Let’s be clear: The United States is in crisis. And has been for longer than the past month.
This crisis was first evident in the lead up to the second Iraq war. Lies about “weapons of mass destruction,” an illegal war of aggression in Iraq and the establishment of an American torture regime happened before President Trump’s administration. Mass surveillance, near collapse of the economy and the Wall Street bail out all point to this enduring crisis of a country in decline and at odds with its professed values. (This crisis goes beyond the longstanding contradictions between the country’s professed ideals and the realities of racialized repression, economic injustice and imperial ambition.)
During George W. Bush’s administration the United States sustained illegal war, government torture and nearly lost its entire financial and economic system. The whole Western economy nearly collapsed because of this and the economic crisis continues with aftershocks to this day. While Barack Obama slowed the shocks and stabilised the economy, he did not address the root crisis. Nobody was prosecuted for torture. Mass surveillance was expanded. Liberalism (in the broadest sense) continued its decline.
Under President Trump, the political, economic, moral and democratic crisis of the George W. Bush administration continues. President Trump is merely a symptom and an extension of the crisis; he is not the cause. And he is not the real problem. The crisis is the decline of liberalism (and its cousin social democracy). The United States is no longer a liberal republic, or (at least) American liberalism is on its death bed and that is the root of the crisis unfolding before us today.
Liberalism is a form of representative democracy grounded in the rule of law, individual rights and freedoms, free market with balancing regulation, equality under the law, balanced powers of state, pluralism and tolerance for diversity. Leading political factions in the United States were once all liberal (again, in the broadest sense of the word), even though the spectrum went from “liberal” to “conservative.” (Confusingly, in the United States conservative liberals were called “conservative” and progressive liberals were called “liberal” — but across the spectrum they were all part of a liberal republican regime.)
Now the leading powers of Congress and the Presidency are anti-liberal.
We are struggling to put into words what these leading powers stand for, in terms of their over arching political and economic ideology. “Facist” makes sense, but is not entirely accurate because the anti-liberal ideology of the leading political forces in the United States today are not directly derived from the facist regimes of Hitler’s Germany, Musulini’s Italy or Franco’s Span. There are parallels for certain. Like the facist regimes of the past, today’s Congress and White House are certainly against the core tenants of liberal democracy. But there are differences, too.
Part of why it’s hard to label today’s regime is because it’s still a transitional period for both ideology and regime. The first task, destroying liberalism, remains – because the pillars of American liberalism are still standing, however weak. These pillars include a legal system based on due process, equality before the law and an independent judiciary, an economic system based on government regulation and balancing of the economy and programs like Social Security and Medicare, and a culture of free inquiry, centred on science, autonomous universities and social pluralism.
A challenge to the new regime is the system of American federalism. While the federal government may abandon liberal programs and policies, it’s difficult to impose this on other levels of government. We see this already in states that expanded Medicare under the Affordable Care Act while others did not. At best, under the current constitutional arrangement, an anti-liberal federal regime can drop liberal programs (i.e. Social Security and Medicare) and leave nothing in their place. But it cannot force states like California and Vermont to become bastions of anti-liberal authoritarianism – at least not under the current system.
The new regime can give money to state governments for doing anti-liberal things, like creating even more militarised police forces, incarcerating even more people and expanding private delivery of public services (like for-profit schools). Every break down of existing liberal institutions moves the new regime forward. But it will have to do more than destroy what’s already in place in order to survive as its own ideology. It also has to build its own institutions. This will be a challenge in a culture where authoritarianism is in the clear minority. But it can be done, especially using the tools of fear, economic insecurity, racism and propaganda.
Perhaps by the time they’ve build their regime they’ll also have a name for their ideology and its core tenants for how it’s supposed to work will be expressed. Right now it seems like nobody’s in complete charge of the take down, with competing power centres in Congress, the Republican party and the White House all craving for a take over — without a clear idea of what’s to follow or who’ll end up in control.
What seems likely is a system of crony capitalism with extreme wealth imbalance and violent social controls needed to keep things in check. I think, given the history of the United States, that this system would be likely race-based. Perhaps a return to legally imposed segregation is possible. This regime will place the individual power of ruling elites above all else, built on a class system based on acquired or inherited wealth (but not an aristocracy by birth). Corporate self-rule will replace liberalism’s regulatory system of a balanced free market. The role of government will be to impose and maintain monopoly powers in exchange for those powers propping up government. The system seems likely to fuelled by the enterprise of violence and oppression, especially on the basis of race and religion. (President Trump is already laying out this vision in the order of his administration.)
I will deeply miss American liberalism, even though I am not liberal because I’ve believe that individual rights cannot be secure without a collective economy centred on equality of wealth and a culture of universal dignity. Liberalism’s human rights and rule of law are in constant tension with the failure of its free market and private-property based economics. That said, living in liberal hegemony is far more secure than fascism (or whatever this emerging regime becomes to be called). Liberalism values each individual life for its own sake – at least in theory – (not for its human utility). And liberal freedoms create the conditions for individual expression that at least support resistance to its shortcomings and contradictions.
In the United States there has been a liberal ideal to be sure. But it’s been an ideal mixed with deep contradictory reality – such a the impossible fictions of a liberal slave state, liberal apartheid and liberal imperialism (including the Indian Wars of Manifest Destiny). But as liberalism wanes, and with it the university, free press, independent judiciary and rule of law, we will see in its place some far more troubling than a liberal ideal not yet realized. The world will see the most powerful, brazen, technologically advanced and ambitious authoritarian (and anti-lberal) regime in all of human history.
The collapse of American liberalism will effect us all. It seems unlikely that liberal (or social democratic) forces within the United States will prevail. The world is about to be reordered. Troubling times are upon us now.