The storming of the US Capitol expressed the deep polarisation in US politics—but America’s ruling class and establishment are trying to miraculously transform it into a moment of national unity. And tragically, what passes for the US left—including prominent “socialists” in Congress—are part of the drive to rally around the flag and Constitution, rather than trying to confront the far-right politics revealed at the protest.
Joe Biden made his approach clear when he hailed the events as an opportunity to pursue his agenda of healing and reconciliation in the higher ranks of the US state: “I think it makes my job easier”, he said. “We must unify the country.”
And there’s some truth to Biden’s judgment. Long-time Trump loyalists are abandoning ship. The resignation of Education Secretary Betsy Devos was an early sign. Devos stuck by the president from his early Muslim travel ban and through the caging of migrant children, but suddenly drew the line and resigned after the protest, outraged by the insult to the US constitutional order. Swathes of the US ruling class have followed suit: the National Association of Manufacturers, a bosses’ group representing Exxonmobil, General Motors and Raytheon among others, has urged a rebuilding of faith in US institutions and called for all to rally around the incoming Biden presidency. Liberal journalists writing for the New York Times and Washington Post echoed the call. Tech companies have done their bit by banning Trump from their apps and platforms. Financial groups Morgan Stanley and American Express, which have for years funded the election of far-right politicians, are pulling donations.
This sickening establishment love-in continued during impeachment proceedings in the House of Representatives. Speaking for impeachment, Democratic majority leader Steny Hoyer made a point of repeatedly, extensively and approvingly quoting Republican Liz Cheney: “There has never been, she said, a greater betrayal by a President ... of his office and his oath to the Constitution”.
This new-found unity amongst the US ruling class has nothing to do with a strategy to defend democratic rights. Their focus is reasserting the legitimacy of the highly authoritarian and violent US constitutional order, which is questioned by a conspiracy-minded far right.
Biden’s response focussed on the protesters’ temerity in challenging the government: “What we are seeing”, he said, “is a small number of extremists dedicated to lawlessness. This is not dissent, it's disorder. It borders on sedition”. For Biden, disorder, sedition and lawlessness are the problem—not racism, authoritarianism or even fascism. For the establishment, then, the solution is law, order and loyalty to the Constitution.
Last year, the US political establishment faced multiple crises. Now they have been frightened and humiliated in their own halls of power. The Capitol Hill riots took place in a time of of polarisation and street protests with radical potential on both the right and left: the Black Lives Matter protests shook the US, while armed right-wingers organised anti-lockdown protests and shot at leftist activists. Biden’s responsibility to the ruling class is to deliver stability, not justice for the oppressed. The security apparatus is signalling that it intends to crack down on the protesters: more than 170 criminal cases have been opened against Trump’s supporters, many facing potential charges of sedition, which can carry up to 20 years in prison.
Leaning on increased state power and rallying around the Constitution won’t stop the far right. These are the same institutions that have cradled it. The barbarism from below displayed on Capitol Hill on 6 January is a mirror of the barbarism from above exhibited there daily. The “temple of democracy” that was stormed by a few thousand right-wing loons has been a global centre of state violence and racism for more than two centuries. The police forces that liberals and conservatives now want to strengthen as a bulwark against the radicalised Trumpists are also a key source of the far right’s support and ideology.
For socialists, this moment should underline the urgency of a response to the far right. But that response has to be independent of the cynical hand-wringing of the US ruling class. This should be a moment to call for mass national demonstrations to counter the far right mobilisations planned for the day of Biden’s inauguration. It should be a moment to highlight the culpability of mainstream institutions in the social catastrophe engulfing the United States—from the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who have pushed decades of racism and attacks on workers’ rights, to the police forces that have provided a model for right-wing violence.
But this is not what has happened. Instead, tragically, the most prominent representatives of US “socialism” are racing to outdo the National Association of Manufacturers and “moderate” Republicans as the most aggressive defenders of America’s constitutional order. They have thrown themselves into the gross display of national unity and sung the praises of the US political system.
Bernie Sanders, the most famous self-described socialist in the country, urged the second impeachment of Trump, on the grounds, not of the human carnage his four years in office have caused, but of his offence against the state. “It must be made clear”, Sanders said, “that no president, now or in the future, can lead an insurrection against the US government”.
This approach has been shared by members of the “squad”. In an interview with the US ABC network, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez painted her opposition to the far-right protest entirely in nationalist terms: “We have to understand that what happened Wednesday was insurrection against the United States. That is what Donald J. Trump engaged in, and that is what those who stormed the Capitol engaged in ... If another head of state came in and ordered an attack on the United States Congress, would we say that that should not be prosecuted? ... It is an act of hostility”. Cori Bush called for expelling Republicans seen as complicit in the event, not because they are encouraging far-right politics, but because “they have broken their sacred oath of office”.
Attacking the rioters for disrespecting the US Constitution and the “people’s house”, the squad have offered a strategy for defeating Trumpism that is indistinguishable from that of the liberal centre. They have focussed entirely on impeachment, an institutional measure that affirms the protest was wrong because it was anti-constitutional, not because it was a far-right fascistic political attack. And the focus on impeachment does nothing to build opposition to the far right in the streets, even though the BLM movement showed the enormous potential numerical strength that can me mobilised in progressive street protests.
The Democratic Socialists of America, an organisation that exists largely as a shadow of the Democrats, has fallen in behind a liberal campaign to expel Republicans who challenged the results of the election for “peddling lies”.
This will get socialists nowhere. Any elected socialist representative worth their salt should be constantly accused of breaking the “sacred oath of office”, violating political norms and disrespecting the Constitution. They should be accused of sedition for urging mass struggle against state power. They should be accused of treason for denouncing imperialist aggression. The most famous socialist in US history, the revolutionary Eugene Debs, was accused of all these things in his lifetime. He ran his 1920 presidential campaign from a prison cell, where he was incarcerated for opposing the First World War.
In the 21st century, socialists should honour this legacy. Socialists reject the mythology of US democracy. Rallying around national institutions is wrong, not because there is anything defensible in the Trump putsch, nor because socialists prioritise the civil rights of his lunatic supporters. Neither is it about downplaying the real threat posed by the far right. It’s because the socialist goal of human liberation can’t be achieved while urging loyalty to the world’s greatest apparatus of global oppression. Since its foundation, the US state has masqueraded as an emancipatory republic, whilst repressing the working class and oppressed at home and waging ceaseless war on movements for freedom overseas.
US socialists are operating within what Martin Luther King once referred to as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”. They have a special responsibility to refuse to sanitise the image of these institutions. This is the first and most important benchmark for socialists in the United States. Any self-described socialist who fails this test doesn’t deserve to wear the label.