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Trump is not Hitler, the US is not Nazi Germany, no invading army is heading toward the White House. All this notwithstanding, it is impossible not to make a comparison between Trump these last few days and Hitler’s last days. Hitler in his bunker, Trump in the White House. Having lost all sense of reality, both of them give orders no one obeys and, when disobeyed, both of them cry treason, an accusation eventually directed at even their closest and most unconditional supporters: Himmler, in the case of Hitler, Mike Pence, in the case of Trump. Just as Hitler refused to believe that the Soviet Red Army was only ten kilometers from his bunker, so Trump refuses to accept that he lost the election. But that is where the comparisons end. Unlike Hitler, Trump does not see himself as politically finished, much less will he retreat to his room, ingest cyanide with his wife Melania and, as stipulated in his will, have their bodies incinerated outside the bunker, that is, in the gardens of the White House. Why won’t he do it?
By the end of the war, Hitler felt isolated and profoundly disappointed with the German people for failing to live up to the high destinies he had envisioned for them. As Goebbels put it, also from the bunker: “The German people chose their fate and now their little throats are being cut”. On the contrary, Trump’s social base is millions strong, the most faithful including groups of armed white supremacists willing to follow their leader, even if the order is to storm and vandalize the seat of Congress. And far from feeling pessimistic about them, Trump considers his followers to be the very best Americans and great patriots, those who are to make America great again. Hitler knew that he had come to the end of the line and that his political end would also be his physical end. Quite to the contrary, Trump believes that in fact his fight has barely begun, because only now will it compellingly become a fight against the system.
While many millions of Americans want to believe that the conflict is over, Trump and his followers want to show that only now is it going to begin – and that it will go on until America is returned to them. Joe Biden is therefore mistaken when, seeing Congress vandalized, he says that this is not the USA. This is indeed the USA, a country not only born of an act of violence (the slaughter of native Americans) but whose progress rested entirely on violence, often turned into achievements that made the world proud – from the very uniting of the “United” States (with 620,000 killed in the civil war) to the radiant conquest of political civil rights by the black population (countless lynchings and the assassination of leaders, Martin Luther King. Jr. the most prominent among them) –, and furthermore, it is also a country where many of the best elected political leaders, including Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy, have been murdered. That violence has presided over the country’s domestic affairs and its entire imperial politics, notably after the Second World War. Ask the people of Latin America, Vietnam, the Balkans, Iraq, Libya, Palestine – and the list goes on and on.
Joe Biden is also mistaken in saying that the nightmare has come to an end and that the course of democratic normalcy will now be resumed. In fact, it is Trump who is right in thinking that everything is beginning now. The problem is that, contrary to what he thinks, he does not control that which is about to begin. Therefore, these next few years may either go well for him, bringing him back to the White House, or they can lead to his sad end. As a political and social system, the US is faced with a bifurcation – a moment which typically occurs in systems that are far from their point of equilibrium –, where the smallest change may have disproportionate consequences. Thus, predicting what is to come becomes even more difficult than it normally would be. I will now briefly focus on three of the factors likely to lead to changes in either direction: inequality and fragmentation, the rule of law, and Stacey Abrams.
Inequality and fragmentation
Social inequality has been on the rise since the 1980s, to a point where the US has become the most unequal country in the world. At present, the poorest half of its population accounts for a mere 12 percent of the national income, while the richest 1 percent account for 20 percent. Over the past forty years, neoliberalism has impoverished US workers and destroyed the country’s middle classes. In a country with no public health service or any other social policies worthy of the name, one in five children goes hungry. In 2017, one in ten young people aged between 18 and 24 (3.5 million in total) had been homeless for the past twelve months. Under the ideology of the “American miracle” of opportunities and a closed political system that makes it impossible to imagine any alternatives to the status quo, the politics of resentment which the extreme right has consummately exploited led those Americans victimized by the system to believe that their ills were caused by other groups, which were in fact even more victimized than they were: Blacks, Latinxs or immigrants in general. Social inequality led to an increase in ethno-racial discrimination. Racialized bodies are viewed as inferior by their very nature; if they harm you, there is no debating with them. You have to neutralize them, either by putting them away in prisons or by killing them. The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate (698 inmates per 100,000 residents). With less than 5 percent of the world’s population, the US has 25 percent of the world’s prison population. Black young men are five times more likely to be sentenced to prison than white young men. Is it surprising, in such circumstances, that being anti-system is so appealing? Note that there are more than 300 far-right armed militias across the country and that their number increased after Obama’s election. If nothing is done over the next four years to change this state of affairs, Trump will continue – and with good reason – to fuel his obsession with returning to the White House.
The rule of law
The US rose to become the world champion of rule of law and law and order. For a long time, it was the only country where the names of the Supreme Court judges were well known. By and large, US courts could be said to be independent in their role of ensuring compliance with the Constitution. Then certain sectors of the ruling classes realized that the courts could serve their interests in a more active manner. In order to accomplish that, they invested a lot of money in the training of magistrates and in getting judges elected or appointed to the higher courts. Such enlisting of justice for political purposes took on international proportions when, especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the CIA and the Department of Justice began to invest heavily in the training of magistrates and in changing procedural laws (plea bargaining, “rewarded delation”) in countries in their sphere of influence. It was the advent of Lawfare, or legal warfare, of which Brazil’s “Operation Car Wash” is the perfect illustration. Trump has committed several federal and state crimes, including obstruction of justice, money laundering, illegal election campaign financing and other election-related crimes (the most recent of which was his attempt to fraudulently change the results of the Georgia elections, in January 2021). Will the criminal justice system function as it once used to? If it does, Trump will be convicted and most likely sent to prison, and his political end is surely near. But if it fails to do so, Trump will work his base, either within or outside the Republican party, to make a boisterous comeback in 2025.
The former black congresswoman is the one person most responsible for the recent election of the two Democratic senators in the state of Georgia, a victory that was decisive to give Democrats a majority in the Senate and thus protect Biden from constant political obstruction. What is her secret? Over the course of ten years she worked toward the political articulation of every poor minority – Black, Latinx and Asian – in Georgia, a state where 57.8 percent of the population is white, a state widely viewed as racist and supremacist, and in fact a traditional Republican bastion. Over the years, Abrams created organizations to register the poor minorities that had been disenfranchised by the defeatist experience of seeing the same oppressors win again and again. She geared her grassroots work toward promoting unity among the various impoverished social groups, too often pushed apart by the ethno-racial prejudices that fuel the power of the ruling classes. After ten years and a remarkable career that could have reached its peak had Biden picked her for Vice President instead of Kamala Harris – who is more conservative and closer to the interests of Silicon Valley’s big companies –, Abrams achieved a victory that can ruin Trump’s ambition to return to power. On the same day that the vandals shattered glass panes in the Capitol and ransacked the building, that remarkable feat was celebrated in Georgia. It was a powerful demonstration that the political work required to ensure the survival of liberal democracies in these difficult times cannot be limited to voting every four years, nor even to the work conducted on congressional or parliamentary committees by the elected. It also requires grassroots work in inhospitable and often dangerous places inhabited by the impoverished, insulted and humiliated populations who – almost invariably with good reason – have lost all interest and hope in democracy.
Multiplied through such initiatives as Black Lives Matter, Black Voters Matter and numerous other movements, many of them inspired by Bernie Sanders and his “our revolution”, Stacey Abrams’s work has the potential to return to American democracy the dignity and vitality that Trump has put at risk. If this proves to be the case, the best lesson Americans will be able to learn is that the myth of “American exceptionalism” is precisely that – a myth. The USA is as vulnerable to authoritarian adventures as any other country. Its democracy is as fragile as the mechanisms in place to prevent autocrats and anti-democrats from being democratically elected. The difference between them and dictators is that the latter start by destroying democracy so they can rise to power, whereas they use democracy in order to be elected, but then refuse to govern democratically and democratically relinquish power. From the point of view of citizenship, the difference is not that big.
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.