Chris Hedges on the task ahead: Will Biden surrender to plutocrats and paralysis?

Pulitzer-winning author: Biden and the Democrats will "just dig themselves deeper," fueling a fascist comeback

By Chauncey DeVega
November 12, 2020 12:00PM (UTC)
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Joe Biden (Getty Images)

Joe Biden is now president-elect of the United States, whether Donald Trump will admit it or not. Biden won the 2020 election by at least 5 million votes, and received the most votes of any presidential candidate in American history. Joe Biden also won the highest percentage of the popular vote as a challenger since Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in the 1932 election.

When Biden (presumably) takes office in January 2021, he will face formidable obstacles and lofty expectations.

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Even now, he faces the resistance of the Trump regime and its supporters, who have refused to accept the fact that Donald Trump has clearly been defeated both in the popular vote and the Electoral College.

To that end, Trump is purging such figures as Defense Secretary Mark Esper and other senior national security officials and replacing them with loyalists. It is not clear whether Trump believes he can use this purge to conduct a slow-motion coup aimed at remaining in office or is trying to cover up the many crimes committed by the regime. Perhaps it is both.

Biden's administration will also have to find ways to surmount Republican obstruction to his policies, as well as the reality that tens of millions of Trump's followers now believe that the 2020 election was "stolen" from them. The probability of right-wing political violence remains very high, both while Trump remains in office and beyond.

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The Biden administration will also have to take the first steps to remedy the social, cultural, institutional, political problems that made Trump's neofascist movement possible, and nearly won Trump a second term. Of course, Biden's most immediate problem is the coronavirus pandemic and the human and economic destruction it has caused.

In total, American democracy is sick. One of the most virulent of the diseases afflicting America is white supremacy. Today's Republican Party, and the right wing more generally, are enemies of multiracial democracy and want to create a type of 21st-century apartheid state in which white people rule over nonwhites with impunity.

Writing at the Boston Review, Reed Hundt, chair and CEO of the nonprofit Making Every Vote Count, describes these underlying problems:

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Racism and democracy are conjoined on the ballot. The majority of Americans don't think that America should be a racist society or that race should be the defining parameter of either of the two major political parties. Yet a minority identifies partisan politics with racial attitudes, so for that minority the two are conjoined. Of course, you don't have a box to check that says, "Are you for or against racism?" or, "Are you for or against democracy?"

But while it's certainly true that voting has always been tribal, now we have a party that is almost exclusively identified with white people. That party also prefers minority rule, which the current system gives them a chance to fulfill. That's the party of Donald Trump. It's anti-majoritarian and it smacks of racism in all practical effect. And the way for Trump to win, it turns out, is to thwart democracy and to appeal to racist attitudes.

Democratic Party voters and other liberals, progressives and good Americans also have high expectations for Joe Biden's presidency. Many members of the coalition that Biden assembled are deeply suspicious of the new president-elect, and fear he will surrender to his old habits of compromise. Matt McManus writes at Jacobin:

We should be under no illusions that the president-elect and his team will attack the inadequacies of a neoliberal status quo that was allowed to fester into the rot of Trumpism. At best we can hope that Biden will reverse some of the damage Trump caused. But while it would be foolish to put much faith in the Biden administration, socialists and progressives can do a lot to shift the political terrain under Biden and ensure the electoral options are better next time around. …

The real work of politics involves building new coalitions for progressive causes while entrenching support for our policies, rebuilding institutions such as labor unions that can serve as permanent power centers for the Left, and above all working to democratize both the broader culture and politics.

Biden also faces another challenge. Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and bestselling author, warns that if Joe Biden fails to rehabilitate America's social democracy then the United States will become even more of a plutocracy dominated by racism and other forms of cruelty. Even worse, Hedges warns that if Biden's administration cannot find ways to relieve the deeply felt pain and social alienation being experienced by wide swaths of American society then what follows will be a regime of racialized Christian fascism, quite possibly much more disciplined, more ideological and therefore more dangerous than Trump's clumsy authoritarianism.

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In our most recent conversation, Hedges explained why the mainstream American news media, many Democrats, and other observers were shocked by the 2020 election and the large growth in Trump's support, which saw him win the second-largest number of votes in American history. Hedges is the author of several important books, including "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and, most recently, "America: The Farewell Tour."

You can also listen to my conversation with Chris Hedges on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

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This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Joe Biden is now president-elect of the United States. I am glad that Trumpism has been stopped for now, assuming Biden is actually permitted to take office in January. But I do not feel like anything has been won. Is this what victory is supposed to feel like?

The only thing we have ensured happening, especially with Republican control of the U.S. Senate, is paralysis. Moreover, Joe Biden does not want to create great change anyway. If you look at his record throughout his entire career, he has been nothing but a tool for the credit card companies, the war industry and similar interests. Biden is not going to change. Biden must also confront the judiciary.

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Donald Trump has appointed almost 20% of the federal judges. Trump has got six of the nine Supreme Court justices, who are right out of the Federalist Society. The Supreme Court has powers it should not over the political process. My fear is that what the Biden presidency sets up is a route for a competent fascist. Trump may instinctually be a fascist, but ideologically he's empty. Trump does not have an ideology.

He's just a narcissist. He can't focus on anything. He's his own worst enemy. He's impulsive. He can't even read three lines in a briefing book. But that phenomenon of Trumpism exists, with or without Trump.

The exit polls are very interesting in that regard. First, Trump had a small decline in support from white male voters. Trump received 26% of his votes from non-whites. He took a third or so of the Latino vote. He doubled his support among Black women, from 4% to 8%. Trump's support among white women rose from 53% to 55%. Black men voted for Trump too, that number jumped from 13% to 18%.

All that happened even with Donald Trump openly catering to white supremacy, many accusations against Trump by women accusing him of rape and sexual assault, and Trump's open misogyny. And even though Donald Trump rescinded some of the rights of LGBTQ people, his support among that community rose from 14% to 28%.

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Polling also suggests that the only reason Donald Trump lost the election is because of the pandemic which was the top issue for a significant percentage of the voters who supported Biden. Those voters whose top issue was the economy voted for Trump.

Examining those figures, we need to then ask what they portend about the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.

The divides in this country are not only about race. The dynamic is right-wing proto-fascist populism. There are also divides of geography. Sixty percent of the Trump vote was in rural areas. Such a divide is exactly what happened in Yugoslavia. This divide in America is also a function of the dislocation of the working poor and the working class, which was created by the two parties. The failure, which I expect, under the incoming Biden administration to address this dislocation, despair, alienation and rage — all of which are legitimate — is fertile ground for a competent fascist, one probably cloaked in Christian garb.

The errors with the polls reveal that we need more qualitative research, such as ethnography and focus groups, to get a real sense of how individuals and communities are thinking and feeling about politics. We also need pollsters and other researchers who are actually from the communities they are trying to understand. There should also be an asterisk on the exit polls, because Republicans were much more likely to vote in person, thereby skewing the answers. With those qualifiers having been noted, the next version of Donald Trump will be much more dangerous given his broadening base of support. There is something attractive about Trumpism, even for nonwhites.

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It is the hyper-masculinity. That is the core essence of fascism. There is no coherent ideology with fascism. Fascism mutates and changes. In the lead-up to power, the Nazis were striking in Berlin, along with the communists. The Nazis put "socialist" in their name, The National Socialist Party, as a way of becoming more appealing. To reduce Trump's version of fascism solely along lines of race is to miss the forces that are pushing people into the arms of the neofascists. Racism is an element in the form of mythologies about whiteness and self-exaltation, and the other myths about identity and origin. But what people who follow fascists are really looking for is a sense of empowerment.

Donald Trump fulfilled that role, not as a political leader, but as a traditional cult leader. Members of the cult want their cult leader to break all the rules. The power of the cult leader becomes an extension of the follower's own identity and power. All moral autonomy is surrendered to the cult leader. That is the dynamic in this country with Donald Trump and his movement. Therefore, there are fewer ways in American society to communicate with one another across lines of politics and other identities. When Donald Trump, from the White House — in what was an absolutely remarkable moment — denounced the electoral process as fraudulent, what was really frightening is that there are tens of millions of Americans who believe him.

Will Trump be seen as a martyr? Will his time as president, even in defeat, be remembered as a noble cause by his followers?

The narrative will be that he and they were stabbed in the back. "The media, the liberals, Silicon Valley, they stabbed us in the back." I am worried about violence.

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The violence will be directed at mainstream Democrats such as the governors of Virginia or Michigan. Once that begins and the Pandora's box is opened, control of the situation is lost. The United States is awash in weapons. People are going to be shot in acts of political violence. Then we as a country are in deep trouble.  

There is a developing narrative from some Democrats about the "white working class" vote, and the idea that they lost seats in the House and did not capture the Senate because the party is "too liberal" and "too far to the left." Another developing narrative is that only Joe Biden could have defeated Donald Trump because anyone to the left of him would have been easily beaten. What is your response?

That is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The insiders who tell themselves such things are completely out of touch. Most of the people sitting around these newsrooms do not leave their studios. They might as well all be locked up in Versailles or the Forbidden City. They do not have a clue about the real suffering, pain and social and moral decay that has infected the lives of over half the country. That reality is never reported on because those people are looking for advertising dollars. They have rendered all of these suffering and struggling people in America invisible, which of course only adds to the anger and the deep distrust of the new media. Polling for the 2020 election did not capture what is really going on, woefully out of touch.

Of course this narrative exists in the context of how the Democrats have for the last 30 or so years been chasing the Republican Party farther to the right. Joe Biden played a role in embracing those corporate, gangster capitalist, neoliberal policies.

What was Joe Biden's campaign strategy? It was to cater to neocon Republicans. It was a whole campaign devoid of ideas or real policy proposals. Joe Biden was going to save the soul of America. What Biden and the Democrats are going to do is just dig themselves deeper, and the consequences of that choice are going to be really extreme for the country.

Watching the reaction from the mainstream media has been very instructive. They appeared to be shocked by the deep levels of support for Donald Trump. The polling errors appeared to flummox them. For me, as a working-class black person in America, nothing surprises me about this country and its reservoir of white supremacy. I also grew up with these Trump voters. I know and understand them. How do the commentariat and mainstream media types convince themselves of things about America which are simply not true?

I know them. I hate to admit it. But I was at their prep schools as a scholarship student. I went to their elite universities. I've sat in their elite newsrooms. As a class they are smug, arrogant, self-referential and so out of touch. They look down on the entire working class, and that includes the white working class. The Democrats under Bill Clinton thought, "We'll take the corporate money, because labor, and in particular people of color, do not have anywhere else to go. They are not going to the Republicans." Democrats took those voters for granted, and as exit polls show, the Democrats have made a fatal mistake in that regard. The Democrats' strategic calculation about those voters may have been true then, but it is not true anymore.

I think they were in fact really shocked. In many ways the elite class is clueless. The pundits and the commentariat and others in the establishment news media were just as off with their predictions as they were in 2016. They do not spend time in these communities. They do not speak to these people at all. They move from one exclusive bubble to another. They're not in touch with the suffering and the angst.

Donald Trump, at least, is completely transparent as to who he is. He doesn't hide it. He's as repugnant as he looks. And yet all sorts of groups, including white women, voted for him. And I think they voted for him knowing full well who he is, but also confident in the fact that the two ruling parties — and in particular the Democratic Party, which at one time pretended to watch out for their interests — have sold them out.

The two main parties have lost credibility, the Democrats in particular. The press has lost credibility. And once democratic institutions no longer have any credibility left, then people just start believing whatever they want to believe. That is how you get conspiracy theories such as QAnon. Too many Americans do not have social and political institutions they believe in and see as trustworthy. On that point, they are not wrong. Ultimately, I do not see how where we're going in the United States at present is anywhere good. The result will be a type of corporate totalitarianism.

There was this widely circulated image of three white women who were praying and laying hands on the door of one of the locations where the votes were being counted. There are also these "Christian" right-wing con men (and women) trying to summon angels to defend Donald Trump, their anointed and chosen savior. These people are widely mocked, as they should be. They are laughed at by rational people. But when I see such deranged behavior, I also take it seriously. Such people are deadly sincere in their beliefs. Trump's followers view him as a deity.

As I learned doing research for and writing my book "American Fascists," what happened in essence is that the world of "secular humanism," as such people call it, almost destroyed them. It is deeply personal. "Secular humanism" destroyed them because they became alcoholics, or they became crack addicts or opioid addicts or gambling addicts, or they lost their jobs and were evicted. A number of women in the Christian right that I interviewed had also suffered either sexual or domestic violence. So they entered a world of magic, the figure of magical Jesus, what anthropologists call a crisis cult. One cannot try to free them from the cult by using rationality and reason.

The only way to break the back of such a movement is to reintegrate such people into the economy, to give them stable jobs, a place where they can have a sense that through work and their societal position they can have hope for themselves and their children's lives.

And of course, the whole situation for such people has only gotten worse. Once they become hermetically encased in that ideology, you cannot really break them out of it unless you are going to create a society where they have a place, and rebuild the social bonds which were ruptured. That is not going to happen under Joe Biden. Such people on the Christian right, the praying-for-Trump types, will become more common especially as the country reels under the effects of a pandemic that is out of control and all the economic consequences of the crisis.

The other dynamic that the mainstream news media was not prepared for is that in places where the pandemic is worse, Donald Trump is more popular. This is an example of Trumpism and conservatism more generally being a type of political religion, a death cult. The more death and suffering that takes place in America, the more popular and powerful Trumpism and its variants will become.

It is a death cult. With the rupturing of social bonds and a sense of place within society, Trump's followers and the Christian right invest their energy in self-destructive behaviors, both as individuals and societies. The sociologist Émile Durkheim made an astute observation about right-wing groups, that those types of groups which seek the annihilation of others are really at the core driven by a desire for self-annihilation.

We see that throughout American society with the opioid crisis, the suicides, which are highest among white middle-aged men, and other types of addictions such as morbid obesity and gambling and the like. Those types of behaviors are all in response to the breakdown of social bonds and a sense of place and meaning within a society.

What springs forth from this moment?

What springs forth is that half of this country, who to this point have been treated by the ruling elites, and tacitly by the liberal class, as if they are human refuse, are going to strike back. We have already witnessed them trying to do this. They have not been particularly successful. People in this country are going to start getting killed. It is going to get worse especially as the ruling elites display the kind of paralysis that I expect Joe Biden and Mitch McConnell to display.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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