The remarks this past August by President Biden describing former President Trump and the “extreme MAGA philosophy” as “semi-fascism” provoked predictable outrage from Republican propagandists and leaders.
Fox News host Tucker Carlson accused President Biden of labeling anyone who disagrees with him as by definition a fascist, effectively declaring war against half the country. In turn, Trump proclaimed President Biden an “enemy of the state,” as he did at a “Save America” rally in early September for state GOP candidates in Pennsylvania.
It’s a sign of the times that the U.S. president feels compelled to throw out the fascism term to describe the majority of the Republican Party. As a career politician, Biden’s bipartisan instincts have always been to see the glass half-full, for whatever opportunities might exist to work with Republicans. But with mid-term elections coming and Republican obstructionism more or less the default setting to even the most modest Democratic policy proposals, Biden and his Democratic allies see little choice but to emphasize the far-right threat to a functioning democracy.
Obviously, the idea that President Biden is “an enemy of the state” is just Trump’s demagogic way of saying he thinks of himself as synonymous with the state, as a wannabe Mussolini strongman something or other. Of course, Trump as self-styled “freedom fighter” is less the gallant El Caudillo on horseback than just a pampered old businessman in a golf cart. His leaden speeches have all the earmarks of someone who watches too much television with the volume up. Charisma is not his exactly his strong suit. But if his insurrectionist plots to undo the 2020 election always had a certain lame desperation to them, the anti-democratic threat posed by the machinations of this movement of far-right authoritarians, neo-fascists, and assorted political hucksters should not be downplayed.
The Limits of Democracy
It’s certainly true MAGA Republicans pose anti-democratic threats to the rights of the American people. But it’s not quite a healthy democratic system that is under assault. In fact, the spokes on the democratic wheel were already broken long before the Republican Party’s nose-dive into far-right extremism. Actually, democracy has always been more of a formal doctrine than a living reality in the United States. For starters, throughout much of U.S. history the ruling elite excluded Blacks and women from the right to vote, a freedom eventually won only through mass social struggles for civil and democratic rights.
But even with broad voting rights, how democratic can any society be that is so thoroughly defined by corporate power and wealth inequality? How democratic can a society be where three billionaires—Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet—own as much wealth as almost half the nation? In fact, U.S. society is top-heavy with wealth inequality. In 2019, the Federal Reserve reports the top 1 percent of Americans controlled about 38 percent of the value of all financial stocks. In 2021, the richest 10 percent of American households were reported to own 89% of all corporate stocks.
In capitalist societies, it’s a given that corporations are run for elite owners and investors, not the workers who actually create the value and profits. It’s also a given that corporations will try to pay their employees as little as they possibly can. In 2021, CEO compensation packages at the top 350 U.S. corporations averaged $27.8 million annually, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. Overall, CEOs earned 399 times as much as the average worker. In 1965, CEOs by contrast earned only 20 times the average worker compensation. But it’s actually worse for many. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, the 300 largest corporations paying the lowest median wages in 2020 had a CEO to worker pay gap of 670 to 1!
Great system, right? For the few, yes. But for the many, not so much.
In the United States, mainstream politics has long been essentially pro-business politics, under the heel of Wall Street. But the old clubby bipartisanship among the two major parties, the politics that gave us four decades of accelerating wealth inequality, corporate deregulation, and economic austerity, has more recently given way to a widening political divide. This is less due to any major leftward shift within the Democratic establishment than to the descent of the Republican Party into a brazen, far-right grouping of xenophobic, authoritarian ideologues. There’s even now a growing far-right MAGA chorus calling for a new civil war, to rout the “socialist” threat posed by the various Blue Meanies of liberal and progressive politics to “freedom-loving” patriots everywhere.
Ironically, with the exception of its minority progressive/democratic socialist wing, which embraces an updated version of the largely abandoned New Deal politics of old, the Democratic Party establishment has for some time been running in place as defenders of a kind of liberal version of elite Wall Street class rule. In contrast, the Republican Party has morphed more into a Looney Tunes version of politics, starring a cartoon cast of right-wing zanies.
From election deniers to scheming lawyers and unprincipled opportunists, to the embittered, menacing nether world of MAGA mobs and conspiracy-minded, far-right know-nothings, the Republican Party has turned into every reactionary billionaire’s dream of political leadership in a society under the iron heel of wealth and power. Atop this ignominious political dung heap stands Trump himself, the Grand Poobah of corruption now holding court from his pretend palace in Mar-A-Largo.
Yes to Anti-Capitalism
How do we defend democracy? In a sense, this is perhaps just another way of asking how do we build an anti-capitalist movement? In my view, elite class rule and divisions inherent to the capitalist system are a barrier to real democracy, to creating a just and equitable society where work and production serve not the privileged few, but the human needs of the many. For real democracy is democracy that extends into the economy, workplaces, and communities of our society. This is the socialist conception of democracy.
Today, the house of American democracy is more akin to the facade of a Hollywood movie set than a habitable home. It’s what the late political scientist Sheldon Wolin described as a “managed democracy,” a system where elites rule and the public is more shepherded than self-governing. Under this system, the majority of citizens are by design removed from real power. The shiny corporate façade of concentrated wealth may look modern and impressive, but behind the scenes looms the unvarnished reality of just how unjust this “democratic” system is, with its endless wars, rampant wealth inequality, mass incarceration, and endemic racial and sexual violence and discrimination.
In many respects, the future dystopia critics warn is at the heart of the far right Republican vision is already here. As Ed Yong reports in The Atlantic, the Covid-19 pandemic only exacerbated the broken state of America’s many “failing systems,” toppling “an edifice whose foundations were already rotten.” Some 16 percent of global COVID deaths have occurred in the United States, despite representing only 4 percent of the world’s population. Think about that!
From fragmented and underfunded public health care resources and threadbare social safety nets to a for-profit health care system that drives up costs, hampers access, and leaves tens of millions chronically uninsured or underinsured, American society is far from the shining city on the hill.
As philosopher Nancy Fraser observes in her new book, Cannibal Capitalism (Verso Books, 2022), modern society is reeling from “a tangle of looming threats and realized miseries.” For many Americans, everyday life is defined by precarious low-wage jobs, crushing debt, and besieged livelihoods, set against what Fraser describes as a backdrop of dwindling services, crumbling infrastructure, hardened borders, and racialized violence. This is a society that has proven itself unprepared for deadly pandemics or the systemic challenges of the climate emergency. Meanwhile, political dysfunction paralyzes society’s ability to pursue or even envision genuine solutions to the crises before us.
Indeed, the mentality of the far right is reducible to a heartless, cruelly dystopian vision of social oppression. Women? Let’s take away their reproductive rights! Students? No free ride for those student loan slackers! Workers? Dare to organize a union and we’ll show you what class war is all about! School children? Sorry if we’re not in a tizzy about gun violence like those weak, whiny liberals! Nor are you going to learn about the history of racism or gender and sexual discrimination under our watch!
How much more insane can it all get? As the planet slowly emerges from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the world faces not lessons learned about the need for greater solidarity among nations and peoples, but instead the threat of nuclear war. Apparently, the post-Soviet capitalist experiment of three decades in Russia has not worked out too well. From Putin to Trump to the growth of far-right movements in Italy, Brazil, France, and elsewhere, the capitalist system’s inability to resolve its own social contradictions is hemorrhaging new threats to our survival.
“Like the ouroboris that eats its own tail, capitalist society is primed to devour its own substance,” warns Fraser. “A veritable dynamo of self-destabilization, it periodically precipitates crises while routinely eating away at the bases of our existence.”
She is right. The transnational capitalist system has never been able to bring economic security and stability to the world’s people, to end global poverty and economic exploitation, and establish a peaceful world free of war.
Today, we need to build a far-reaching global mass movement to defeat the authoritarian, neo-fascist threat to democratic rights. We need mass movement power to meet the many societal challenges before us, from the climate emergency to the struggles for higher wages, affordable housing, universal health care, and defense of women’s reproductive rights. In the United States, the vision of a large, independent socialist movement, one based on the politics of mass action and grassroots, working-class organizing to build new forms of political power, is a perspective worth embracing.
The future of democracy rather will live or die in the struggles of ordinary people, of workers and all the oppressed who yearn for a more humane and livable future for all people.
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