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“It is Only a Matter of Time Before a More Competent Trump Emerges”: An Interview With Warren Montag

Some people argue that the far Right is small. Should we be reassured that “only” 45 percent of Republicans, that is, 30 million people, support the riot at the Capitol? We must reject facile economism to understand the Trump phenomenon. This is more than a simple contradiction between base and superstructure.

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Illustration: Rafa R.

Warren Montag is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. He is also one of the leading specialists in the field of Althusserian studies, editor of the journal Décalages, and author of several books such as Philosophy’s Perpetual War: Althusser and his Contemporaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013) and The Other Adam Smith (Stanford University Press, 2014), written with Mike Hill, among others.

Montag was a member of a collective oriented to the ideas of Ernest Mandel (1976-1978) and then of the organizations Workers Power (1978-1985) and Solidarity (1985-1990), in which he served on the national committee.

In this interview with Juan Dal Maso first published in the weekly online magazine Ideas de Izquierda, he gives us his view on recent events in the United States, the situation of the establishment parties and the policy that the left should carry out.

What is the significance of Wednesday’s events in the U.S. Capitol, and what impact will it have on the political situation? 

The mobilization to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, which culminated in the assault on the Capitol building, has been seen both as a laughable bestiary of the far Right and as an “insurrection”; in fact, it was neither. Its significance lies more in what it tells us than in what it accomplished or sought to accomplish. It showed a multiplication of the forces of the far Right through a consolidation of a number of previously distinct movements into an effective united front against the tyranny of mandatory mask-wearing, vaccinations, and the looming threat of the socialism soon to be imposed by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, and Chuck Schumer. Under the pretext that Biden was elected only because of massive, systematic voter fraud (despite the fact that his margin of victory was more than 7 million votes), a coalition of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and private militias, recently expanded to include anti-vaccination activists and coronavirus denialists politicized in the anti-shutdown and anti-mask movements, sought to force the nation to accept Trump as the true winner of the 2020 presidential election.

Initially, this movement was conceived as an auxiliary to a primarily legal effort by Trump and a succession of legal teams to nullify the election, a means of pressuring officials at the level of the individual states to support the claims of fraud. Because the legal campaign was increasingly opposed even by Republicans and the certification of Biden’s victory nearly certain, however, Trump, with the support of a significant number of right-wing politicians, summoned the “military” wing of the movement to Washington, D.C. to intimidate members of Congress into agreeing to investigate the already disproven claims of massive electoral fraud. He hoped by increasing the volume of threats and harassment to coerce majorities in the House and Senate to declare the certified results of the 2020 election fraudulent and to affirm that he had in fact won the election.

It remains unclear what exactly the pro-Trump forces had planned to do when they breached the defenses of the Capitol building. At the very least, the more disciplined of the participating groups sought to confront the more influential among Trump’s opponents. There is evidence both from intercepted communications, and from videos and photographs, that at least some of those who entered the Capital building intended to take hostages, and there was talk of “executing the traitors.” What is clear is that Trump or members of his administration, as well as the Capitol police, intervened to prevent the use of National Guard troops to rescue the elected officials hiding in offices and back rooms for at least 2-3 hours. In addition, a number of guards were observed letting demonstrators into the building and even opening specific offices which were later ransacked.

There is no question that in the short run, the ensuing spectacle benefitted the Democrats who had already succeeded in capturing both the House of Representatives and the Senate. The decision by Trump and those around him to draw from the tactical repertoire of fascism — whether or not we define this movement as fascist, neo-fascist, or something else — has fractured the Republican Party, with a growing segment opposed to Trump on the grounds of his electoral defeat, rather than the policies he promoted, and the growing sense that his psychological instability and demands for absolutely loyalty were causing chaos in the Party and in government more generally.

In opposition to the anti-Trump faction, a fairly large group that includes many of the newest and youngest members of Congress has declared its total allegiance to Trump: they have grown up with the Tea Party (the far-right opposition to Obama) and Trump, are more openly racist, and tend to think of politics in terms of conspiracies, whether those disseminated by the popular QAnon network or new variations on the theme of Jewish world domination. Following the retaking of the Capitol building, members of this faction (and their supporters in the media) argued that the occupation had been carried out by Antifa masquerading as “patriots.” While they lost some supporters after the debacle of January 6, a surprisingly large number in Congress stood firm and continued to argue that the election was illegitimate and that Trump should retain the presidency. Between these two poles is a large group, drawn to Trump politically, but unwilling to follow him on the road to authoritarian rule, especially given his increasingly open embrace of violence.

The schism in the party is now very significant and will become even more profound in the coming period, as investigations into the storming of the Capitol building begin. This schism would benefit the Democrats if, that is, they had the capacity and even more the desire to take advantage of it; the first few months of the Democratic majority in Congress would be the most propitious time to pass the Green New Deal and Medicare for All. Such a move, however, is very unlikely; it is more likely that the neoliberal Party leadership will attempt to forge an alliance with anti-Trump Republicans, aimed as much at its own progressive wing as against Trumpist Republicans.

What are these right-wing movements, and what role could Trump’s base play in the upcoming period? 

The Trump movement (which is no longer identical with or limited to the Republican Party), despite appearances, has in fact accomplished something more significant than its failure to stop the certification of Biden’s electoral victory. It has demonstrated its ability to use varying degrees of force as the situation demands and thus its knowledge of tactics (in actions extensively filmed and posted on social media). Just as importantly, it has shown the support it can count on from police forces even in the nation’s capital. Far from feeling defeated, the participants themselves, who walked away from the Capitol Building freely, when they chose to do so, were exuberant following the action, celebrating very visibly in hotel bars around D.C.: they are well aware that the very scenes that shocked middle-aged liberals will bring them scores of recruits, and that the open displays of racism and anti-Semitism will strike a significant number of young (and not so young) white men as courageous defiance of “anti-white” social norms.

The fact that few were arrested or injured, in complete contrast to the brutal response to Black Lives Matter (BLM) protestors who did nothing more than march in the street, will only add to the allure of this movement for its target audience. The recent efforts to expose white supremacy and to oppose it in practice, in the street, in schools and public spaces, above all in the BLM demonstrations during May and June 2020, by virtue of their size and the diversity of the participants, proved threatening to those committed to “the defense of the white race.” BLM and antifa, now the main enemies and targets of white nationalist street fighting organizations, have been so regularly calumnied in the right-wing media that citizens in largely white rural areas recently set up roadblocks to prevent an invasion of “Black Lives Matter communists.”

The defense of the material forms of racial privilege is not the only aim of this movement. Despite its claims to be revolutionary, it has consistently acted in concert with objectives of capital, especially during the pandemic. White supremacist organizations quickly organized anti-lockdown and anti-mask demonstrations that helped “keep the economy going,” prolonging and aggravating the pandemic. Their insistence that the pandemic was a hoax or no worse than the flu deprived the demands of frontline workers of validity; doctors, nurses and hospital workers of all kinds have been threatened and assaulted for perpetrating the covid “lie.” Similarly, grocery store workers throughout the United States have faced violence for asking customers to wear a mask, while public health officials receive constant death threats. In fact, the pandemic provided the impetus for the convergence and mobilization of once divergent tendencies, as noted above, into a new, more powerful and more reactionary force: the right wing of evangelical Christianity, anti-climate change and anti-vaccination movements, traditional and emergent racist organizations, anti-government militias, and QAnon.

A poll taken the day after the assault on the Capitol revealed that 45 percent of Republicans approve of the action and believe Trump must be imposed as president by force, while 43 percent oppose or least do not support the use of violence to achieve this end. The far Right has thus created a base of about 30 million people, an increasing number of whom explicitly reject the principle of democracy and are ready to accept authoritarian rule. We are lucky that the object of their veneration is crippled by narcissism and cognitive decline. It is only a matter of time, however, before a new Trump emerges, less delusional and more competent; the pathway to the installation of an authoritarian regime against the will of the majority of the electorate is now well established, the means of circumventing or jumping over the surprisingly few legal as opposed to customary. Trump has identified all the weak points in the electoral system that, with the help of an armed and angry mass movement can be exploited to allow the loser in an election to emerge victorious. As was the case with Italian fascism in the 1920s and German National Socialism between 1926 and 1933, success in this endeavor requires the mass movement to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to move politicians and judges to accommodate its aims.

What policies should the Left, working-class organizations, and anti-racist movements put forward? 

Following the events of January 6, the Left, concentrated in DSA, where the barriers to discussions of strategy and tactics are formidable, was already disoriented by the pandemic and unable to challenge the far Right’s offensive against measures designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The most obvious basis for such a challenge was the ongoing and militant struggle of the workers who suffer the greatest incidence of Covid-19, from nurses and teachers to grocery and meat processing workers, to secure basic forms of protection in the workplace and, in periods when the rate of infection rises, to impose a general shutdown. The Left could have organized a nation-wide solidarity campaign that would have undercut the bizarre but effective effort by the far Right.

Instead, most of the Left turned to electoral work in the hopes of nominating Bernie Sanders as the Democratic candidate and defeating Trump on the basis of a broadly popular social democratic platform. When it was clear that Sanders had less support than in 2016 and Biden emerged as the only viable nominee, most continued to work for the Democratic Party in support of progressive candidates or for Biden on the grounds that Trump was too dangerous. This group, in its response to the occupation of the Capitol building, adopted the hyperbole of the Democratic Party mainstream and spoke of Trump’s attempted coup or even of an insurrection. While such terms may have corresponded to Trump’s fantasies, the use of force would have ended the occupation very quickly: it did not pose a genuine threat to the US political order. The definition of the events as a coup allowed the antagonistic factions of the Democratic Party (and even part of the Republican Party) to come together to stop Trump from making one last attempt to steal the election.

The Left, which was instrumental to the Democrats’ twin victories in Georgia and thus to their majority in both houses of Congress, has little to show for its labor. Biden’s cabinet represents a return to the Clintonite policies that helped Trump win in 2016, including an emphasis on balancing the budget that can only worsen the historically unprecedented economic inequality. The danger facing much of the Left is that of becoming the labor force of the Democratic Party without meaningful influence over policy, a loyal opposition that justifies its subordinate role by pointing to the supposedly greater evil of the Republican candidate. Electoral work becomes the central focus at the expense of building workers’ organizations and participation in anti-racist movements like BLM or the defense of immigrants.

In fact, from the perspective of the electoral arena, such movements with their “unrealistic” and excessively radical demands, from Medicare for All to Defund the Police, come inevitably to be seen as impediments to the election of the lesser evil. This part of the Left advocates the most draconian repression of the far Right and the criminalization of various forms of protest and mass action without any concern that such laws will be used with far greater frequency and force against the Left. The demobilization that a reliance on electoral politics brings contributes to the rightward drift of politics in general, while expecting the state, at the federal or local level, to defend the Left and communities of color against violent white supremacists at the very moment the collusion of law enforcement agencies in the assault on the nation’s capital has been made clear, would be a serious mistake.

Another, smaller tendency, rejects the characterization of the January 6 action as a coup attempt or an insurrection, but goes on to minimize the danger posed by the forces that carried out the action. A recent article in Jacobin, the primary platform of this tendency, argues that the far Right suffered a decisive defeat at the Capitol building, which given its weakness and incompetence, has neutralized whatever threat it might have once represented. In any case, it never was nor will be a kind of fascism or proto-fascism because the only fascism that has existed emerged from a process in which “dynamic new capitalist sectors, especially advanced manufacturing, could not find space within existing state institutions for the expression of their political power. In response, they came to cultivate and support radical forces — fascist parties — which would restructure the state to accommodate their emerging supremacy within their national economies.”

According to this account, fascism in Italy and Germany is explained as the necessary result of the single, simple contradiction between base and superstructure, rather than the outcome of class struggle, and because this contradiction does not exist today there can be no danger of fascism. The evidence: Trump and Trumpism have been swept away as the ruling class returns to the traditional Republican-Democratic consensus. The Trump movement is a small, disorganized “motley crew” (supported, the authors note, by a mere 45 percent of the Republican Party, that is, 30 million people) that has self-destructed with Trump himself. To overstate its power or to attend to the illusory danger of fascism will only push the Left further towards the Democratic Party and a subordination of socialist politics to a defense of a democracy that is in fact a cover for neoliberalism.

But should we be reassured that “only” 45 percent of Republicans, that is, 30 million people, support what they themselves believed was an attempt to force Congress to allow Trump to remain president? More importantly, and leaving aside the facile economism that takes the place of the concrete analysis of the concrete situation, is it really the case that neoliberalism is somehow incompatible with something closely resembling fascism, and whose arrival would be catastrophic for the Left? As noted above, the far-right mobilizations, especially during the pandemic, have objectively served the objectives of neoliberalism by forcing a resumption of all economic activity and compelling workers to choose between exposing themselves to Covid-19 or falling into extreme poverty, in addition sweeping away the demand for safety measures. The Wall Street Journal could not have conjured up a more effective means of achieving its immediate demands than the anti-shutdown/anti-mask movement.

This does not mean the far Right can be understood as a direct effect of neoliberalism, the means it has created to remove the existing obstacles to its own expansion. Economism of this type exists in part today to render racism and resistance to it invisible, acknowledging it only in the negative form of “identity politics,” a label that deprives the struggle against racism of legitimacy. In fact, racism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism are anything but invisible in the far Right: they are the foundation of the white/European identity that is so important to its activists. Looking at the relationship of forces at the level of the street, the far Right has never been so powerful, has never been able to mobilize the numbers we have recently seen in Washington D.C., a city where, two years ago, they could not mount a successful march.

The recent events have made one thing abundantly clear: it is up to those of us without illusions in the Democratic Party or the electoral arena and who are unwilling to deny or explain away the very real and growing threat of fascism to start building an independent, broad and diverse anti-fascist and anti-racist organization capable of confronting the danger before us.

First published in Spanish on January 10 in La Izquierda Diario.

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Juan Dal Maso

Juan is a member of the Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) from Neuquén, Argentina. He is the author of the books El Marxismo de Gramsci (2016, in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian), Hegemony and Class Struggle (2018, in Spanish and English), and Althusser y Sacristán (2020, in Spanish, together with Ariel Petruccelli).

Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.

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