‘Trial by Combat’ at the Capitol

Down with Trump! Break with the Democrats!

14 January 2021

The storming of the US Capitol on 6 January was a significant event in contemporary American politics and a warning for the future. Thousands of Trump supporters from across the country — ranging from right-wing MAGA conservatives, QAnon fanatics and the alt-right to openly pro-fascist elements — descended on Washington for the “Save America March.” Once on site, hundreds of them breached the Capitol gates, smashed windows, ransacked offices and rummaged through desks, stopping to take selfies and film the events from inside the building. There was clearly sympathy for them among some layers of the Capitol security forces.

As angry attendees gathered outside the White House earlier that morning, some already pumped and primed to carry out mayhem, they were recklessly egged on by Trump and his entourage. GOP Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama opened the pro-Trump rally by declaring: “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.” Rudy Guiliani, Trump’s personal attorney, boasted to the crowd: “Over the next 10 days, we get to see the machines are crooked, the ballots are fraudulent. And if we’re wrong, we will be made fools of. But if we’re right, a lot of them will go to jail. So … let’s have trial by combat. I am willing to stake my reputation.” The “president of law and order” himself declared: “We're going to walk down to the Capitol.… Because you'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.”

Condemnation of Trump and the Capitol events by the vast majority of the corporate media and political establishment was swift. Social media giants Twitter and Facebook immediately suspended Trump, followed by Snapchat, Spotify, Twitch and YouTube, while Reddit and TikTok imposed new restrictions on any posts supporting the president or his actions — moves that will be used to silence left-wing dissidence as well. Media outlets ABC, CNN and MSNBC invariably described the incident as a “coup,” “sedition,” or an “insurrection.” President-elect Joe Biden cynically lamented: “At this hour, our democracy is under unprecedented assault — unlike anything we've seen in modern times.… It's not protest, it's insurrection.” The same ruling-class mouthpieces that enthusiastically supported Washington-backed coup attempts in Bolivia, Honduras and Venezuela expressed utter shock at what they saw as similar events in the “land of the free.”

Big business, which has benefited from Trump’s economic policies, has largely withdrawn support for the president. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), the biggest US industrial trade association representing some 14,000 small and large companies, issued a press release denouncing the riot and blaming Trump: “This is not law and order. This is chaos. It is mob rule. It is dangerous. This is sedition and should be treated as such. The outgoing president incited violence in an attempt to retain power, and any elected leader defending him is violating their oath to the Constitution and rejecting democracy in favor of anarchy.” Even the staunchly pro-Republican US Chamber of Commerce, the largest lobbying group in the United States, condemned the attacks and implored Congress to ratify a Biden win.

The siege of the Capitol is the unsurprising result of months of baseless claims by Trump and significant layers of the Republican party to have “won” the November 2020 presidential elections and their refusal to recognize a Biden victory. Facing a wave of resignations, rebuke within his own administration and a second impeachment, Trump and his closest associates distanced themselves from the Capitol events and softened their intransigent opposition to a Democratic presidency. Trump conceded that “there will be an orderly transition on January 20” and called for “healing and reconciliation,” although he refuses to accept the outcome of the election and has promised not to attend Biden’s inauguration.

Wide layers of the American ruling class and the core of the capitalist state (i.e., the army, cops, prisons and courts) are deeply concerned about Trump’s recklessness in his final days in office and the damage it may cause to both the prospects of social stability at home and the image of US imperialism abroad. In August, Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismissed the idea that the US top military leadership would intervene on behalf of Trump to contest the election: “In the event of a dispute over some aspect of the elections, by law U.S. courts and the U.S. Congress are required to resolve any disputes, not the U.S. military.” A week after the presidential elections, as Trump refused to concede defeat, Milley reiterated: “We do not take an oath to a king or a queen, a tyrant or a dictator. We do not take an oath to an individual. No, we do not take an oath to a country, a tribe or religion. We take an oath to the Constitution.” Days before the Capitol events, a rogue’s gallery of all ten living former defense secretaries, both Republicans and Democrats, authored an op-ed that accepted a Biden win in the November election, rebuffed any idea of military involvement and called for “peaceful transfers of power.”

The idea that a fascist-inspired “coup” or “insurrection” was taking place, let alone had any chance of success, is far-fetched. Those storming the Capitol managed to briefly delay Congress in ratifying Biden’s victory, but beyond that they clearly had no further program for seizing power nor the organizational support to carry it out. A recent PBS News Hour poll (8 January 2021) showed that only 8 percent of respondents supported the Capitol action, while 88 percent opposed it. A mere 18 percent of Republicans, no doubt including much of Trump’s base, supported the attack.

While Trumpism has elements in common with fascism (anti-immigrant bigotry, nativism, cavalier disregard for bourgeois-democratic norms, authoritarian impulses) and Trump himself is popular with white nationalists and neo-Nazis, he has largely operated within the framework of bourgeois legality, while flirting with its outer limits.

Writing about the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s, Leon Trotsky observed:

“Fascism is a particular governmental system based on the uprooting of all elements of proletarian democracy within bourgeois society.…
“Through the fascist agency, capitalism sets in motion the masses of the crazed petty bourgeoisie and the bands of declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat — all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.
“When a state turns fascist … the workers’ organizations are annihilated … the proletariat is reduced to an amorphous state … a system of administration is created which penetrates deeply into the masses and which serves to frustrate the independent crystallization of the proletariat.”
—“What Next?,” 27 January 1932

Despite the fact that Trump is a despicable, misogynist, vulgar plutocrat who pretends to champion the interests of millions of angry white Middle Americans, he has channelled discontent in a right-wing populist — not a fascist — direction. Leftist organizations like the World Socialist Website (WSWS) are crying wolf when they claim that the events of 6 January were “a coordinated, planned fascist insurrection” led by “coup plotter Trump” (6 January 2021).

Trump lacks an organized mass movement of extra-parliamentary thugs to smash the organizations of the working class, the sine qua non of fascism. There is a sense in which the events at the Capitol were a “trial by combat,” a test of how much support there is for pushing beyond established “democratic” norms. They should be seen as a warning for the future and a harbinger of things to come. As US imperialism continues on the path of protracted decline, the traditional two-party system will prove incapable of containing the social contradictions swelling up at the base of society. Into that void a more serious and capable fascist leadership than those present at the Capitol may well emerge to unite the currently atomized and fragmented far-right. That is why the American working class must crush the fascists now when they are weak (see “No Platform for Fascists!,” 1917 No.40).

A labor movement with a class-struggle leadership would organize to physically confront marauding fascists and inflict humiliating defeats on the modern-day Brownshirts. United-front action by the workers’ movement — including trade unions, organizations of the oppressed and other potential victims of the fascists — is the most effective means to prevent them from rallying, marching and spreading their poisonous filth. The cops, many of whom are sympathetic to (if not outright members of) fascist organizations, are the enemies of the working class and have no place in the labor movement.

For all their disagreements with Trump and the GOP, the Democrats loyally serve the same financial parasites and corporate masters on Wall Street. They have also spent the last four years strengthening the forces of state repression under the president they call a “fascist.” In November 2019, the Democrats voted to extend the infamous post-9/11 Patriot Act, and then voted again to renew it in March 2020. Last summer, while Trump was dispatching hundreds of federal officers from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to descend on major American cities to quell social unrest over the racist police murder of George Floyd, the Democrats were busy pushing through legislation granting $50 billion in funding to the DHS (see “Trump’s Authoritarian Crackdown,” 25 July 2020). Just a few weeks ago, Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats voted for a record $741 billion in military spending for the Pentagon, yet again rejecting proposals to reduce the defense budget by 10 percent.

While promising some kind of meaningful break with Trump/Pence, the incoming Democratic administration instead represents a fundamental continuity with the outgoing Republicans. Biden himself has admitted that “nothing will fundamentally change” (Vox, 19 June 2019). The Obama/Biden years were a bonanza for finance, the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex: incredible concentration of wealth and unprecedented levels of social inequality; millions of homes lost through foreclosures while the banks got government bailouts; 2.5 million immigrants deported (more than under all other presidents combined); the Arctic opened to drilling; US imperialism’s global “war on terror” expanded from two countries (Afghanistan and Iraq) to include Libya, Mali, Syria, drone strikes in Pakistan and support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen; and a $1 trillion upgrade for the US nuclear weapons program (see “Whither America?,” 2 July 2020).

Left-liberals and pseudo-socialists are looking forward to a Biden/Harris reset in Washington in which “America is back.” While genuine socialists do not mourn the vile Trump administration, breaking from the Democrats to create a revolutionary socialist party is an absolute precondition for the workers’ movement to defend its own interests. Ultimately, addressing the most pressing needs of the multi-racial American working class (wages, employment, education, healthcare, housing, etc.) requires the revolutionary overthrow of US capitalism and the creation of a workers’ state committed to “expropriating the expropriators.”

Related articles:
Whither America? (1917 No.43)
Trump’s Authoritarian Crackdown (1917 No.43)
No Platform for Fascists! (1917 No.40)