Immediately after the 9/11 attackers had levelled the World Trade Center, Donald Trump rang a radio station to inform New Yorkers that now he, Donald J Trump, owned the tallest building in the city.
In a saner political world, that public response to 9/11 would ever after have made the man who had thus exposed his inner self unelectable to any position in the USA.
Trump, who had inherited vast wealth, was host of a reality TV show in which he blustered and bullied contestants and visibly relished the power to say to them: “You’re fired”. He became politically active as a prominent “birther”, one who, as a vehicle for racist dismay at the fact that a Black man was president, denied that Barack Obama was American-born.
In 2016 Hillary Clinton won the presidential election by nearly three million votes. The Electoral College then elected Donald Trump president.
The best way into what happened next is to tell it as a simple story. The madness became rampant with Trump’s inauguration. Trump proclaimed that the inauguration crowd was the largest ever, and far bigger than for Barack Obama eight years earlier.
Newsreel showed a patchy Trump crowd, and a far bigger crowd for Obama. Trump continued to assert as truth what people who watched the footage could see was untrue.
Since then Trump has told more than 20,000 lies ( journalists have counted them), a lot of them big lies, quickly exposed, but believed on Trump’s say-so, backed by Fox News, by some 35 or 40% of the electorate.
Trump has gone on, in the four years since then, to assert and reassert a view of the world at stark odds with what to other people are the facts. He has invented a device for denying anything he chooses to deny: calling it “fake news”.
He came into conflict with the ways of an Establishment that respected facts, science, concern with forming and keeping an accurate registration of reality. As in the Birther nonsense, he aligned himself with, and was a natural part of, the mindset of the politically-paranoid right — a great bog of conspiracy theorists, racists, armed militias, religious fundamentalists, anti-vaccination and other medical cranks.
That vast area of ignorance and unreason and political craziness was and is Trump’s main base of support.
For many, Trump was an anti-Establishment revolutionary. And to a degree he really was — a revolutionary of the right.
In part this was because he aligned with his “base”, who are, many of them, a grotesque version, not a parody but a version, of the many anti-Establishment and revolutionary religious sects dotted through history. In the USA these are people thrust out of the education system, confronting and trying to understand a bourgeois society that inflicts indignities and horrors on them, and developing compensatory images of themselves, such as that they are too tough to wear masks in an epidemic.
“ The Frontier”
For hundreds of years, until the end of “The Frontier” in the 1890s, as the little pocket of colonies on the East Coast advanced inwards and southwards, civilised America, on its edges, coexisted with areas and people who lived on the level of barbarism — fur trappers, early homestead farmers. That was the world depicted in Western “pioneer” movies and in the novels written early in the 19th century by James Fenimore Cooper.
And today, mentally, but not only in that, civilised America intertwines with people in an earlier age of historical time — the fundamentalists, the paranoid “survivalists”, and the militias.
Many of those identify with the real (and more so, the mythical) frontier people of the past, with the enslaving South, with the lawless freedom of the wagon-train pioneers. And of course they, like the old frontier people, are also a product of, and a distorting shadow behind, more advanced America.
The America where it was to Hillary Clinton’s advantage to let the story spread that she held Bible classes in the White House (maybe she did!) is a very strange place viewed from Europe.
The old frontiers were the only way they could be with the circumstances and resources of their time. Today, though Trump is also a personification of pure capitalism, with its money-craze and reduction of everything to “the cash nexus”, Trump, in his mind, embodies that old distorting shadow and its victims.
Trump is a right-wing revolutionary in the White House. He, the most powerful man in the world, denounces the “deep state”, the secret conspirators who “really” rule the USA and the world. He treats the existing political system of rules and customs with contempt and derision.
James Comey, director of the FBI, rendered Trump great help when on the eve of the 2016 election he “intervened” to remind voters that Hillary Clinton was still not clear of an FBI investigation into things the Trumpites were charging against her. Trump sacked even Comey because Comey refused to give Trump assurances of absolute personal loyalty.
Trump has gone through a number of Attorney Generals to get to Bill Barr, who treats the Department of Justice as a direct tool of the president, to hurt his enemies and protect his friends.
Many of the rules that have governed the behaviour of presidents and politicians have been customary, not binding laws. Like a great brute in an old-style Japanese house with panes of paper partitioning it, Trump has lumbered around inside the US political establishment, ripping and tearing its fabric, acting where he can as a wilful dictator.
There are still restraints on him, but the American political system is a Heath Robinson archaic affair of patchings and improvisations. Much of it is profoundly undemocratic.
The president is not elected by the citizens, but by an electoral college chosen by the state legislatures — by an elite electorate that can nullify the majority citizen vote. Trump is president despite receiving three million fewer votes that Hillary Clinton because of that. In 2000, George W Bush was made president despite losing the popular vote.
State legislatures can appoint electors to the college and instruct them how to vote irrespective of the popular vote.
The Supreme Court decides all constitutional questions in dispute. Yet its members, who serve for life, are appointed — subject to Senate approval — by whoever is president when a Supreme Court judge happens to die. Trump has already appointed two judges and is nominating a third. The court may outlaw Obamacare, reverse abortion rights, and more, hurtling the country back decades.
The whole US system needs a radical democratic overhaul.
Trump has power to flout the old customary rules and laws — against using his position to enrich himself and his family, for example — because a majority of the Senate are Republican and back him whatever he does. They are locked into a drilled and disciplined phalanx of “Trump, whatever he does” political robots because Trump, via Trump’s supporters, can block their re-election.
A tremendous shift has taken place already within the US political structure, and Trump threatens to push it further. Some of it is reminiscent of the fall of the Roman Republic two thousand years ago.
The institutions were there still, but their functioning and weight in decision-making shifted as Rome became a vast empire and some citizens grew so rich that they could bribe for what they wanted. Dictators were allowed for, for brief periods of special crisis. Finally the victorious general Julius Caesar was appointed Dictator for Life.
A great civil war erupted, and Caesar’s adopted nephew, Octavian, emerged as dictator, still preserving the old hollowed-institutions, ruling as Augustus, and calling himself First Citizen.
Trump has pushed the USA to a new stage of presidential power, and the Senate has acted as Trump’s enabler.
Take Trump at his political preferences, drives, opinions, and deeds and words as president. He has tried to rule like the “strong man” dictators he openly admires, from Kim Jong-un in fascistic and neo-Stalinist North Korea through Russia’s Putin to Turkey’s Erdogan.
He has open contempt for the institutions of bourgeois democracy in the USA. He has campaigned against the 3 November election, to stop it, to nullify the whole process. He has tried to sabotage the postal system in order to sabotage the election.
He refuses to commit himself to a peaceful transfer when he loses the election, and proclaims loudly that if he loses, that is proof that the election was rigged. He has been slavering at the mouth to create bloody confrontation in the streets.
It is not only his personal drives and beliefs. He has a mass following, up to 40% of the electorate. He has tight control of the Republican party and the Senate majority.
Trump is an American fascist, and this situation is American fascism waiting to coalesce. It does not follow that it will coalesce. It is a possibility.
The signs are that Biden will replace Trump as president, with or without violent confrontation, and that the Democrats will become the majority in both houses of Congress. However a post-election crisis works out, Trump is bequeathing to America the belief among large numbers that the election will have been stolen.
If Trump gets to rule for another four years, we do not know what he will be able to do, but he will surely do great damage to the institutions of bourgeois democracy in America, such as they are. He will continue to poison the bloodstream of the USA, fomenting fear and hatred against Black people, Latins, and others, and rampant irrationality.