The multiple crises that President Joe Biden faces are too many and too deep and systemic to be tackled in the old way or papered over – they require massive state intervention comparable in scale and character to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ of the 1930s, and embedding in a new global grand bargain acknowledging multipolarity and the effective twilight of the US’s global preponderance. Just like white Americans must accommodate the fact of their ‘majority-minority’ status in 20 years – they will be the largest single racial group but no longer a majority of the population – so must the foreign policy establishment accommodate to the US as the strongest, but no longer totally preponderant, world power.
The American crisis is stark. Look at the US federal capital – with over 20,000 national guard erecting a ring of steel around the inaugural platform. The US Capitol building in Washington, DC, looks increasingly like Baghdad’s Green Zone – with more US troops deployed for a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ than are based in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The FBI is vetting national guardsmen for extreme right-wing links in case an attack should be launched from within the ‘security’ services. It is a state in the centre of a perfect but terrible storm, reaping the whirlwind sown by the hyper-authoritarian, fascistic, Trump regime, but which is also rooted in a range of crises going back several decades.
There is a feeling that the imperial homeland is on the brink of a descent into an abyss.
Can Biden actually advance an agenda of change and reform – relief, recovery, and reform (the 3 Rs of the FDR era) – and also handle the upcoming Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump? He must, and simultaneously, because the challenges are interlinked. The impeachment trial goes way beyond Trump alone, though he is its focal point. It involves numerous simultaneous congressional investigations of the power and connections of the far right, its extension into the GOP and law enforcement agencies, not to mention the underlying neoliberal philosophy underpinning and necessitating a coercive state to stem the tide of popular resistance and rebellion.
Biden’s political opportunity vs entrenched neoliberalism and corporate power
Biden has control of the White House, the House of Representatives and a wafer-thin advantage in the US Senate. This provides him the political opportunity to shift approach towards concerted state intervention, but Democratic party ideology and corporate donorship threaten to place brakes on any radical agenda. On the other hand, the incendiary character of the political environment in the US – as shown by the January 6 Capitol insurrection but also in the nationwide uprisings against racist police violence – indicates urgent need for far-reaching government and government-coordinated efforts to deal with underlying social, economic, political-ideological, racial-cultural issues and divisions.
In Biden, we may have the basis of ‘pragmatic radicalism’. The sheer depth and extent of the pandemic, and economic, social, and international-systemic challenges or crises could be the mother of ‘pragmatic radicalism’ – meaning that no democratic government could or should continue in the old way of doing things because they have not worked, or have only exacerbated the crises. This will not be driven a change of philosophy but pragmatic realisation that the old ways cannot deliver political stability or global power projection.
A key factor weighing towards pragmatic radicalism is Biden’s age, and possibly health, which suggest a one-term-only outlook going into the White House. This brings into play Biden’s sense of his legacy into calculations: how does he want to be remembered by history? Is it as a leader who extirpated Trumpism and the legacies of division and climbing inequality, or one who did business-as-usual elite politics? The latter may well pave the way for Trump II, or Trumpism without Trump. If Biden’s claim is true, that what forced him to run against Trump was the president’s support for white supremacist and neo-Nazi riot at Charlottesville in 2017, then we may expect a thorough-going effort to get to the roots of Trumpism in the GOP.
US crises – a perfect but terrible storm
The US’s crises have converged into a near-perfect but terrible storm: at root, there are basic crises of democracy and election-legitimacy; incendiary partisan division; and discontent over inequality and police violence against minorities across America’s cities. There are millions of working people and their children going to bed hungry in the world’s lone superpower, its City upon a Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic – the mother lode crisis – is causing a devastating loss of life which shows few signs of abating anytime soon, and has generated a social and economic catastrophe for working people, while enriching the wealthiest billionaires at the same time. This alone represents a political tinderbox of unimaginable proportions. It has highlighted every nook and cranny of a political-economic system that offers little of anything resembling normal life let alone the American dream.
Political protest and violence appears to have become a feature of the American political landscape, a part of its political terrain. It has reared up every few years, but the eruptions of 2020 crossed a psychological line on 6 January – it reached the very halls of government. It was not taken at all seriously by the Democratic party’s national leadership when the Michigan state capitol was invaded by heavily armed extreme right-wingers and white supremacists, threatening to kidnap and assassinate the governor. It’s a different matter when members of congress House and Senate were forced to flee for their lives from Trump’s insurrectionary storm-troopers on 6 January.
And it is clear that US authority in world system – among allies and foes alike – has diminished. This was part of a longer term process, of course, as new powers emerged or re-emerged on the world scene, increasing/demanding multipolarity.
Trump’s responses to the above deep crises – i.e., use of intense coercion, America First unilateralism, government and personal irresponsibility, and ‘laissez-faire’ crony-corporate ‘strategy’, anti-immigrant and racial divisions, authoritarianism and encouragement of far right, political polarisation – failed. Not only did they fail, Trump’s solutions to US power crises exacerbated and deepened them and led to his decisive electoral defeat in November 2020, bringing his one term of office to a disgraceful ending with a second historic impeachment to his name and legacy – for “incitement of insurrection” that left 5 people dead.
Biden’s agenda is ambitious, and needs to be
Biden has his work cut out – a deadly pandemic; ailing economy; domestic political instability; climate change crisis; and repairing international relationships and alliances.
In foreign policy, Executive Orders (EO) and Presidential Proclamations are vital to overturn Trump’s largescale EO programme – 210 in four years compared with Obama’s 276 in eight years, Bush’s 290 in eight years and Clinton’s 254 also in eight years. There are numerous significant policy shifts awaiting Biden’s attention – he can overturn the Muslim travel ban, rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, extricate the US from its deadly support of Saudi war on Yemen, return US to World Health Organisation membership as well as the UN Human Rights Council, and rebuild diplomatic relations with Cuba. EOs and Presidential Proclamations are highly effective and an instrument of choice to avoid congressional opposition.
But the biggest issue is the shape of the global system, and the US’s role in it vis-a-vis allies, partners, competitors and rivals, and the extent to which US remains the post-1945 world’s preponderant power or one of the most powerful among a number of powerful international actors.
But alongside managing all of the above, especially the pandemic, the extreme right-wing threat to the US system of government must be one of the most urgent. It is probably the single most critical crisis that goes to the very heart of state power, as well US world power, and global role and standing. That makes the Senate impeachment trial, and a number of other congressional investigations into the long- and short-term sources of the 6 January insurrectionary attack on the US Capitol, central to the Biden agenda.
Senate impeachment trial: An essential reckoning
This will clearly take time and attention from the enormous burden of immediate government business, as I argue above. But there should be no stone left unturned in getting to the bottom of the power of the far right and its reach into the police, military and the GOP. Any superficial truce on this matter only papers over the cracks in the name of ‘national healing’ and ‘unity’. Burying the problem now will only store up a far greater explosion in the future. There should be no appeasement of the violent extreme right and their allies in Congress.
It is essential to draw a line under the failed strategy and abuses of power of President Trump and his extremist political faction by full, public investigations and radical reform. We are not talking about a truth and reconciliation commission but something that exposes to the light the roots, organisational power, networks, and reach of the extreme Right in America. The Senate impeachment process will supplement and encourage other congressional investigations of the events and roots of the 6 January insurrection. It will expose and tackle the roles of law enforcement at all levels in the Capitol insurrection.
There is an added political advantage by doing this for Biden and the Democratic party: it may further divide and weaken the Republican party – auguring a probable ‘political’ win for the Democrats going into 2022 mid-term elections.
In the end, American government is ‘party government’. And it is driven by short-term electoral calculations, and massive corporate donations. But we are in unprecedented times. Will President Biden, who has reached the pinnacle of his long political career at so critical a moment, govern with the bigger picture in mind – embrace a politics of pragmatic radicalism? He has the opportunity. Does he have the will?
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.
The political climate remains toxic but with a certain level of 'anxiety-laden' hope.
President Donald Trump’s stealthy, creeping ‘coup attempt’ remains a major political issue as we enter the final stretch of his presidency. He has successfully carried out his threat to contest by any means available to him the election defeat of November 2020, including legal action, political pressure, encouragement of mass protest by the extreme Right, not to mention threats of violence against election officials, including Republicans.
Trump is now calling for the US Senate and House to challenge the Electoral College vote on January 6, and his supporters to ‘march on Washington DC’, which could descend into violence. In addition, the administration is ramping up baseless fears of ‘retaliatory’ attacks by Iranian forces to mark the January 3 anniversary of the drone killing of General Suleimani, and reinforcing US naval, air and military forces in the Gulf.
Through a combination of manufactured confusion over the election, orchestrated domestic political unrest, and the threat of military intervention that could lead to catastrophic loss of life, including US forces, Trump is creating the chaotic and confused conditions for a potential declaration of a national emergency.
The US military’s senior officers are reportedly very concerned that Trump will engineer either domestic political violence in Washington DC on January 6 (or on January 20, President Joseph Biden inauguration) as Congress confirms the Electoral College vote and announces Biden elected. Trump tweeted a call to his supporters to protest the process – saying it’ll be “wild” while maintaining his baseless stolen election conspiracy theories.
Senior uniformed military worry that Trump will engineer a foreign military adventure as we approach the January 3 anniversary of US drone killing of Iran General Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Trump has also stated a desire to attack Iran for rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad. Either could be a basis for mobilising the US military, declaring a national emergency and refusing to leave office: this has been discussed in such overt terms in a series of respected media including the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Hill and CNN. Trump’s coup attempt has also been called out in such terms by leading scholars, including the historian of authoritarianism, Professor Timothy Snyder at Yale University.
Meanwhile, Biden’s national security team is being denied access to key security-related information by the Trump administration.
A declaration of martial law was mooted in a recent media interview by General Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, to organise a re-run of “battleground state” elections (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, among others), and was subsequently discussed at the White House. So concerned is the US military that it was considered necessary to issue a formal statement that they will not intervene in US elections – which is in itself a marker of the depth of the crisis of US politics and government. The question remains, of course, as to any support among the military’s senior officers that Flynn may command.
Trump has only added fuel to the fire since his decisive defeat in November 2020. He removed the existing civilian leadership at the Pentagon because they objected to his threats to attack Iran and misuse the military at home, and appointed Trump loyalists. It is now reported that Trump is heading back to the White House from Florida, missing his New Year’s party. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has stated he will object to the Electoral College vote on January 6 and demand a congressional enquiry into the November elections. Hawley is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2024 by siding with Trump and his loyal voter base; other senators may follow his example. It is clear that Trump will be in Washington, DC, overseeing, orchestrating and co-ordinating a concerted attack on US democratic forms by exploring every means at his disposal of clinging to office.
This ‘crisis politics’ is on full display in the Georgia run-off elections scheduled for January 5: there have been death threats against the GOP governor, a Trump loyalist who refused to challenge the election result in his state, and against other elected representatives. Trump has called on Governor Kemp to resign. In the meantime, Georgia’s GOP is still engaging in large-scale voter suppression tactics – some of which have been overturned in the courts. The more extreme Trump supporters are demanding Republicans boycott the elections due to election-rigging claims. With large-scale early voting, likely to lean towards the Democrats, the GOP may well receive in Georgia its comeuppance – blowback – for its facilitation and appeasement of Trump and Trumpism over the past four years.
Trump heaps manufactured crises on to real crises that he has no interest in tackling. His last-minute demand for larger payouts to the millions of economic victims of the pandemic has nothing to do with ordinary people who are in dire straits, and everything to do with pressuring and dividing the Republican party, and lining up support for his own political agenda. Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnel’s position will become untenable if the GOP loses the Georgia senate seats. That the Georgia election looks as close as it does suggests depth of Trump’s effects there, and his ability and willingness to take on the most powerful leader of the GOP.
Crisis and divisions of both main parties
The GOP is increasingly divided: paying the price of enabling and appeasing Trump and Trumpism. The Democrats are divided between Bidenites and the confident group of recently-elected progressives in Congress. Biden remains silent on the Trump coup d’etat that is in progress, fearful of a mobilised progressive movement against fascism and authoritarianism.
However, it is important to remember that Trump’s defeat in November was pretty decisive, overall. The US electorate drew a line against white supremacy politics, border wall and draconian attacks on immigrants, disastrous handling of the pandemic, and against the definition of racist police violence as a mere ‘law and order’ issue. The election also resuscitated the idea, however flawed in practice, of the US as an open, tolerant, diverse and welcoming democratic ‘soft’ power. But note the largely negative character of the line – against Trump, with a sliver of anxiety-ridden hope that Biden might tackle the US’s biggest problems from a progressive perspective.
The anxiety of that hope, however, is that Biden will not want to be outflanked from the Right and will expend most of his political capital by reaching out to a Trumpist GOP (remember Trump’s 74 million votes and possibility of 2024 run), and side-lining progressive Democrats who did so much to energise the youth, student and minority votes. Their alienation could be disastrous in 2024. Will Biden do comprehensive healthcare reform? Climate change policy that’s really effective? Infrastructure investment in middle-class US? Something on college tuition fees and student debt?
The Big Picture is that the US remains in a deep and long-lived legitimacy crisis – the loss of popular authority by both political parties and government, rising mass discontent, economic precarity, a pandemic roaring on, people going hungry.
Alongside popular misery and anger, the stock market recovers, as does US economic activity to near-pre-pandemic levels, enriching the few, and underlining to the many of both parties that the US political system really has little to offer them in practice.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.
THE ELITE POWER BLOG
On this page one of the EPIC members as well as occasional guests will regularly publish blogs commenting on news and developments in world politics showing the power of elites or the resistance to elite power