John Feffer

The great shrinking of America on an imperiled planet

The nightmare is over. The vanquished beast has crawled back to Mar-a-Lago to lick his wounds. The heroes are hard at work repairing the damage. As America returns to the international stage, the world heaves a collective sigh of relief.

That, at least, is the story the incoming Biden administration is telling. "America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back," as Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the administration's nominee for U.N. ambassador, put it shortly after the election. According to this narrative of redemption, the globe's Atlas shrugged off its burden during the four years of Donald Trump's tenure but is now ready to reassume its global leadership responsibilities.

Don't believe it, though. Much of the rest of the world seems visibly queasy at the prospect of sitting on America's shoulders, since who's to say that Atlas won't shrug again?

And perhaps Atlas wasn't such a responsible fellow in the first place.

Over the last several decades, the United States has displayed all the hallmarks of a country suffering from a serious personality disorder characterized by mood swings of gargantuan proportions. From the compromised multilateralism of the Bill Clinton years, the United States pivoted to the aggressive armed unilateralism of George W. Bush. Then, after boomeranging back to the centrist (if still over-armed) internationalism of Barack Obama, it took the wildest of detours into MAGA-land with Donald Trump. In the latest case of foreign-policy whiplash, Joe Biden is now preparing to return the country to a "new and improved" version of Obama's global liberalism (with a dash of anti-Chinese fervor thrown in).

Americans are by now remarkably familiar with such side effects of twenty-first-century democracy. We've skimmed the fine print on the label more than once and become reasonably inured to the adverse consequences of our civic religion.

Much of the world, however, is not accustomed to such volatility. The Kim family has ruled North Korea from day one, while Paul Biya has run Cameroon since 1982. Over the last 30 years, China has settled into its predictable version of market Leninism. Putatively democratic countries like Russia and Turkey have had the same leadership for two decades, while a genuinely democratic country like Germany has had the same chancellor for 15 years. The rest of Western Europe has seen numerous changes in those who hold the reins of power, but oscillations in governance have generally stayed within a relatively narrow political spectrum. European Union policies have similarly remained on a remarkably even keel, despite disruptions like Brexit.

These days, however, democrats and dictators alike are unsure, from one day to the next, whether the United States will be Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde.

On the surface, the international community has generally provided a warm welcome to the incoming administration, if only out of profound relief at seeing the backside of Donald Trump. True, it took Vladimir Putin a while to get around to acknowledging Joe Biden's victory, while Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil grumbled about the departure of his American BFF, as did Hungary's Viktor Orbán and a number of other right-wing populists.

But Biden was a clear international favorite in the recent presidential election. According to an Ipsos poll of people in 24 countries, Biden had an edge of 48% to 17% over Trump, with only the Russians as outliers. And postelection, the favorability of the United States has only risen (except perhaps in Russia and China).

Beneath the surface, however, the world is hesitant, like an oft-jilted lover. Country after country has been burned too many times to throw itself back into such a relationship without reservations, if not a full-blown prenuptial agreement. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it with characteristic understatement, "There is a need to rebuild trust between Europe and the United States." Indeed, just about every member of the U.N. General Assembly would undoubtedly have agreed.

Such an erosion of trust defines what it means to be an unreliable superpower. Even as the Biden administration works to "build back better," allies and adversaries alike are busy hedging their bets, concerned that the United States is simply too unpredictable a place to park political capital. And where it remains all-too-predictable — as in its preposterous levels of military spending or its obdurate sense of exceptionalism — Washington no longer looks to many like a reliable global actor from the perspective of peace or prosperity.

The Biden administration seems remarkably tone-deaf when it comes to the hesitancy of the international community to repeat past mistakes. "We can make America, once again, the leading force for good in the world," Biden insisted in his Inaugural Address. "We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example."

With its talk of regaining global leadership, the Biden administration seems as committed to the notion that the United States is still "the indispensable power" as it was when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright uttered that phrase in 1998. "If we have to use force, it is because we are America," Albright told Matt Lauer back then on The Today Show. "We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."

Particularly in the wake of the travesties of the Trump era, the global stature of this indispensable land has shrunk immeasurably. In their responses to crises like Covid-19 and a warming planet, other countries now stand taller and see further into the future. More ominously, the danger they do see increasingly has the stars and stripes plastered all over it.

Reversing the Reverses

Donald Trump didn't even have to wait for a new administration to reverse his policies. He was perfectly capable of reversing them himself — multiple times.

No wonder NATO head Stoltenberg has been preoccupied with the issue of trust. As a candidate, Trump swore NATO was "obsolete," only to change his mind within months of taking office. Yet, a year later, he was talking about pulling the United States out of the alliance completely. By 2020, on the other hand, he was suggesting incorporating Middle Eastern countries into it.

And Trump wasn't just fickle when it came to NATO. In 2017, he threatened North Korea with the "fire and fury" of nuclear destruction only to sit down with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un two years later. He went back and forth about Chinese leader Xi Jinping, too, claiming in 2018 that "Xi and I will always be friends," only to call him an "enemy" a year later. He then reversed himself with his early 2020 avowal that "we love each other," before turning hostile yet again in the COVID-19 era. What Trump diehards argued was crafty bargaining looked a whole lot more like beginner's incoherence.

Joe Biden has already taken a more consistent approach to reversing Trump's policies than The Donald did to his own policies. In his first executive orders, the new president brought the United States back into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accords. He reversed Trump's policies on immigration, cancelled the Muslim travel ban, and ended funding for the largely unbuilt wall on the border with Mexico. He quickly hit rewind on those environmental deregulations of the Trump administration and the previous president's approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In addition, once the sugar rush of Biden's executive orders fades, an immediate threat lurks: Congress. The Democratic Party controls both houses — but just barely. The lack of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate is likely to be a significant obstacle to any lasting transformation of key aspects of foreign policy in a more peaceful and cooperative direction, even if the Biden administration were committed to such a goal.

In addition, the Biden team soon hopes to reenter the Iran nuclear deal, revive arms control negotiations with Russia, and at least mitigate the impact of the trade sanctions against China.

That's all to the good. But who's to say that the next occupant of the Oval Office won't reverse Biden's reversal of Trump's reversal of Obama's initiatives?

Republicans are already hoping to delay the U.S. reentry into the Iran nuclear deal, complicate Washington's involvement in global efforts to address the climate crisis, and keep the pressure on both China and Russia. Trying to ratify a treaty to ban all nuclear tests or make the United States a member of the International Criminal Court, which would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, will prove even longer shots.

What Americans interpret as an insider game of partisanship, the rest of the world sees as a hamstrung country incapable of acting decisively on international problems. And such a deadlock might turn into something even worse. Trump's MAGA crew are, after all, alive and well in Congress and throughout the red states. Should things go badly economically or pandemically for the Biden White House, they could regain control of one or both chambers in the midterm elections of 2022.

Even more troubling is the extremist wildcard. The events of January 6th shocked the world into realizing that America's lunatic fringe is no longer content just to lurk on the margins of politics as Internet trolls and barstool conspiracy theorists. It's one thing to take into account the logjams produced by Republican Party obstructionism. It's quite another to worry that the United States will tip into a second civil war.

Smart money avoids such risks.

How the United States is Reliably Unreliable

Even when this country is predictable, it's still an unreliable global partner.

Take the issue of Covid-19. The Biden administration has made a splash by instantly rejoining the WHO and resuming its financial obligations to it. In the last stimulus package, Congress anticipated this trend by including $4 billion in funding for GAVI, a global vaccine alliance, with Democrats acknowledging that "we are not truly safe until the whole world is safe from the coronavirus."

But when the rubber hits the road — and the needles hit the arms — the United States has promptly fallen back on its usual exceptionalism. In the chaos of the immediate post-Trumpian moment, the Biden administration has been pushing to vaccinate as many Americans as possible without significant regard for anyone else. Along with other rich countries, Washington has exercised purchase options that could more or less corner the market on vaccines, securing enough doses, in the end, to inoculate Americans nearly five times over.

The global effort to vaccinate lower-income countries, also known by the acronym COVAX, is several billion dollars short of what it needs even to begin seriously implementing its plan. And keep in mind that the plan itself is woefully insufficient, since it aims to vaccinate only 20% of the inhabitants of participating nations by the end of 2021.

Not every country is practicing vaccine nationalism though. Even as it rushes to inoculate its 1.3 billion citizens, India is helping out its neighbors, providing two million doses free of charge to Bangladesh, aiding Nepal and Myanmar, and even sending its vaccines to Brazil and Morocco. Both China and Russia are also engaging in vaccine diplomacy, reaching out to the Global South with their lower-cost versions of Covid-19 drugs.

Putting America first extends to other aspects of geopolitics as well. The United States can, for instance, be counted upon to remain the world's top arms exporter in the Biden years. In 2020, it signed agreements for more than $175 billion in sales of military hardware to other countries, far above what runner-up Russia manages to push out. Of course, such exports, in turn, fuel armed conflicts overseas, while inflating military budgets all over the world.

America is also number one when it comes to overseas military bases, with hundreds of facilities around the world, which militarize communities and serve as launching pads for U.S. operations. In comparison, Russia, France, and the United Kingdom together maintain a total of 30 such bases. And add in one more thing: aside from Australia, a few island nations, and tiny Gulf states, the United States has the highest per-capita carbon footprint on the planet. In its rush to use the planet's resources, our country is making it more likely that the planet will soon be uninhabitable for much of humanity.

With a reliably unreliable friend like that, who needs enemies?

The World Hedges Its Bets

Russia was one of the few places on Earth, from its government to its citizenry, that showed little excitement for recent political developments in Washington.

"From Russia's perspective, the political situation in the United States has not fundamentally changed as a result of the election," said Dmitry Suslov of the National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow. "The intense political polarization that we have witnessed over the past four years is not going away anywhere, so obviously Biden will not have a broad mandate to govern." Because of this political deadlock, Suslov added, Russia would avoid any direct conflict with the United States and instead improve relations with China and other powers like India.

Russia is a little late to the game. China was hedging its bets long before the November election. Its trillion-dollar-plus Belt and Road Initiative of infrastructure development in Eurasia (and northeastern Africa), launched in 2013 to refocus key global financial and economic relations on Beijing, was also meant to be an enormous insurance policy against any downturn in economic relations with the United States. Beijing's creation of separate global financial institutions — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank established in 2015 — and trade pacts like the recent Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership of 15 Asia-Pacific nations (but not the United States) were also efforts meant to shield China from American missteps and inaction that could drag down the global economy.

U.S. allies, too, have been taking precautions. Europe has been slowly building up an independent military capacity just in case Washington does eventually decide that NATO is obsolete. What the Europeans have come to call "strategic autonomy" represents not just a next step for European integration but protection against the increasing unreliability of Washington. The European Defense Fund, set up in 2017, received a healthy chunk of capital in its latest budget — about eight billion Euro — and that's just a down payment on what France would like to see and Germany is grudgingly coming around to envisioning: the folding up of the U.S. security umbrella.

South Korea, one of this country's most trusted security partners, has been working on developing its own strategic autonomy for some time. Despite the budgetary pressures of a Covid-19-related economic downturn, strenuous efforts to improve ties with North Korea, and a generally friendlier relationship with China, the South Korean government pushed through a 5.4% increase in military spending for 2021. Seoul is similarly concerned about the possibility that Washington will, sooner or later, reduce its Pacific presence.

The United States continues to maintain by far the most powerful and heavily funded military on the planet. Its economy is either the world's largest or just behind China's, depending on what yardstick you care to use. Like former basketball star Michael Jordan contemplating one last NBA championship, the U.S. foreign policy establishment is reluctant to give up on the adrenaline rush of being top dog on Planet Earth. But a pattern of erratic behavior can gradually undermine the trust necessary to maintain the extensive military alliances and trade relationships that sustain superpower status. The United States might just be too tired, too divided, or too crazy to stay number one much longer.

A History of Volatility

When Joe Biden says that this country "will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example," it's not entirely clear what example he means.

Does he mean American economic innovation — iPhones and electric cars — or the astonishing economic inequality of a country with the most billionaires on Earth in which one in eight citizens go hungry? Does he mean the country that puts itself forward as a seasoned mediator of conflicts or the one that spends more on its military than the next 10 nations combined? Does he mean the land with a Statue of Liberty that welcomes the "homeless" and the "tempest-tost," or the one that has routinely divided families through mass deportations?

The shift in tone from the Trump administration to the new Biden era is certainly extreme, leading many allies to hope that the November election provided the necessary dose of electroshock therapy to restore the United States to sanity. Plenty of Americans — and overseas friends of America — would like to believe that the Trump years were a bizarre deviation from the norm. But there's also a sneaking suspicion that extremism is becoming the new normal here and that events like the January 6th insurrection will only further fry what remains of the country's synapses.

That insurrection may have destroyed Donald Trump's chances of reelection in 2024, while possibly undermining the ambitions of his diehard champions in Congress like Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz as well. It might even drive a fatal wedge through the Republican Party, whether or not Trump actually creates a third party as he's threatened to do.

But volatility has long been a fixture of American politics, from fist fights on the floor of Congress in the nineteenth century to the Barry Goldwaters and Newt Gingriches of the twentieth century. In our time, the resistance of the Tea Party, white nationalist militias, and QAnon to the United States becoming a truly multicultural country has kept American extremism alive. This paranoid style may have reached only an intermediate peak with the presidency of Donald Trump.

If such forces once again gain power or even mobilize enough strength to derail the modest ambitions of the Biden administration, the U.S. "example" will be one the world will want to avoid at any cost. Political instability will be the next compelling reason, after the Covid-19 pandemic fades, to quarantine this country. As for America's unreliability as a global partner, it could prove to be an early sign of inevitable superpower decline into dissension, decay, and madness.

Copyright 2021 John Feffer

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel Frostlands (the second in the Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original, is volume two of his Splinterlands series and the final novel, Songlands, will be published in June. He has also written The Pandemic Pivot.

Sliding toward apocalypse: There's no returning to normal after Trump

Imagine for a moment that Hillary Clinton had won the presidential election in 2016.

Imagine, in other words, that the "blue wall" of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania had held firm four years ago. Claiming election fraud, Donald Trump would have insisted on a recount and Election Day would then, too, have stretched into election week and election month. Eventually, Trump would have given up, though not without insisting that the "deep state" had stolen his victory.

Once in office, Clinton would have set to work building on the Obama legacy. The United States would have remained in the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear agreement would still be in force, and perhaps a more robust health-care plan might even be in place. Competent civil servants would have taken charge of federal agencies, a tax cut for the wealthy wouldn't have gone into effect, and the Democrats would have been well positioned in 2020 to reelect the first woman president and build a stronger congressional majority.

America wouldn't have gone down the rabbit hole of Trumpism. Civic discourse wouldn't have been coarsened. The country wouldn't now be in such complete and utter...

Hey, wake up!

If Hillary had somehow managed to eke out a victory in 2016, she would soon enough have faced a Republican Party as hostile to compromise as the one that hamstrung Barack Obama. Opposition from Congress and Republican-controlled states, combined with her own centrist instincts, would have kept the country mired in a failing status quo: an increasingly unequal economy, crumbling infrastructure, a growing carbon footprint, a morbidly obese Pentagon, and other signs of a declining superpower that we've come to know so well.

Now, imagine what would have happened when the pandemic struck in 2020. Clinton would have responded more competently than The Donald because virtually anyone over the age of 12 would have been better suited to handle the emergency than he was. Indeed, if the United States had managed Covid-19 with anything faintly approaching the competency of, say, Germany under Angela Merkel, the country would have had, by my calculations, 2.6 million infections and about 45,000 deaths on the eve of the 2020 elections.

That obviously would be better than the 10 million infections and more than 245,000 deaths the United States is currently experiencing.

Keep in mind, however, that Americans wouldn't have known just how bad the situation could have been. Quite the opposite: having set up a bully pulpit in an alt-right Fox News-style media conglomerate after his loss in 2016, Donald Trump would have led the charge on Clinton's "mismanagement" of the pandemic and her direct responsibility for all those deaths. He would have assured us that the resulting economic downturn, with striking numbers of Americans left unemployed, could have been avoided, and that he as president would have prevented both those deaths and business cutbacks by immediately closing all borders and deporting any suspicious foreigners. He would have labeled the president "Killer Clinton" and, given the misogyny of significant parts of the American electorate, the name would have stuck.

In 2020, Donald Trump would have run on a platform of making America great again and won in a landslide.

Don't, however, think of this as just some passing exercise in alternative history. Substitute "Joe Biden" for "Hillary Clinton" in the passages you've just read and you'll have a grim but plausible prediction of what could happen over the next four years.

On the Road to 2024

Hillary Clinton would have faced challenges of every sort if she'd won the presidency in 2016. They nonetheless pale in comparison to what now awaits Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The Republicans are already gunning for the new president. They're blocking the transition process to handicap the incoming administration. President Trump has forbidden federal agencies from even cooperating with the Biden-Harris team. The 2020 presidential election forms part of the Republican Party's denialism trifecta: the pandemic, climate change, and now Biden's victory are all simply liberal "myths."

The Republican Party will either control the Senate -- pending the outcome of two run-off races in Georgia -- or, at least, be able to disrupt any major pieces of legislation. The Biden administration will be hard-pressed to roll back the tax cuts the Republicans handed out to the wealthy in 2017, pass a major green infrastructure bill, or expand affordable health care.

When Biden tries to implement a nationally cohesive program to combat Covid-19 through more testing, tracing, and investment in medical equipment, he's guaranteed to face resistance from a number of Republican governors who have refused even to mandate the wearing of masks. And then there are all those Republican-appointed judges just itching to rule on any legal challenges to Biden's executive orders, not to speak of a Supreme Court now located in the bleachers beyond right field that will serve as an even greater constraint on an activist agenda.

And those are just the political obstacles. The pandemic is clearly spiraling out of control. The economy has yet to crawl out of its hole. And Donald Trump has a couple of more months to scorch the earth before his army of incompetents are driven out of Washington, D.C.

Then there are the 71 million Americans who just voted for him despite his criminal conduct, gross mismanagement, and near-psychotic view of the world. Short of a nationwide deprogramming campaign, the adherents of the Trump cult will continue to cling to their religion (and their guns). In the Biden years, they're sure to form an industrial-strength Tea Party opposed to any move the federal government makes. And let's be clear: their resistance will not be exactly Gandhian in nature.

At the same time, it's essential to separate their illegitimate complaints laced with racism and misogyny from their all-too-legitimate grievances concerning the American economy. Much of Trump's base sees that economy, quite correctly, as unfair and the elite as not sharing the wealth. Unless the Democrats succeed in proving themselves to be the party of the 99% and successfully show how the Republicans are the 1% club -- by, for instance, publicizing the true impact of Trump's tax cuts for the rich -- the Biden administration will fall victim to charges of elitism, which is a political death sentence these days.

Everything that Hillary Clinton faced during her hypothetical first term in office will apply to Joe Biden in his very real first term. Trump will never give up on the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from him. He'll continue to rally his followers through social media as well as Breitbart and the One America News Network. Even if he doesn't have the fire in his 78-year-old belly to run in 2024, other true believers will eagerly pick up his torch, whether from his own family or a pool of loyalists that includes Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, and Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton.

No matter how well President Biden does in dealing with Covid-19 and how quickly a vaccine comes on line, he'll be saddled with the responsibility for everyone who dies in the pandemic from January 20th on. Ditto with future economic problems, no matter that they were quite literally dropped in his lap as he entered the Oval Office. All the faults that Trump's followers refused to see in their own candidate will suddenly be magnified in their vision of Biden.

Trump, in their eyes, was a man who could do no wrong. Biden will be the man who can do no right. A significant percentage of those 71 million Americans will want to make sure that Biden, too, is a one-term president.

Unfortunately, several international examples can serve as models.

The Liberal Interregnum

Beware the right-wing revolutionary movement thwarted.

Donald Trump promised to turn the world upside down: to throw out the Washington elite, radically shrink government, close off borders, bolster white privilege, and restore American unilateralism. As a platform, it wasn't much more than the photo negative of Barack Obama's agenda, but it was a clarion call to shake things up that thrilled his followers.

Thanks to a mixture of bureaucratic inertia, liberal resistance, and his own managerial ineptitude, Trump failed to carry out his revolution -- and now the elite has struck back. The newspapers are full of columnists, Democrats and former Republicans alike, delirious with anti-Trump triumphalism: "Loser!," "You're Fired!," "Our Long National Nightmare Is Over." The Dow Jones is celebrating and Hollywood has popped the bubbly, while the foreign-policy mandarins are looking forward to the return of predictability and their version of stability. Even the Pentagon, particularly after the shocking post-election dismissal of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, will be relieved to see the end of the Disrupter-in-Chief.

But the celebrations may prove premature. Just consider recent examples of right-wing populist revolutions elsewhere that were stopped in their tracks by elections.

The Trumpian Viktor Orban was the prime minister of Hungary from 1998 to 2002. His time in office was marked by corruption scandals, tax cuts, and efforts to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. In the 2002 elections, a coalition of the Socialist and Liberal parties ousted him and, governing for eight years, seemed to have put Orban's brand of authoritarian politics in an early grave.

In the 2010 elections, however, he returned from the political dead and has since transformed his country from a bastion of liberalism into an autocratic, intolerant, uber-Christian friend of Vladimir Putin. In the process, the Socialists became synonymous with a corrupt, economically unjust status quo and the Liberals simply disappeared as a party.

Nor is the Hungarian experience unique. In Poland, the Law and Justice Party has moved the country's politics steadily rightward since achieving a parliamentary majority in 2015. But it, too, had an earlier experience (from 2005 to 2007) as part of a governing coalition. In between, the more liberal Civic Platform Party took charge, but did little to improve the livelihoods of the bulk of working Poles, ultimately driving ever more voters into the arms of the right-wing Law and Justice Party. In its second crack at power, those right-wing nationalists did indeed push through a number of economic reforms that began to redistribute wealth in a way that fulfilled their populist promise.

In Japan, right-wing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a brief opportunity to govern in 2006-2007, only to return in 2012 after a failed effort by the opposition Democratic Party to reform Japanese politics. As the country's longest-serving prime minister -- Abe stepped down for health reasons in August -- he succeeded in making Japan "great" again as an inward-looking, jingoistic power.

Right-wing nationalists certainly learned something about wielding power from their first experiences of leadership, while their liberal successors, by failing to offer fully transformational politics, prepared the ground for the return of the right. After a period of tumultuous rule, most people don't want to jump from a bucking bronco onto another wild horse. So the prospect of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris appointing a competent cabinet and returning to the status quo ante by, among other things, rejoining the World Health Organization, signing onto the Paris climate accords, and welcoming back the Dreamers seems reassuring to many Americans. It won't, however, be faintly enough to drive a stake through the heart of Trumpism.

Apocalypse Later?

In "The View from 2016," an essay I wrote for TomDispatch in 2007, I predicted that Barack Obama would win the 2008 election and serve two terms, but also that his administration would make only half-hearted gestures at reform -- abiding by the Kyoto protocol on climate change, but not committing to deeper cuts in carbon emissions; canceling a few weapons systems, but not transforming the military-industrial complex; tweaking the global war on terror, but not ending it; and so on.

Apocalypse, I concluded,

comes in many different forms. There are the dramatic effects of sword and fire and famine. And then there's the apocalypse of muddling through. That's what happens when you just carry on with the same old, same old and before you know it, poof, end of the world. It's an apocalypse that's neither too cold nor too hot, neither too hard nor too soft. It's the apocalypse of the middle, the Goldilocks apocalypse.

In 2016, a hungry bear named Donald Trump emerged from the woods and took out Goldilocks. (Don't say I didn't warn you.)

After four years of bracing for a more conventional apocalypse precipitated perhaps by Trump's itchy nuclear trigger finger, we're back in Goldilocks territory. More than half the country craves a return to normalcy by dumping Donald Trump and then defeating Covid-19. Under the circumstances, it's easy enough to forget that the pre-Trump normal wasn't actually very good. The world was already in the midst of a climate crisis. The global economy was providing anything but a fair shake to everyone and so generating a politics of resentment that propelled Trump and his cohort to power. Countries continued to spend almost $2 trillion a year collectively on war and preparations for it, leaving societies ill-equipped to handle an onrushing pandemic's war on the health of humanity.

Joe Biden should learn this key takeaway from the Obama years: muddling through not only speeds us toward a Goldilocks apocalypse but makes it so much more likely that another bear will come out of the woods to "reclaim" its house.

Let's face it: Biden and Harris are card-carrying members of an elite that's enamored of the Goldilocks middle ground. The only way they could pivot from that position would be by implementing a full-blown green economic renewal that benefitted America's blue-collar workers while satisfying environmentalists as well. The blue bloods of the Republican Party will inevitably call such a jobs approach "socialism." The next administration has to push forward nevertheless, appealing over the heads of the Republican leadership to a base that desperately wants prosperity for all.

Remember: other bears are lurking out there and they seem to have acquired a certain taste for cautious politicians. Sure, a few disgruntled ursine types will go into hibernation after the 2020 election. But when the hoopla dies down, others will venture out, angry, resentful, and looking for their next big meal.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and volume two of his Splinterlands series. He is the author of the just-published book The Pandemic Pivot (Seven Stories Press).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Snce World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

Trump and the threat of an unrestrained mob

The white mobs didn't care whom they killed as long as the victims were Black. They murdered people in public with guns and rocks. They set fire to houses and slaughtered families trying to escape the flames. In East St. Louis in July 1917, white vigilantes lynched Blacks with impunity.

It was the prelude to what civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would ultimately call Red Summer. The "red" referred to the blood that ran in the streets. The "summer" actually referred to the months from April to October 1919, when violence against African Americans peaked in this country.

In reality, though, that Red Summer stretched across six long years, beginning in East St. Louis in 1917 and ending with the destruction of the predominantly African-American town of Rosewood, Florida, in 1923. During that time, white mobs killed thousands of Blacks in 26 cities, including Chicago, Houston, and Washington, D.C. In 1921, in a slaughter that has been well documented, white citizens of Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed the country's wealthiest African American community ("Black Wall Street," as it was then known), burning down more than 1,000 houses as well as churches, schools, and even a hospital.

During this period of violence, the mobs sometimes cooperated with the authorities. Just as often, however, they ignored the police, even breaking through jail walls with sledgehammers to gain access to Black detainees whom they executed in unspeakable ways. In Tulsa, for example, that campaign of murder and mayhem began only after the local sheriff refused to hand over a Black teenager accused of sexual assault.

Although white America repressed the memories of Red Summer for many decades, that shameful chapter of our history has gained renewed scrutiny in this era of Black Lives Matter. The Tulsa massacre, for instance, features prominently in the recent Watchmen series on HBO and several documentaries are in the works for its centennial anniversary in 2021. Other recent documentaries have chronicled killings that took place in the immediate aftermath of World War I in Elaine, Arkansas, and Knoxville, Tennessee.

But memories of that Red Summer are resurfacing for another, more ominous reason.

White mobs have once again moved out of the shadows and into the limelight during this Trump moment. Militia movements and right-wing extremists are starting to turn out in force to intimidate racial justice and anti-Trump demonstrators. Predominantly white and often explicitly racist, these groups now regularly use social media to threaten their adversaries. This election season, they're gearing up to defend their president with an astonishing degree of support from Republican Party regulars.

According to a January 2020 survey by political scientist Larry Bartels, most Republicans believe "the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it." More than 40% agree that "a time will come when patriotic Americans have to take the law into their own hands." In a recent essay on his survey's findings, Bartels concludes that ethnic antagonism "has a substantial negative effect on Republicans' commitment to democracy."

As the 2020 election nears, that party is also desperately trying to flip the script by using fear of "their mobs" and "Antifa terrorists" to drive its base to the polls. "We have a Marxist mob perpetrate historic levels of violence & disorder in major American cities," tweeted Florida Senator Marco Rubio in response to the Democratic National Convention in August. Not to be outdone, the president promptly said: "I'm the only thing standing between the American dream and total anarchy, madness, and chaos."

Of course, this country has no such Marxist mobs. The only real groups of vigilantes with a demonstrated history of violence and the guns to back up their threats congregate on the far right. The white supremacist Atomwaffen Division, for instance, has been linked to at least five killings since 2017. In late May and early June, members of the far-right Boogaloo Bois conducted two ambushes of police officers and security personnel, killing two of them and injuring three more. Over the summer, as far-right organizations spread the meme "All Lives Splatter" around the internet, dozens of right-wingers drove vehicles of every sort into crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters.

The prospect of far-right vigilantes or "militias" heading into the streets to contest the results of the November election has even mainstream institutions worried. "Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019 and over 90% between January 1 and May 8, 2020," reports the centrist think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If President Trump loses the election, some extremists may use violence because they believe -- however incorrectly -- that there was fraud or that the election of Democratic candidate Joe Biden will undermine their extremist objectives."

As the violence of Red Summer demonstrated, such acts were once a mainstay of American life. Indeed, the not-so-hidden history of this country has featured periodic explosions of mob violence. Racial justice activists rightly call for the radical reform of police departments. As November approaches, however, uniformed representatives of the state are hardly the only perpetrators of racist violence. Beware the white mobs, militias, and posses that are desperate to establish their own brand of justice.

Mob History

When Donald Trump paints a picture of lawlessness sweeping through the United States, he's effectively accusing the institutions of government of not doing their jobs. In a September 2nd memo, the Trump administration laid out its charges:

"For the past few months, several State and local governments have contributed to the violence and destruction in their jurisdictions by failing to enforce the law, disempowering and significantly defunding their police departments, and refusing to accept offers of Federal law enforcement assistance."

As president, Donald Trump has refused to take responsibility for anything, not the more than 200,000 Covid-19 deaths in the United States, not the pandemic-induced economic collapse, and certainly not the racial injustices that prompted this summer's wave of protests. Simultaneously above the law and outside it, the president consistently portrays himself as a populist leader who must battle the elite and its "deep state." With conspiracy-tinged tirades about Democrat-run cities failing to enforce the law, he has already symbolically put himself at the head of a mob -- for this is just how such groups justified their extra-legal actions throughout our history.

The right-wing racists who currently bear arms in defense of the president are part of a long tradition of Americans resorting to vigilantism when they believe the law is not protecting their interests. Whether it was the displacement and massacre of Native Americans, the horrors that slaveowners inflicted on African Americans, the wave of lynching that followed Reconstruction, the bloodletting of Red Summer around World War I, the murders conducted by the Ku Klux Klan and other extremist organizations, or even everyday resistance to federal policies like school desegregation, gangs of Americans have repeatedly taken the law into their own hands on behalf of white supremacy.

To be sure, mobs are hardly responsible for all the racist ills of this country. America has always been a place of institutional racism and violence. Slavery, after all, was legal until 1865. The U.S. government and its military did the bulk of the dispossessing of Native Americans. Police departments cooperated early on with the Ku Klux Klan and today's police officers continue to kill a disproportionate number of African Americans. Mobs have eagerly cooperated with state institutions on the basis of shared racism. But they have also stood at the ready to enforce the dictates of white supremacy even when the police and other guardians of order treat everyone equally before the law.

The mob has occupied an unusually prominent place in our history because Americans have cultivated a unique hostility toward the state and its institutions that goes back to the early years of the Republic. As historian Michael Pfeifer notes in his groundbreaking book, The Roots of Rough Justice, the violent libertarianism associated with the American Revolution and the subsequent lack of a strong, centralized state gave rise to mob violence that gathered force before the Civil War. He writes,

"Antebellum advocates of vigilantism in the Midwest, South, and West drew on Anglo-American and American revolutionary traditions of community violence that suggested that citizens might reclaim the functions of government when legal institutions could not provide sufficient protections to persons or their property."

Those mobs didn't necessarily think of themselves as anti-democratic. Rather, they imagined that they were improving on democracy. As Pfeifer points out, many of the vigilante outfits that targeted minorities practiced democratic procedures of a sort. Some adopted bylaws and even elected their own leaders. They held mock trials and votes on what punishments to mete out: hanging or burning alive.

Such mobs functioned both as a parallel military and, to a certain extent, a parallel state.

The two, in fact, went hand in hand. German sociologist Max Weber famously defined the state as possessing a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, but that was the German tradition. In the United States, particularly during its first 150 years, the state only aspired to possess such a monopoly.

Instead, a rough form of frontier justice often prevailed. Before and just after the American Revolution, even whites were its targets, but increasingly its victims were people of color. Slave owners, slave patrols, and ad hoc mobs dispensed justice throughout antebellum America and the tradition of "Judge Lynch" continued long after the abolition of slavery. The pushing of the frontier westward involved not only the Army's killing of Native Americans but extrajudicial violence by bands of settlers. Historian Benjamin Madley estimates that the Native population in California declined by more than 80% between 1846 and 1873, with as many as 16,000 killings in 370-plus massacres. This "winning" of the West also involved the widespread lynching of Latinos.

The "Right" to Bear Arms

Mobs were able to dispense frontier justice not only thanks to a strong libertarian tradition and a weak state, but also because of the widespread availability of guns. Coming out of the Civil War, this country developed a distinct gun culture sustained by a surge in firearm production. Gun prices fell and so guns fell into the hands of more and more citizens.

Mobs used firearms in the infamous Draft Riot in New York in 1863, which ended up targeting the city's Black community, and in New Orleans in 1866 when enraged whites attacked a meeting of Republicans determined to extend civil rights protections to African Americans. In their drive westward, settlers favored Winchester rifles with magazines that could fire 15 rounds, giving them a staggering advantage over the people they were displacing. Early gun control laws seldom prevented whites from acquiring firearms because they were mainly designed to keep guns out of the hands of Blacks and other racial minorities.

Even today, widespread gun ownership distinguishes the United States from every other country. Approximately 40% of American households own one or more firearms, a figure that has remained remarkably consistent for the last 50 years. If you look at guns per capita, the United States ranks number one in the world at 120 firearms per 100 civilians. The next country on the list, war-torn Yemen, comes in a distant second with 52 per hundred. With more guns than people within its borders, it's no wonder that the federal government has often struggled to maintain its monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force.

Gun enthusiasts have erroneously enlisted the Constitution to justify this extreme democracy of firepower. To guard against tyrannical federal behavior, the Second Amendment of the Constitution preserved the right of state militias to bear arms. However, organizations like the National Rifle Association have campaigned for years to reinterpret that amendment as giving any individual the right to bear arms.

That has, in turn, provided ammunition for both the "castle doctrine" (the right to use armed force to defend one's own home) and "stand your ground" laws (the right to use force in "self-defense"). Armed extremist groups now imagine themselves as nothing less than the Second Amendment's "well-regulated Militia" with a constitutionally given "right" to own weapons and defend themselves against the federal government (or anyone else they disapprove of).

Improbably enough, for the last four years, the head of the federal government has become one of their chief supporters.

Donald Trump: Leader of the Pack

Long before becoming president, Donald Trump was already acting as if he were the head of a lynch mob. In 1989, he published full-page ads in the New York Times and three other local papers calling for New York City to reinstate the death penalty in response to a brutal gang rape in Central Park. He swore that the city was then "ruled by the law of the streets" and that "muggers and murderers... should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes."

It was language distinctly reminiscent of white mobs bitter about the failure of local law enforcement to execute Blacks accused of crimes. Like many of their predecessors, the accused Black and Latino teenagers were, in the end, found to be quite innocent of the crime. After a long legal struggle, the Central Park Five (as they came to be known) were released from prison. Trump has never apologized for his campaign to kill innocent people.

When he ran for president, he quickly moved beyond mere "law and order" rhetoric. In his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump deliberately cultivated a following among armed extremists. At a rally in North Carolina, for instance, he warned of what might happen to the Supreme Court if Hillary Clinton were to win.

"If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks," he lamented. Then he added in his typically confused and elliptical manner of speaking: "Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is. I don't know." He was, in other words, suggesting that followers with guns could do something about Clinton's choices by shooting her or her judicial picks.

Throughout that campaign season, he regularly retweeted white supremacist claims and memes. At the time, it was estimated that more than 60% of the accounts he was retweeting had links to white supremacists. At his rallies, he encouraged his supporters to get "rough" with protesters.

As president, he's continued to side with the mob. He infamously refused to denounce neo-Nazis gathering in Charlottesville in August 2017, applauded the armed demonstrators who demanded the reopening of the economy in the pandemic spring of 2020, and defended 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse after he killed two Black Lives Matter protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August.

Trump has stood up for the Confederate flag, Confederate statues, and keeping the names of Confederate generals on U.S. military bases. In a recent speech denouncing school curricula that teach about slavery and other unsavory aspects of our history, he pledged to erect a statue of a slaveowner in a project he's been promoting -- building a National Garden of American Heroes park. The current administration has cultivated direct links to white nationalists through disgraced figures like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, as well as current advisers like Stephen Miller.

In his reelection bid, Trump pointedly held his first pandemic rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he excoriated Democrats who "want to take away your guns through the repeal of your Second Amendment" and "left-wing radicals [who] burn down buildings, loot businesses, destroy private property, injure hundreds of dedicated police officers." In a literal whitewashing of history, he made no mention of the White mobs that had looted businesses and destroyed property in that very city in 1921.

Trump's exhortations to his followers over the heads of state and local officials appeal to the mob belief that citizens must reclaim the functions of government, if necessary through force. Right-wing militias explicitly embrace that history. The "Three Percenters," a militia movement that emerged in 2008 after the election of Barack Obama, purports to protect Americans from tyrannical government. Their name derives from the inaccurate belief that only 3% of Americans took up arms to fight the British empire in the eighteenth century.

Of course, three percent of Americans are not now members of such militias and White nationalist movements, but their numbers are on the rise. White nationalist groups increased from 100 in 2017 to 155 in 2019. The several hundred militia groups now in existence probably have a total of 15,000 to 20,000 members, including an increasing number of veterans with combat experience. Far from a homogeneous force, some are focused on patrolling the southern border and targeting the undocumented. Others are obsessed with resisting the federal government, even in a few cases opposing Trump's various power grabs.

West Virginia University professor John Temple argues, in fact, that not all right-wing militias hold extremist views. "I have listened to many hours of 'patriot' conversations that didn't sound all that different from what you would hear during a typical evening on Fox News," he writes. "Many seemed to have joined the cause for social reasons, or because they liked guns, or because they wanted to be part of something they saw as historic and grandiose -- not because their views were far more radical than those of typical right-leaning Americans."

This is not exactly reassuring, since the politics of right-leaning, Fox News-watching Americans have grown more extreme. With nearly half of the Republicans surveyed by Larry Bartels prepared to take the law into their own hands, Trump has nearly succeeded in transforming his party into a mob of vigilantes.

Don't be fooled into thinking that the president is a law-and-order candidate. He flourishes in chaos and routinely flouts the law. By siding with right-wing militias and their ilk, he daily undermines the state's monopoly on legitimate violence.

The debate over defunding the police must be seen in this context. In a country awash in guns and grassroots racism, with a major party flirting with mob violence, getting rid of police departments would be akin to jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire of uncontained extremism. Sure, local law enforcement needs major reforms, massive civic oversight, and right-sized budgets. Police departments must be purged of white nationalists and neo-Nazis. The Pentagon has to stop supplying the cops with military-grade weaponry.

But remember: the police can be reformed. What was once an all-white force now better reflects America's diversity. The mob, by definition, is not subject to reforms or any oversight whatsoever.

This is no time to permit the return of frontier justice administered by white mobs and a lawless president, especially with a critical election looming. Mob violence has often accompanied elections in the past, with rival factions fighting over the results, as in the street battles of 1874 in New Orleans between Republican integrationists and racist Democrats. Like nineteenth-century Louisiana, the struggle this November is not just about Democrats versus Republicans. It's about the rule of law versus racist vigilantism.

White supremacy is not going to give up its hold on power without a fight. If you thought you'd seen real American carnage in Trump's four years in office, prepare yourself for the chaotic aftermath of the November election. The mob is itching to take the law into its own hands one more time on behalf of its very own mobster-in-chief.

John Feffer, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands and the director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest novel is Frostlands, a Dispatch Books original and book two of his Splinterlands series.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 John Feffer

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