This is not a temporary crisis

Jeffrey C. Isaac in conversation with Tomasz Sawczuk · 14 June 2020
“Last week, I believe, a further step was taken on the road to full-out authoritarianism.”

Tomasz Sawczuk: The United States faces now a dangerous pandemic, a deep economic crisis, and massive social protests, after a policeman killed George Floyd. On top of that, Donald Trump fuels further division and conflict into the American politics. To begin on a general note, how do you make political sense of the current situation?

Jeffrey C. Isaac: I think the crisis is very serious, made more serious because it is actually a conjunction of four crises—the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis that it has caused, the crisis associated with racialized police violence and murder and the very striking wave of protest challenging this, and the crisis of the Trump administration, which is proving itself at once more ineffective and more dangerous every day.

The situation does exhibit the long-term erosion of the public sector and of public policy in the U.S. that was highlighted in the widely discussed Atlantic piece by George Packer, “We Are Living in a Failed State,” which bore the caption “The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken.” This piece came out before the past week’s escalation of protest across the entire country, reinserting the Black Lives Matter movement into the center of U.S. politics.

There is nothing temporary about any of this, though how it gets resolved is an enormous question.

What is the meaning of the current social protests in the US?

The protests, like most protests, have an element of “spontaneity” about them, in terms of proximate cause and the extraordinary “virality” with which they have spread, which of course is largely a function of iPhone and social media. At the same time, they are being led, in most places, by leaders associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, or by activists in the civil rights community more generally. In this sense, while they were unpredictable, they do not come out of nowhere, and they draw upon long-festering grievances and forms of citizen action.

It is obvious that the protests were precipitated by racism and that they are framed, by all involved, by political elites, and by media, as largely about racism, the carceral state, and the reform of “criminal justice.” But there is also no doubt that there is a synergy between the protests and the other three crises noted above. The general state of anxiety that abounds, especially in this country, where the government has done so little to effectively address the pandemic, surely plays a role in the extraordinary strength and durability of these protests.

It is also fascinating how many people who were socially distancing because of the virus have come together to take over the streets, even if many—though not all– are wearing masks. A couple of months ago everyone I knew was bemoaning the question of how civic activism and political mobilizing could occur under the conditions of social distancing, and whether new online forms of protest could have similar effects. In the past week ordinary street protest has spread like wildfire, even in the face of the danger associated with the virus and the danger associated with police violence against the protesters. This is remarkable. It is also concerning, in terms of the danger of the spread of the coronavirus. But the fact that people everywhere are treating the public health danger as less important than the danger to human rights presented by police brutality is a sign of how serious the current threat to human rights is, and how genuinely afraid people are for their future.

What do you make of the violence that erupted during the protests?

I think some of it was surely spontaneous, a response to the police violence that precipitated the protests and to the tense situation in the streets, and some of it was instigated by provocateurs whether of the right or the left, and Trump has done everything possible to exacerbate the tension and foment the violence.

But it is one thing to understand the sources of violence, and it is another to justify the violence. I think that the violence in question was both wrong and stupid, and it generated more police violence, and also something of a political backlash, even if it may also have generated a backlash against that backlash. I wrote something on this two weeks ago on my blog, and another piece this past week.

Last week, the increasingly radical journal Jacobin published a piece by Peter Gowan entitled “No, We Should Not Condemn Uprisings Against Police Murders Like George Floyd’s.” For Gowan capitalism and racism are the forms of looting to condemn, and the violence in the street is the revolt of the wretched of the earth. This is bad politics. And it is tone deaf to the voices of the most vocal leaders of the protests, who are calling for mass non-violent protest and who understand that destroying property in inner-city neighborhoods does no good for anyone.

The right aims to accuse Antifa of provoking violence on the streets. This narrative was echoed even in Poland, where the right-wing politicians and media have recently warned of left-wing extremism, which was said to be the source of riots in the US. Where does this narrative come from and how do you respond to it?

The narrative you reference comes from the same gutter as many other far-right narratives, about Soros, and “Genderism,” and “liberal hoaxes” about coronavirus, etc. And there is no doubt a transnational right-wing “movement” of sorts that circulates these conspiracy theories in the name of hostility to liberalism. Trump has been targeting “Antifa” for years, while promoting far-right paramilitary activity and calling neo-Nazis “fine people.” It is part of his general effort to employ what Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style in American politics” to demonize liberals and the left. And Trump has allies and fellow travelers across the world, and especially among leaders like Orban and Kaczynski, and those who follow them.

This is one reason why I am so excited to be working with my colleagues Jeffrey Goldfarb, Elzbieta Matynia, and Lala Pop at The New School in developing the Democracy Seminar, a transnational network of academics, writers and activists interested in working together to support liberal democracy, and linked together through Public Seminar. Such transnational connections are so important now, which is why I so appreciate the work of Kultura Liberalna and am so grateful to be speaking with you now.

To return to your question: Antifa exists, as a broad tendency and not as an organization. I oppose it in general, and have critiqued it when it appeared on the scene locally last summer, most notably in a piece entitled “Antifa is Not a Terrorist Organization. But That Doesn’t Make it Good.” I think people acting in its name provoke violence even when operating “defensively,” and I think it is sectarian and anti-democratic. Some Antifa and Black Bloc anarchists may have been involved in some of the violence last week—though, importantly,  there appears to be no evidence that they played a role in Washington, D.C.

But there have also been reputable allegations that right-wing groups also were in the action. And there is no doubt that armed, right-wing groups deployed their violence last month to intimidate Governors in a number of states, most notably in Michigan, where the state legislature recessed to avoid armed protestors demanding an end to pandemic social distancing regulations. If there is a danger of domestic “terrorism,” it comes from the right and not the left. And it is promoted by Trump, his despicable sons, and his supporters.

How would you comment on Trump’s response to Floyd’s death?

I believe that Trump is a sociopath. He lacks normal human empathy. He is incredibly awkward and narcissistic, which is why he needs to have only family and friends around him and he prefers to be in one of his resorts or in the Trump Tower.

He responded to the killing of Floyd in the same way he responded to the fact that well over a hundred thousand people have died of COVID-19—with no empathy, humanity, or public-spiritedness. In all cases he responds as if it is all about him, and he instrumentalizes the suffering of others to mobilize his base and further his personal and political aggrandizement. He is not the first terrible president in U.S. history. But his combination of narcissism, ignorance, reactivity, and malevolence is unprecedented.

What does the current crisis show about the nature of Donald Trump’s presidency?

Again, a huge question. In 2018 I published a book on this entitled #AgainstTrump: Notes from Year One. Trump came to power as a political outsider and an extremist within a party that had long before moved very far to the right. His Presidency has been marked by a constant turnover of top officials; corruption and the prosecution of key officials; and a generalized incompetence on most matters of policy. In league with House and especially Senate Republicans, he has facilitated a level of governmental inaction and incompetence in matters of general public policy and public welfare that is unprecedented. At the same time, Trump has packed the courts and used executive power to dramatically reshape the entire federal bureaucracy, demoralizing and in some ways destroying public service professionalism. Trump has delivered much to far-right interests, through a style of governing that is profoundly autocratic and that has already done great damage to constitutional democracy and has poisoned public discourse for decades to come.

Why does the Republican Party support Trump, no matter what he does?

Trump captured a party that was experiencing a very divisive “succession struggle” for leadership and that had already become a very right-wing party, dominated by Tea Party libertarians and Southern and Midwestern racists and reactionaries, aided and abetted by huge amounts of money from the Koch Foundation and other right-wing groups. In 2000, even George W. Bush’s presidency fit uneasily among many of these types. But Bush was fully a creature of this conservative base, and 9-11 and the Iraq War—promoted by the same neoconservatives that are now Never Trumper’s!—pushed him further to the right politically.

This is all complicated. I recommend two fine books about this: Robert Saldin and Steven Tele’s forthcoming Never Trump: The Revolt of the Conservative Elites, and E.J. Dionne, Jr., Thomas Mann, and Norman Orenstein’s One Nation After Trump. Suffice to say that Trump was able to defeat a very divided primary field by playing to the worst elements of the Republican right; to capture the party; and then to run a campaign, and an administration, that relied on a right-wing base that preceded him, but that he has further mobilized to the right. In doing so, he was able to drive out of the party any who were not his allies, in part by mobilizing his base to threaten to “primary” these people. The Republican party is now Trump’s party. Whether it has a future beyond Trump is an open question. Whether we have a future beyond Trump is a much more important question to me!

In a recent piece you have considered the question of whether the current crisis could become Trump’s “Reichstag fire moment”. Would you say that there is a real threat of authoritarianism in the US? Sometimes it seems as though even some of Trump’s aides tend to distance themselves from Trump when it comes to his most controversial pronouncements, like the one regarding the deployment of the military to American cities. Is there a real social movement behind him that could legitimize and institutionally solidify his strongman-like impulses? 

I have been sounding the alarm for years, and I have not been alone. Last week, I believe, a further step was taken on the road to full-out authoritarianism. Trump has already succeeded in destroying the Justice Department, the Labor Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other centers of liberal policy and of the enforcement of civil and social rights. His policies on immigration detention and deportation, voting rights enforcement, etc., have already seriously weakened important liberal democratic freedoms. And let us not forget the Mueller Report and the Ukraine scandal. These involved serious political assaults on key tenets of constitutional democracy, even if only one Republican, Mitt Romney, had the guts to acknowledge this in the Senate.

But last week Trump basically threatened martial law. There has been strong, public pushback from influential retired military officers like Admiral Mike Mullen, and General James Mattis, who was Trump’s own Defense Secretary. This is important. But the current Defense Secretary has backtracked on some of his own criticism; military force was deployed in Washington, D.C.; and it remains an open question whether Trump will go further. Every serious commentator says this: it is still possible that Trump will deploy troops, and that many military leaders and soldiers will do what he says, either because they believe in the chain of command or because they believe in him, as too many do. Historian Andrew Bacevich made precisely this point in his recent Nation piece.

This is very serious. Equally serious is the possibility that Trump could contest the results of the November election and refuse to leave office, something I have written about in a number of places (see here and here). Here your “social movement question” comes in. For Trump has a substantial base of supporters who are very angry, very mobilized, and very armed. Do I think that Trump could foment chaos in November, and then use the chaos to remain in office on grounds of “law and order?” Yes. And I am not alone.

To what extent does Trump’s Presidency contradict the American constitutional principles, and to what extent does it showcase the real picture of contemporary America?

Trump did not create American racism, or those features of the U.S. Constitution that privilege conservative and racist interests and widespread gun ownership. He did not create an “imperial presidency.” He came to power by constitutional means even if he lost the popular vote—and if his election was assisted by Russian meddling terrible errors in judgment by then-FBI chief James Comey.

Trump is not an aberration. He is Made in America. Of course he manifests, and symbolizes, important features of our culture and politics. But he also intensifies, exacerbates, and transforms these features from bad to poisonous and possibly fatal. In this broader sense, his Presidency represents a full-on assault on constitutional democracy. And for me this is the most important thing to say about Trump. And to act on this—to defeat him and his enablers—is the most important thing to do.

What do you think of Joe Biden’s performance during the recent weeks? Do you think that he can beat Donald Trump in the November election?

I was an opponent of Biden’s entry into the race, and a very harsh critic of his candidacy. His candidacy, and his campaign, have been seriously flawed. But in recent weeks I think he has done very well. He has basically said and done the right things in the right way. I think his demeanor throughout the crisis of the last week or so, and his contrast with Trump, has been excellent, and has boosted his campaign immeasurably. He has done an excellent job of coming together with the Sanders campaign, of moving to the left on some key issues, and of creating terrific Platform Committees that really bring together the party’s centrist and progressive wings. I’ve written about this extensively on my blog, especially here. I think he can definitely beat Trump in November if there is a free and fair election, and I think the current mobilizations against racism will help him. But I do not take for granted that he will win, and I surely do not take for granted a free and fair election in November.

What are the lessons for the Democrats to take out of this crisis?

Firstly, be not afraid to propose some bold solutions, and to stand behind them, and pass them in the House, and then run against Republican obstructionism in November, for the majority of Americans are unhappy and afraid and they know that the current administration is a disaster; secondly, mobilize voters and mobilize citizens; thirdly, come together to defeat Trump and the Republicans, because our freedoms and certainly many lives depend on it. A Democratic victory in November is necessary to rid us of the Trumpist plague and to make possible real change.

It is reported that as many as 40 million Americans lost their jobs since the beginning of the pandemic and surely many of them cannot afford medical insurance. Do you believe that the current crisis may become some kind of a wake-up call that could transform American politics?

Yes, and I hope it is such a wake-up call. I also never underestimate the ability of Democrats to squander opportunities, and the ability of Trump to mobilize a sufficient number of angry or disaffected or racist or cynical or merely stupid voters to win reelection. The future of liberal democracy hangs in the balance. And nothing can be taken for granted. American democracy must be defended. Trump must be defeated. And then the long and hard project of revitalizing democracy, and creating a more just society, can resume in earnest. Only we can save ourselves.