After a series of far-fetched legal attempts to overturn the election, capped by a shocking assault on the Capitol, it appears the Trump period has ended. On the day of the Capitol attack, Trump addressed his supporters, claiming, “You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength and you have to be strong.… If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Two days later, in the midst of a furious and widespread backlash, Trump was forced to walk back his belligerent attitude, giving an anodyne speech where he called for peace, asserting that “those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction…do not represent our country,” and all but conceding that a transition of power would take place. It now has.
It has been an ignominious close to a historical moment that will be measured by its impact for years to come. Already long before the 2016 election, many saw Trump’s rise as a turning point of American politics toward authoritarianism, or even fascism. For some, the Trump presidency was an “aspirational autocracy,” while for others, it was an example of tyranny. Many debated the applicability of the fascist label. Yet, for others still, these concerns overlooked the persistent illiberal and antidemocratic tendencies that ran like a thread through all of American history. According to these more skeptical arguments, focusing on Trump’s would-be authoritarianism both mythologized the pre-Trump years and obscured just how ineffective and weak his time in office had been.
Even as these most recent events confirm a political defeat for Trump and the restoration of a shaky centrist-progressive coalition, the United States continues to experience a slow-burning legitimacy crisis that shows no signs of abating. While the 2016 election did not create an immediate political crisis of the state, it exacerbated antidemocratic and authoritarian tendencies that were already ingrained in American society and political institutions.
These tendencies were decades in the making. The American security state, already nurtured on decades of anti-leftist funding and training, had taken on a new gloss with the War on Terror. The lasting fallout from the Great Recession of 2008 played a major role in the 2016 crisis of the political establishment and Trump’s unexpected rise to the top of the Republican Party. This year alone, the mismanagement of Covid-19 has led to the deaths of over 400,000 people, exposing essential workers and the vulnerable to a deadly disease and fraying the country’s already tattered social institutions, at the same time as structural racial violence brought millions of people to the streets in the midst of this pandemic.
These factors have accumulated to create the most serious legitimacy crisis since the late 1960s. We still do not have enough distance to evaluate the long-term effects of the Trump administration. Nevertheless, we should not try to make sense of the Trump years by approaching them as a radical break with what has come before. Instead, they continued broader and preexisting authoritarian tendencies in American politics—a tide that will be only temporarily stemmed by Trump leaving office.
A Fragile Democracy
In recent years, many political scientists have raised concerns about the risk of democratic breakdown and backsliding. Some have pointed to growing economic inequality, the expansion of executive power, and the illiberal turn of the Republican Party mainstream over at least the past decade. Others, like Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt in their 2018 bestseller How Democracies Die, have claimed that that the stability of democratic institutions rests on the preservation of norms such as mutual toleration and forbearance toward political opponents. Center-right and center-left parties are thus important gatekeepers for preventing the rise of more extreme factions on their sides of the spectrum. In this picture, Trump’s erosion of these informal norms and the GOP’s collective abeyance pushed the United States closer to crossing the threshold into authoritarianism.
It is true that party polarization and negative partisanship are now at an all-time high in the whole period following the Civil War. However, as Aziz Rana has pointedly argued, notions like norm stability and bipartisanship were themselves exceptional, premised on a bygone Cold War consensus that had as much to do with American imperialism abroad as they did with an implicit social cohesion domestically. Treating the Trump moment as an unprecedented threat to an otherwise self-correcting constitutional and political order risks seeing the exception as the rule. It misrepresents both the alleged stability of this order and its conditions of possibility.
To their credit, Levitsky and Ziblatt acknowledge that the bipartisanship of the period roughly between the end of Reconstruction and the 1980s was based on the permanent de-democratization of the South under the Jim Crow order. The South remained an authoritarian enclave, meaning that the United States as a whole can only legitimately be called a liberal democracy from the time of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts (1964–65). Yet even still, with the parallel rise of mass incarceration, voter ID laws, and an antimajoritarian political structure, this designation has always been highly conditional. This gives us all the more reason not to see the Trump moment as exceptional. Instead, it is the latest stage in what has been a longer historical struggle between progressive-democratic and reactionary elements embedded within the country’s history and social fabric.
Much ink also been spilled comparing Trump to various contemporary illiberal leaders, and, more controversially, to interwar European fascists. But what the analogy to European fascism has obscured is the possibility of a homegrown American fascism, bearing all the familiar tropes of the American national mythos. This political strain is traceable at least as far back as the crushing of the Reconstruction order and the reassertion of white racial rule under Jim Crow.
Fascism emerged as a global phenomenon in the 1920s and took hold amid the historic crisis of political liberalism after the Great Depression. Yet its traction heavily depended on the specificities of both domestic and international politics. The American variant of reactionary politics shared with European fascisms this common turning point of 1929, and indeed influenced the racial regime of German fascism.
If in Germany and Italy liberals and the left were unable to prevent fascist movements from coming into power, the relative success of the New Deal forestalled this possibility in the US. However, the New Deal both left untouched the reactionary bloc of southern Democrats and also immediately prompted a reaction of business conservatism. Even if it was beyond the pale of the political center, this current of opposition to the New Deal persisted and forged an ideology combining racial democracy, natural hierarchy, and anticommunism. In addition to remaining at the heart of the southern Democratic bloc, it also periodically reared its head in Republican politics as Bircherism or Buchananism. It also left an imprint in mainstream forms connected to various leaders: Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, and now Trump.
This distinctively American strain of reactionary politics has its roots in the country’s origin as a settler colonial state. During the twentieth century, both the relative success of the New Deal and the American rise to Cold War–era international hegemony help explain why it did not take root in the interwar period but instead came to prominence over the last decade.
The Turn to Authoritarian Neoliberalism
The fact that the reactionary right stepped into the limelight only in the last dozen years, rather than decades ago, is a result of both systemic changes across the capitalist world since the 1970s and the landscape of American politics since the Great Recession. The emergence of the far right and the crisis of liberal democratic institutions in the United States today is a localized version of a broader pattern that can plausibly be called “authoritarian neoliberalism.”
As the overall size and role of the state in the regulation of societies expanded in the 20th century, it also became increasingly susceptible to demands for political and social rights. In the United States, through a combination of progressive policy-making and popular mobilization, the New Deal implemented the framework for a social safety net and a degree of economic redistribution. These policies were also a reinvestment into both the productivity of the labor force and the purchasing power of consumers, both meant to stabilize the national economy and help maintain favorable conditions for profit. Equally importantly, these and similar measures across the Global North after the war helped these states gain democratic legitimacy as fairly neutral mediators in the conflict between the capitalist and working classes.
The economic and political crises of the late 1960s and ’70s across the Atlantic world changed the balance of those class compromises and helped inaugurate the set of policy changes we now widely associate with neoliberalism. As Quinn Slobodian has shown, neoliberal intellectuals and policy-makers sought to protect the fragile global capitalist order, forged in the wake of World War II, from popular-democratic demands made on the national level. Instead of shrinking the state, as the anti-statist ideology of neoliberalism claimed, the ongoing need for national macroeconomic management actually further consolidated power in the executive and bureaucracy. By the end of the 20th century, transnational institutions like the World Trade Organization and the European Union—along with, we might add, the global hegemony of the United States—became the centerpieces of this arrangement.
In the Global North, these reforms helped sustain and generate economic growth while incorporating the upwardly mobile working classes and managerial strata into a new consensus. Yet this shift increasingly came at the expense of the state’s claim to democratic legitimacy. As center-left parties turned toward more affluent and educated constituents, the representative arrangements of the postwar order began to change for good. The long-term effect of this breakdown of democratic representation has been the reemergence of more personalistic forms of political leadership, where the connection between political leaders and the masses were less mediated by internal party processes, and instead based on an alleged direct connection to the “authentic” people. From Silvio Berlusconi to Viktor Orbán to Trump, the contemporary rise of so-called “populism” across the world cannot be understood apart from the neoliberal erosion of prior representative institutions.
Complementing this legitimacy crisis has been the adoption of increasingly coercive measures, with clandestine networks linking the state administration to its repressive institutions (encompassing the fabled “deep state”). In the United States, the remarkable growth of the carceral state since the 1970s—much of it driven by local, rather than federal, incentives—is intimately tied to the neoliberalization of the broader US political economy. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Marie Gottschalk, and others have argued, crime and border security have long been a point of bipartisanship in American politics, featuring both large-scale investment in repressive institutions and the persistence of “law and order” discourse. A line can thus be drawn from the rise of the prison industry in 1970s–’80s California to the boomeranging of the War on Terror at home to the current prominence of the ICE-carceral complex under Trump. Altogether, these institutions both serve as the breeding ground for reactionary politics and facilitate the erosion of constitutionally protected rights and freedoms.
This summer’s uprisings were remarkable not only for their intensity and breadth, but also in that both parties converged on the message of law and order as a way of demarcating “good trouble” civil disobedience from the “vandalism” of looting. As we witnessed the police violence and the National Guard deployed in major cities across the country, it became clear that repression has become increasingly necessary to maintain the stability of the authoritarian neoliberal order, and that we are now in the midst of an acute crisis of representative institutions and democratic legitimacy.
A Protracted Crisis
According to Juan Linz’s influential argument, presidential electoral systems like the American model are more susceptible to instability because of legislatures elected independently from presidents. Given this risk of “dual legitimacy,” the United States has historically depended on the existence of a broad two-party consensus grounded in the post-WWII American imperial project. But in recent decades, lacking the external motivators of the Communist bloc, as well as the general drift of the War on Terror, this has given way to the phenomenon of “weak parties and strong partisanship.” If the general role of the state is to consolidate the disparate interests of the different sections of the capitalist class into a relatively stable and durable political consensus, the 2016 election underscored the current ideological and political fissures between and across the two parties.
Trump’s rise to the top of the Republican Party has been seen as a sign of Republican elites’ abdication of what Levitsky and Ziblatt call their gatekeeper responsibilities, as well as of liberal democratic values more broadly. There are undoubtedly strong ideological continuities between Trump and the Republican far right that emerged onto the political scene in the 1990s, which Republican elites have condoned. Yet here a decisive role was also played by the institutional design of the American state. Unlike the rise of fascism in interwar Europe, in 2016 the far right did not enter the state through an anti-systemic mass party. Instead, it was through a process of colonizing one of the two parties already locked into place by the two-party system. Under a proportional representational model, the temptation to splinter into their own party would have been far higher. Without this outlet, the far right instead moved from the fringe to becoming the key component of the Republican coalition in 2015-16.
In terms of the social base of the Trump coalition, in both 2016 and 2020, he enjoyed broad support among Republican partisans. In the previous election he eked out a win by carrying enough suburban moderates and conservatives along with, by some measures, enough midwestern blue-collar workers. Despite this fascination with the Rust Belt “white working class” that was decisive for Trump in 2016, his real social base was always more in the suburban and exurban middle classes that first became power players in the Reagan era. In 2016, mobilizing this base and fusing it with support from the large extractive industries, the building trades, big retail, the manufacturing sector, small business owners, and just enough support from tech and finance, proved enough to win office.
As I argued in the first months of 2017, while Trump ran on an economic populist message promising to upend the neoliberal order, his administration would instead prioritize standard Republican economic policies, leveraging whatever available state institutions for personalistic gain and gutting those that served no such purpose. Steve Bannon’s grand vision of “destroying the administrative state” was carried out through massive turnover at all levels of the federal bureaucracy, as competing centers of administrative decision-making left the government lurching from one priority to another. Over the last four years, this purposeful undermining of state capacity—most recently deployed to question the legitimacy of the electoral process—was used to further undercut public confidence in the ability of government institutions to address social issues. Trump’s time in office can thus be seen as a patrimonial, “nationalistic neoliberal” administration, governing to the advantage of the above sectors of capital, while maintaining the relative acquiescence of the finance, insurance, and real estate sectors.
Four years later, while he retained his partisan base, Trump lost just enough of the white suburban vote to offset his unexpected gains among Black and Hispanic voters. It remains to be seen if and how “Trumpism” lasts as a political movement after this electoral setback and the insurrection at the Capitol. On the one hand, while its fusion with the Republican Party was largely seamless and mutually-reinforcing, the Trump movement failed to achieve traction in other key parts of the state—especially within the military, national security establishment, and large swathes of the federal bureaucracy. In addition, although large media outlets like FOX and the New York Post became virtual propaganda arms of the administration, the White House never exercised or threatened control over the opposition media networks and newspapers. Lastly, while the police and border control became hotbeds of pro-Trump sentiment, Trump’s inability to subject the armed forces to his personal and political aims meant that, at least for now, the fissures within the repressive institutions were not deep enough to aid in his grasp for power.
At the same time, consistent with the turn to authoritarian neoliberalism, we have seen not just the decline of representative mechanisms but the waning of the civil and political rights that define liberal-democratic regimes. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in the courts, felon disenfranchisement on the state level, and now the myth of systematic voter fraud—all targeting Black and minority populations—have undercut the gains of the Civil Rights movement. Moreover, we cannot ignore the possibility that carceral and repressive institutions can become the new power centers for the post-Trump right. There remains ample overlap between paramilitary activities by groups like the Proud Boys and official repressive apparatuses like the police and National Guard—as the counterviolence and repression of this summer’s antiracist uprisings showed. Whether it is the street abduction of activists in broad daylight or the deployment of militarized police and National Guard across nearly all major cities, the vivid repression of the right to civil disobedience points to the application of counterinsurgency and antiterrorism tactics to quash domestic dissent.
Altogether, these developments—the erosion of state capacity and formally democratic institutions, the curbing of civil and political rights, and the increasing reliance on repression as a means of crisis management—all stem from both a general pattern of authoritarian neoliberal governance in the global north and the specific form it has taken in the context of the Trump administration. Against the hopes of some progressives, it is likely that these increasingly coercive legal, institutional, and policy measures are too entrenched and the structural power of capital is too strong to for us to return to the social-welfare arrangement of the postwar years. But they are just as likely to prevent a return to the familiar neoliberal form of the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, we may be seeing the emergence of a new phase of the neoliberal regime, characterized by an uneven economic recovery, political gridlock, sporadic outbursts of state-sanctioned and unsanctioned violence, the continuing de-democratization of representative and civil institutions.
With top CEOs from a variety of sectors meeting in the days immediately after the election to plan a unified response to Trump’s election stonewalling, the message was clear: The last four years have proven too politically tumultuous for sectors like finance and big tech that were never fully sold on Trump in the first place. Following the attack on the Capitol, even representatives of those sectors that previously supported Trump, like the National Association of Manufacturers, put out statements denouncing his Hail Mary grab for power. In addition to this absence of business support, both the federalized character of the electoral system and the relative weakness of American political parties made it difficult to coordinate a large-scale effort to undermine the election—though clearly not for lack of trying.
Despite Trump’s electoral defeat and the Democratic victory in the two Senate races for Georgia, the institutional fragmentation of the American state still gives a disproportionate influence to the Republican Party. In addition to the Republican transformation of the judiciary (Trump having appointed three justices to the Supreme Court and over 200 justices to state and circuit courts), the Electoral College and the Senate both dramatically underrepresent urban areas. Having lost the popular vote in all but one presidential election since 1992, the Republican Party may recommit to further countermajoritarianism, drawing on its power centers in the courts, the upcoming Census redistricting, and whatever leverage it has as the Senate minority. Instead of forging and mobilizing new majoritarian voting blocs beyond their partisan base, Republicans could thus content themselves with spending the near future as a party of minoritarian rule.
Equally seriously, if Republican legislators’ willingness to back Trump’s frivolous lawsuits and their support for the insurrection on Capitol hill are any indication, a deep split may currently be growing within the GOP. This would pit a mobilized Trump base against those establishment leaders who, satisfied with the Trump tax cuts and judicial appointments, would be eager to return to a more stable order. But here too, the zero-sum nature of the electoral system and the persistence of negative partisanship makes it more likely that the conflict will be played out within the party rather than bring about a major realignment or the breakdown of the two-party system as a whole.
In turn, the incoming Biden administration has so far presented itself in the custodial role of national unity, stability, and reconciliation—all attractive prospects for fractions of capital weary of Trump’s instability and anxious about the lasting effects of the Covid-19 recession. With Democrats now poised to control a unified government for the first time since 2010, expectations are high for a new stimulus package and other progressive policies. How these plans will be implemented and whether they will draw enough Republican support to signal a new bipartisan consensus is unclear at this point. Nevertheless, it is possible that we may see such a reconfiguration of political and economic elites in an attempt to update and prolong the neoliberal project.
What is certain is that Trump’s electoral defeat thus in no way dissolves the underlying forces that enabled his rise. The assault on the Capitol has been widely condemned by political and economic elites. But it also vividly shows that there is still energy behind the white-supremacist and neofascist movements that he shepherded to the mainstream. With mass polarization, the persistence of irregular right-wing violence, the entrenchment of the repressive and carceral complex, and the ongoing fragmentation and drift of the political class, the social forces that enabled Trump will also outlast his exit from the political stage.
Exceptionalist interpretations of the Trump period as an unprecedented break with “responsible governance” have obscured the dynamics of the far right, the de-democratization happening under previous administrations, and the countermajoritarian nature of American political institutions that brought Trump to power and through which his presidency has left its biggest impact. Only by tracing these continuities with the past history of the United States, both domestically and transnationally, can we take some critical distance from the last four years and begin to understand the persistence of the social conditions that made them possible.