In Chicago, a white civilian in full combat gear points an automatic rifle in the face of a black protester. He is approached by the police, chats to them and they let him go: he walks away with the rifle at the ready, his finger on the trigger. But Illinois is a state where the “open carry” of weapons is illegal. Few of the onlookers doubt that, had the man been black, he would have been shot dead.
It’s just one episode in the meltdown of the US’s social order that has taken place since a police officer killed George Floyd on 25 May. But it is one that should alarm onlookers in the UK and Europe.
Because there are three things happening simultaneously in the US: the first is a legitimate and justified uprising, across 75 cities and rising, against police brutality and racism, and the refusal of judicial authorities to restrain it.
The second is a power grab by President Donald Trump, who has deployed the national guard – and threatened to use the military – against US citizens exercising their right to protest. This will be followed by a refocused election campaign in which Trump – like Richard Nixon in 1968 – seeks to corral middle-class white votes by exploiting racial insecurity.
The third is a far-right counter-insurrection, both online and now in the streets. Alt-right extremists have mobilised in mobs to “protect” white businesses and, according to reliable eyewitnesses, to infiltrate the protests in ways calculated to provoke what they have always fantasised about: a race war.
Anti-racist monitoring groups have noted the rise of numerous memes designed as subtextual calls for civil war. “Boogaloo” is one, a reference to a coming American civil war (the name has its origins in the film title “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”). “Clownworld” is another, denoting the isnanity of the modern West and used by the far-right to justify anti-Semitism and racism.
The US far-right was, until this year, divided between a libertarian wing obsessed with fighting liberals and big government, and a white supremacist wing obsessed with genocide against black and Jewish people. As Trump’s supporters try to pin the rioting on “terrorist” Antifa funded by the investor George Soros, it’s safe to assume that the latter is in the ascendant.
Since 2010 I’ve been warning about the worrying rise of rhetorical and political fantasies of a second US civil war. Now, with several cities in flames and Trump sporadically cowering in the White House bunker, all of the US’s traditional allies have to plan for the possibility – remote as it may seem – that American democracy could implode under the combined strain of coronavirus, protests and mass unemployment (currently at 40 million).
Covid-19 was already being eyed as a potential excuse to cancel the presidential election (with Trump ranting against preparations for postal voting). When critics such as Michael Moore warned that Trump would seek to cancel the election under a state of emergency, sceptics said: surely there would be an unstoppable wave of protest? Well, now we are seeing how a wave of protest can be stopped: the mass deployment of militarised police, the national guard, curfews and the empowerment of armed right-wing militias.
Once the demonstrations subside – and a wave of surveillance-based arrests follows the street round-ups – Trump will go on the offensive, seeking to ban some social movements, restrict civil rights and to depict all domestic opponents as “agents” of China.
The problem for the US left and progressive movements is that they have: a) no strategy to fight what is happening; and b) no institution that could embody that strategy and centralise the response to what Trump is trying to do.
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, since its inception, has been focused around a “return to normal neoliberalism”. This may have seemed rhetorically possible before the twin impacts of the virus and the current uprising, but looks entirely inadequate now. All the initiative lies with the President, and – unfortunately – with the plebeian movements he will rely on during the backlash. Meanwhile, the left placed all its eggs in the basket of Bernie Sanders.
There are positives to build on. The first is that, as in 2011 and in every outbreak of resistance across the developed world since then, young people are using networked communications and forms of organising to mobilise fast, peaceful and effective protests that cross the ingrained social boundaries of race and class. Young Americans are proving the thesis of Keir Milburn’s book Generation Left: that the youth first radicalised by the 2008 crash have become a permanent force for change.
The second is that – for the first time since Trump came to power in 2016 – large parts of the corporate world, especially those facing consumers, such as Nike, Google and Snap, are prepared to make political statements of opposition to the President’s overt racism and glorification of violence.
Third – though inadequately and with some dire exceptions – state- and city-level Democratic leaders are proving susceptible to popular pressure: moves such as the sacking of police chiefs and the refusal to request National Guard deployments seem to have angered Trump more than the actual protests.
Trump’s presidency, as I argued in Clear Bright Future, is a classic iteration of what Hannah Arendt called “the temporary alliance of the elite and the mob”. Its aim, as with the authoritarian governments that preceded Hitler, is to roll back history – in this case to roll back all the gains achieved for women, minorities and the labour movement since 1968.
In the face of this, especially when the elite/mob alliance controls the state, the only rational form of defence is an alliance of the centre and the left; and in the US context, an alliance of all communities facing racism, poverty and repression.
But to achieve what? Having sunk all their energies into the Democratic primary process, both the centrists and the left now face an evolving emergency. No matter how strong the need is for community-level self-defence against police violence, for bail support, for food banks and self-help, as millions face unemployment, the strategy has to focus on government.
There are four objectives that a broad political alliance could achieve in the face of Trump’s power grab.
The first is to ensure the presidential election is actually held in November, and that Covid-19 and the criminalisation of resistant communities do not turn it into a gerrymandered farce.
The second is to put Biden into the White House, if possible with a black American politician of the left as vice president.
The third is to suppress the alt-right uprising that will follow, which is likely to be aided and abetted by elements of the militarised police, just as it was in Greece between 2011 and 2015.
The fourth is to force Biden and his adviser Lawrence Summers, the former Treasury secretary, to enact a social and environmental New Deal just as radical as FDR began in 1933.
The strategic predicament for the American left is how to become the radical defenders of democracy, of minority communities, and of the rule of law. Though the US left faced one of the deepest slumps in the 1930s, it never really had to deal with the kind of fascist/authoritarian danger it is facing now. From 1934-36, organised labour was strong enough to stage a wave of city-wide general strikes and occupations, and to resist Congressional attempts to dismantle the New Deal.
Though the Communist Party enacted the popular front strategy, embedding itself as the left wing of the New Deal coalition and derailing the shop-floor militancy of the trade unions, the actual threat of domestic fascism was containable – despite the vast 1939 Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden.
But today fascists dictate the agenda of the presidency, and the state is voluntarily handing its monopoly of the use of force over to right-wing militias: that’s a new level of threat.
As we in Europe watch this US tragedy unfold, we are not powerless. Last weekend’s (30-31 May) spontaneous solidarity demos were a start, but we can do much more. Though there is rightly a ban on foreign money in US elections, anybody with a PayPal account can donate to bail funds, food banks, legal defence funds and social movements.
If US democracy fails, so does Washington’s assumed leadership role in the Western alliance. Trump has already begun to rip the G7 and World Trade Organisation apart, and is flouting the Paris climate agreement. But there can be no Nato collaboration with a US army that is deployed against American citizens. And there can be no meaningful trade deals with a Congress whose power has been stripped by the president.