This Is What the Decline of the U.S. Empire Looks Like

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The world watched yesterday as a horde of extreme-right Trump supporters stormed the joint congressional session to certify Joe Biden’s electoral win. These events portend more instability for the U.S. imperialist project, both on the national and international stages.

Photo: Getty Images

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the photograph of QAnon leader Jake Angeli, shirtless in horns and fur, raving in the middle of the U.S. Capitol building makes up the next chapter in the story of the U.S. empire’s decline. The world watched, horrified, as a horde of angry Trump supporters climbed the walls of the Capitol, welcomed into the building by the cops. Pundits and news anchors are calling this yet another aberration of the Trump era and the dying howls of a reality TV star’s presidency, but yesterday’s events did not come out of the blue. They are another expression of a deep crisis of legitimacy rocking the U.S. regime. Yesterday’s events during the joint congressional session to certify Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s electoral victory portend more instability for the U.S. imperialist project, both on the national and international stages.

The Decline of the Rotten Empire

It is clear that there is no turning back for U.S. imperialism. With the images of organized Trump supporters pushing their way into the Capitol building going viral across the globe, the already weakened hegemony of the U.S. is in question today more than ever. The world saw in real time how a sitting president called a rally outside the Capitol and swept up protesters in an inflammatory speech denouncing both the “Far Left” Democrats and the weak Republicans who refuse to stand up to a stolen election. They saw how, only minutes later, Donald Trump’s supporters took his words to their logical conclusion and pushed their way into the Capitol Building, at which Trump proclaimed, “We love you.” Because truth is stranger than fiction, all the world leaders of both imperialist and semi-colonial countries have come out to condemn the acts of violence on Capitol Hill, urging the American parties and institutions to set the electoral process on a peaceful course. Even the Venezuelan government has submitted a letter expressing its concern about the violence on Capitol Hill and supporting president-elect Joe Biden. 

The world watched with terror as proto-fascist Trump supporters interrupted the certification vote. Why? Because if U.S. imperialism has done anything as much as it sponsors coups d’état, regime changes, or direct military invasions in the countries of the so-called “global south,” it is boasting about its “perfect democracy.” Yesterday the world saw the crisis of that “democracy” come to the fore, with far-reaching consequences for imposition of the U.S. imperialist project. U.S. imperialism depends on its own stability to push for its interests across the world and to try to rebuild its declining hegemony. How can the U.S. push for interventions abroad when it cannot even control its own transfer of power from one bourgeois politician to the next?

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In his four years in office, Trump did not carry out his protectionist program to the end, and yet he was able to change the international agenda: he distanced himself from the U.S.’s traditional allies like the European Union, embarked on a trade war with China, blew up the nuclear agreement with Iran, imposed a new trade agreement with Mexico that is even more favorable to imperial interests, and went beyond the expectations of the Republican Party in its strategic alliance with the state of Israel. 

However, this aggressive “America first” Trump doctrine was not enough for either local or foreign imperialists, and for the first time in many decades, domestic policy in the United States has a renewed and immediate impact on the whole world. Being the “policeman of the world” when there is institutional legitimacy is very different from when there is not. That is why the current organic crisis in the United States has immediate international consequences. What remains to be seen is what the profound consequences of the internal crisis in the United States will be for the rest of the world. Joe Biden’s government will have to deal with the task of recomposing a hegemony that has been increasingly disrupted in the last several decades by factors both internal and external to official U.S. foreign policy.

Promise of Instability and Trumpism

The storming of the Capitol by far-right extremists in the middle of the certification of Biden’s win and the subsequent reactions from across the political spectrum has brought the contours of the crisis facing the U.S. regime into sharper focus. As Biden and Harris ready themselves to take office in the next two weeks, and as the Democratic Party is confronted with the reality that it will lead two branches of the government in the middle of a social and economic crisis, they are faced with the possibility that the window is narrowing for the “return to normalcy” that they promised voters. Certainly it signals an end to the illusion of a peaceful transition back to the bipartisan neoliberal project of the Obama years.

On one hand, the events on Capitol Hill yesterday reveal a consolidation of the most reactionary sector of Trump’s social base, which will mobilize on Trump’s behalf to challenge an election “stolen” by so-called far-left elements in the Democratic Party. The storming of the Capitol building wasn’t an insurrection or a coup as members of the bourgeois press insinuate, but it does show a Far Right that, far from accepting defeat after November 3, has in fact been emboldened during the transition. Yesterday’s events were not simply spontaneous chaos, but an indication that the Far Right is organized too. It is the same Far Right that mobilized against Black Lives Matter protests this summer, against COVID-19 restrictions, and for recount votes in key battleground states during the election. And it is a Far Right that enjoys the support and protection of the state repressive apparatus, from the cops to the courts; this was on display like never before as videos emerge from the storming of Capitol show the police posing for selfies with the protesters and letting them past barricades surrounding the building.

But the gun-toting, QAnon, Proud Boy proto-fascists weren’t the only ones protesting in front of the Capitol as Congress certified the Electoral College votes. Thousands of people from across the country came to rally for Donald Trump and to denounce what they view as the corruption of U.S. institutions by progressive politicians catering to any number of the Right’s favorite scapegoats: immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ folks, etc. These sectors — a conglomeration of middle and working class people disaffected by years of neoliberal attacks to their living standards — don’t accept Biden or the Democrats as their representatives. 

In fact, over 75 percent of Republicans don’t believe that the election results are valid. And now that the establishment wing of the Republican Party — from Mitt Romney to Mitch McConnell and now Mike Pence — has sided against Trump, they find themselves once again without political representation in the halls of Congress. As the massive, maskless rallies of Trump supporters in the last several weeks have shown, a significant minority of the population — 39 percent by recent polls — are disillusioned with the bourgeois democratic electoral process that brought Biden to power; many continue to see Trump as their rightful leader, though as of yet this group is still relatively lacking in large-scale, national organization. However, as Wednesday’s events show, this political force is not standing still and will continue to mobilize, especially as the public health and economic crises develop.

This poses a serious challenge for the Biden/Harris administration in the short to medium term, not because of the possibility of more far-right mobilizations like those at the Capitol today, but because of the opposition Democrats will face from Republican politicians trying to bring these Trump sectors back into the fold while keeping Trump himself at a distance. 

Right now, the establishment — from the Republicans and Democrats to the military — are united against Trump and the Far Right, whose reactionary violence threatens to tear the fragile mask off of the farce of American democracy. Forced into an uneasy alliance, they realize that such actions from a sector of the masses pose a threat to their historic hold on power and ability to carry out the U.S. imperialist project with impunity. For now, they are united in supporting the legitimacy of the Biden administration and in putting an end to Trump’s chaotic populism.

“Trump and I have had a hell of a journey, but enough is enough…[Biden] won. He is the legitimate president of the United States,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said from the floor of Congress, breaking with his long-standing support for Trump. Moreover, half of the senators who pledged to oppose the Electoral College results on Wednesday rescinded their dissent after the far-right mob forced its way into the building. Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn, who previously joined Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley in their plan to contest the results, said late Wednesday that she would “vote in support of certifying the electoral college results.” Now it is being reported that Trump’s cabinet is supposedly considering invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office and to allow Mike Pence to finish the last 14 days of his term. While it’s unlikely that this will come to pass, it shows that the establishment is willing to do lasting damage to the office of the presidency by removing a sitting president for being unable to fulfill his duties in order to regain a foothold in the short term.

In other words, the establishment is so far uniting to push Trump out for the sake of stability, but it’s unclear how long this alliance will last after Biden takes power and the Republicans look to regain the Senate and capture the House.

Crisis in the Conjuncture

But of course these new developments aren’t the only hurdles facing the incoming administration, and are instead part of a much more profound social, political, and economic crisis of capitalism. 

Brought into power in no small part by the newly radicalized generations of the Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter movements who were successfully shepherded into the Democratic Party to vote against Trump, the Biden/Harris government will be forced to contend with the expectations of their voters who want to cancel college debt, see an end to the murder of Black people by police, have affordable medical insurance, and fight climate change — all of which the Democratic Party, as a party of capital, cannot fulfill.

The liberal expectations of a return to the Obama era, or even more delusional, to the New Deal, are nothing but fallacies. Biden is not assuming power in a situation that is conducive to capitalist equilibrium in general, much less for U.S. imperialism. The new administration has to manage the crisis caused by the pandemic and the recession. First, the slow and discretionary administration of the vaccines is already generating a lot of tension. It is evident to broad sectors that the vaccines will generate great profits for the hated Big Pharma and that the most privileged sectors globally will have primary access to them. But more importantly, it is not clear that the U.S. economy can recover quickly and effectively, or that this recovery will be sustained. There is still no plan B for the recovery of capitalist profits to pre-crisis levels in 2008. This is to say nothing of the ongoing inter-imperialist competition with China and the EU that puts U.S. imperialism in a more vulnerable situation than usual. 

And now that the Democrats have successfully won the Senate after winning two seats in the Georgia runoff elections, they’ll have a harder time merely hiding behind bipartisan bickering as an excuse not to grant concessions to the working class shouldering the burden of capitalist crisis. Further, they’ll be confronted with the fact that they will lead both the executive and legislative branches in the middle of an economic downturn that is sure to further attack the working class to save capitalist interests, as Biden’s choice of cabinet members has foreshadowed.

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That’s not to mention the fact that the Democratic Party is confronted with its own internal crisis between the establishment wing — led by Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer — and the progressive wing — embodied in the Squad and Bernie Sanders — who are the political expression of growing discontent with the Democratic Party’s leadership. This insurgency has managed to contain a growing left movement in the United States and reinvigorate the Democratic Party, but as the Democrats are likely forced to implement austerity measures in the future, these tensions will likely come to a boiling point. Though the Democratic Party is now unified in its aim to lead the U.S. into the next great “Restoration” after four years of Trump, its internal divisions — the burgeoning leftward expression of political polarization and a crisis of representation in the Democratic Party’s diverse base — have merely been patched up and cannot be contained forever in a context of capitalist crisis.

GOP Facing the Precipice 

Divisions over the certification of the Electoral College votes on Wednesday already showed a deep crisis enveloping the second of the world’s two most powerful imperialist parties, but the GOP’s reaction to the storming of the Capitol has only accelerated this process, creating ever-deepening divisions between the establishment Republicans and the Trump wing.

These fractures within the party came to a head most recently when Senator Mitch McConnell, an ardent supporter of Trump throughout his presidency, went head to head with Trump over the stimulus bill and the defense budget. It went further in the lead up to the joint congressional session, when McConnell urged Senate and House Republicans not to challenge the Electoral College votes. McConnell was joined by Mike Pence, another consistent though tepid Trump ally, who incurred Trump’s wrath by refusing to contest the legitimacy of the electoral votes. These breaks marked a shift in the establishment Republicans’ tolerance for Trump’s one-man political show that set McConnell and his allies up against the Trump hold-outs like Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley who led a team of 12 Senators who at first opposed the certification, along with 100 Republicans in the House of Representatives. 

As a horde of angry extreme right-wing Trump supporters seized the Capitol building, however, interrupting the congressional sessions and sending senators and representatives to hide under their desks, this bloc of support for Trump began to waver. In the end, six senators and 121 representatives chose to challenge the electoral votes for Arizona. Now it is clearer than ever who will defend U.S. institutions as they are and who will side with Trump in the next period in the hopes of gaining political influence with Trump’s wide social base. 

This crisis has been brewing within the GOP since before Trump took office, as the Republican Party has become increasingly unable to contain the far-right products of the capitalist crisis of 2008 that brought Trump to power in 2016. The divisions over the storming of the Capitol — with an increasing sector of Republicans trying to distance themselves from Trump — has made these fissures undeniable. It is unclear whether the GOP will be able to usher Trump’s supporters back into the fold or whether these elements may break off into their own political formation.

With the economic crisis and pandemic only exacerbating the social disintegration that brought Trump to power in 2016, with or without Trump in office, the establishment of both imperialist parties face crises of hegemony; an increasing number of people on both the Left and the Right are losing faith in U.S. “democracy” and do not see their interests represented by either party. It is not unlikely that the most rightward expression of this crisis will continue down the road of populism, whether it is within the GOP or not.

Beyond the Immediate Conjuncture

What happened in Washington on Wednesday is only a symptom of a much greater crisis in the U.S. regime. Ultimately it’s less relevant what course the American regime takes to get out of the current crisis; the more substantial concern is the great contradictions that will continue to shape the future. From the economic and social point of view, of course the most important thing is to closely follow the development of the economic and social crisis as a consequence of the pandemic and the depression of 2020. From the political point of view, the most dynamic (that is, what is changing most rapidly and abruptly) is the crisis of the American institutions. All those institutions that guaranteed the stability of imperialist rule are in crisis: the electoral college, the senate, the two big parties, the police, the supreme court, and even the presidency. 

The questioning of institutions from the Right and from the Left is an element of great instability, especially with an ongoing economic crisis. If the crisis develops phenomena of class struggle like what we saw at the beginning of the pandemic with frontline workers fighting against unsafe working conditions or the escalation of the anti-racist movement in May, there is a great opportunity for the Left to strengthen itself and build a political alternative and struggle for the exploited and oppressed independent of the Democratic Party. If class struggle does not develop, which is unlikely, and the politics of reform prevails at a time when U.S. capitalism has little room for reform, the tendencies to strengthen the ultra-Right will increase. However, greater tensions are to come and the synergy between the national and the international in dealing with American imperialism will be key in the coming months. 

The Left has to draw conclusions quickly. Class struggle must be developed wherever it appears, and the Left must support resistance against capitalist austerity and racist oppression with a program that aims to question capitalism as a whole. Subordination to the Democratic Party is a cancer that affects much of the U.S. Left: there is room for the construction of an organization of the working class and the oppressed completely independent of the Democratic Party. Such an organization must serve to deepen the class struggle against our enemies, to advance the self-organization of workers and the oppressed, and to prepare to confront the neoliberals and the ultra-Right at the ballot box, in the streets, communities, and workplaces, but also in the realm of ideas and theory. 

As yesterday’s debacle shows, trusting the bourgeoisie to fight against the rising Far Right is a dangerous and losing strategy; the working class and oppressed must pose our own solutions. When the far-right attacks, we must fight tooth and nail — in our unions and movements — to raise the call for mass mobilizations and self-defense against these threats. Ultimately, the outrageous events at Capitol Hill are the expression of the decline of a racist and undemocratic system ruled by a nest of parasites that govern for the interests of the super rich and Wall Street.   

About author

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine Freeman

Madeleine is a writer and video collaborator for Left Voice. She lives in New York.

Jimena Vergara

Jimena Vergara

Jimena is an author of the collection "Mexico en Llamas" and lives and works in New York City.