Talking about a Second Republic is, we admit, a provocative statement—and certainly in a country where a real civil war has already taken place. But secession was the formative watershed of a nation on the rise. The Trumpist insurgency, on the other hand, is a trauma more likely associated with its decline. The point is that after the national-populist experience, America finds itself crushed by its own history. Trump has exhumed much of the narrative of that original rift.
The flying of Confederate flags in the vandalized Capitol and on the pickup trucks loaded with armed gangs lined up on the streets; the defense of Southern monuments; the head-on clash with Black Lives Matter (BLM); the attempt (not entirely successful) to suppress once again the black and minority vote—Trump has gone on to reopen those wounds that have never healed, and which the last 60 years, most of all, had attempted to partially remedy. His rise depended on polarization, and his fall could not but make it explicit.
Was it just a simulation of a coup, a play pretend of subversion? In practice, it is not relevant. The Trump presidency has been post-political and essentially performative in a Berlusconian fashion: it developed on Twitter, 240 characters at a time, in rallies turned into shows, in kitschy North Korean-like videos posted on the White House channel—not on the terrain of policy or legislative initiatives. Beyond the corporate tax cuts and deregulation secured by the neoliberal wing of the party and the reactionary judges gifted to the theocon base, there is no Trumpist doctrine in a purely political sense—nothing beyond a theater of cruelty. At every juncture—missile strikes, torture of immigrants, construction of the wall, moving the embassy to Jerusalem—Trump has interpreted the idea, the character, of a macho president, as if sketching the outline of a wrestling match, something he is addicted to.
In this reality show, the message is the posture, not the substance, always aimed at the base of followers who, like in a WWE match, are galvanized by the representation, not the facts. Thus, having represented subversion makes it, in a sense, a fait accompli. There is no need for tanks on the esplanade of the Washington Mall: the coup has already taken place in the minds of 50 million believers, emotionally devoted to the epochal battle they imagine as the final one.
Just like a conspiracy theorist does not need to prove their assertions—they only need to insinuate doubt—the bogeyman of non-existent fraud is equivalent to a full-on insinuation of illegitimacy: of the next government as much as of the democratic process itself. It is an idea that will last well beyond its creator. For the first time, the democratic handover was not a foregone conclusion, but in perspective, installing Biden might not complete the task, when one thinks of the need for restoring a semblance of political mediation. How does the alternation of power work when there are armed parliamentarians sitting in the benches who are still denying the electoral result?
In short, the task of the Biden government resembles that of the denazification undertaken to purge National Socialism from the society it had penetrated. With what instruments, in the post-political phase, can one hope to bring America back from the brink? How does one dialogue with the half of the country that is anti-vaccine and, at the same time, physiologically immune to dialogue itself?
The Second Republic will have to come to terms with the consolidated nature of an electorate radicalized by populism, the fully subversive terminus point of a fanatical and reactionary parable set off 40 years ago by Reaganism, by its pact with religious fundamentalists, its use of the “culture wars” to radicalize and consolidate a base in demographic decline. The pact of convenience made by neoliberals with fanaticism, militarism, patriotic and nationalist exacerbation and the religious cult of the constitutional Founding Fathers has finally resulted in the obscurantist supremacism that contains a stubbornly anachronistic and anti-modern denial of the innovative part of the American experiment.
Paradoxically, it is precisely the exceptionalist obsession with “predestination” which turned America into just another country: a bigger Honduras, a Turkey like any other, a Hungary in thrall to the populist chieftain du jour… The health catastrophe in what was the world’s beacon of scientific progress is perhaps only a sign of a decline that could become precipitous. The Trumpist regression has stirred up skeletons and ghosts that are specifically American but reverberate throughout the global West.
And those who are looking on with schadenfreude, especially in Europe, would do well to reflect on the very similar characteristics of their local populist abyss, ready to engulf other democracies. As it began with the grim invocation of American carnage from the very same platform of the inauguration, the Trump presidency ends with his absence, but before the smoking ruins of a capital city that effectively resembles the “carnage” he had evoked, almost as a frightening political program.
Biden is facing the need for political action of a Rooseveltian scale to begin to repair the economic, social and climatic damage of a kamikaze administration. But also the physiological damage caused by neoliberal opportunism, reactionary drift and the populist coup de grace. Above all, he will have to attempt an epistemic restoration that restores a “modicum” of direction and rationality to the country—starting with science, which, uncoincidentally, the incoming president is continuously mindful to invoke. This is what is at stake in the months and uncertain years that await this America, poised on a precipice.
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