Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Monday 11 January 2021

Trump tries to incite a putsch, and his UK cheerleaders reveal their own contempt for democracy

It appears as if the Facebook ban on referencing this blog has been lifted. Many thanks to all those who complained to Facebook. I doubt I will ever know who persuaded them to ban it. 

Would be democratic dictators, elected heads of state who want to ensure they can never lose an election, should know the first rule to staying in power. It is to control a sufficient amount of the media. Convincing your faithful that the mainstream media is fake news is not enough. What that sufficient amount is will depend on many factors, including the voting system for President. It may be, for example, that given the advantages a united right wing socially conservative party has in the UK, control of a majority of newspapers and a compliant BBC may be sufficient to ensure Johnson is PM for as long as he likes.

Trump also has the advantage of a biased system (the electoral college), but he did not have enough control of the media to win the 2020 election, or provide sufficient credence to his pretense that he really won. Fox News, his once biggest media supporter, called the election for Biden. But he came close, with nearly 48% of the vote and by small numbers in the key electoral college states. A large part of that 48% actually believe he won. We were not far away from a second Trump term.

When would be democratic dictators lose elections, they have a choice. They can either accept defeat, or attempt to overthrow democracy. Donald Trump, having exhausted every legal means to stay in power (and some illegal ones), took the ultimate step last week and organised a putsch against Congress as it was affirming his successor. What seemed fairly harmless outside the Capitol was anything but inside. The objective of at least some of those inside was to capture politicians who had incurred Trump’s ire. Five people are dead, including one of the policemen who were bravely defending politicians as they were evacuated.

Trump attempted to capture through his appointments the institutions that ensure the survival of democracy, much as Johnson is now doing in the UK. For Trump it turned out not to be enough. His appointments to the supreme court were not willing to overthrow a fair election. The Republican party has resisted and distorted democracy as far as it could since the Nixon years, and it supported Trump while he was in power, but now it needs to decide what to do. The horrific attack on Congress has solidified a three way divide among Republican politicians.

The first group are those Republicans who were prepared to vote against, and even campaign against, Trump in 2020. The best known of that group are the Lincoln project, who produced this ad for the election but only showed it after the attack on Congress. The second are those in the Senate and Congress who were happy to support Trump when he was in power, but don’t want to take part in the charade of pretending he really won in 2020. The size of that group was increased by the attempted putsch, either because they want to preserve democracy or they don't like failure. The third are those who are prepared to go along with throwing doubt on the election, and include 7 senators and 138 representatives (over 65% of the caucus). Incredibly these politicians continued this charade even after the putsch had failed.

Is this the end for Trump? There is nothing preventing Trump trying to run for President in 2024. His greatest asset is the large section of the population that he successfully radicalised while President, aided by the Republican party, Murdoch’s Fox news and others. He could be charged with a crime and still stand. It would be much more difficult to run for President if he was in jail, but my guess is that he can pay enough lawyers to keep him out for the necessary period. If he is charged with serious crimes he has an added incentive to stand. The big question is will those Republicans who don’t want to give him another term be able to stop him?

It will be very hard to do so. If he wishes, he can continue to energise his base and keep his flame alive. With many challengers against him in the primaries, none may be able to capture enough votes to stop him. You might think that encouraging a putsch against Congress and waiting far too long to call it off, half-heartedly, might do him some damage among Republican voters as well as politicians in Congress. But a poll taken shortly after the attack had 45% of Republicans supporting the attack. It will be interesting to see if that number diminishes as a result of the Twitter and Facebook bans.

If it does not, Trump's base could continue to be a formidable force in Republican politics, much like the Tea Party before it. That could easily be a winning majority in the primaries for 2024, but whether you are pro or anti Trump may dominate congressional elections before then. That is why so many in the House of Representatives kept up the charade that he won in 2020, despite knowing that it would fail. What will decide how much Trump influences Republican politics over the next four years will largely depend on what Trump wants to do, which in turn may depend on whether he thinks he can win and the state of his finances. Some Republicans may regret not impeaching him when they had the chance, and they may come to regret not impeaching him now. 

Even if he retreats from the political scene, the Republican party that supported him is still there, and the Murdoch outlet that created an alternative reality for his supporters is still there, just as they are still over here. While it is right that Democrats go after those involved in whatever way with the putsch right now, in the longer term they need to reintroduce a modern version of the Fairness Doctrine to curb Murdoch's power to distort reality.  

Those who had supported Trump in the UK were quick to try and rewrite the past. Some tried to portray the attack on the Capitol as just a scuffle that had nothing to do with Trump. Rather more suggested that the attack on the Capitol was proof that Johnson was not a UK version of Trump. Others in the UK said that those who tried to reverse the Brexit result were no better than those attacking Congress. Yet others acknowledged the threat from the far right and tried to equate it with some imagined threat from the left. That these arguments were even made tells you that the UK is in the same situation as the US was in during 2016, delusional about what was going down or pretending to be.

Let me deal with the ‘no better than Remainers’ argument first. This one betrayed the most about those who were making it. The idea that a campaign for a second referendum could be equated with an attempted putsch suggests a mindset that shows no respect for democracy. It shows people who have become so blinded by populist rhetoric that they cannot see the difference between having a second democratic referendum and storming the seat of government.

What about trying to ‘both sides’ this with an imagined threat from the left? It is equally ridiculous, but unfortunately may be more widely believed. No Conservative MP has been murdered by some far left nutter, and no plot to kill another Conservative MP by a member of the far left has been thwarted. No Labour Prime Minister has suspended parliament. Corbyn could not suspend parliament even if he wanted to. The myth of a threat from the left was deliberately stoked by our populist government and their friends, and it belongs in the same category of myth as Trump winning the 2020 election.

It was Trump himself who called Johnson ‘Britain’s Trump’. The Biden White House is said to regard Johnson as a physical & emotional clone of Donald Trump. Johnson's fascination with Trump, and the over the top praise for Trump that came from both Johnson and other ministers, went well beyond the normal tone adopted by UK heads of State towards the POTUS. Of course the two men are very different in many ways, but they are both right wing populists. They invoke the ‘will of the people’ when they mean half the country, at best. They are both inveterate liars. Johnson, like Trump, is totally lacking in empathy for the less well off in society.

To say, as some have done, that Johnson is at heart a liberal or libertarian whereas Trump is an authoritarian deliberately misunderstands Johnson. Was he being liberal or authoritarian when he sacked anyone competent in his cabinet and replaced them with spineless lackeys? Was he being liberal or authoritarian when he tried to break international law, or ordered water canons as Mayor of London? Is he being liberal or authoritarian as he tries to overcome any obstacles to the power of the executive? Neither are liberal on trade or immigration when it suits them not to be. Was Johnson being liberal when he appointed Pritti Patel? When Johnson dismissed the danger of using emotive language like "surrender bill" by saying the best way to stop death threats and honour Jo Cox was to support Brexit, you could imagine the same words being spoken by Trump. (HT @dasvee).  

Both failed to deal effectively with the pandemic, using the immediate damage any control measures would do to the economy as justification. As a result both let tens of thousands of the people they are elected to protect die unnecessarily. Johnson, like Trump, has no respect for a pluralistic democracy and wants to destroy all obstacles in his way. Johnson suspended parliament illegally and now wants to stop the judges stopping him doing it again. He may not have encouraged a crowd to attack parliament, he just closed it down instead.

Trump is half the story about what has happened to the United States over the last four years. The other half is a Republican party that has been happy to cheer Trump on, supported by a right wing propaganda machine financed by lots of billionaire money that is only interested in retaining Republican power. We now have our own version of that same party and that same machine, and their reactions to the attack on the Capitol reveal that they too put power above respecting a pluralist democracy.


But there is an important difference between the UK and US. The mainstream media in the US treated Trump's putsch as the criminal attack on democracy it was. When Johnson closed down parliament, our mainstream media treated it as just one more day in politics. 

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