Quo vadis, America?

The Trump era is finally over. What next for America and the world?

This is the transcript an interview given to Işın Eliçin of the independent Turkish media Medyascope.tv. Founded in 2015, Medyascope.tv is an online media platform broadcasting live interviews, discussions and commentaries through Periscope, YouTube and Facebook. It is one of the few independent journalistic voices in Turkey. You can support its work at https://www.patreon.com/medyascopetv.

What was it that happened on January 6th at the US Capitol? Was it a coup attempt, was it a riot? What is the responsibility of Trump?

The nature of what occurred on January 6th in Washington DC is still widely debated and will probably be for some time to come, but I don’t think it was a coup d’état, or an attempted coup d’état. This is not what a coup is, not how a coup goes. The people who stormed the Capitol building were not heavily armed, and their intention was not really to seize power by force – or if it was then there was never any real prospect that they could actually succeed. Many countries around the world – including Turkey – have experienced coups or attempted coups in the course of their history, and they perfectly know by experience that coups are not led by the kind of people who entered the Capitol, and that what happened there was something else.

This is not to say that what happened was not serious and concerning. It was of course very serious and concerning, and tragic as well since five people died as a result. There are reasons to think that at least some of the rioters were well prepared and were intending to do harm to elected officials. There are also reasons to think that the Capitol building was not protected and defended as it should have been, and to raise some questions about the attitude of part of the police force. There are, above all, reasons to believe that things could have turned much worse, and resulted in a very real political destabilization if members of Congress, or the Vice President, had been found and harmed by the mob. But even if that had happened it would still not have been a coup attempt.

It was also not an “insurrection”, because insurrections do not end after a couple of hours of ransacking and selfie-taking in the parliament building. Edward Luttwak, the author of the famous book Coup d’Etat: A Practical Handbook, pointed out on January 6th – and quite rightly, I think – that what had just happened was “not a coup d’état, not an insurrection” and “that is why Wall Street calmly went up–they knew it was just a show”.

What happened was also not “terrorism”, even if some have called it that way. Terrorists do not announce their attack plans and targets weeks in advance, and when they finally act they are usually ready to kill and die – and to die for the aim of killing. The rioters in DC really did not fit that profile.

So what was it? It was a violent riot, for sure, by a violent mob, for sure. It was unprecedented in modern US history, for sure, and hence it is deeply troubling and concerning for a lot of American citizens. And of course Donald Trump is largely responsible for what happened. Not only for clearly inciting people to march on the Capitol and show their anger to members of Congress on the morning of January 6th, and not only for managing to convince a large chunk of his voters that the election had been stolen, but also more generally for spreading lies and falsehoods and inciting hatred, division and confrontation ever since he announced his presidential run at Trump Tower in June 2015. By doing so he has progressively brought a growing part of America with him into some sort of parallel or inverted reality, where the people who stormed the Capitol are ‘patriots’ trying to save democracy rather than extremists assaulting it, where they are righteous citizens rising courageously to stop the presidential election from being stolen rather than rioters attempting to overturn its result, where they are the victims of a hostile takeover of America rather than the culprits and accomplices of a criminal act, and where Trump himself is a savior and master chess player who is still about to unleash hell on the Deep State and the evil Democrats rather than a deranged, bitter and increasingly isolated maniac. A significant part of those who voted for Trump in November now live in that parallel reality and are convinced to be the ones doing the right, moral and patriotic thing to do (i.e. trying to “stop the steal” in order to “save America”), and that’s probably what’s most concerning for the future.

Should Trump be further punished after being impeached?

That will be for Congress and for the courts to decide, but I personally don’t see how an outgoing president inciting his most ardent and extremist supporters to convene in Washington DC and then to march on the Capitol and “go wild” could avoid prosecution. For its own sake America needs to make it clear that acts and words have consequences, especially because the drifting of part of its population into Trump’s parallel reality has reached such epidemic proportions.

How responsible are the Republicans? How will the Capitol riots affect the party?

The Republicans are very much responsible of course, for letting Trump take over the party and define its line over the last few years, and for supporting him even in his most outrageous claims and moves. There have been a few dissenting voices in the party, of course, but overall the GOP was still Trump’s party until the morning of January 6th. It is only since then that some Republican leaders have openly started to break ranks and to call for turning the page on the Trump era – with some of them even voting for impeaching him.

If it took the Republicans so long to finally start realizing who they had been following and what they had been doing, it’s probably because the GOP’s embrace of Trump and Trumpism was no accident. As chronicled by historian Rick Persltein in his various books, the conservative movement in America has been progressively drifting further and further rightward since the 1960s. It is this progressive but uninterrupted drifting and radicalization over several decades that made the Republican Party – both its apparatus and its voter base – ripe for the picking by Trump in 2015-2016.

Now the party is in shambles and at risk of implosion between those who might be inclined to further radicalize, with or without Trump, and those who will want to turn the page on this chaotic era. The latter might include much of the apparatus of the party, but the former probably comprise a significant share of its voter base. The GOP could potentially split if an openly Trumpist or revanchist party emerges after Trump leaves office, and even disappear over time if it fails to find a new, post-Trump sense of purpose.

Will Trump be back in 2024 for the Presidency race?

I don’t know, but I doubt it. First because he is probably going to face an array of legal trouble after leaving the White House, and that the possibility that he may end up in jail cannot be excluded, nor that he may be barred from elected office for the rest of his days. Second, because it is rather unlikely that the Republican Party would rally behind him in 2024 after what happened, and because a third-party run would unlikely to be successful. Third, because he will be 78 years old in 2024 and may not be fit enough, physically and/or mentally, for another presidential campaign.

But of course 2024 is a long way off and it’s impossible at this stage to totally rule out another Trump White House bid.

What is Trumpism? How much ground does it have in the US and in the world in general?

Well, I guess one has to distinguish Trumpism as the political thought and doctrine of Donald J. Trump from Trumpism as the populist wave that he rode to rise to power. I’m not sure the former really exists, as Trump has not demonstrated over the years having any clearly articulated political thought or doctrine. I don’t personally know what Trump really believes in, except in Trump himself, and I’m not sure that anyone knows. On the other hand, Trumpism as the populist wave of anger and resentment that he instrumentalized and that propelled him to the White House still exists and will probably survive his presidential term and maybe even himself.

The populist wave has actually been rising over the last decade across much of the Western world, and even beyond. It has taken different shapes and forms in various countries and cultures, but I think that its root cause is pretty similar everywhere: it is the sentiment among a growing share of the population of a loss of control – over one’s own destiny as well as over country or nation – and of a loss of identity – in a society that is increasingly complex, open and diversified. The populist surge essentially results from the fact that this growing share of the population feels it is being dispossessed from what it had acquired and had come to consider as its rightful due (a reasonably secure and comfortable livelihood, a voice in a fairly stable and straightforward political process, a certain place or rank in the social order, a sense of community and belonging, or even just a sense of purpose and direction). This feeling of loss and dispossession is not new, and has been undermining the fabric of Western societies for several decades. At first, it mostly generated apathy, disenchantment and disengagement, but over time and especially after the shock of the Great Financial Crisis and its chaotic aftermath, it gave rise to growing anger and resentment as a rising share of those people experiencing this “Great Dispossession” came to believe that it was being masterminded or engineered by a self-serving, “globalist” elite.

Trumpism is, deep down, a reaction against this “Great Dispossession”. Trump himself did put it in a very straightforward way in an interview given to the television news magazine ‘60 Minutes’ right after being elected in November 2016: “we’re losing this country. We’re losing this country. That’s why I won the election”, he said. Stopping and reversing the “Great Dispossession” is the raison d’être of Trumpism, and of modern right-wing populism in general. Trump’s supporters are intent on taking back control and reclaiming what they believe has been wrongfully taken away from them, including when they storm the Capitol building.

This feeling of loss and dispossession will not disappear after Trump leaves office. On the contrary, it will now probably be exacerbated by the sentiment, very much widespread in Trumpist America, of having been robbed of the election victory. The Storming of the Capitol on January 6th could thus signal the start of a more radical and potentially violent phase of the populist reaction in America.

Will Biden be able to bring America back together?

That’s very unlikely. Joe Biden is likely to be a feeble president, for several reasons.

First, he hasn’t really received any kind of personal mandate from the American people. On November 3rd, 74 million Americans voted for Trump, and 81 million voted against Trump, but nobody really voted for Joe Biden. Due to his notoriety and experience he was the best placed to bring together a majority of Americans in order to remove Trump from the White House, and that’s probably why he was picked as candidate by the Democrats, but that does not give him much personal support or authority once Trump is gone. We are very, very far from the dynamic and enthusiasm that brought Bill Clinton or Barack Obama to the White House.

Second, Biden will not benefit from the full and unambiguous support of the Democratic Party. Even if it will now have a majority in both Chambers of Congress, the party is very much divided, at least as much as the GOP. Its leftwing, progressive aisle will probably try to exert maximum pressure on the Biden administration to move decisively leftward on a number of issues, while the moderate, corporate-friendly side will fiercely resist or try to dilute such moves. Fairly quickly the infighting within the party is likely to intensify, which will make it difficult for Biden to pass bold reforms and enact meaningful policies.

Third, Biden increasingly shows signs of aging, both physical and mental, which could impair his ability to govern or even cut short his presidency. At 78 he will be the oldest president ever to take office, and he is likely to serve only one term – making him a de facto ‘lame duck’ president from the very start. He has shown during his campaign some increasingly obvious signs of cognitive decline, which may signal the start of a process that the weight and pressure of presidential responsibilities could accelerate. There is a possibility that Biden may have to give up along the way and hand over the presidency to Kamala Harris, who is a much more divisive figure.

Overall, the odds that Joe Biden will manage to “heal the nation” and bring Americans back together are extremely low. The rift between the two Americas is anyway now so wide that healing may be impossible. The process by which these two Americas drift away from each other, get to despise each other and rise up against each other is unlikely to be reversed for a very long time, if ever. On the contrary, it looks like this process is poised to accelerate in the months and years ahead. The social media purge that started after the January 6th riot may bring some temporary relief and give the impression that Trumpism can be suppressed or cancelled, but it is in fact likely to accelerate the “digital secession” of Trumpist America. The “two Americas” are poised to become even more estranged from each other, and of course that’s not going to help heal the nation and restore its democratic spirit in any way.

What does the Biden term promise to the world and how much of it can be done, or depends on what?

Well, Joe Biden will probably try to return to multilateralism, to restore the alliances that have been damaged or neglected by the Trump administration, and to restore America’s leadership across the globe. He may go some way to achieving all this, but what he cannot do is going back to the pre-Trump world. Trump’s tenure has profoundly changed America, but it has also irreversibly changed the world and America’s place in it. America’s leadership can never get back to what it was until a few years ago. Its prestige has been tarnished, its rivals emboldened and its allies somewhat alienated. The entire global system is now undergoing a tectonic shift, that Trump didn’t cause but that he accelerated, and America’s leadership is poised to come under ever-growing pressure in the coming years. In particular, America’s strategic rivalry with China is going to intensify. China makes no secret of its intention to overtake the US as the world’s dominant economy, and recent trends and figures suggest that it could achieve this goal already in this decade. The overarching foreign policy objective of the US is and will now remain to prevent that from happening. This objective will dominate and dictate everything the US does in the world from now on.

How did the coronavirus pandemic change (or affect) the course of history?

Well, the pandemic is still ongoing and its historical impacts will unfold over the long term. Only time will tell whether it has changed the course of history or rather accelerated it. Right now it looks like rather than setting the world in a fundamentally different direction it has turbo-charged some key “mega-trends” that were already underway before it even started. From the runaway digitalization of everything to the financialization-cum-zombification of the world’s economy, from the degeneration of liberal democracy to the exacerbation of income and wealth inequality, from the attrition of civil liberties to the generalization of techno-enabled mass surveillance, from the unravelling of social connections to the implosion of the established global order and the rise of China, all these evolutions that went into overdrive in 2020 actually preceded the pandemic.

At political level, it may of course have had an impact on the outcome of the US presidential election. At the beginning of 2020 Donald Trump’s re-election looked quite probable, but his (mis)handling of the pandemic and the scale of the economic devastation that it triggered changed everything. In addition, the pandemic also led many US states to expand access to mail-in absentee voting. Regardless of whether mail-in absentee voting increases the risk of fraud (and it likely does), this increased access to distance voting probably significantly contributed to the record turnout in the election, which was the highest in over a century and mostly benefited Joe Biden. If access to mail-in absentee voting had not been expanded, the participation rate would likely have been much lower and the result could have been different.

Last time we spoke, you had a very pessimistic vision of the future. Did it change in the meantime? If so, why and how?

I’m not sure if my vision of the future is really so pessimistic, but no, it hasn’t fundamentally changed.

I however confess that I had not anticipated, in the early stages of the pandemic, that the world’s major central banks would be capable of containing its economic and financial damage, at least for a while. I had probably underestimated their remaining firepower. The scale of the global monetary stimulus (and of fiscal stimulus backed by central bank asset purchases) has been absolutely staggering in 2020 – about three times as big as what was done in response to the Great Financial Crisis in 2008. Central banks have literally flooded the global financial system with monetary liquidity, and so far this flooding has made it possible to avoid the worst. But once again it has not solved any of the underlying ills of the global economy; it has only further inflated the ‘Everything Bubble’ that constitutes its financial backbone and pushed back its blowing up. But delaying the inevitable doesn’t make it less inevitable, and monetary easing à outrance is a trap without end. Central banks are now left with no other choice than to increase their asset purchases again and again (don’t expect them to go down or even stabilize in 2021), and to hope for the best… However, even if their monetary easing is holding the system together so far, it is also further exacerbating income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching absolutely grotesque levels, and it is feeding an increasing divergence between one part of the economy that is artificially booming and another that is crashing down – what has been dubbed a “K-shaped” recovery. This signals, if anything, that the only palliative we have found to the deep structural crisis of the global financial and economic system, and the only thing that really separates us from a collapse of that system, is now running into rapidly diminishing returns.

What happens next? Well, nobody knows for sure, but I don’t see any reason to change my diagnosis: our global industrial civilization – the largest, most complex, most successful yet most unsustainable civilization that ever was – is probably entering its decline phase, and the challenge for all humans and human societies in the coming years and decades will be to navigate this decline in its manifold dimensions, and to mitigate its risks and impacts. That will require accepting that we are entering an age of limits, scaling down our expectations, and preparing accordingly. Joe Biden, who keeps repeating that “there is nothing Americans can’t do if they work together”, is probably miles away from that acceptance, and will most likely never reach it. Yet the next four years, under his presidential term, will probably be a time of reckoning for many in America and across the world.

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