Archive for January, 2021

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below]

Like hundreds of millions of people—maybe more—I was glued to the TV all Wednesday night and into the early hours of the morning, watching slack-jawed the spectacle at the US Capitol as it unfolded, not quite knowing how to process it. The sparse police presence was stunning, particularly as the action of fanaticized Trump mobs on this day—with Congress meeting to ratify the Electoral College result—was so utterly predictable. Politico’s Tim Alberta—who comes from conservative media and knows the Republican Party comme sa poche—asserted, in a must-read article, that “Jan. 6 was 9 weeks—and 4 years—in the making,” specifying that having “spent the last election cycle immersed in the metastasizing paranoia behind Wednesday’s assault on Congress[, n]obody should be surprised by what just happened.” And indeed on what other day than January 6th?

Talk of Trump trying to stage an autocoup d’État had been intensifying, as one is likely aware, and with prescient warnings from those who have witnessed the phenomenon up close, notably the brilliant sociologist Zeynep Tufekci—whose every published word is essential reading—her compatriot, author Ece Temelkuran, and The New Yorker’s Masha Gessen. There is disagreement as to whether or not the Trumpenproletariat mob assault constituted a bona fide coup attempt. Political scientist and friend Stathis Kalyvas said no, tweeting à chaud that coups require others to take advantage of this type of disruption and to move swiftly, immediately, and decisively, but with nothing indicating that such dynamics were at play as the mob invested the Capitol.

As for that mob, while its assault was shocking and alarming, there was also a farcical side to it, as could be seen in the images of the insurrectionists inside the building, lending credence to the notion that if this were indeed a coup attempt, it wasn’t a very serious one. Mike Davis thus wrote in his email newsletter yesterday morning that the assault

constituted an ‘insurrection’ only in the sense of dark comedy. What was essentially a big biker gang dressed as circus performers and war surplus barbarians, including the guy with a painted face posing as horned bison in a fur coat, stormed the ultimate country club, squatted on Pence’s throne, chased Senators into the sewers, casually picked their noses and rifled files and, above all, shot endless selfies to send to the dudes back home in white peoples’ country. Otherwise they didn’t have a clue. The aesthetic was pure Bunuel and Dali…

In this vein, The Atlantic’s Tom McTague wrote that what the world saw “was a bunch of angry people in costume, as if a Village People convention had turned ugly.” Bolsheviks storming the Winter Palace these were not. “Redneck Visigoths,” dixit Rick Wilson, who observed that

The invasion and seizure of the Capitol was a perfect extension of the nihilist trolling operation that’s replaced the Republican Party. They weren’t there to hold the territory. They weren’t there to find evidence of fraud, or force reluctant legislators to listen to their catalog of grievances; they were there for the lulz. They were there because Trump sent them.

As to why Trump sent them, we can’t know what was going on in his addled brain when he exhorted his fanaticized cultists to march on the Capitol and “be wild,” though it stands to reason that, at minimum, he hoped they could somehow stop the ceremony in the Senate, or maybe terrorize the Republicans there into rejecting the EC results in enough states to hand Trump the victory. Listening to Trump’s psychotic one-hour telephone conversation/monologue with Georgia Secretary of State Ben Raffensperger four days prior, there can be no doubt that Trump was desperate to reverse the election outcome and stay in power, i.e. to stage an autocoup. The early refusal of the Pentagon to authorize the deployment of the National Guard suggests that the lame duck Pentagon shake-up, and installation of Trump flunkies in key top positions, was done to lay the groundwork for an autocoup.

But even if a coup in the US could be pulled off institutionally, Trump is simply too scatterbrained and stupid to successfully execute one. And as The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood usefully reminds us in a five lesson take away from the coup attempt, Trump is also a coward and has always been. E.g. he instructed his cultists to march on the Capitol and said he would be with them, but then slunk back to the White House to watch the event on television. Trump has never exhibited courage, physical or otherwise. When he famously fires people, he never informs them in person. He trash talks subordinates, weaklings, and toadies but never anyone his equal. When confronted with someone who goes toe-to-toe with him or whom he cannot intimidate, he shrinks. To fully follow through with an autocoup in a country like the United States—in the face of the fury of the majority of its population and its educated elite—requires an intrepidness that Trump simply does not have.

Back to the Capitol mob, it may have had its absurd side but it was a still a mob—and mobs are dangerous, particularly when they’re composed of extreme right-wing fanatics living in an alternate reality of conspiracy theories. And looking to inflict harm on members of society they demonize. À propos, we learn that many of the insurrectionists were wearing body armor and helmets, a few were carrying zip ties, and with an undetermined number armed. And then there were the gallows outside the Capitol, graffiti reading “murder the media,” and you get the idea.

On those fanatics in the Capitol and their Weltanschauung, take a look at this Twitter thread by sociologist Kathleen Belew, who specializes in these movements. One does not want to imagine what would have happened had the insurrectionists penetrated the Capitol en masse before the Congresspersons and Senators had been evacuated; had they come face-to-face with Nancy Pelosi, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar, plus Mitt Romney and all sorts of others, and with no cops around.

For all we know, this lurid scenario may have percolated in Trump’s fevered imagination: a bloodbath on Capitol Hill decapitating a branch of the  US government, thereby enabling him to declare martial law, blame it on Antifa, or even the Democrats, arrest Biden, shut down CNN and MSNBC, et on en passe. Again, for all we know.

FWIW, a report has it that “[s]ome among America’s military allies believe Trump deliberately attempted a coup and may have had help from federal law enforcement officials.”

The very real specter of a catastrophe in the Capitol, and orchestrated by Trump, no doubt scared the daylights out of Mitch McConnell and other now erstwhile Trump sycophants and lickspittles (Lindsey Graham et al), causing their sudden change of tune. As Mike Davis submitted in his newsletter

something unexpectedly profound happened: a deus ex machina that lifted the curse of Trump from the careers of conservative war hawks and rightwing young lions whose ambitions until yesterday had been fettered by the presidential cult. Today was the signal for a long awaited prison break. The word ‘surreal’ has been thrown around a lot, but it accurately characterizes last night’s bipartisan orgy with half of the most hardcore Senate election-denialists channeling Biden’s call for a ‘return to decency’ and vomiting up vast amounts of noxious piety.

And then there was the huge happening that just preceded the MAGA mob’s Capitol assault, which was the double victory in Georgia of Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, thereby enabling the Democrats to take back the Senate contre toute attente. This exhilarating outcome—which, until the MAGA mob emerged from its cave, made Wednesday the most gratifying day since Biden’s victory was formally proclaimed on November 7th—was eclipsed by the Capitol rampage, but must have shocked McConnell & Co and figured in their calculations, as they certainly weren’t expecting it. Most Democrats weren’t expecting it either (I was hopeful but not too). It’s a run-off election in frigging Georgia after all! Republicans always win these races down there, and particularly if the Democratic candidates happen to be liberal to progressive (not to mention Black or Jewish). That Warnock and Ossoff won, and outside the recount margin, is a very big game-changer, as not only does it give Biden and the Ds control of the Senate, however narrowly, but starkly demonstrates to the Republican Party establishment that Trump is an electoral loser. Sure, at the top of the ticket he can mobilize the R base, add 11 million votes to the 2016 total, and help down-ballot candidates, but he causes moderate R defections and mobilizes the D base even more, with Biden thus adding 15 million votes to what Hillary Clinton won. But when Trump is not on the ballot, the D base remains mobilized—against him—but the R base less so. Mixing my metaphors, the Georgia run-off was a bright silver lining in what were otherwise dark clouds for the Democrats in the November 3rd down-ballot elections.

One thing is quasi certain, which is that the divide in the Republican Party after January 20th—between well-mannered hard-right conservatives and extreme-right Trumpist populists—will be far deeper than the moderates/liberals vs. progressives cleavage among the Democrats. Mike Davis again:

Let me be clear: the Republican Party has just undergone an irreparable split. (…)

There should no illusion that ‘moderate Republicans’ have suddenly been raised from the grave; the emerging project will preserve the core alliance between Christian evangelicals and economic conservatives and presumably defend most of the Trump era legislation. Institutionally, Senate Republicans, with a strong roster of young talents, will rule the post-Trump camp and via vicious darwinian competition – above all, the successor to McConnell – bring about a generational succession, probably before the Democrats’ octogenarian oligarchy has left the scene.  (The major internal battle on the post-Trump side in the next few years will probably center on foreign policy and the new cold war with China.)

That’s one side of the split. The other is more dramatic: the True Trumpists have become a de facto third party, bunkered down heavily in the House of Representatives. As Trump embalms himself in bitter revenge fantasies, reconciliation between the two camps will probably become impossible, although individual defections may occur. Mar-a-Lago will become base camp for the Trump death cult which will continue to mobilize millions of zombified plain folk to terrorize Republican primaries and ensure the preservation of a large die-hard contingent in the House as well as in red state legislatures. (Republicans in the Senate, accessing huge corporation donations, are far less vulnerable to such challenges.)

If Trump runs for president in 2024 (assuming he’s not in prison or otherwise ineligible), it will blow the R party apart. The Senate wing will not only pull out all the stops to block him—harsh critics who become bootlickers and return to being harsh critics will not revert once again to bootlicking—but may be counted on to run a third party candidate if he somehow wins the R nomination. But if Trump is blocked, he will certainly run under the label of his new MAGA party.

Whatever happens—and as countless analysts and observers have asserted—Trumpism is not going to fade and, echoing Mike Davis, a large portion of the Republican electorate will retain its cult-like devotion to him after he leaves office. And it’s not just the rubes and the yahoos in flyover country. E.g. see these recent tweets by the lobbyist spouse of the longest serving justice on the Supreme Court. There are lots of upper crust Republicans like her,

Speaking for all those not in the cult, political scientist and specialist of populism Jan-Werner Mueller, writing in Project Syndicate, argues simply that Trump must be impeached, removed from office, and permanently excluded from political life. To which one may add: prosecuted, convicted, and sent to the slammer, and, while we’re at it, stripped of his assets and his name effaced from every edifice. Inshallah.

À suivre.

UPDATE: The incontournable Adam Shatz has an à chaud take (Jan. 8th) in the LRB, “The four-year assault.”

2nd UPDATE: 48+ hours after the storming of the Capitol, people (so I’ve been seeing on Twitter) are beginning to understand that what happened on Wednesday was far graver than we initially realized. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes remarked on Twitter, it is under appreciated how very close things came on Wednesday to a massacre. Watch his report of last night (Friday) here.

In the report, Hayes plays a clip from a video taken by an insurrectionist inside the Capitol named JAYDENX. To get an idea of the Zeitgeist of the mob, the whole thing (39 minutes) may be viewed here. One notes, entre autres, that 95% of the mob is male (and with >95% of them white, of course) and that the women among them are completely unhinged.

See also the bone-chilling piece in Slate by Dan Kois, “They were out for blood: The men who carried zip ties as they stormed the Capitol weren’t clowning around.”

3rd UPDATE: In an alarming report, The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent informs us that the “The far-right Trump insurgency just scored a huge propaganda coup” with its Wednesday assault.

NBC News, for its part, reports on its website that “Extremists made little secret of ambitions to ‘occupy’ Capitol in weeks before attack.”

4th UPDATE: Matthew Levitt, director of the Reinhard program on counterterrorism and intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has an opinion piece on the NBC News website asserting that “Trump’s aiding Capitol violence as world watches shows U.S. is now exporting extremism.” Money quote:

Over the course of the Trump administration, the United States has increasingly been seen as a kind of a haven for far-right extremism. In much the same way the U.S. and others pressed Saudi Arabia to take tangible action to curb the spread of jihadist ideology from the kingdom to countries around the world in the years after 9/11, the international community today is pressing America to address the growth of far-right fanaticism here and its transfer abroad.

And just as Western countries expressed little sympathy when Riyadh asked for patience as it slowly began to address an issue that presented the kingdom with uncomfortable religious, social and legal challenges, the international community today is impatient when Washington points to the religious, social and legal hurdles it faces in curbing domestic terrorist activities and extremist ideologies.

How do they say “l’arroseur arrosé” in American?

5th UPDATE: The New York Times has a lengthy investigative report (Jan. 31st), “77 days: Trump’s campaign to subvert the election.” The lede: “Hours after the United States voted, the president declared the election a fraud — a lie that unleashed a movement that would shatter democratic norms and upend the peaceful transfer of power.”

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