After four hectic years, Donald Trump’s presidency is finally coming to an end. His successor, Joe Biden, is being presented by much of the media and political class as a welcome breath of fresh air. On the day of his victory, people were literally dancing in the streets, and tweets about no longer having to follow the news every day went viral. While of course none of us are even remotely sad to see Trump go, Biden’s inauguration should not be viewed as a day of celebration or progress. Biden is taking power with a set of very specific tasks from the bourgeoisie with the primary one among them being to re-legitimize the institutions of the American state.
The decline of U.S. hegemony has been ongoing for over a decade, kicked off by the 2008 economic crisis. This has coincided with the rise of China as a world superpower that is coming increasingly close to challenging the United States’ position on the world stage. This growing crisis for the U.S. regime abroad has been met in recent years by a growing crisis of legitimacy for the U.S. government at home. This has characterized the Trump years in particular as more and more people have — in part as a reaction to his outrageous behavior — begun to lose faith in many previously sacred institutions of the regime.
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For example, a recent poll showed that 61 percent of Americans support abolishing the Electoral College. Several mainstream media outlets have raised the call to abolish the Senate, and the demand to abolish the police has gained support among about a a third of people between the ages of 18 and 34. Indeed, with the laughable delay in counting the votes of the Presidential election and the storming of the Capitol by the Far Right, recent weeks have made the institutions of the government look ridiculous, ineffective, and corrupt.
The State of U.S. Institutions
Trump, for his part, has added to this delegitimization both intentionally and unintentionally. On the one hand, he has spent his political tenure explicitly running against the “swamp” and the political establishment. Early on in his presidency, he strongly attacked institutions like the FBI and, recently, has been explicitly accusing the mechanisms of U.S. “democracy” of conspiring against him. This is the rhetoric that led his supporters to violently demonstrate against the certification of the electoral vote. In these ways, Trump has intentionally attacked the legitimacy of various governmental institutions.
However, he has also delegitimized them unintentionally through what the presidency has enabled him to do. From using executive powers to institute reactionary measures like the Muslim ban to mobilizing the police and national guard against protesters over the summer, Trump has been almost a satire of what has become known as the “imperial presidency,” a term that describes the increasing amount of power that has been consolidated in the presidency in the past several decades. He personified this trend but also went too far for the rest of the capitalist state which began to overturn his countless executive orders. We should be clear, however, that this resistance to Trump from Congress and the Supreme Court is not due to the “imperial presidency” or even the undemocratic mechanism of executive orders but rather due to the instability he has caused. Biden is sure to employ similar methods during his tenure in office.
However, as Marxists, we have an even better term with which to describe the Trump regime: bonapartism. Bonapartism is a concept developed by Karl Marx to describe
an authoritarian leader who emerges when different sectors of social classes are struggling against each other and cannot find a way to impose their own representative. In this context, a “Bonaparte” emerges, presenting himself as an arbiter from above, seemingly free from institutional mechanisms and from the dominant classes.
Trump, however, was a very weak version of this as he was not able to successfully outmaneuver the mechanisms of the capitalist state. From the Supreme Court overturning his executive orders, to Congress shooting down his proposal to overturn Obamacare, to the military refusing to mobilize to repress the Black Lives Matter movement, his presidency was defined by his failure to live out his full Bonapartist dreams. However, the conflict between the increasing power of the executive branch and the other two branches of the federal government certainly led to more people losing faith in the so-called “perfect” creation of the Founding Fathers.
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The recent uprisings against the police are the perfect example of what the combination of four years of Trump, decades of neoliberalism, modern technology, and a massive international economic crisis have done for the legitimacy of American institutions. Radicalized by the failure of the reforms won during the first Black Lives Matter movement to meaningfully improve the situation of people of color, the demands over the summer went further than before and began to challenge the nature of the police as an institution. From “Abolish the Police” to the more moderate “Defund the Police,” millions of people began to grasp and challenge the real role that police serve in a capitalist society. While both demands have limits, it is important that the largest social movement in modern U.S. history was attacking the legitimacy of one of the key institutions of the capitalist state.
However, institutions have not only lost their credibility on the Left. The most dramatic expression of this doubt from the Right came with the storming of the Capitol. Many of Trump’s supporters believe that the institutions of the American government — sometimes defined by them as the “Deep State” — conspired to steal the election from Trump. We also saw right-wing opposition to the FBI, Congress, the Supreme Court, and other previously sacred institutions when they turned on Trump.
Trump has also accelerated the loss of U.S. hegemony abroad. From threatening to leave NATO to withdrawing 12,000 troops from Germany, Trump has been an erratic figure on the world stage, which has led the United States’ allies and rivals alike to question its leadership. An example of this came in 2019 when several world leaders, all of whom represented close allies of the United States, were caught on tape mocking Trump at a NATO event. As a former Bush administration official posited in 2017, Trump may have ended the “American Era” on the world stage.
Biden is taking power as the legitimacy of many of the most sacred institutions are in tatters. His task is to repair their standing in the public eye and bring the sectors of the American people who are in danger of losing faith in institutions back in line. He must restore everyone’s faith in order to suppress any class struggle that emerges as the current crisis continues. Biden also needs to quickly re-legitimize these institutions because he may need to use them to impose austerity as a way of resolving the economic crisis. For example, once evictions start again, Biden and the rest of the ruling class need the public perception of the police to be improved so that they can go back to violently evicting people without resistance. On the other hand, Biden also has to restore legitimacy among the right-wing base.
This need to regain legitimacy is one reason why the capitalists overwhelmingly supported Biden over Trump. It became clear to them that Trump was ill-equipped to handle the current crisis as smoothly as possible for the capitalists and that his erratic behavior was creating instability at home and abroad. They surely didn’t like that his tweets could send the stock market up or down, greatly impacting their massive wealth. Biden was chosen because the capitalists believed that he could quickly, quietly, and smoothly ensure a return to capitalist normalcy. A key part of that normalcy is the power and legitimacy of the institutions of U.S. capitalism.
We can see this process of re-legitimization happening right now. In the few weeks since January 6, Biden and the rest of the Democrats — including progressive favorite AOC — have been holding up the repressive institutions of the state as the way to fight back the rise of the Right. From calling to increase police budgets to Biden’s proposed domestic terrorism bill, the Democrats are using people’s real and legitimate fears about the Far Right to rebuild faith in governmental institutions. Now people are scouring the internet for information on the people who stormed the Capitol and turning it over to the FBI, and praising the police for arresting members of the Far Right.
While of course there is no love lost between the working class and oppressed and the Far Right, we shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that these newly strengthened institutions won’t be almost immediately turned against the working class, the oppressed, and the Left. Although we must strongly defend democratic institutions like the vote against attacks from both the Far Right and the state, we don’t protect these institutions by relying on the repressive mechanisms of the state. To put it simply: we can’t trust the institutions of the capitalist state, and we must fight against all measures that strengthen them.
The Fight Ahead
Biden and his allies want to fool us into demobilizing and becoming passive. He wants us to buy into the liberal narrative that Trump was some sort of aberration and that we have finally returned to normal. But we must fight back against this line of argument and reject the logic of the capitalist state. The truth of the matter is that Trump simply exposed much about the workings of the state. He isn’t the reason why the police beat and kill protesters, he isn’t the reason why there is massive exploitation, and he isn’t the reason why American “democracy” is so undemocratic. The reason behind all of this is deeper than both Trump and Biden and is the core of the U.S. State: the need to protect capitalism.
The capitalist state exists to resolve class conflict in favor of the bourgeoisie and when they deem it necessary, use mechanisms like the police, the FBI, and the military to repress working class and oppressed people. This basic fact cannot be reformed away, and Democrats and Republicans alike are part of this system. Because the institutions typically go unquestioned, the state is able to repress without much resistance or even consciousness about its repressive nature.
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Given this, we should not buy into the illusion that the FBI or any other institution of the state will fight the Right — they exist to fight us. We shouldn’t buy into the illusion that Biden’s restoration of the legitimacy of institutions will be good news for us. And we shouldn’t buy into the illusion that the Sanders wing of the Democratic Party is trying to sell — that with some reforms, we can put that government to work in favor of all people. While we must fight for progressive reforms, we should not confuse winning these reforms with changing the nature of the state.
The fight ahead for the working class, the oppressed, and the Left is a fight against both the Biden administration and the greater apparatus of the state. Biden and the Democrats will be the ones unleashing attacks on the working class in the coming period but it is the institutions and mechanisms of the government that will allow them to do so. In this sense, it is vitally important that we continue to question the legitimacy of these institutions in order to help the working class break with the logic of the state.
The Democrats may, in the early days of the new presidency, be forced to offer up some concessions to appease their social base. The scope of these concessions and how effective they will be is yet to be seen. Biden is taking power on one hand strengthened as the agent of legitimacy in the capitalist state, but he is also weakened: he will have to go further than he would like in his concessions to keep his base in line and to rebuild public faith in institutions. This contradiction is sure to put pressure on his government. Concessions or no, however, we must be clear-eyed that, be they sooner or later, capitalist attacks on the working class from the Biden administration are coming.
We shouldn’t wait around until these attacks come, but rather put forward a positive program full of demands for progressive reforms that will help the working class. Through the fight to win these reforms, we must constantly point out the ways that the institutions of the state are conspiring to prevent all progress. If Biden is able to successfully restore faith in the institutions of the state, it will be much harder to mobilize people to resist attacks from his administration. It is a revolutionary responsibility for us, in the current moment, to fight the Biden administration tirelessly and constantly. For all of his words about restoring “decency” to the United States, Biden is little more than the rotting corpse of neoliberalism, reanimated to once again implement that failed and disastrous policy.
Biden will not save us. He will not save us from the Far Right. He will not save us from the coronavirus. And he will not save us from the economic crisis. He isn’t here to save us, he’s here to save capitalism and the state apparatus. And we must be clear that this project of restoration is fundamentally opposed to our interests.