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United States: Trump’s Bonaparte Moment

September 12, 2020

By Barry Sheppard: August’s Republican National Convention centred on two interrelated themes. One was the adulation of Donald Trump as the strong leader who can save the country, and who must hold onto power, come what may.

The other was the mobilisation of a blatant, racist assault on the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM activists were accused of being “violent thugs.” intent on physically destroying the country, and which Trump would crush in the streets.

Trump’s presence and speeches dominated each session, culminating in his long acceptance speech, with the White House as his backdrop.

“We must never allow mob rule,” he said.

“In the strongest possible terms, the Republican Party condemns the rioting, looting, arson and violence we have seen in Democrat-run cities all, like Kenosha, Minneapolis, Portland, Chicago, New York and many others.

“There is violence and danger in the Democrat-run cities throughout America.”

San Francisco-based socialist Barry Sheppard writes a regular column for the Australian publication Green Left Weekly. His other recent columns explain his opposition to the Democratic Party, stressing the need to build Black Lives Matter and other independent movements of working people. Sheppard has highlighted the socialist demands being raised by Green Party presidential candidate Howie Hawkins. Reprinted by permission from Green Left Weekly, September 9, 2020.

The convention did not adopt an election platform. Apparently, what Trump stands for is what the Republican Party stands for — even if that changes with each of his tweets.

Trump kicked off the convention to chants of “Four more years!”

“Now, if you really want really drive them crazy,” Trump replied, “You say: ’12 more years.’”

The delegates dutifully chanted this back.

During his 2016 election campaign, Trump [falsely] accused the Democrats of organising more than three million undocumented people to vote, turning the popular vote in favour of Hillary Clinton. Trump went on to win the Electoral College vote, however. “Because we caught them doing really bad things in 2016,” Trump told the convention. “Let’s see what happens.”

Trump could not legally win twelve more years, unless a constitutional amendment allowed for more than the stipulated two terms — something impossible to do unless the Democratic Party were to be suppressed.

Trump’s statement was another example of him saying he would not accept the vote in November’s election, if it went against him — although it would take a putsch to actually carry that out.

Other features of the convention were the speeches given by Trump’s “clan”, including Donald Jr’s partner, Kimberly Guilfoyle. Together, they took up 30% of the air time over four days, and at least one of them spoke every evening.

What the New York Times called the “Trumpsphere” – those people outside Trump’s family, “elevated because of their staunch defence of a Trumpian worldview” took up another 30% of speaking time. Their collective speaking time was evidence of their place in the current Republican pecking order, according to the New York Times. No former Republican presidents or allies of George W. Bush, John McCain or of other prominent Republican families spoke.

Since the convention, Trump has continued to defend the police in all the recent murders by cops of Black people. He has also praised his supporters who have come armed to BLM protests to back up the cops — even when one of these self-styled “militia men” shot dead two unarmed protesters and injured a third.

He continues to boast about how great he is, and how he is bound to win the election unless it is “rigged” against him.

Trump Embraces Conspiracists

Trump has also openly embraced supporters of the far-right QAnon conspiracy group. A reporter asked him: “At the crux of the [QAnon] theory is this belief that you are secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals. Does that sound like something you are behind?”

Trump responded: “Well I haven’t – I haven’t heard that, but is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? I mean, if I can save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it.”

Georgia Republican, Marjorie Greene, who recently won a congressional primary, attributed her victory to support of QAnon’s weird theory. Trump praised her win, and said she is a “rising star” in the Republican Party.

Trump also said of QAnon: “They like me.” Apparently, this is the key to winning his approval.

QAnon’s belief is that “dark forces” are behind those in this satanic cult, including the Democrats. In a recent interview on the pro-Trump Fox News, Trump said, “I don’t like to even mention Biden, because he’s not controlling anything. They control him.”

The interviewer then asked him: “Who do you think is pulling Biden’s strings? Is it former Obama officials?”

Trump replied: “People you never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.”

“What does that mean?” the interviewer interjected. “That sounds like conspiracy theory: ‘dark shadows.’ What is that?”

“No, people that you haven’t heard of,” Trump replied. “There are people on the streets. There are people controlling the streets. We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane, it was almost completely loaded with thugs wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms.”

“Where was that?” he was asked.

“I’ll tell you sometime, but it’s under investigation.”

Whether Trump believes this or not, his core followers do.

Trump is also reviving the old racist slurs of the Jim Crow segregationist period, including the “danger” to white women from Black men, which led to many lynchings.

“You have this beautiful community in the suburbs, including women, right?” Trump said.

“Women. They want security.

“I ended where they build low-income housing projects right in the middle of your neighbourhood. I ended it.” Trump said, referring to the Barack Obama-era “fair housing” rule.

“If Biden gets in, he already said it’s going to go at a much higher rate than ever before,” said Trump.

“And you know who is going to be in charge of it? [African American Senator] Cory Booker. That’s going to be nice.”

Emperor Trump?

Marxists have used the term “Bonapartism” to describe the rise of such strongmen.

Karl Marx analysed the rise of 19th century French political figure Louis Bonaparte (also known as Napoleon III), the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte.

Unlike his uncle, Louis was a mediocre political figure, like Trump today. But, also like Trump, he was a clever operator and demagogue. Louis also had ties to organised crime, in the form of illegal capitalist enterprises.

Louis was elected president of France at the end of 1848. In February, there had been a revolution against the monarchy, part of the democratic revolutions that swept Europe. In June-July that year, for the first time in the history of capitalism, workers rose up and took over a capital city — Paris. They were crushed, in blood, by the army.

After this defeat, the different capitalist parties in parliament were in disarray, the various factions fighting amongst each other. Louis presented himself as a strongman, like his uncle, who could cut through the disarray and set things right.

After he was elected president in December, there were years of continuing bickering among the capitalist parties and factions. Louis maneuvered amongst them. At times it looked like he would be curtailed or even impeached, but he won out each time. The population was increasingly exasperated. Louis built up his own base in the army. Finally, conditions reached the point early in 1851 when he could stage a coup, and he proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III.

In the present-day US, albeit for different reasons than at the end of 1848 in France: workers’ organisations play little or no role in politics; like Louis, Trump presents himself as a strongman; and as was the case between 1849–51, the bourgeois parties are continuously bickering between themselves and achieving little (except for bipartisan agreements like adopting ever-increasing military budgets).

Louis embraced France’s Napoleonic past for legitimacy and made himself Emperor. Trump looks to US history, especially the Jim Crow period. He seeks to solidify authoritarianism with bourgeois democratic trappings, while greatly restricting democratic rights, something like the regimes in the Jim Crow South, but with himself at the top.

Trump’s Militia

Trump is also building up an armed force that is loyal to him.

Federal forces are not supposed to interfere in domestic politics. But since the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US, federal forces under its jurisdiction have been used in domestic situations, often wearing uniforms that identify them as “police.”

These appear to have been the forces that violently cleared peaceful demonstrators in front of the White House, for a Trump photo-op.

In Portland, Oregon, such forces were used over the objections of local authorities to violently attack BLM demonstrators, making arrests, using gas weapons and “less lethal” ammunition that caused injuries, including a fractured skull. Reporters recording the violence were also targeted.

Federal employees wore combat-style uniforms identifying them as police but displayed no badge numbers, name tags or other identifying information.

The agency these federal “cops” were actually employed by was not even revealed. They appeared to consist of direct employees of the DHS, Border Patrol, Federal Protective Service — which is supposed to protect federal property, the US Marshal Service and possibly the FBI. There were even reports that some cops were hired mercenaries.

We have also seen the emergence of armed “militias.” who have attacked BLM protests.

These federal forces and armed militias do not appear to be actual members of the military. Instead, they are a paramilitary force answerable only to Trump.

We will see how this plays out in the next two months, leading up to the election and beyond. At this stage, nothing can be ruled out.

  1. Eric G. Huffman permalink

    I appreciate Barry’s summation and comparison to Bonapartism. The entire Left is united in listing the unprecedented machinations of a psychopathic President. I use the term psychopath in its actual meaning not as an epithet. What is not clear in any analysis is why Trump has the support he does at this time (at least an unwavering 35% in polls).

    If you leave the urban centers you will find widespread (or at least open) support for Trump. Some of his support is from rural worker/farmers who have been overlooked and are very angry. Neither of the capitalist parties (nor most of the Left) has a rural program or an understanding of this group of workers.

    Clearly Trump is an unabashed rallying point for overt fascists and David Duke has said “Our people got him elected”. Trump never disavows this support and may form his own party at some point, I suspect.

    Other supporters are simply conservatives who see the world through that lens and are traditional (in a sense) Republicans who have core issues such as antiabortion, small government, safety in a scary world, etc.

    Much of the support reflects a deep alienation from capitalism as evidenced by a much broader rejection of the capitalist institutions of Congress and the media. Off the top of my head, I think the polls of all Americans rate both institutions in the 30-40 percentile for trust.

    But here I do just a variation on “listing” again and this is the problem. I do not have a grasp of the underlying dynamics that explain Trumpism at this time in history. We have not faced Bonapartism to my recollection. The nascent fascist movement is a reflection of the underlying tensions. At the same time, what is the class understanding of these phenomena? It has an “objectively” anti capitalist feel as it is very much opposed to the status quo but seeks right wing solutions. It is noteworthy that Trump defeated the “best and the brightest” of both bourgeois parties in 2016…with some electoral college assistance.

    In part this is due to a non-existent Left (DSA is in formation still) and a political vacuum. This does not explain the Republican capitulation to Trumps reorientation to the right. The Democrats are the Keystone Cops in this environment and cannot begin offer an overview. But even they don’t address the essence of Bonapartism (they would never use the term but the descriptors are clear as Barry explained them)

    In short, I am hoping for input on a deeper Marxist analysis of this time period. Why Trump, why now? I guess I am surprised at my being surprised by Trumpian Bonapartism.

  2. MSNBC and CNN have begun to acknowledge the threat of “fascism” from the Trump regime, and, while they may have their own alarmist reasons, I wonder if the charge of “Bonapartism” adds anything useful to the conversation.

    It’s hard to imagine a non-fascist America if Trump seizes a second term. Every day brings renewed audacity to his campaign: his death squads – in various forms – already roam the US, threatening and murdering with near-impunity. The right to dissent has been met with barely-bridled ferocity.

    Children forgotten in cages, and destruction of regulatory watchdogs across the board, leave little doubt in my mind regarding Trump’s agenda. Post-election passing of laws against any form of opposition seems to be within easy reach of the GOP and their Democratic Party enablers.

    The increasingly loud voice of the armed forces – although parading “stern criticism” of Trump – may give comfort to those who believe their purpose is to “defend the Constitution,” but the military’s ascension to power in the Arab Spring countries (Egypt, Libya) has been disastrous.

    Pointing to crucial distinctions between fascist Germany and Trump’s America merely implies that the American ruling class learned nothing from the Nazi experience. The German ruling class, faced with potential socialist revolution, supported a fascist movement in response. The neo-liberals at the American helm – with their plans to pillage the public realm and build white supremacist rule – anticipated socialist rebellion and got the jump on it by creating a broad fascist movement before the need actually arose.

    Trump isn’t quite goose-stepping on the White House lawn, and perhaps the distinctions are more important than I realize, but it’s a new world, and I think we face fascism with a slightly-altered face. In 2016, public revulsion for Trump convinced people that Hilary couldn’t lose. Biden is so weak on every level – his political record is appalling – that he’s barely putting up a fight. So rather than soothe with theoretical bromides about Bonapartism, we’d better get busy for what may be the final struggle.

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