In December 1963, Malcom X, asked to respond to the assassination of then president John F Kennedy, famously said it was a matter of “the chickens coming home to roost”. He meant that the violence the United States had visited on countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Cuba had returned to the heart of US power.
On Wednesday, the chickens returned home to roost again, this time at Capitol Hill. Founded in genocide and built on slavery, the US has driven so many coups, assasinated so many leaders, and invaded and bombed so many countries around the world over the past century that it would take serious, dedicated study to try to keep count.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Vietnam and Iraq were laid to waste. Coups have been organised and backed across Latin America, most recently in Bolivia. For more than a century, the people of Haiti have been denied the right to freely determine their own course.
In 1960, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) played a direct role in the assassination of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Patrice Lumumba. In 1961, Frantz Fanon approached his death in the hands of the CIA. In 1962, the agency provided the intelligence to apartheid South Africa that led to the arrest of Nelson Mandela.
Violence at home and abroad have been locked in a tightening circle. And the taste for violence, the obsession with guns and the will to dominate have always been animated by a profound racism. Indeed, racism was invented in the US, in the colony of Virginia. It is as American as apple pie, Coca-Cola and drones dropping out of the sky on wedding parties in Pakistan.
Yet the US relentlessly and triumphantly celebrates itself as the world’s greatest democracy, and tells itself and the world that it wages war, drops bombs, organises coups and all the rest in the name of democracy. Many Americans believe this with a bizarrely childlike credulity.
No longer majority white
The unrivalled global power that America assumed at the end of the Cold War is coming to an end as China’s technology and economy rush forward. The old Herrenvolk democracy in which freedoms were, in practice, largely reserved for white America is also coming to an inevitable end. Migration will soon mean that the US is no longer a majority white country. The refusal of African Americans to tolerate murderous police racism has sparked a major political awakening.
At the same time, most of the jobs with union-negotiated pay and benefits that white workers took as their birthright have disappeared. Millions are overworked, underpaid, exhausted and, often, dying deaths of despair, drinking themselves to death, succumbing to opioid addiction or taking their own lives.
Barack Obama did not deviate from the consensus of corporate liberalism and was as willing to drop bombs on what Donald Trump would later call “shithole” countries as any other American president. But a significant swathe of American society could not accept a Black president. Obama’s mere presence in the White House fuelled the fire of American racism.
White people in the US could throw in their lot with other Americans and struggle for an inclusive and just society, a society with decent wages, healthcare, education and so on. Some have chosen this path and worked to support Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination.
But more than 74 million people allied themselves with Trump, a sociopath who summoned America’s darkest angels and offered a reckless and wildly irrational authoritarian populism that promised to restore the full power, standing and sanctity of whiteness. Many who took this path chose their investment in whiteness over their own material interests. They would rather be white and impoverished than Americans living among other Americans, with the same rights as all other Americans, in a decent society.
New surge of racist rage
That politics lost the recent election to a racially diverse form of the corporate liberalism which created the economic and social crisis that enabled Trump to be elected in the first place. The election result has generated a new surge of racist rage, deliberately stoked by Trump.
Even by US standards, the blatant show of racism on Wednesday 6 January was extraordinary. Peaceful protests in support of Black Lives Matter were met repeatedly with armed state violence from police officers in riot gear. But the white mob that stormed Capitol Hill, some carrying Confederate flags and wearing fascist insignia, was met with an entirely different reaction. They took selfies with the police.
Some forms of liberal disquiet were themselves saturated with racism. A commentator on CNN complained that the US had fought a war to “bring democracy to Iraq” but democracy was now under attack at home.
But Wednesday’s events, together with all that has come with Trump’s presidency and the exposure of racist police violence across the US, have shown many Americans that their democracy has always harboured a profound racism and is not what has been advertised. It was a slick marketing campaign, a large white lie.
Trump is still president until 20 January. But we need to be mindful that the forces unleashed by Trumpism will outlast Trump. Pandora’s box has been opened. The new normal is being marked out by racist street mobs, deranged conspiracy theories and an assumption that the permanent right to white power at home and American power abroad are the real truth, a truth to be affirmed by force, and so there is no need to weigh evidence and reason in public disputation.
Only two real choices
Joe Biden has been confirmed as the next US president. It is unimaginable that Biden could use Twitter to incite a mob to storm Capitol Hill in an attempt to prevent a loss of power. The refreshing diversity of his team will, at a symbolic level, give people space to breathe after the relentless suffocating racism of the Trump years.
We should, however, remember that George W Bush was praised for a relatively diverse Cabinet. But his administration compounded the social crisis in the US and left a million dead in Iraq. Diversity is essential, but it is far, very far, from being enough.
Biden’s administration will be confronted with the poisonous legacy of Trump from his first day in office. And under Biden, the bombs will continue to fall. The corporate liberalism to which he will return the US will continue to enrich the few, entrench the increasingly precarious circumstances of millions, and generate ever greater despair and rage.
The majority of American voters chose a return to corporate liberalism over Trump’s pathological narcissism, buffoonery and, in some respects, incipient fascism. This is understandable given that there were only two real choices on the ballot. But this is not a sustainable alternative to Trumpism. There will continue to be radicalisation to the left and the right.
Something will give. The question as the established order fractures is whether society can be reconstituted and, if so, if it will be the Left or the Right that leads that project. Biden is a stopgap, not a solution.