United States: MAGA authoritarian rule or Third Reconstruction?
First published at Convergence.
Thirty years after its publication, The Age of Extremes by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm still stands as the best history of the “short twentieth century (1914-1991).” Every chapter of this pro-socialist “story of a victory from the point of view of the vanquished” holds important lessons for those of us fighting for working-class power. In the U.S. today the chapter on the rise of fascism holds particular relevance.
Hobsbawm makes the crucial point that, for all their boasting about “capturing the street,” neither the Italian nor the German fascist movements “conquered power” via any kind of violent uprising. Rather, they came to power “in constitutional’ fashion.” He adds:
“The novelty of fascism was that, once in power, it refused to play the old political games, and took over completely where it could.”
The savviest operators among those who are now threatening to impose white Christian Nationalist rule on the US learned that history decades ago. They used it to craft a take-and-permanently-hold power strategy adapted to the specifics of the US constitutional system—and their persistent, think-long-term effort has paid off. The authoritarian bloc, now operating under the banner of MAGA, has captured the Republican Party and the Supreme Court, and holds trifectas in 22 states, And they are steadily moving ahead with plans to corner complete federal power in 2024.
This is the underlying political dynamic that we must keep in mind amid the media frenzy over Trump’s indictment and how that might affect the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
MAGA can be stopped if we accurately understand the existence and composition of the country’s anti-MAGA majority and can help catalyze it into action. But that will require opponents of authoritarianism to block the specific routes by which MAGA intends to take power, effectively deploy our energies and resources, and gain enough strength to take the offensive.
Trump or no Trump, MAGA is pressing ahead
The strength of the indictment in the “classified documents” case has produced an uptick in contention over who should be the MAGA standard-bearer in 2024. Worries about over-reach—present since the SCOTUS overturned Roe—have been more frequently expressed. But no significant section of the Republican Party is stepping away from the drive toward authoritarian rule. Not the presidential hopefuls who are “putting some distance” between themselves and Trump (Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Tim Scott). Not the Senate leaders who have stayed quiet about Trump being indicted (Mitch McConnell). And not two MAGA Supreme Court Justices, who, out of worry at the Court’s loss of legitimacy, calculated that one ruling upholding Black voting rights will allow them to play a more credible role in MAGA’s drive to power.
And certainly not the MAGA base, which post-indictment is even more convinced that white male Christian conservatives are the most persecuted group in the U.S., with millions believing that using violence to change that is fully justified.
Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression
In Italy, fascism came to power constitutionally in 1922 when the King appointed Mussolini Prime Minister. In Germany in 1932, Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg. The undemocratic features of the U.S. constitutional/electoral system are different from those of 1920s-‘30s Germany and Italy, so aspiring authoritarians have crafted approaches that take advantage of U.S. specifics.
Key to authoritarian strategies here are the racially biased Electoral College in combination with a federal system that gives significant power to individual states; the winner-take-all-two-party structure; and the failure of the Constitution to protect elections in some significant ways. Absent Constitutional limits on money in elections and safeguards for the principle of “one person, one vote,” gerrymandering, voter suppression and the outsize influence of corporate interests have run amok.
White supremacists took advantage of these features to maintain the Jim Crow system in the South for close to a century. (See especially Sarah Churchwell, American Fascism: It Has Happened Here.) Jim Crow was not dismantled until the 1960s upsurge spearheaded by the Black-led Civil Rights Movement forced passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The mass pressure that drove that victory also compelled both legislative and judicial bodies to curb some of the worst gerrymandering and election money abuses.
But the racist right never accepted these as irreversible steps, just as they never accepted the gains of the New Deal era (trade union rights, social programs), or the extension of social programs (Medicare) and women’s rights (Roe) coming out of the 1960s. They knew that these were not explicitly codified in the U.S. Constitution, and to the extent they were implicit, there was a reading of the Constitution (“originalism”) that could render them unenforceable.
Because of this, changing the rules that govern electoral terrain became a top priority for the instigators of the right-wing backlash that began in the late 1960s and became dominant after the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan. The Federalist Society, founded in 1982, was the main vehicle for carrying out this strategy. Legal work (establishing a pipeline for right-wing lawyers to become judges; fleshing out originalist theory; filing suits in carefully chosen cases) was synergized with issue campaigns. “Third Party” efforts were rejected in favor of taking over the Republican Party. For a recap of the results of their painstaking, well-funded, and ruthless work (gutting the Voting Rights Act, ruling that challenges to partisan gerrymandering could not be made in federal courts, gutting campaign finance reform, overturning Roe, etc.) see Michael Podhorzer’s article “To the Supreme Court, the 20th Century Was Wrongly Decided.”
Red States preview a MAGA-ruled country
The consequences have been devastating. They can be seen most vividly in numerous “Republican trifecta” states, in both the conditions imposed by new legislation on inhabitants of those states and the arrangements MAGA has put in place to ensure that they remain in power.
In states they control, Republicans have pushed through extreme curbs on abortion; sweeping restrictions on gender affirming medical care for youths; bans or limits on discussion of sexuality, history and/or race/racism in schools, and loosening already tattered gun control and safety measures. Legislation loosening restrictions on child labor is coming out of the shadows in states where right-to-work laws and other anti-worker, anti-poor people policies hold sway.
GOP governors and legislators are simultaneously putting in place measures that undermine majority rule and make successful electoral challenges to their one-party rule very difficult if not impossible. Voter suppression is now business as usual in Republican-controlled states. Gerrymandering districts is giving Republicans a grip on state legislature majorities (or super-majorities) even in states where the electorate is split close to 50-50 (for example, Wisconsin and North Carolina). In Ohio and other states, they’re taking aim at direct democracy by trying to limit the initiative process. And with control over state legislatures, Republicans have moved to silence or reduce the power of elected bodies in cities that include large people of color populations and tend to vote Democratic for example in Mississippi and in Texas.
Essentially the GOP has put in place “authoritarian enclaves” where they can implement their agenda as they pursue the goal of capturing full federal power. And they use the benefits of these enclaves to their advantage in that pursuit – increasing their share of “safe” House seats, suppressing the vote to affect close races for Senate seats or in the contention for that state’s electoral college votes for President. All this will only get worse if the Supreme Court gives them a favorable ruling at some point on the Independent State Legislature Doctrine.
The 2024 election and beyond
All this shapes the terrain on which the Left has to fight through November 2024 and beyond. Three major imperatives stand out.
One, we need to be as clear-eyed as MAGA’s core on the fundamental political dynamic at work in the US today. The specifics of the DeSantis-Trump contention, the terms of House Speaker McCarthy’s revised deal with the Freedom Caucus, and the twists and turns of each legal case against Trump need to be tracked to produce the most effective messaging and “rapid response” actions. But we can’t let these things distract us from the main story: An authoritarian bloc with a fascist core is driving for control of all branches of the federal government; the rest is detail.
Second, if MAGA succeeds, not only will most people in the US and across the globe face more dire conditions, but organizing to change the direction of the country will become qualitatively more difficult. Pushing for the deep structural changes it will take to address inequality, climate change, restrictions on democracy and militarism is difficult under an administration over which the growing but still-fragmented progressive world has some influence. It will be orders of magnitude harder if we are facing a Justice Department that acts as if McCarthyism was too cautious; an administration that lauds “stand your ground” killers and white supremacist militia members as heroes; and a judiciary and NLRB owned and controlled by Charles Koch.
Electoral victory is essential but not sufficient
Third, electoral terrain will be the main battlefront against MAGA at least through 2024. MAGA’s “constitutional” route to permanent minority rule runs through winning or stealing elections. So all candidates of the party MAGA now controls need to be defeated at every level and those results need to be protected. Across the anti-MAGA spectrum different groups and individuals will pursue different types of work and have different priorities between now and 2024. But some need to give organizing priority to battleground states and congressional districts, and we need to come together to vote anti-MAGA on election day.
At the same time, without a militant and organized base in the millions that makes its weight felt in all aspects of public life, partisans of social justice will not get beyond fighting one defensive election after another. And catastrophe awaits if we lose just once. Building that kind of base requires deep organizing work, building/rebuilding grassroots participatory organizations, and making a compelling narrative about this country’s history and future the “new common sense” of tens of millions.
In the 19th century defeating the Confederacy required the combination of years of abolitionist organizing, the election of Lincoln in 1860s, the power of the U.S. (“union”) Army, and the “general strike” of the enslaved to defeat the Confederacy and bring about Reconstruction. In the 20th century, it took a decade of civil rights organizing and militant action combined with electoral repudiation of Barry “desegregation-is-a-states’-rights-issue” Goldwater in 1964 to produce a Second Reconstruction ending Jim Crow.
Will the next chapter of US history be a reprise of the Confederacy and Jim Crow? Or will we be able to achieve a Third Reconstruction?
This is the third installment of a new column by Convergence Editorial Board member Max Elbaum. “It Is Happening Here” will track the MAGA drive toward one-party rule based on a white Christian Nationalist agenda, and discuss strategies to block it while building independent progressive power along the way.