Obsessing About the Unthinkable

There Will Be No Reckoning for Trump, only the Possibility of Civil War

It is important these days to remember that Donald Trump wasn’t created in a mindless void or a bottomless pit (although it is tempting to see a reference to Trump in Revelation 9:1-12, which speaks of a bottomless pit that holds a unique type of demon, but there is no mention of whether the demon is orange).

Trump’s human nature is not solely the product of his good genes (of which he brags incessantly) but the product of what Marx termed an ‘ensemble of social relations,’ the result of his joint activity in the course of his social history. Donald Trump has been made and remade through his mutual relationships with others – his human-sensuous activity – in the messy socio-political swamp of American life. It is this context that works both for and against Trump. Had he stayed out of politics, he would have focused all his energies on accumulating wealth and burnishing his notoriety as an A-list media celebrity. But his dark desire to hold power over his enemies and critics and watch them squirm proved lip-smackingly insatiable. He made his fateful connection with millions of others by recognising how enthusiastically they responded to his cruelty, his racism and his embitterment and his ability to provoke the mainstream guardians of US propriety and civility. This was his great insight: that he has just the right type of charisma to laser-focus a generalised rage against the decline of American life into a political weapon through artful slander, personal maliciousness, self-aggrandisement and the ability to mesmerise the public with lies, lies so ridiculous that they could only be perceived as truthful. The more that Trump was ridiculed by the liberal press, the more his followers were exorbitantly thrilled, their rage temporarily subsumed in the titillation of their gonads. Good has turned evil into a greater evil because the ‘good’ represented by the Democratic Party comes across as painstaking indifference to the ills of the ordinary American, especially the rural American.

Democrats are easy pickings in the hands of Trump’s propaganda genius. Trump raised $250 million off his election lies, according to the House select committee, using scam artist tactics to bilk vulnerable retirees for the non-existent ‘Official Election Defence Fund.’ He is now rich beyond his dreams which he has all too happily exchanged for his honour. His malignity and psychopathology seem to attract followers when these same characteristics should repulse people. What does this say about the American voters? Only that they have been ideologically swindled and unprepared for the level of racism brewing within the political unconscious of the country, and that they have been rendered unaware of their own increasing penchant for premeditated political violence and terrorism, as seen in the attack on the Capitol by right-wing paramilitaries and thousands of other Trump followers. Do these insurrectionists sufficiently understand the fragility of democracy and that it is already starting to peel away from four years of Trump rule and its aftermath in which even traditional conservatives can find no place to belong and no place to hide? They hardly care. What they care about is ambushing those who continue to fight climate change, to strengthen our multiracial democracy and to continue the journey of civil rights and gay rights. Many of the achievements of democracy can and likely will be washed away with a single swipe of the dictator’s pen in 2024. The future of the country is now in the hands of those who have, along with their plutocratic forebears, meticulously prepared the way for a chaos of retribution, for a withering fascist assault on the tender loins of the American state, and this includes today’s generation of apostolic reformation ministers who have convinced their congregations to support Trump in order to fight Satan’s army of paedophiliac, flesh-eating Democrats.

Donald Trump cannot be antiseptically cleaved from history. He is not independent of time and space, and thus what has happened to the Republican Party, including the former president’s culpability for the deadly events of January 6, has become much clearer to those who have studied the history of dictatorships and those violent cults that have helped to bring them into being. Many of the early architects of these American cults are now dead and gone, and those who wish to distance themselves from their own creations find that it is too late to save their reputations. They may wish to be revered as great political minds, but they will be buried in their neighbours’ MAGA hats. For they, too, will go down in flames in annals of history. Chauncey Devega writes in Salon:

In reality, Donald Trump – as a man, a symbol and a political leader – and everything he embodies is the product of our society, driven by extreme social inequality, consumerism and greed, unfulfilled dreams, widespread alienation and loneliness, anti-intellectualism, racism and white supremacy, the cult of the spectacle, our fetish for violence and a range of related antisocial and anti-human values and tendencies.

And what do we have in the public domain to challenge Trump? We have a Democratic Party that Chris Hedges describes as follows:

The two established wings of the oligarchy, the old Republican Party represented by politicians such as Liz Cheney, one of two Republicans on the committee, and the Bush family, are now united with the Democratic Party elite into one ruling political entity. The ruling parties were already in lockstep for decades on the major issues, including war, trade deals, austerity, the militarisation of police, prisons, government surveillance and assaults on civil liberties. They worked in tandem to pervert and destroy democratic institutions on behalf of the rich and corporations. They desperately work together now to stave off the revolt by enraged and betrayed white working men and women who support Donald Trump and the far right.

The left – and that includes liberal democrats, socialists, anarchists and communists – needs to develop a robust defence of democracy, addressing the growing divergence between the domain of its official discourse and the domain of its practical activity, dealing equally with the concept of direct democracy and that of representative democracy. The growth of imperialism, militarism and the threat of World War III that looms over us all in Ukraine makes it imperative that we can invigorate the articulating principles of social democratic theory and practice and to build a popular-democratic ideological system of intelligibility. We need to grasp further the nature of the current crisis of capitalism and the necessity of a transformation to socialism in order to unite today’s flagging popular democratic forces for which we currently have no ready-made, blueprint solutions. We have witnessed the rise of new political subjects – students, artists, tech workers, ecologists – who are being attacked by Trumpists. Any attempt to recognise and redress the unfolding structural crisis and the response to it of various sections of capital is acutely perceived by the MAGA elite as an attack on their conservative nationalist principles. The restructuring of capitalism as a world system seems as far away as another galaxy as the left is progressively weakened and demoralised, unable to effectively unite around the complex task of building a new ensemble of political forces and social relations that will lead us to a social universe in which the absence of value production becomes the glue that holds together the social order. Any frontal manoeuvres against the state, let alone declarations that urge a transcendence of capitalism or that reflect a revolutionary means out of the crisis of capitalism that involves communal possession of the means and conditions of production under popular democratic control are met with furious derision and attacks by the growing Trumpist mob. Even the suggestion that people of colour are dominated or oppressed in any way in this country is met with vile attacks on teachers and social scientists. The transnational capitalist class and their servants block all strategic roads necessary to forge ahead with strategies and tactics of resistance outside and against the capitalist state. Strategies that address the issue of class alone and are devoid of a theory of intersectionality have proven their bankruptcy, certainly in the advanced capitalist countries. Clearly, it has been difficult to build the political and ideological conditions for socialism without a major socialist party in the United States. The mass base of popular organisations has been dominated by the MAGA groups, making it extremely difficult to support and extend the struggle for socialism today by developing an organic bloc against capital. Developing a protracted ‘war of position’ as originally envisioned by Antonio Gramsci is faced with providing an all-sided strategy that takes into account the formation of conspiracy theories and religio-political cults that seemingly have been made impregnable by new, ever-shifting post-digital technologies. It appears that such religio-politico-organic-blocs advanced through internet platforms and policies that curtail left electoral practice can only be challenged through repressive legal sanctions, which would be inconsistent with both representative democracy and grass-roots democracy. If strategies seem missing, then what about tactics? The MAGA crowd has developed tactics taken from the left. As Amanda Marcotte notes,

[t]he idea of organising a protest even has been reconfigured by social media technologies. Trump was remarkably skilled at using public communications – speeches and, crucially, tweets – to convey his wishes to his followers without coming right and giving direct orders to commit crimes. It’s a strategy that works to shield Trump from legal consequences, as he can always pretend that he was ‘merely’ criticising Pence or ‘merely’ promising that January 6 would be ‘wild,’ and that how people reacted was all on them and not what he intended at all. It’s a strategy that wouldn’t work, however, without the feedback loop made possible by the internet. Trump was able to receive feedback on how his followers were receiving his communications and react in real-time by feeding more communications to them through social media.

Although Trumpism is very much a top-down movement, with Trump as the leader, new organising strategies enable Trump and others in his cult to ultimately escape prosecution. Marcotte writes that these ‘new-fangled methods of criminal conspiracy’ borrow significantly ‘from leaderless movements on the left like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, both of which have long used social media to organise on the fly, without relying on the traditional top-down decision-making models.’ This is made possible by social media ecosystems that help facilitate decision-making. While riots like January 6 can seem helter-skelter, they can make an end run around bureaucratic decision-making and increase mobility and improvisation. Marcotte writes that

[a] lot of the Black Lives Matter protests were hastily assembled after George Floyd’s murder by people throwing out ideas for places and times to assemble. The result sometimes was three or four protests in any given city at once. That chaos ended up being a strength. Here in Philadelphia, the protests spilled out in every direction, with marchers converging and diverging all over town, making it significantly harder for authorities to blunt the impact of the march by shepherding it to a part of town where it could be easily ignored.

Social media made secrecy unnecessary for the January 6 insurrection to occur. Public communication through social media was all that was necessary. Unfortunately for Trump, the January 6 insurrection was not met with resistance from the left, which would have given Trump the necessary condition for invoking the Insurrection Act and instituting martial law. That would no doubt have seen Antifa beaten to a pulp. Absent any resistance, Trump and his mob were able to improvise and decide on another tactic – to shut down the electoral count by force. Yes, Trump knew this was criminal, but he managed to get away with this by borrowing the tactics of leaderless movements on the left.

Marcotte explains that social media communication assists the role of insurrections without any direct communication from the leaders. It does this through ‘online chatter.’ She explains:

The idea of stopping the electoral count evolved in large part through people sharing conspiracy theories and spreading documents online. Trump was just as much an audience for these conspiracy theories as he was a leader. An elaborate and secretive conspiracy for the insurrection itself was not necessary because Trump and his allies could communicate publicly through social media. The goal, the place, and the time were established through these public channels. Trump could trust that groups like the Proud Boys and Oathkeepers knew what he wanted from them without having to say so directly. Trump was well aware that there were rising groups of right-wing thugs who wanted to commit violence. His role was more of a traffic director than traditional general giving orders. He was, in many ways, reacting as much to what his followers were signalling, they wanted to do as he was telling them what to do. Of course, when people organise a Black Lives Matter protest or an underground rave, they aren’t engaging in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government. But it all goes to show that social media technologies are remaking what we think of as ‘organising’ an event. Increasingly, it’s not about leaders setting an agenda, but about collective groups formulating a plan together by talking online. In most cases, that’s a good thing (such as with Black Lives Matter protests) or largely harmless (underground raves). But there can be no doubt that the far-right, with Trump right in the middle, has figured out how to co-opt these same strategies.

I agree with Marcotte that Trump must be charged with criminal intent by the January 6 committee for inciting a mob to attack the Capitol in order to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, leading to the death of five people, including one police officer, dozens of injuries and two deaths by suicide. But I am not holding my breath. He’s wealthy and white, after all. As Nathalie Baptiste puts it so succinctly: ‘the facts of the case matter much less than the identity of the perpetrator.’ During the attack on the Capitol building, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) was directed away from the mob by a police officer, likely saving his life as rioters assaulted police with metal poles and other weapons and threatened Vice President Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and other lawmakers with violence, even death. Because ‘[s]tudies have shown that prosecutors are more likely to hand down harsher sentences for drug offences for people of colour, despite the fact that the drug usage rate is similar among racial groups … [and that] … [w]hen it comes to murder, prosecutors are more likely to pursue death sentences when the victim is white, even though Black people are just as likely to be the victims of murder,’ it is very likely former President Trump will not be indicted for criminal intent. There are too many Republican senators who are, in the words of Baptiste, ‘craven lackeys’ and ‘committed to whiteness and wielding power.’ They are also committed to defending America’s racially biased system of justice. I foresee a civil war in this country, not in the traditional sense of the 1860s when muskets and canons cut thousands of soldiers to pieces in the span of just a few hours, or in the geographical sense of the Mason-Dixon line. But I don’t think the war will simply be ideological, either. I say this not to be sensationalist. The likely division that could severely divide the country is the urban/rural divide.

Ron Elving reports that most people who had voted to re-elect former President Donald Trump wanted their state to secede from the Union, according to a University of Virginia Centre for Politics. The UVA data also showed that 41% of those who voted for Joe Biden in 2020 also said it might now be ‘time to split the country.’ The Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School published a poll that found half of voting-age Americans under 30 thought our democracy was ‘in trouble’ or ‘failing.’ And, yes, a third also said they expected there to be ‘a civil war’ within their lifetimes. And a quarter thought at least one state would secede. The University of Maryland and The Washington Post produced a poll saying that one-third of Americans thought violence against the government was ‘sometimes justified.’ This belief was even more widely held among Republicans and independents. But back in the 1990s, only 1 American in 10 held that view.

Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, and William Gale, a Brookings senior fellow in economic studies, report on a 2021 national survey by pollster John Zogby who found a plurality of Americans (46%) believed a future civil war was likely, 43% felt it was unlikely, and 11% were not sure. War seemed more likely for younger people (53%) than older ones (31%), and for those residing in the South (49%) and Central/Great Lakes region (48%) relative to those in the East (39%). The hot button issues appear to be racial equity, gun control, abortion, election legitimacy, climate change, vaccines, masks, and I would add to this list developments around whether or not Trump is indicted and imprisoned for inciting the January 6 coup.

Elving notes that the Civil War of the 1860s ‘did little to settle the constitutional issue of ‘states’ rights,’ a problematic point in our national conversation ever since. Salient in the struggles for civil rights and voting rights, it remains so in the squabbles over the mask and vaccine mandates of today.’ So, yes, there are plenty of ways for the country to split as differences became exacerbated around abortion and immigration, for example. West and Gale write that, ‘[s]eparated by ideology, race, gender, living standards, and opportunities for education and economic advancement, different groups have dramatically different views about public policy and American society. There can be large variations in opinions, depending on the issues.’ Most ominous is a comment by political scientist Barbara F. Walter, who maintained that ‘[t]he US used to be considered a full democracy like Norway, Switzerland or Iceland … and it’s now considered a partial democracy like Ecuador, Somalia or Haiti.’

Elving ends his commentary on a cautionary note, saying that ‘too much thinking about the unthinkable can become acceptance of the unacceptable. And, however you personally regard the meaning of what happened on January 6, 2021, we know now that nothing in American politics is unthinkable.’

Still, I cannot help obsessing about the unthinkable.

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Full Citation Information:
McLaren, P. (2022). Obsessing About the Unthinkable: There Will Be No Reckoning for Trump, only the Possibility of Civil War. PESA Agora. https://pesaagora.com/columns/obsessing-about-the-unthinkable/

Peter McLaren

Peter McLaren is Emeritus Professor at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. From 2013-2023 he served as Distinguished Professor in Critical Studies, Co-Director and International Ambassador for Global Ethics and Social Justice, The Paulo Freire Democratic Project, Attallah College of Educational Studies, Chapman University, USA.