January 6th and the Future of Trumpism

by the Executive Committee of the Independent Socialist Group

“The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.”

Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party

January 6, 2023 marked two years since the right-wing political riot at the Capitol. The riot shocked the political establishment and exposed the political instability of U.S. capitalism, including the growing influence of the far right in the Republican Party.

The corporate media, Democratic Party, and the January 6 Committee Congressional hearings have focused on Trump and his allies challenging the results of the 2020 Presidential election and the role Trump played in sparking violence at the Capitol. They portray the attempts to manipulate the election results and the Capitol riot as flowing mainly from Trump’s personal greed and ambition. However, their analysis leaves out the economic and political context for January 6, right-wing populism, and the flare-up of the far right.

Context for the Capitol Riot

The Capitol riot on January 6, 2021 happened in the context of the worst two months of the pandemic up to that time, after the height of the mass Black Lives Matter protests in the spring and summer of 2020, and the post-election protests and counter-protests in November and December of 2020.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations and their political parties described the economy before the start of the pandemic in 2020 as being in an upturn, a booming economy. But the reality for most of the working class didn’t match the rhetoric of the two corporate parties. According to the 2022 Oxfam report on wages in the U.S.:

 “Over the past 50 years, wealth inequality in the United States has grown astronomically… According to economist Emmanuel Saez, the top 10 percent of earners in the US make more than nine times as much as the bottom 90 percent. This disparity grows worse when considering the top 0.1 percent of earners in the United States. Those at the very top in the US are making 196 times the income of the entire bottom 90 percent.”  

In addition to long-term and worsening wage inequality, wages remained stagnant or fell for a large section of workers throughout the years of what was labeled an “upturn” or “boom.” A chronic low-wage economy has been the overall norm since the mid-1970s. One contribution to this is the bipartisan suppression of the federal minimum wage. According to the 2022 Oxfam report:

“… [In 2022] more than 31.9 percent of the US labor force, or 51.9 million workers, currently make less than $15 per hour, and many are stuck at the federal minimum wage, which is less than half of that hourly rate. … The last time the federal minimum wage changed was in 2009, when the wage was lifted to $7.25 per hour. Even in 2009, the minimum wage was not sufficient to provide for the most basic costs of living in any state in the United States. But in 2022, with inflation at a 40-year high, $7.25 covers very little… Many workers in the United States earn an even lower hourly wage than $7.25. … [including] farmworkers, domestic workers, and restaurant worker[s]. …Since 1991, the federal tipped minimum wage in the United States has been stuck at $2.13 an hour, an amount less than 30 percent of the federal minimum wage.”

Added to chronically low wages, there was a sharp but brief recession in 2020 and more pressure on workers due to pandemic conditions and rising inflation.

New generations of young workers feel shut out of buying a house, that rents are unaffordable, and that going to college can mean decades or a lifetime of debt. For much of the workforce, the prospect of even being able to retire someday seems increasingly unattainable. Where does the discontent and anger go when successive Democratic and Republican regimes rule over declining living standards?

The January 6 protest was a part of the social crisis and unrest that capitalism churns up daily. Seeing a right-wing protest of mostly older, white protestors turning into a riot at The Capitol was a shock to the arrogant ruling class in the U.S. and also to many cops and other forces of the state who tend to be sympathetic to the right.

Instability & Small Capitalists

Those impacted by declining living standards and a diminished future include layers of the smaller capitalists and upper-middle-class “professionals”. This is also the traditional base for past far-right and fascist movements. More powerful capitalists will secretly bankroll far-right and fascist groups, with the public leadership and initial shock troops coming from the weaker, smaller capitalists, small business owners, and professionals who aspire to become capitalists.

This class character was seen in the demographics of the Capitol riot. A University of Chicago study of over 700 of those arrested or charged at the Capitol riot as of a year ago, showed that “…more than half were business owners, including CEOs, or from white-collar occupations, including lawyers, architects, and accountants.”

These layers start to lash out when they feel their economic position is under threat, real or perceived, but they don’t target the capitalist economic system. Using the propaganda of right-wing populism, they may criticize a few of the wealthiest capitalists or corporations, but their main focus is to attack sections of the working class.

Right-wing populism uses nationalism, racism, and pro-capitalist myths as justification for physical intimidation and violence, particularly targeting groups of working people based on race or immigration status and working people organized in progressive groups, unions, and the left. Eventually, if right populism takes hold on a large enough scale, these small capitalists and supporters turn to fascism, trying to violently destroy any social groups or working-class organizations they see as a threat or potential threat to their profits and capitalism.

The political riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021 was relatively small, with estimates tending to range from a few thousand to ten thousand, possibly more. Around 2,000 directly participated in the physical attack on the Capitol building. It had a smaller component of organized elements of far-right, fascist groups such as the “Oath Keepers”, “Proud Boys”, and others, including some individuals of far-right groups who had connections to the Trump administration. But the majority of participants were not directly affiliated with the far right, although many echoed the racism and nationalism of the far right.

Despite the corporate media characterization, the right-wing political riot at the Capitol was not an attempted coup or insurrection. The small size of the protest and riot did not make those possible since there was no accompanying political or organizational backing from elements of the military or police. The idea that if the riot had gone further and stopped Congressional certification of the election results, it would have triggered a coup or insurrection through a wave of popular support for Trump is unrealistic.

That analysis severely overestimates the depth of support for Trump among the capitalist class or forces of the state. Most importantly, it overestimates support for Trump among the working class. Voting in a rigid two-party party system leads to chronic lesser-evil voting. Depth of support for a President and their party can be superficial and can change rapidly after election day.

If the right or the far right had managed to stop the certification of the election and made a serious move to keep Trump in power, it’s very likely layers of the working class and youth would have erupted into a mass movement against Trump, his allies, and the far right, overwhelming any attempt to keep Trump in the Presidency. The organized far right at the time of the riot was relatively small and weak; that remains the case, for now.

Trump & the Far Right Overreach

The answer from the capitalist class in times of crisis is to reinforce the political duopoly of its two corporate parties, ramping up the use of both right-wing and liberal populism. All the forms of populism used by the capitalist class fundamentally propose more capitalism as a “solution” to severe economic, political, and social problems that result from capitalism itself. If necessary to preserve its system during severe crisis and social unrest, the capitalist class uses far-right violence and the police or armed forces to impose its political and economic order. Historically, the capitalist class turns to fascism as a last resort to destroy working-class organizations when a socialist movement threatens capitalist rule.

From the standpoint of his fellow capitalists, Trump went too far with his legalistic challenges to the election. Trump’s spurring on of far-right and fascist elements who were emboldened by his regime, also cost him support among capitalists who saw no benefits in promoting the far-right at the present time.

For a moment, breaking into the Capitol building seemed like a symbolic victory for the far right, but it quickly became apparent that, like Trump, they had over-reached. Leading up to the November 2020 election, there was no real threat of a mass movement against the ruling class and its system. The Black Lives Matter movement, the increase in union activity, and protests around working conditions in the early days of COVID all had an impact in 2020. However, all these movements were channeled by their leaders into supporting Biden and the Democratic Party in the elections and disappeared from the streets.

Trump’s virulent brand of right-wing populism with its racist rhetoric, hyper-nationalism, and calling into question the legitimacy of the election were too much, too soon for the rest of the ruling class. Most capitalists saw no advantage to backing Trump’s attempted hack of their election process. For the two years since the Capital riot, the forces of the state and the corporate media have, for the most part, tried to neutralize the leaders of some of the groups involved, weaken Trump’s credibility with his followers, and promote Trump’s rivals in the Republican Party. Ever since the January 6 political riot, most of the capitalist class has been telling Trump he’s fired and should stay fired. Trump doesn’t get it and thinks he can buy himself back in.

Trumpism in the 2024 Elections

Trump has already declared another campaign for President in 2024. The House January 6 Committee recommended various criminal charges be brought against Trump. The Federal government continues its investigation into Trump’s handling of classified documents. State charges could be brought against Trump in Georgia around election interference. In New York State, a criminal court found The Trump Organization, Inc. (500 businesses Trump owns) guilty of criminal tax fraud, falsifying business records, and other crimes. The House Ways and Means Committee has released Trump’s tax returns, showing, among other things, that he paid no federal income taxes in 2015 or 2020 and only $750 in 2016 and 2017.

As the 2024 election approaches, many capitalists will put real money behind any candidates willing to undermine Trump’s support in the Republican Party and become an alternative to Trump as the Republican candidate in 2024. Trump, the richest President ever, may lose significant big-money support from his fellow billionaires.

Rivals like Florida Governor Ronald DeSantis and others are lining up to take on Trump. DeSantis and others who are vying for leadership in the Republican Party will continue Trumpism without Trump by campaigning on right-wing populist propaganda and policies. They’ll continue Trump’s focus on attacking immigrants, cutting taxes for the rich, and using rhetoric around crime as a code to spread racist ideas and push massive funding increases for police forces. DeSantis took Trump’s anti-immigrant policies a step further by victimizing migrant workers, shipping them out of Florida to other states with false promises of jobs and benefits. Some have described DeSantis as “a more competent Trump.”

While it’s a good thing to see Trump’s political brand crumbling, Trump is easily replaceable by other right-wing, populist politicians. For example, Trump has a lot of similarities to Ronald Reagan. “Reaganism” became a term used to describe the rampages of right-wing populism in the 1980s, as if neoliberal policies were unique to Reagan. Reagan was easily replaced and “Reaganism” continued in different forms beyond the 1980s, including in the Clinton and Obama administrations. There are plenty of capitalist politicians to replace Trump today.

Trumpism & the Democratic Party

The capitalist class in the U.S. maintains political dominance over the working class in various ways, including using the legal system and media infrastructure it developed to keep the two-party system in place. The Democratic Party, funded primarily by billionaires and millionaires, is putting a lot of money and effort into turning the crisis of the Capitol political riot into an opportunity to reinforce nationalism and the capitalist political duopoly.

The threats of a resurgence of Trumpism, right-wing populism, or the growth of the far right will not be stopped by the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party brags about their bipartisan work, revealing that both major parties are capitalist parties despite disagreements on some social issues, and differences, at times, about when to give concessions on some social benefits when faced with mass protests.

Despite the clashes between the two corporate parties since January 6 and Trump’s role in that and other events around the 2020 Presidential elections, Biden and many other prominent Democrats have often gone on record in defense of the Republican Party. During Biden’s campaign for President in 2019, he said: “If you hear people… saying, ‘I’m a Republican,’ I say, ‘Stay a Republican.’ Vote for me but stay a Republican, because we need a Republican Party.”  Pelosi also defended the Republican Party numerous times, including last year:  “Hey, here I am, Nancy Pelosi, saying this country needs a strong Republican party, and we do, not a cult, but a strong Republican party.”

Workers Need a Political Alternative 

Even as some battles between the Republican and Democratic Parties got heated in the last few years, including how to handle the January 6 political riot, there is still overwhelming bipartisan agreement on inflation, the massive spending for the military and police forces, keeping the healthcare system private, and other issues.

It will take organizing a political party for working people to stop the “moderate” right and far right in the U.S. Working people have no representation from the two corporate parties who offer no real change in times of political or economic crisis, including growing hardship in meeting basic needs for decent food, housing, healthcare, education, transportation, etc.

Even in the absence of a working-class political party, there is tremendous dissatisfaction with the two big business parties. A record number of voters are registered as Independents or unaffiliated, with more voters registered as Independents than Republicans for the first time. One-third of eligible voters, approximately 77 million Americans, did not vote in the November presidential election.

Fighting the far right means using independent, working-class electoral politics to mobilize and sustain mass protest movements against the right and far right, as part of the fight against racism, for reproductive rights, and for decent healthcare, housing, and education. The main lesson of the January 6 political riot is that the conditions of capitalist crisis can lead to the growth of the right and far-right when there is no political party willing to put forward an alternative to capitalism. Organizing a workers’ party with a socialist program is not something the labor movement and progressive and left activists can put off into the distant future. Working people need their own political party now.

Image credit: Brett Davis via Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0