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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Global Peace & Collaboration Social Justice

Is the U.S. Now in the Weimar Era?

| Dennis Torigoe |

Walden Bello and I go way back as grad students at Princeton’s sociology department and activists on campus and in the years since. In his recent interview after the events of January 6th, Walden, a famed activist, author and public intellectual from the Philippines, asserted that the United States “has entered the Weimar Era.” In Germany after the First World War, a section of the German capitalist class and its politicians backed right wing mobs to take to the streets in violent demonstrations. Since the Right could not take power through elections, they worked to delegitimize the democratic process and the government. This, Bello contends, paved the way for fascism to replace the representative government ending up with Hitler as Chancellor of the Reich.

As the US is one of the oldest, and certainly the biggest, continuous democracies (in some form) in existence, the sounding of its death knell is a bit premature despite the severity of the crisis. There are a number of reasons for this. These reasons are not to assert that the challenges and crises that democratic governments face from the extreme right in the US are not serious. I agree with Walden’s characterization of neoliberal policies leading to deindustrialization, and therefore feelings of loss and anger among some workers and small business people, who have been manipulated by Trump and other right-wingers. Political violence from the white supremacist right is a historic current in this country and a rising threat. We must counter it by gaining and strengthening cultural hegemony with such values as equality, inclusiveness and thoroughgoing democracy through organizing people and politically isolating the extreme right.  When they do resort to violence, we must make sure that they are dealt with aggressively legally, politically, by law enforcement and, if necessary, through armed self-defense.  

However, due to their actions against the government on January 6th, the extreme right is now in the crosshairs of the US Government and a large majority of the American people. The events of January 6th has not increased their strength, but has isolated them from the vast majority of the American people who believe in democratic government.

The Curious Case of the Missing Movement

One of Walden’s omissions in this interview is curious. Did he forget about the millions of demonstrators in every major city, localities and small towns across the country after George Floyd’s murder? Did he forget about Black Lives Matter? For some reason, he forgot about the people’s fight against police and racist violence occurring for months during the last year. He also dismisses the hard-won electoral victories through the relentless organizing efforts of hundreds of thousands in places like Georgia and Arizona, and indeed across the country. Here is the problem with this. According to this line of thought if we fight for more democracy, organize harder and succeed, then the Right gets more violent in the streets, the political situation gets chaotic and the military or a tyrant takes over. Thus, his view is that of self-defeat.   

That is the problem with his historical analogies, one that compares the United States as the world’s superpower to Third World countries like Chile in the 70’s and the Philippines under Marcos and to Weimar Germany. The United States today is starkly different from any of those examples that Walden Bello uses. For one thing, each of those examples were times of fatally deep economic crises, with runaway inflation in Chile and in the economic collapse of the Weimar Republic. There was relatively sudden, widespread and brutal  impoverishment if not outright starvation because of the economic catastrophes  they faced.    

As their economies were weak, their currencies were devalued to almost worthless pieces of paper and issuing more meant even more inflation and economic ruin.

In contrast, the United States controls the world’s recognized reserve currency, which gives it vast economic power. The US Government issues virtually as many dollars as it wants, knowing it will be accepted as the currency of world trade and commerce. Printing money in this way not only sustains its own economy, US capitalists have also used this tactic to manipulate other currencies and suppress other economies. That can be shown by the  Asian currency crises in the 90s and the trade and economic sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela, which are not allowed to conduct trade through the clearing system based on the US dollar.  

On top of that our economy is very unlikely to experience the kind of economic collapse that breeds fascism. The 2 trillion dollar rescue plan put out by Biden, impossible in Chile or a Weimar Republic, will not result in hyperinflation, but in real benefit to the welfare of the country’s citizens. The Federal Reserve Bank can and does further prop up the economy by lowering interest rates and directly buying US government, and mortgage-backed bonds through its quantitative easing program. The government can also forgive college loans, lower taxes, and a host of other steps to buoy the economy. This is not the economy of 70s Chile, the Philippines under Marcos and not even close to what Weimar Germany was.   

The same facts that Walden Bello uses to promote his view of deepening chaos and military rule in fact shows that the tide is running high against the right wing extremists. The breach of the Capitol was a sign of desperation, not a sign of strength. Their President had been thrown out after one term (the last time that happened was in 1992) and the left had dominated the streets for months, the Democrats had won both houses of Congress and the left is resurging.  

Is Military Intervention Likely?

Bello argues that chaos brought on by right wing street violence will trigger a military takeover. In fact, that is the least likely scenario given the circumstances the country is in now. For one thing, we must not forget or belittle the power of the constitutional and normative tradition of the US military’s position being under civilian control.  The Joint Chiefs of Staff are, in the military chain of command, directly below the Secretary of Defense and this Secretary under the President.  In the 233-year history since the ratification of the Constitution, this has never been breached, though it has been challenged twice — once by General McClellan against Lincoln during the Civil War and by Douglas MacArthur against Truman during the Korean War.  Both Generals were fired summarily.  

More recently, in light of Trump’s misuse of Federal power, numerous former Defense Secretaries and retired Generals and Admirals have stated their positions clearly: the active military shall not be used in internal politics and that the military should be staunch in its position that, as stated in the in Uniform Code of Military Justice, no illegal order order should be obeyed. The testament of these military leaders has put both institutional as well as political weight behind the military’s non-intervention in civilian political affairs.  

Another telling incident on military non-intervention in political affairs  was the apology of the sitting Chair of the Joint Chiefs for marching with Trump to his Bible-holding photo op after the site was cleared of Black Lives Matter protestors with federal officers. As reported in the Guardian:

Milley and defense secretary Mark Esper were widely criticized for participating in the photo-op, with many former defense officials saying the two were helping Trump’s efforts to politicize the military.

“As senior leaders, everything you do will be closely watched, and I am not immune,” Milley said.

“As many of you saw the result of the photograph of me at Lafayette Square last week, that sparked a national debate about the role of the military in civil society. I should not have been there,” Milley continued.

“My presence in that moment and in that environment created a perception of the military involved in domestic politics. As a commissioned uniformed officer, it was a mistake that I have learned from, and I sincerely hope we all can learn from it.”

These are not the words of a military ready to pounce on civilian leadership of the country if chaos in the streets erupts. 

Walden Bello has dedicated his life to effectively fight for the people of the Philippines and the world. His contributions are historic and will be remembered for generations to come. Though I believe he does not correctly view the United States at this historic juncture, I look forward to his continued contributions to the people’s movement for justice and democracy in the future.

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Democracy: Rule of Law & Elections Economic Justice Organizing

Capitol Assault, Shay’s Rebellion and the Footballs of Mass Consciousness

| Steve Clark |

After 57 percent of white voters went for Trump in November and, then, a section of them stormed the Capitol this week, progressive people are asking, “What is the deal with white Americans?”

It’s a good question. Obviously, Trump made it ok to stand up for white supremacy, and he made conspiracy theory into a fine art. And he turned out his voters. But, it would be unfair and counterproductive to label them all “deplorable.” How should we assess the state of White America?

A crucial first step is to recognize that American society — along with the section that voted for Trump — is the on-going interplay of its three adult generations (Boomers, GenXers and Millennials), each of which has a unique character.

Only among the oldest generation, age 65+ (the Boomers), did Trump win a majority of votes (52%). Boomers are an idealistic generation, and, whatever their individual politics — left, right or center — each Boomer absolutely believes he or she knows best…and facing, now (late in life), an unsatisfactory end to their lifelong social and political endeavors, Boomers are desperately striving, one last time, to put their ideals into action. This is true of left and right Boomers as well as the middle. While rightwing Boomers are the core, both of Trump’s cabinet and his fan base, far fewer GenXers (45%) and Millennials (35%!) cast votes for him.

A generational conflict of this nature always occurs late in America’s Fourth Turnings, those every-80-year intervals when the evolving generational constellation fosters a mood of social crisis and transformation. Yet, precisely because this conflict emerges in every cycle but to little consequence, we can alleviate fears of it getting out of hand this time around.

Shay’s Rebellion

Take the case of Shay’s Rebellion, during the crisis era of the American Revolution. The colonies had fought a long war and won independence from England in 1783, completing a crucial first step in the Revolution. But the second step, after military victory, was the actual construction of a functional self-government. Initially, the former colonies (led by the era’s elder, idealistic, Awakener generation) set up government under the Articles of Confederation, a structure that left the central government weak (relative to the various states) but appealed to the anti-authoritarian streak that persisted (and still persists) in America’s idealistic psyche. But, without an effective system of finance, the new national government could not discharge its obligations to the younger citizen soldiers who had left home and family to join General Washington in defeating the British. Meanwhile, a postwar debt crisis led state governments to increase taxes on their citizens. Pinched and indignant, a few thousand former soldiers in Massachusetts led by Daniel Shays rebelled and marched on the local armory. State militia provided a strong defense; Shays and others escaped to Vermont but were tried in absentia. Two men in custody were hanged, but, eventually, the rest (including Shays) were pardoned, yet with pariah status. Shays died a lonely alcoholic.

A few years later, in 1791, soon after the Constitution was adopted and Washington became the first President, the Whiskey Rebellion kicked off in western Pennsylvania when the new government imposed the nation’s first federal tax (a whiskey tax). At the time, a host of Revolutionary War veterans had settled on this western frontier, claiming lands granted them as compensation for their wartime service. Led by former Major James McFarland, hundreds of veterans and their followers joined the rebellion, only to be squashed by federal troops sent by Washington. In the final confrontation, McFarland, himself, was killed.

My point, here, is that a large section (possibly, a majority) of the older generations — after defying existing government and demanding its capitulation in the early years of Fourth Turnings — ends up resisting new authority in midstream, even resorting to violence in vain efforts to impede this turnover of history.

We see the same thing, today, in the majority of struggling Boomers who continue to back Trump out of their own need of help and the persistent fear (true, in fact, and nurtured by Trump) that the government is in cahoots with the nation’s elite to cheat them of their rightful due. Most of these abide Trump’s racism because — in the lack of enough government spending to actually ensure their personal security — they feel pitted against minorities in a contest for survival. As one (white) Boomer who has spent most of his life in rebellion against our government’s failures (though enjoying, even in that, the benefits of white and male privilege), I understand anti-authoritarian (anti-government) sentiment, but progressive GenXers and Millennials — for good reason at this late date in our nation’s crisis — are intolerant of such dangerous thinking and destructive antics. If history is a guide, after this week’s showdown at the Capitol, today’s Trumpers will be singled out for the same kind of absolute suppression endured by Shays and McFarland.

Owing to the ongoing generational gestalt, today’s white rightwing oldsters have little chance of enlarging the cultural foothold they gained (over the last four years) through Trump’s articulation of their gripes. They will remain dangerous and sometimes destructive, but the majority of their younger followers will move to the center and left as the government implements programs of genuine social investment while continuing to beat down and lock up elder rightwing leaders.

WVO’s Consciousness Football

The Workers Viewpoint Organization’s consciousness football is another way to evaluate the white voter in America. WVO’s analogy dates to the late 1970s when the young, Boomer-dominated New Left was trying to figure out how to build a revolutionary party. It was obvious that “advanced workers” had to be the target of our outreach and recruitment, but their interconnections and roles relative to the total body of Americans — the masses — was little understood. In contrast to WVO, most leftists viewed the masses (and mass consciousness) as a giant pyramid, with the most advanced at the top and widening strata of less politically astute workers as one moved from the advanced to the middle and, finally, to the backward at the bottom.

WVO attacked the pyramid as belittlement of the masses, their consciousness, and their necessary role in social transformation. Noting Chairman Mao’s observation that “the masses are the makers of history” (not the advanced workers or the party, itself), WVO asserted that, far from a pyramid, the consciousness of the masses is shaped like a football.

As in the pyramid, the most advanced workers are a relatively small number, but, unlike in the pyramid, so are the relatively backward workers. The vast majority are the fat sections of the football between the two ends. In normal times, the ends are small in number and of little practical consequence, dominated by the mainstream in the middle. But, in times of crisis, the football elongates. The center is squeezed, and more people are pushed toward both ends. The backward and the advanced grow in number and activity, becoming more crucial in the political dynamics of the middle. Yet, the middle remains the largest section, and, ultimately, the way it moves determines the course of history. While its passive normalcy anchors the nation’s politics “in the middle” most of the time, in Fourth Turnings, it shifts left and right, until it finally draws a verdict on its true leaders and locks itself, to one end of the football or the other, for the duration of the turn.

Early in this Fourth Turning, after 9/11, neoconservative Boomers (Bush et al) got their shot at power, but their proposed resolution — a democratic renaissance in Iraq after a US invasion — proved not only imaginary but disastrous, and our nation stumbled along with centrist, neoliberal leadership (Obama) in Bush’s wake. Eight years into that, with their personal situations devolving, American voters, in desperation, took a deal with the devil (Trump) that promptly descended into chaos.

Minds Clear Now

However, with George Floyd’s murder on May 25 — and the nationwide rebellion against police violence that ensued — the middle sections of the American people largely cleared their minds. Aroused in the midst of a pandemic by one too many video-taped police killing of unarmed black men, America’s middle shifted its support to Black Lives Matter, and when Trump tried to mobilize the US military behind his call for law and order, the generals stood with the people and rebuked him. That was coup attempt number 1. Last week, desperate in his final weeks, he tried it again, also in utter failure.

The racist diehards who enjoyed a resurgence under Trump will now crawl back — or be beat back — into their old confines, but the beat-down will succeed only if the majority of white Trump voters are given the opportunity to join the rest of the nation in finding good, secure jobs in post-pandemic, post-industrial society. For this, the Biden Administration must step boldly forward with programs like the Green New Deal and a federal Job Guarantee. If white Trump voters see and enjoy real opportunity in their own lives, they will embrace intersectional collaboration for the greater good. That is the nature of the middle forces, whatever their race, ethnicity or gender, whatever the time in history.