When Alexis de Tocqueville travelled around the US in the 19th century he noted his admiration for the hands-off form of government he saw there. Citizens of the young nation relied upon their neighbours to ensure that society functioned. To de Tocqueville, this was the apex of Western philosophical ideas of liberalism writ large. He couldn’t have predicted a Donald Trump presidency.
But the Frenchman did write of the ugliness in US society that festered below the thin veneer of the young upstart state. And now we are seeing this ugliness come to fruition under the Trump administration.
When de Tocqueville wrote Democracy in America, it was seen as paying tribute to the experiment on the other side of the Atlantic. Its success confounded its enemies in Europe. He travelled there in 1831 to initially study the prison system. But he ended up spending nine months travelling through the eastern part of the country and making observations about US society in general. It gave us what is widely seen as de Tocqueville’s masterpiece and an insight into the early days of US society.
It is often held up as evidence of the supposed egalitarianism of the founding fathers being openly practised in the US. The government was seen as largely taking a libertarian approach to governance and at the same time represented the interests of the people. Here, as opposed to Europe, the view was that people could be who they wanted to be regardless of where they came from or their religious beliefs.
But de Tocqueville also made the occasional reference to the democratic shortcomings in US society. And these same deficits have left us on the cusp of witnessing a coup in November.
Fear and loathing
De Tocqueville argued that the government, in order to effectively rule, “needs to constrain its subjects in order to force them to discharge their obligations”. The power of the people also worried the founding fathers. In the secret debates surrounding the Constitutional Convention of 1787 James Madison, who later became president, argued that US society must be constructed in such a way as to “protect the minority of the opulent against the majority”.
The Frenchman was unaware of this utterance by Madison. But during his travels he noted a similar disdain amongst the wealthy for the wider populous. He wrote that one “can easily perceive in the wealthy a deep distaste for the democratic institutions of their country”. The privileged saw in the people “a power they both fear and despise”.
Like many liberal elites of his time, he believed the main threat came from the majority and not the minority. He insisted that in the US he saw a form of “extreme freedom”. But what he found “most repulsive” was “the shortage of any guarantee against tyranny” coming from the populous who he believed could essentially hold the democratic process hostage.
The democratic facade
Of course, de Tocqueville was incorrect about the threat posed by the wider population. Since his journey across the US of 1831, the military-industrial complex has come into being and attained a level of power unimaginable de Tocqueville’s day. The executive branch has become almost immune to congressional oversight. Democratic and Republican presidents alike have trodden on human rights and civil liberties.
The slide into fascism has been gradual; sometimes rapid and other times slow. On occasion it has been blatant, such as the Chicago Police and FBI murdering Blank Panther Fred Hampton, or the National Guard murdering university students.
Occasionally it has been more subtle. Instead of wholesale invasions of countries, drones are to be used to murder people from a distance. No charges are levelled and no trial is forthcoming. Being a US citizen also offers no protection in this regard. All of this is carried out in the name of freedom and security.
The predominant ideology in the state can partly explain this. US exceptionalism in the form of manifest destiny has always held within it the fertile seeds of fascism. Everything that is done in the name of US interests is seen as virtuous. This is inculcated from an early age.
When the US government carries out the most heinous crimes there is always a mass of people who justify these actions. South America and the Middle East are replete with examples of what manifest destiny looks like in practice.
Closer to home, the wholesale genocide of the Native American population served as the gory introduction to what would become the most powerful state in human history. De Tocqueville would later write that a people have never been “destroyed with more respect for the laws of humanity”.
A “crisis of democracy”
Democracy in the US always rested on exclusion of large swathes of the population from wider society and the democratic process. Native Americans, Africa-Americans, the working class, the poor, women, all of whom make up a large chunk of the population, were trodden upon in various degrees. US democracy could only function as long as it wasn’t truly democratic.
In the 1970s the Trilateral Commission published a study into the causes of the so-called democratic crises of the 1960s in the West. Titled The Crisis of Democracy, the section dedicated to the US was written by the eminent political scientist Samuel P. Huntington. He argued that the troublesome 1960s were caused by too many people beginning to demand their rights. And, what he termed, an “excess of democracy”.
This was due to the collapse of “traditional social control imposed upon the individual by collective authorities, especially the state, and by hierarchical religious institutions”. Information had also become more widely dispersed. This proved problematic as it “made it difficult if not impossible to maintain the traditional distance that was deemed necessary to govern”.
Huntington lamented this loss of the ability to govern. Democracy could only function as long as it was “built on subtle screening of participants and demands”. And the then crisis was caused by a breakdown of this “traditional model of screening and government by distance”. The result was previously marginalised groups demanding their rights and freedoms in what they believed was a democratic society.
For the likes of Huntington, later an advisor to Democratic Jimmy Carter during his tenure as US president, this was too much. That the “screening” likely caused the marginalisation was of no concern. This was because it was “one of the factors which had enabled democracy to function effectively.” Instead, a return to some kind of screening process would be needed in order to end the democratic crisis. And the marginalised would simply have to show “more self-restraint”.
A coming “flashpoint”
Trump is simply the next step in this evolution of democratic exclusion. He represents the right people; the corporations, the wealthy, the white. Everyone else can be written off as not worthy of representation. His beliefs and policies have emboldened the fascists and racists. Both have always been present in US society. But now they are marching on the streets with swastikas and murdering people in front of dozens of cameras.
Whether it’s the police murdering innocent African-American men or teenagers murdering left-wing protestors, the result is the same. Trump heads this extremist movement. Anybody who wants a truly democratic country in which equality is to be cherished is seen as a target.
This is what makes the coming weeks and months so dangerous and important for US society.
According to journalist Ken Klippenstein, a leaked FBI memo has warned of the approaching dangers. It’s written that the period directly after the election in November and up to the inauguration of the victor in January 2021 will be “a potential flashpoint” for the so-called Boogaloo Boys.
This group is intent on fomenting a second civil war in the country. In the memo, which relates to the Dallas area, it’s stated that the group “likely will expand influence” within the region. The memo also highlights that it will take advantage of “existing anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists” as well as “the sentiment of perceived government overreach”.
For his part Trump has declined to say what he’ll do if he loses in November. When asked, he said “we’ll have to see what happens”. In the current environment if Trump does lose, and refuses to concede, then civil war of some level is likely assured.
“Make the world glow”
Further evidence of the currently smouldering kindling that is US society was the FBI’s arrest of several men on Thursday, 8 October. They were planning on kidnapping the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, and holding her captive with the goal of causing a civil war.
The men, clearly working from the Boogaloo playbook, intended to “take violent action against multiple state governments that they believe are violating the U.S. Constitution”. In the state’s affidavit it’s noted that one of the men said:
In all honesty right now… I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore, I’m just so sick of it.
He went on say that “everything’s gonna have to be annihilated” and that him and his co-conspirators are “gonna topple it all”.
Although not mentioned in the state’s affidavit, the comment about making the world “glow” could likely be a reference to nuclear or radiological weapons of some kind. This is not scaremongering. Reports of far-right extremists attempting to acquire radioactive material for dirty bombs is documented.
Some of these cases were highlighted earlier this year by BreAnne Fleer for The Nonproliferation Review. In her article she terrifyingly writes that, in the US, “some actors successfully acquired materials needed for a radiological weapon without triggering intervention by authorities”.
Radioactive material regularly goes astray. In the US alone in 2019 there were 120 “incidents involving loss of regulatory control” of radioactive material. In some cases theft accounted for the loss of material.
The desire to “make the world glow” did not come to fruition this time. But in the future the threat might not be so idle.
Watching and waiting
Regardless of the outcome in November, US society will be changed for decades. Good or bad, administrations leave their marks. Trump’s will be no different. If he does lose the election, and willingly leaves office, the effects of his policies and rhetoric will not just disappear. He intentionally became the face of an old but newly invigorated extremism in the US.
It’s on the streets targeting minorities and left-wing activists. It’s in the police force which murders innocent African-Americans. It sits on the highest court in the land, with an addition to that coterie of judges probably soon to come. All of this is here to stay.
Relying on the military as a solution should be seen as unthinkable. As US journalist Chris Hedges has pointed out, if the military is forced to remove Trump it is technically a coup. It would be disastrous, making the military essentially untouchable regardless of who’s in power.
The latest polling data has Biden comfortably ahead of Trump. Polls have been wrong in the past. Biden does appear to have the momentum though. But his victory won’t be a panacea. If he does win and Trump willingly steps down the force that has risen in Trump’s wake, and now essentially functions as his foot soldiers, won’t disappear overnight. That malignant and heavily armed cancer will persevere. And if Trump’s allure wanes it will simply find a new figurehead.
As 3 November comes and then goes the world will watch — and wait — and hold its breath. Given Trump’s erratic behaviour, and the power that he wields, anything is possible. Trump may lose the election but the war could be already be his.
Featured image via Wikimedia Commons – Alisdare Hickson