The Storming of the Capitol Is a Sign of Asymmetrical Polarization

As the past year has shown us, there is radicalization to the left and to the right. But this polarization is asymmetrical: Trump is becoming the political leader of an emboldened neo-fascist Far Right, while the political leadership of the "Left" is becoming more entrenched in the establishment. That makes it all the more urgent to build a working-class movement for immediate demands and for socialism.
  • Tatiana Cozzarelli | 
  • January 8, 2021
Photo credit: REUTERS/SHANNON STAPLETON

The Wall Street Journal has this right: “Never in recent memory have the events of a single 24-hour period so shaken two presidencies, the very Capitol of the United States and the nation itself as they did on Wednesday.” 

A few thousand right-wing protesters, decked out in MAGA-gear, with Confederate flags dotting the crowd entered the Capitol of the United States and successfully shut down the confirmation of electoral votes. They were clearly stoked by Donald Trump, who claimed that this was a rigged election and encouraged the march to the Capitol. “You will never take back our country with weakness,” he told the crowd. 

Rewind to only a few months ago when the country was shaken by another radical phenomena — this time from the left. The Black Lives Matter movement brought millions of people to the streets against systemic racism and police brutality. In just the first week, protesters burned down a police station in Minneapolis. This rage was replicated in every major city across the country for months. But the state’s response to these demonstrations was much different from what we saw this week. While the police opened the gates for Trump supporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, they brutally beat, tear gassed, and arrested BLM protesters en masse. 

It is clear that there is a radicalization to the right in the United States today, but the past few years have also expressed a radicalization to the left. This polarization is asymmetrical: Trump is becoming the political leader of an emboldened racist far right with neo-fascist elements. Meanwhile, the political leadership of the left is becoming more aligned with establishment Democrats. That makes it all the more urgent to build a radical working class movement to fight the right, as well as the attacks from the incoming Biden administration. It is all the more urgent to build an independent, working class alternative that fights for a real solution to our problems; that fights for socialism. 

How did we get here?

The tale of these two movements — BLM on one end and the Right Wing storming of the Capitol on the other — are not unrelated spectacles in a turbulent time. They express a crisis of hegemony of the regime — a crisis of the unquestioned acceptance of institutions like the police, the Electoral College, and of the political leaders of the establishment. Rather than trusting traditional institutions, people are mobilizing. 

But changes in ways of thinking — from not accepting election results to burning down a police station — don’t just fall from the sky. They are the product of material conditions. The neoliberal capitalist project is having difficulty growing and expanding as it used to: the U.S. model of capital accumulation is in decline. This represents a big crisis, even for the capitalist class, a crisis which in turn creates tensions between sectors of capital and their political representatives. At the level of the masses, the working class is experiencing declining living standards as a result, first of the deep 2008 economic recession that the economy never really recovered from, and now the current economic and health crisis. 

As a result, people have increasingly become untethered from hegemonic institutions and their representatives. Once sacred institutions have now been profaned — from the cops to the justice system to political representatives who previously went unquestioned. As Nancy Fraser explains in The Old is Dying and the New Cannot Be Born:

It is as if masses of people throughout the world had stopped believing in the reigning common sense that has underpinned political domination for the last several decades. It is as if they had lost confidence in the bona fides of the elites and were searching for new ideologies, organization and leadership.

That is why an “anti-establishment” Right and Left have emerged — on the right expressed politically in Donald Trump, and on the left expressed in figures like the Squad and Bernie Sanders.

But as this week has shown, this creates a very dangerous situation — one in which right-wing political representatives are more radical and more anti-establishment than the Left, leaving the Left ill-equipped to counter the rising right.

Trump 2.0 

The white supremacist Far Right has deep roots in the United States, from the KKK to militias that organize to terrorize immigrants at the border. A revived and strengthened Far Right grew in the shadows of the Obama administration and found a political voice in Donald Trump, who promised to fight for the “forgotten” (white) working class against Washington elites and the undocumened immigrants that Trump claimed were “taking American jobs.” And although there are divisions and distinctions amongst the white-supremacist, Far Right in general, Donald Trump wasn’t really seen as an organic part of the fringe white supremacist, far-right movement — more as a helpful stepping stone along the way. The capitalists were happy to co-exist with this right-wing fringe — after all, they can be counted on to support conservative and neoliberal policies that benefit the capitalists.

Further, despite a firm anti-establishment campaign in 2016, Trump’s presidency certainly didn’t drain the swamp over the past four years. Though with some aberrations, his administration peacefully co-existed with the Mitch McConnell faction of the Party. After all, he handed over some important victories to the Republicans, including massive tax cuts for the rich and massive increases in the military budget. While he maintained a populist rhetoric, Trump governed very much as an erratic “America First” neoliberal under the watchful eye of “the adults in the room” — from Mike Pence to a revolving door of Cabinet members — who would force him to walk back some of his most disruptive proposals. 

Now we are facing a new Trump: one at odds with his own party and increasingly close to the radicalized Right — both emboldening this sector and increasingly becoming a spokesperson and leader. In other words, Trump’s “Charlottesville moments” of encouraging the white supremacist Far Right are increasingly frequent. During the pandemic, the political establishment took advantage of this, using Trump’s radicalized right base to re-open the economy. Who can forget the armed right wingers storming the Michigan Statehouse, a precursor to storming of the Capitol on Wednesday? These far-right protests were employed not only by Donald Trump, but by The Wall Street Journal and other sectors of capital to build a case against lockdowns, enabling bipartisan consensus around unsafe re-openings. 

The symbiosis between Trump and the Far Right was further consolidated by Trump’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests, provoking the shooting of BLM protesters, supporting the extrajudicial murder of Antifa activists like Michael Reinoehl, and supporting the white supremacist terrorist, Kyle Rittenhouse. During the electoral cycle, he refused to speak out against the Proud Boys and QAnon, even as they actively threatened racist violence. 

Now that Trump lost the election, he’s increasingly leaned on this radicalized far-right base against the establishment of the Republican Party and indeed, against U.S. democracy itself. He claims the election was rigged against him; some polls show that almost 40 percent of Americans, including 72  percent of Republicans, believe him.

Most of the leaders of the Republican Party, who are concerned with the legitimacy of the institutions of the regime and with preserving the honor of U.S. institutions on the global stage, have refused to back Trump in his attempt to steal the election. But the Republican Party is not a monolith, and it faces severe divisions that have only been exacerbated by Trump’s denial of the election results. 139 Republicans who won their seats by aligning themselves with Trump made at least one objection to the electoral vote count. On the other side of the divide, the powerful and well-known figures of the Republican Party, including Trump’s former allies like Lindsay Graham, refused to back him.

Trump has taken further actions to distance himself from the Republican establishment. He vetoed the Pentagon budget — a shocking action given that Republicans have become synonymous with warmongering, increasing the military budget, and “patriotic defense” of the United States — which of course, the Democrats also support. Then there was the Covid-19 relief bill, which Trump spoke out against at the last minute, demanding $2,000 checks. 

Trump’s rhetoric has become increasingly hostile to the Republican Party, saying that those who won’t help him steal the election are “weak Republicans, they’re pathetic Republicans.” According to Vanity Fair, an anonymous Republican official said that “Trump told people that he wanted David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler to lose the Georgia Senate runoff election as a way of punishing them and Mitch McConnell. ‘Trump told people he is really angry that the senators and McConnell hadn’t stood up for him to challenge the election. He’s happy they lost.’”

Wednesday may have been a clear expression of the newest iteration of Trumpism — increasingly antagonistic to the Republican Party and increasingly the organic leader of his right-wing base. This newest brand of Trump is perhaps the purest form of Trump’s “burn it all down” populism: while the entire world’s press is denouncing the “mob,” “insurrection,” and “coup,” Trump posted a video saying that the elections were stolen, but asking the protesters to go home. He ended by saying “We love you, you are very special…I know how you feel.” Since then, and only after facing massive pressure, Trump issued another video without claims of a rigged election. But he still ended saying “our incredible journey is just beginning”— a clear message to his far-right supporters. 

Trump’s far-right supporters don’t just include those who stormed the Capitol, but also the police who allowed it. The police opened the gates for the crowd to enter, and some even posed for pictures with protesters. This should come as no surprise; after all, the police unions enthusiastically supported Trump and have always worked hand in hand with white supremacist militias

A Left Tethered to the Establishment 

Just as the Far Right has gained influence since the election of Trump, the last four years have also created a left expression of the political polarization; a young generation increasingly interested in socialism, driven by huge levels of debt, lack of affordable housing and a lack of good jobs and lower standards of living. The political expression of this left polarization are self-proclaimed Democratic Socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, as well as other progressive Democrats like Ilhan Omar and the rest of the Squad. 

This social and economic instability has also led to massive protest movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The truth is that this side has a sizable base. After all, a few months ago, 54% supported the burning of the police station in Minneapolis. Compare this to 21% of registered voters (45% of Republicans) who supported the storming of the Capitol. Our side really is bigger than theirs. There is enormous potential for a radical left movement. 

However, during the Black Lives Matter movement, when a radicalized vanguard was burning down police stations, the political representation of left polarization — Sanders and the Squad were not a radicalizing force like Trump has been for the right-wing. In the case of Sanders, the support mostly came from the occasional tweet which hardly sought to radicalize the movement. And when BLM “stepped out of line,” people like Ilhan Omar came forward to speak out against “looting” and “outside agitators.”  Most importantly, when it came time to close ranks and call protesters to the polls for “shoot ’em in the leg” Biden, they all did it, falling in line with the rest of the Democratic Party. 

They also voted for Nancy Pelosi as Speaker of the House. Rather than entering into confrontations with the Democratic Party establishment, Ocasio-Cortez and the rest of the progressive Democrats have made sure to confine their work to what is “possible” within the narrow confines of their party. About forcing the vote on Medicare for All, for example, AOC tweeted that she should “use leverage to push for things that can happen and change lives.” 

While Trump is increasingly channeling anger against the Republicans and the establishment, the progressive politicians are redirecting anger into the Democratic Party. And when that anger overflows, the progressives act as buffers between the Left and the establishment of the Democratic Party, demanding that we confine our expectations to what “can happen.” And that’s the key difference between these political figures and Donald Trump. These political figures have entered into a symbiotic relationship — but with the Democratic Party establishment, not with a radical movement. 

The Dangers of an Anti-Establishment Trump

According to one 2019 study, 40 percent of Americans agreed with the statement: “We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.” While we can imagine that among that 40% there are right-wingers and leftists, Donald Trump has increasingly shown that he and the right wing are the most dynamic expression of “burn it all down.”

This is not to suggest that what we need now is a “left Trump.” But the asymmetrical polarization that marks the current political landscape is a dangerous one. Trump doesn’t care about what “can” happen, he continues to insist he won the election, against all the odds, against his own party, and most importantly, against all evidence. He helped fuel a right wing base who will fight tooth and nail. The combination of populist demands like $2,000 stimulus checks and unbridled rage against the Democratic and Republican establishment will undoubtedly win the respect of some people radicalized by current economic conditions, even after Trump leaves the White House.

Trotsky writes about this in relation to how the petty bourgeoisie respond to fascism: 

[Fascism’s] agitators stigmatize and execrate the parliamentary democracy which supports careerists and grafters but gives nothing to the toilers. These demagogues shake their fists at the bankers, the big merchants and the capitalists…The Fascists show boldness, go out into the streets, attack the police, and attempt to drive out parliament by force. That makes an impression on the despairing petty bourgeois.

We are not on the brink of a fascist dictatorship. Biden is about to take office, Trump has been forced to retreat, and the establishment and all the press is rallying behind the Biden administration. But, the sentiment in Trotsky’s words should serve as a warning. Whole sectors of society — particularly the petty bourgeoisie, can be won over to fascism under the illusion that they are the most resolute fighters for the “little guy.” Of course this is a deadly illusion; the fascists are bold fighters for capitalism and the most brutal against the working class and oppressed. 

And this is precisely what makes Trump so dangerous; he is building a radicalized Right Wing, an anti-establishment one that can position themselves as the most resolute fighters, seemingly on the side of “the little guy” — in this case, small business owners, small farmers, and sectors of the white working class. However, for fascism to evolve in the United States would require more than a polarizing personality like Trump. Fascism, as it evolved in Germany and Italy, found a social base in the ruined petty bourgeoisie, but it was backed by financial capital seeking to maintain capitalist profits amid mass class struggle and a radicalized working class. There is not mass class struggle right now and financial capital has not yet backed the Trump project; right now they are united, more or less, behind Biden taking office and restoring legitimacy of the institutions of the state. 

But this relative stability will not last. So, we should remember that a polarized Right is on the side of the capitalist system and in moments of severe capitalist crisis, can be a viable option for the capitalists. Fascism is, after all, still capitalist. A polarized Left, in contrast, must eventually confront the capitalist state and so will never be a good choice for the capitalists; that’s why the Left cannot lean on or rely on the institutions of capital to grow. 

Socialists Who Are the Most Resolute Fighters 

Donald Trump is about to leave office, but the right-wing movement he built is here to stay. The political establishment will ensure a temporary stability for the Biden administration to take office. The Biden administration and the Democratic Party will likely be forced to attack and police the right-wing movement to some degree; but we can’t ignore the fact that any increase in policing will also be used against people of color and the Left. Liberals will rally around Joe Biden with the intention of “fighting fascism.” While we should fight to protect basic democratic rights, that does not mean an inch of support for Joe Biden or the Democrats who will use their administration to attack the working class and oppressed and who will lean on the Far Right to attack the working class, as we saw during the pandemic with the government’s tacit support for anti-lockdown protests.

This context makes it even more urgent to build a working class, socialist movement which is at war both with the parties of the political establishment — the Democrats and Republicans — and with the extreme Right. We have to show clearly that we’re the most resolute fighters for those who struggle under the yoke of capitalism and oppression.

That means putting forward a real fight not only against the right, but also against austerity by the Biden administration and for real demands, like pandemic relief checks, Medicare for All, ending student debt, and more. It means putting up a fight against all imperialist interventions by the Biden administration, and the entire US imperialist machine. We should join unions, community organizations, and the Left in this struggle — uniting workers and all oppressed people, side by side in the streets and in our workplaces. It means fighting with the strongest weapon the working class has, the ability to strike. 

In this context, it is more pressing than ever before to say that it is us, the socialists, who want to tear this system apart and build a system based on the democracy of working class and oppressed people. That’s why we can’t rely on a potential left populism, like a “left Trump”; in order to overthrow this system of capitalist exploitation, we will need an army, but not of QAnon conspiracy theorists and white supremacists. We will need masses of working class people organized in our workplaces who for the first time, see their enemies clearly, understand how society works, and take their destinies into their own hands — which means against the capitalist class and the oppression that benefits them. 

In order to fuel, organize, and push class struggle in the direction of socialism, we need a socialist organization full of resolute fighters against the entire system: an organization full of frontline workers who mobilized during the pandemic, anti-racist activists who mobilized during Black Lives Matter and workers who have fought for unions, higher minimum wage, and more — who have a clear idea that this is a system that deserves to die, and that a socialist future is possible if we fight for it on a national and international scale. 

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Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana Cozzarelli

Tatiana is a former middle school teacher and current Urban Education PhD student at CUNY.

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