges in his inauguration address.
‘’I know speaking of unity can sound to some like a foolish fantasy these days. I know that the forces that divide us are deep and they are real. But I also know they are not new,’’ the new president said. ‘’Our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we all are created equal, and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear, demonization have long torn us apart.’’
At least one reaction from a peddler of conspiracy theories and an online champion of Trumpism is already being cast in ludicrously hyperbolic terms of the Cold War, a period of human history synonymous with partisan bloodshed.
The post was made by ex-Navy intelligence officer Jack Posobiec, who migrated from the paranoid fringe of the white nationalist and Islamophobic alt-right in 2017 to pro-Trump cable network One America News in 2020.
‘’Mao promoted unity too,’’ Posobiec wrote on Twitter, reacting to Biden’s speech.
Of course, the founder of People’s Republic of China spoke of unity, but did Mao take campaign donations from Delaware-based credit card companies, as Biden has over the course of his political career? Trump also spoke of unity. That’s just what politicians do.
And just like any politician, Biden’s guaranteed to fail to live up to his promises to unify the country. Indeed, he has an extremely hard road ahead of him, trying to find a balance in a country where political disagreements are now cast in existential terms.
Posobiec, as a member of the far right, sees anything to his left as being the far left. It’s a perspective distorted by social media’s algorithms and filter bubbles, a common mental affliction for Americans prone to seeing Biden’s bland neoliberalism as either radical communism or fascist appeasement.
The falcon cannot hear the falconer because it has its airpods in, recording its next TikTok dance routine. The dystopian realities of America in 2021 are follies forged out of indolent distraction more than the clash and clang of blood and iron. Getting American society to focus on a single task will be Biden’s biggest challenge. The pandemic is the first major hurdle.
There are many reasons to think the new US president is inheriting an ‘’ungovernable’’ country tied to longstanding cultural and ethnic divisions. Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall has compiled a list of reasons for pessimism and optimism from sociologists. Given that bipartisan cooperation seems less than likely even with Trump’s departure, Edsall concludes that divisions won’t subside until the realisation of a generational shift that decisively overwhelms the forces that put Trump in office.
‘’It will be another decade before these millennial and Gen Z voters reach levels in the electorate powerful enough to shift the direction of national politics away from the obsolete doctrine of white supremacy,’’ Edsall writes. ‘’It can’t happen soon enough.’’
If you are an outside observer, however, is it a good idea to bet on American society overcoming its divisions? It’s become quite clear that the US is not immune from democratic decline and nightmarish episodes of civil violence.
Allies and adversaries of the US, some more quietly than others, are betting on whether American society will make it through these times or not. So what are the reasons to bet on the US making it through this period, and what are the reasons to bet against it?
‘’We’ve looked into the abyss and it scared the hell out of people, but democracy survived’’ Kurt Bassuener, a senior associate at the Democratization Policy Council. ‘’We have demonstrated in the past the ability to regenerate and crisis can be a regeneration engine.’’
Bassuener predicts that the Republican Party will split without Trump at its helm, and that that might be a sign of health for American democracy. Indeed, Trump has reportedly floated founding his own ‘’Patriot Party’’ that would likely centre around the myth that he won the 2020 election.
While it will make it easier for Trump to siphon donations from his base of supporters without sharing vital voter data or dollars with the Republican National Committee, it will also drag voters away from Republicans and make it easier for Democrats to win in swing districts.
Bassuener said that representative governments in the US survived a four-year-long ‘’stress test’’ that strained the integrity of every institution. The results of that test are plain for the world to see, however.
‘’We’ve shown that we have vulnerabilities. We’ve shown that 75 million of us were willing to let themselves die en masse in a global pandemic,’’ he told TRT World. ‘’That’s not the sign of a healthy society. For America’s adversaries, that’s a lot to play with.’’
But great powers that do decide to meddle in American politics in 2021 may be playing with fire. The response to the Capitol riot by federal law enforcement is likely to be overwhelming, a dragnet that spares no form of anti-government dissent, the creation of new statutes that expand surveillance powers and retributive policies that are bound to extend overseas.
“We should not lose sight of our disgust at the double standards employed against white protesters and Black ones, or against Muslims and non-Muslims,” Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar told The Daily Beast.
Omar warned against a new version of the PATRIOT Act that congress passed in a panic after September 11 that eroded civil liberties for the sake of counter terrrorism.
“We must resist the very human desire for revenge—to simply see the tools that have oppressed Black and Brown people expanded. We must not give in to fear or allow ourselves to be terrorised by those who seek to harm us. The answer is not a broader security structure or a deeper police state.’’
If American democracy is to survive in the long term, it looks like Biden and Omar have their work cut out for them. The real challenge for compromise is not between Democrats and Republicans, a task that may prove impossible, but between the centre and progressive factions of the party that took power in the White House on Wednesday. It would be wise for the rest of the world to stay out of their way.