By Daniel Lazare, published in Jacobin, March 22, 2017
Here’s what’s behind the turbulence shaking U.S. politics — and why it will likely only get worse.
The terms “Latin America” and “coup d’état” used to be synonymous. Between 1907 and 1966, the twenty republics stretching from Tierra del Fuego to the Rio Grande saw a total of 105 coups, an average of one per country every dozen years. For some, it was even worse. Ecuador experienced one coup every four and a half years, while Bolivia witnessed one every seven.
Since then, the problem has not so much subsided as migrated north. Today, the new center of instability is the United States. Once as solid as Gibraltar, the U.S. has entered a constitutional Twilight Zone in which Republicans and Democrats accuse one another of wiretapping and collusion with a hostile foreign power, a New York Times columnist calls for the Trump presidency to be put on “pause,” and the Guardian reports that an entire “intellectual class — our own — [is] on the brink of a nervous breakdown.”
Rival military factions are not yet shooting it out on Pennsylvania Avenue. But it’s without doubt the strangest period in U.S. history since Henry Adams’ Great Secession Winter of 1860–61, when the new republic literally came apart at the seams.
What does it all mean? Why is it happening in America of all places? Here’s a primer on the turbulence that has struck the U.S. — and why it will likely only get worse.
The political meltdown that began with last June’s stunning Brexit vote is an aftershock from the financial meltdown of 2008. Capitalism suffered a body blow in that crisis from which it has yet to recover.
In the U.S., real GDP growth per capita has fallen nearly 80 percent, while economic inequality has accelerated. Elsewhere, the fallout is even worse. For the OECD as a whole, real GDP per capital has risen just 2.6 percent since 2007, half the U.S. level, and in a number of countries it has actually dropped — by 1.7 percent in Italy, for example, 4 percent in Portugal, 4.5 percent in Hungary, and a stunning 7.7 percent in the UK. Wealth polarization has reached the point where the globe’s top one percent now owns as much as the rest of the world combined, while eight individuals hold as much wealth as the world’s bottom 50 percent.
In effect, people have awakened since the crash to find out that they are a good deal poorer than their leaders said they would be, that they are more unequal, and that recovery will be far more protracted than expected, assuming it occurs at all.
The result is a classic scissors effect in which popular anger surges while official credibility crumbles. Moderate parties of the center-right and center-left that once ruled as if by right of birth now find themselves turned out in country after country. So far the reaction has largely benefited the Right, as voters seek to turn the clock back to a time when jobs were plentiful, wages were strong, and terrorists weren’t mowing down innocent civilians.
But it won’t stay that way forever.
Why is the U.S. at the center of the storm?
America is not merely subject to the same right-wing populism as everyone else — it all but invented the genre.
The liberal aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville was astonished when he visited the United States in 1831. In France, democracy was turbulent and revolutionary, whereas in the U.S. it was stable and conservative. The difference lay in how they viewed freedom. While European radicals saw it as something to be wrested from kings and tyrants, many Americans conceived of it as inherent in an Edenic landscape given to them by God. Rather than created, it was a pre-existing condition to be protected and conserved.
The Constitution locked such attitudes in via a preamble that declares “we the people” to be all powerful and an amending clause in Article V that severely limits their ability to alter the governing structure made in their name. Hence the paradox of American constitutionalism: the people are sovereign, but they can only wield it to maintain the status quo.
The upshot is a society that is equal parts democratic and conservative despite occasional bursts of reform. When financial markets collapse, houses are repossessed, and entire regions are turned into an economic wasteland, a common American instinct is to declare war on leftists, feminists, and other agents of change in hopes of recapturing the freedoms of the past. They form themselves into Tea Parties as if it were still the 1770s, avail themselves of their ancient constitutional right to arm themselves with AR-16s against “big government,” and turn against immigrants who, to their mind, do not represent real American values.
The constitutional breakdown
Where such tendencies were once marginalized, an increasingly undemocratic governing structure is now placing them front and center. Thanks to an Electoral College that triples the clout of lily-white enclaves like Wyoming and the Dakotas, an ultra-rightist has taken control of the White House for the second time in sixteen years despite losing the popular vote. (George W. Bush received 544,000 fewer popular votes than Al Gore, while Trump trailed Clinton by 2.86 million.)
The principle of equal state representation has allowed Republicans to eke out a two-seat majority in the Senate despite their concentration in rural and southern states that account for just 45 percent of the population. Thanks to ruthless gerrymandering, Republicans have performed a similar stunt in the House, capturing 55 percent of the seats despite winning just 49 percent of the popular vote. Republicans have lost the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections, yet they now dominate the executive and legislative branches across the board. Once Neil Gorsuch is confirmed, they’ll control the judiciary as well.
This is not representative government, but the opposite: domination by a minority that is constitutionally entrenched and increasingly hostile to democracy. In other countries, the solution would be obvious: a concerted program of constitutional reform aimed at bringing centuries-old institutions up to date. But this remedy is unthinkable in the United States in light of an amending clause that is no less dysfunctional than the rest of the document. Thanks to the two-thirds/three-fourths rule — which says that two-thirds of each house plus three-fourths of the states must pass any constitutional amendment — thirteen states representing as little as 4.4 percent of the population can veto any change sought by the other 95.6.
It’s a recipe for deepening paralysis and stagnation, yet nothing can be done. The language in Article V is ironclad and crystal clear. There is no end-run around the barrier, no shortcut, no clever gambit that some super-smart constitutional lawyer can dream up to evade its restrictions. As long as the polity remains within the document’s confines, it’s trapped.
Minority dictatorship 2.0
Needless to say, the ongoing breakdown does not make itself felt evenly across the board. Conservatives are delighted with a system that lurches ever farther to the right while liberals are aghast. Everything they’ve worked for — health care, abortion rights, racial equality, you name it — is on the chopping block, not because “we the people” have voted against them, but because ancient constitutional mechanisms, operating on their own accord, are turning thumbs down.
The last time this happened was in the 1840s and ’50s, when southern slave owners were able to leverage their entrenched constitutional privileges to secure a stranglehold over national politics. The three-fifths clause in Article I, which gave southern planters twenty-five extra seats in the House; the Missouri Compromise, which gave them parity in the Senate; the Electoral College, which gave them control of the executive branch — all these and more allowed a tiny planter elite to dominate a country that in other ways was comparatively democratic. The contradiction was unbearable, which is why it eventually exploded in civil war.
Today’s conditions are different. Instead of a military conflict, the upshot is a non-shooting war on Capitol Hill involving filibusters, government shutdowns, and other dirty tricks. With secession off the table, today’s neo-confederates have had no choice but to stay and fight for control of the federal apparatus. If Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama can’t go their separate way, the goal is to “Texify” the country as a whole by doing away with environmental protections, labor laws, anti-discrimination rules, and all other remotely progressive measures. With the latest stolen election, the ultra-right figures that its breakout moment has arrived — which is why liberals are desperate to stop them.
The Russians Are coming!
Unfortunately, that struggle has taken an odd swerve into neo-McCarthyism. Suddenly, politicians and journalists are agog over tales of Moscow gold and KGB agents lurking in the shadows as if it were still the 1950s and “I Love Lucy” was everybody’s favorite show on TV. Even more remarkably, the paranoia does not emanate from the swamps of the Republican right, but the fever dreams of the liberal left.
The Electoral College, police brutality, and trans rights have all been put aside as the Democrats concentrate on playing the Russia card for all it’s worth. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow bludgeons Trump night after night for his alleged Russian ties and has gone after Jill Stein as well. Noting that the Green Party presidential candidate shared a table with Vladimir Putin and Michael Flynn at a Moscow dinner in December 2015, she erupted in raucous laughter in a recent appearance on Viceland:
Everybody’s like, wow, how come this, like, super-super-aggressive opposition that we saw with these third-party candidates — how come they haven’t said anything since this Trump scandal has broken? I don’t know, Jill, I can’t pronounce it in Russian! Hope you’re really psyched about your Wisconsin vote totals!
Similarly, the New York Times hardly seems to let a day go by without a front-page exposé charging that RT, the Russian-government TV channel, is “the slickly produced heart of a broad, often covert disinformation campaign designed to sow doubt about democratic institutions and destabilize the West” or that disinformation specialists “from Russia, or from breakaway Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine,” have intervened in Dutch politics in order to advance “the Kremlin’s broader agenda to weaken the European Union and shatter European unity.”
After Clinton fell ill during a 9/11 commemoration, the Washington Post speculated that she had been poisoned by Putin. Two months later, it published a bizarre article claiming that more than two hundred websites — everything from Zero Hedge to Counterpunch and Truthout — were part of “a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign” aimed at “punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump and undermining faith in American democracy.”
This is not reporting but conspiracy mongering of the sort practiced by 9/11 truthers or JFK assassination nuts. Little of it stands up to scrutiny. Mike Flynn turns out to have been working not for Putin, as Democrats charged, but for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A report last summer from a California cyber-security firm that purported to show Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has come under such withering criticism for its political bias and internal inconsistencies that Wikileaks’ claim that the email dump was a leak rather than a hack is looking more and more plausible — or at least no more implausible than any other theory.
Noting how easy it is for a smart hacker to throw investigators off the trail, John McAfee, founder of McAfee Associates and developer of the first commercial antivirus software, has questioned whether it’s possible to identify a hacker at all. “If it looks like the Russians did it,” he told Larry King last year, “then I can guarantee you: it was not the Russians.”
None of which matters, however, to Democrats living in an evidence-free universe. As House minority leader Nancy Pelosi assured MSNBC in July:
Well, let me say a few facts that I know. The Russians hacked the Democratic National Committee. There is no question about that. My source is not the Intelligence Committee of the Congress of the United States. It is what I know. They have hacked. That’s a fact.
But as ex–Director of National Intelligence James Clapper recently conceded on Meet the Press, it’s not what we know at all. Asked by NBC’s Chuck Todd whether he knew of any proof that Trump had colluded with the Russians to steal the election, as the DNC hacking tale implied, he conceded that there was no such evidence:
CLAPPER: We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, “our,” that’s NSA, FBI, and CIA, with my office, the director of national intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that . . .
TODD: I understand that. But does it exist?
CLAPPER: Not to my knowledge.
None of this means that someone didn’t steal the election. Someone did. But rather than the Kremlin, it was the Electoral College, an eighteenth-century relic that should have been fixed ages ago, but, disgracefully, has been allowed to hold on long past its sell-by date.
The Democrats’ Russia gambit is the desperate ploy of a party facing long-term ruin. Unable to admit that governing institutions are in any way responsible, party leaders have chosen instead to blame a malevolent force headquartered in the Kremlin that has burrowed its way into the sacred republic to subvert it from within. The way to restore America’s ancient purity is therefore to expel the “Siberian candidate” and return the country to American hands.
This is a classic American trope going back at least as far as Jefferson. But it’s a form of xenophobia all the same. The goal, in this case, is to blame foreigners so as to avoid painful self-criticism.
But what makes such xenophobia even worse is the alliance it entails with Washington’s massive “intelligence community” — a force that has long specialized in coups abroad and which is now being encouraged to put its talents to work at home. As one Vanity Fair columnist recently opined, “if the Deep State can rid us of the blighted presidency of Donald Trump, all I can say is ‘Go, State, go.’”
Meanwhile, there is a growing climate of fear and loathing in which federal officials think they’re being bugged and employ emergency counter-measures in response. Politico reports that when one Trump staffer goes home at night, “he turns off his work phone and stores it in a drawer because, he said, he believes it could be used to listen to him even when it’s off. If he makes a call during off-hours, he uses a separate, personal phone in an adjoining room, where the stowed work device wouldn’t be able to pick up his voice as clearly.”
Other White House personnel “have taken to using secure messengers like Confide and Signal in order to communicate on their personal phones. One program gaining popularity within the administration is Wickr, which allows users to set an expiration time on how long an unread message can remain in a recipient’s inbox before it self-destructs.”
If anything, Trump loyalists are calling for a harsher crackdown. “Of course, the deep state exists,” Newt Gingrich told AP earlier this month. “There’s a permanent state of massive bureaucracies that do whatever they want and set up deliberate leaks to attack the president. This is what the deep state does. They create a lie, spread a lie, fail to check the lie, and then deny that they were behind the lie.” Adds Fox News host Sean Hannity: “It’s time for the Trump administration to begin to purge these saboteurs before it’s too late.”
Purges, sabotage, orchestrated lies, covert attacks — this is what instability looks like. The more the gloves come off, the more politics resembles the famous stand-off in Reservoir Dogs in which three or four people hold a gun to one another’s head and then fire simultaneously.
Why it can only get worse
There’s a problem with American-style checks and balances that they forgot to mention in high school: once such delicate balances break down, putting them back together again is supremely difficult.
To be sure, the constitutional system was restored to something like working order following both the Civil War and the Great Depression. But that’s because the arc of U.S. capitalism in both cases was rising dramatically. Today’s vital signs are pointing in a different direction. Nine years after the crash, it’s beginning to dawn on even the most thick-headed bourgeois observers that recovery is not coming anytime soon.
And it’s not just capitalism that’s in crisis — imperialism is as well. Since 2011, the U.S. has suffered one major reversal after another. Libya is in ruins following the U.S.-led air war of 2011–12. Iraq is still reeling from the 2014 invasion by ISIS, a group financed by America’s closest allies (as Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton have both admitted). Ukraine continues to unravel following a U.S.-backed, Nazi-spearheaded coup in Kiev that sent panicked Russophones in the eastern part of the country fleeing into the arms of Russia.
The constitutional crisis can thus be seen not only as an aftershock from 2008 but as blowback from a series of devastating imperial setbacks that began three years later. Instead of admitting that Obama, Clinton, and Kerry screwed up in the Middle East and Ukraine, Democrats prefer to blame Putin and hence Trump for seeking a rapprochement with Russia.
Thus, the recriminations fly as the eye-gouging and ear-biting on Capitol Hill intensify and threaten to turn into something even worse. Thomas Hobbes taught that only an all-powerful sovereign is capable of reining in factional warfare. But since “we the people” lack true sovereignty under the U.S. Constitution, they lack the ability to tame the contending forces in Washington. All they can do is watch as the system pitches downhill.
Unless workers, the only class with a capacity to save society from destruction, step out of the constitutional trap and strike out in a radical new direction, the United States is going to be a very different place in remarkably short order. And believe it or not, Democratic elites will be about as much at fault as Trump.
Daniel Lazare is the author of ‘The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of American Democracy’ (Oct 2001); ‘America’s Undeclared War: What’s Killing Our Cities and How We Can Stop It’ (April 2001); and ‘The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy’ (June 1997). His articles on the history of right-wing nationalism in Ukraine can be found on the website of New Cold War.org, including: Who was Stepan Bandera? (Sept 2015) and Timothy Snyder’s Lies (June 2014).