American politics is a farce on the verge of tragedy. Although Donald Trump’s personality has dominated the U.S. for over four years, he’s not the only force pushing the country toward instability. Rather the main danger comes from the circumstances that allow Trump to flourish. As Karl Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero’s part.” As in France, so in the U.S., the difference being that the comical Louis Napoleon was an intellectual giant compared to Trump, the greatest coward and dunce ever to become U.S. president.
Marx’s essay is relevant to contemporary America because it describes the dashed hopes of the 1848 revolution and how the ghosts of the past haunt politics. It begins with the famous comment: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
In America today, the circumstances are a feeble political system, the farce is Trump’s attempt at a military takeover of Washington, D.C. in June, and the tragedy is what will follow the November 3rd election.
In France in 1848, the revolutionary spark was the banning of subversive dining clubs. In America in 2020, it was the Minneapolis police’s public torture and murder of George Floyd. The result was another of America’s periodic crises over racial oppression. Every few years, America recognizes the persistence of its original sin of racism. Every few years, America realizes that an original sin means that you keep sinning. The ghosts of past crises lead Americans to proclaim that “this time” is different. Each time there’s considerable progress, notable slippage, and then Americans wonder why they can’t conquer this sin. Each racism crisis resembles one of France’s many revolutions, a burst of energy that never lives up to expectations.
What was different on this occasion was that some 15 to 26 million people demonstrated against racism within weeks of Floyd’s death on May 25. After the initial marches and rioting, the protests became a persistent wave of gatherings and vigils. In some cases, small groups of individuals stood by the side of the road holding placards. Those who marched often weren’t political, nor had they previously been much concerned about racism. Much of the U.S. political class could not grasp the significance of this phenomenon. Many politicians only understand electoral mobilization and campaign contributions. People on the streets, exercising power in a raw and unmediated form, scare them.
One of the few to comprehend the challenge was Trump. He recognizes that the anti-racism movement repudiates what he stands for. The core of Trumpism is a nostalgia for a bygone age in which the “white working class” supposedly held a respected position in society, a time when minorities were in America “under sufferance” and apparently knew their place.
Trump wanted 10,000 troops to crush the protests in Washington, D.C. in early June. Attorney General Bill Barr scraped together a militia from various federal agencies to provide that show of force after the Pentagon dragged its feet. No previous American president has sought to invade the country’s capital city.
Although their unmatched uniforms gave them a comical aspect, the federal goons were a sinister presence. Few wore any insignia or identification, a ploy to evade accountability. It was clear that if ordered they’d attack the protestors with the same zeal that the Customs and Border Protection had enforced Trump’s Muslim ban in January 2017. Worse, there isn’t a single documented case of a federal agent refusing orders to deploy to the streets of Washington, D.C. So much for American exceptionalism.
The phantoms inspiring Trump are the strongmen and dictators he admires. Trump had praised the suppression of democracy activists in Tiananmen Square as demonstrating “the power of strength.” In early June, he had inquired whether tanks would be available for his fantasy counter revolution. Trump wanted bloodshed. Instead, he had to settle for clearing Lafayette Square with chemical irritants.
Despite his best efforts, Trump’s first bid at a military takeover degenerated into farce. There was no rising by imagined bands of leftist agitators for the federal militia to crush. Sowing the seeds for later confrontations, Barr sent the federal militia to the northwest, where it engaged in mêlées around federal buildings, confronted the Portland “moms,” and then beat an ignominious second retreat.
Every army, even a federal militia, needs camp followers. Luckily for Trump’s federal goons, the Republican Party was available, cheering the prospect of state violence. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AK) even put in his job application to be the next Trump with his op-ed in the New York Times. In a pointed insult to the millions who’d marched against racism, Cotton compared crushing them with the army to using troops against segregationists in the 1950s and 1960s.
Such Republican support for Trump’s lust for violence is a consequence of its belief that voter suppression is acceptable. Trump’s white nationalist hysteria is consistent with how Republicans have exploited “white” anxieties for decades. Any offense against democracy, such as minority rule, is now justified because Republicans fear losing political power and the social privilege that they consider their birthright. They assume that politics should assuage white anger, which they believe to be legitimate, and should suppress black anger, which they regard as dangerous and radical.
By contrast, the Democrats could only snipe from the sidelines. They didn’t know how to resist Trump’s military maneuvers. Not one Democratic leader understood the political symbolism of Trump’s deployment of the federal militia on the streets of Washington, D.C.When tanks appeared in Moscow in 1991, Yeltsin climbed onto one. Instead of appearing with the demonstrators confronting the federal militia near the White House, Congressional Democrats responded with letters and the threat of legislation.
Perhaps the greatest element of farce was that the only effective institutional resistance to Trump came from the Pentagon. The Department of Defense was willing to move troops close to Washington, D.C. to assuage the president, but not to put them on the streets. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff apologized for being seen near Trump in uniform after the clearing of Lafayette Square. The Pentagon later objected that the federal goons in Portland resembled soldiers.
The problem now is not the election, which Trump is trying to steal, but its aftermath. Win or lose, Trump bequeaths America an authoritarian, racist movement that has contempt for democracy, and that supports sending American soldiers to kill American citizens. Trump may be a farce of a man and a president, but when so many Americans despise their own political system, the result will be tragedy.
—Andrew Apostolou is a British historian.