A recent column in the Washington Post, entitled Trump Keeps Pretending to be Dictator, explained that presidents are “constrained by Congress and the courts and the law and international treaties, not to mention public opinion and media coverage and even norms and traditions.” To this should be added the various agencies of the federal and even the state governments, including the all-important military, as well as even the president’s own political party. It is through these means that the capitalist class keeps a grip over its own president in US democracy and it is exactly why “democracy” is a more stable and secure form of government for the US capitalist class.
Under a “dictatorship”, (historically called “Bonapartism” by Marxists, so named after Napoleon Bonaparte) among other things, the capitalist class has far less control over the head of state, and that form of rule is also less stable. While Trump has severely weakened the grip of the US capitalist class over much of this, it is not gone, not by any means, especially over the all-important US military.
The question is how far can he go in subverting the democratic norms in the upcoming elections?
Marxist Roger Silverman, who is also a regular writer for this blog site, recently wrote: ‘Trump can’t “move towards open bonapartism” just at will. He would be the first bonapartist dictator in history to face open defiance from his own military (who only a couple of weeks ago refused outright his orders to suppress demonstrators on the streets).’ He is factually mistaken on one aspect: Trump never gave a direct order to mobilize the military, so the military commanders never openly defied him. Had that actually happened, the Constitutional crisis that would have resulted would still be consuming us to this day. Despite that, Roger is correct on his general implied point – that Trump can neither postpone the elections nor insist on remaining in office if Biden is recognized as having won the required 270 electoral votes. However, matters don’t end there, and we must not take an overly narrow view of how Trump could take major steps towards outright Bonapartism through the election process.
There are other means through which Trump can use a Constitutional cover to subvert the outcome of the election. If he succeeds (which is not certain), then he will have taken another significant step towards one-man rule, aka Bonapartism. These means involve both the health crisis of US capitalism (Covid 19) as well as some of the measures Trump has already taken. Much of it involves mail-in voting, about whichTrump doesn’t miss an opportunity to cry “fraud”.
Delayed final vote count
Over recent years, increasing numbers of citizens have been voting by mail. According to the Washington Post, in at least some states, the number of those requesting mail-in ballots has increased about ten times over compared to 2016. This has already created delays in the final vote count since most states still have not set themselves up to efficiently count those votes. Not only that, but there is a tendency towards a “blue tide”, meaning that the later-counted votes tend to be for Democrats. (Blue is the color of the Democratic Party.)
The result has been that some margins of Republican victory have been significantly lessened in some important elections. For example, in Florida in the 2018 election, the Republicans were declared the easy winner of the senate and gubernatorial races on election night. Over the following days, however, as mail in ballots were counted, that lead lessened considerably and it became unclear who would ultimately be the winner. While it ended up not changing the result, it gave the Republicans a scare and Trump was agitating for an end to the late count.
In the California state election of that year, seven state legislature seats flipped from Republican to Democrat through the late count. In other words, the ultimate result actually changed. Something similar happened in elections for the House of Representatives.
Not only is it different counting mail-in ballots from votes in a machine, it is more time consuming. The potential result can be seen in the New York State primary election this year. Those elections were held on June 23. Six weeks later, some of the winners had still not been declared and to this date not all the ballots in all districts have been counted! This is in a primary, when voter turnout tends to be far lower than in a general election, and turnout in this one will probably be exceptionally high even for a presidential election.
Presently, Biden is leading Trump by about 8-10% nationally. In several of the key “battleground states” he is holding a similar lead. It is possible that that lead could increase significantly. Even possibly double. In that case, it’s possible that Biden could formally win on election night. But if it does not, then it’s entirely possible that the results on election night could change over the following days as the mail-in votes are counted. A recent poll revealed that 54% of Democratic voters prefer voting by mail while only 17% of Republicans did. This means that it is almost certain that the tendency towards a “blue tide” will be a blue “tidal wave”.
Democrats might switch their tactics and advocate voting in person. However, that is becoming nearly impossible for black voters in some states. That’s because the authorities have closed so many polling places in majority black neighborhoods in several states. This is one aspect of the Republican voter suppression. For a more detailed review, see this article.
The likelihood of major problems with the count of a vote by mail is increased by other actions of the
Trump administration. Just as Trump has moved to take direct personal control over the Departments of State and (in)Justice, he has done the same over the US Postal Service. He appointed a major Republican donor, Louis Dejoy, as postmaster general. Dejoy has taken simple “cost cutting” measures like banning all overtime. The result is that already there are complaints that mail that should take a couple of days to be delivered is taking two weeks. Not only that, but the postal service is experiencing an economic crisis and the Republicans are refusing to add sufficient funds. According to one report in Politico, it’s even possible that the postal service will have to stop operating this fall or winter!
We have to take into account the enormously heightened emotions and the extreme paranoia that Trump is promoting. His loyalists, which seem to be about a quarter to a third of the total electorate, have swallowed his lie that any vote by mail is automatically fraudulent. Just imagine what will happen if the ultimate election result is decided by the late count of mail-in ballots: On election night, there are sufficient in-person votes to secure Trump the 270 electoral votes necessary to be reelected. Up until now, Americans have been used to the immediate result, and Trump will immediately declare himself the winner. There will be celebration by his true believers, followed by enormous suspicion and even outright rage as the mail-in votes are counted in the following days and Trump’s lead starts to slip away.
In Florida in 2000, as the recount proceeded in the Bush v Gore election, Bush supporters mobilized at the counting places to put on the pressure. The Democrats refused to organize counter-mobilizations. That refusal included the union leadership. In her book recounting her time as an AFL-CIO staffer (among other roles) Jane McAlevey explained why: “‘The Gore campaign has made the decision that this is not the image they want,’” she was told by her AFL-CIO bosses. “ ‘They don’t want to protest. They don’t want to rock the boat. They don’t want to seem like they don’t have faith in the legal system.’”
This time, there very well could be mass mobilizations against the Republicans and Trump because the hatred of Trump is so great and, anyway, the elections are coming on the heels of the great Black Lives Matter mobilizations.
“Violence in the streets”?
In that case, major street clashes cannot be ruled out and in the open carry states shootings are also possible. In fact, shootings are also possible in other states too as well as murder by right wing automobile drivers. If that were to happen, then it is possible that governors could call out the National Guard in several states. Not only that, but if there are any attacks on any federal property, then Trump would use that to repeat his experiment in Portland, where he sent in federal forces like the federal marshals and the border patrol.
Imagine the scene: near riots, or even outright riots, in the streets. Battles between contending forces. Clouds of tear gas filling the air while the National Guard rolls through city streets. It is entirely possible that the count of mail-in ballots could proceed in such an atmosphere In other words, the post election scenes that we have become accustomed to seeing throughout the rest of the world – in Latin America, Africa, Asia and eastern Europe (Belarus today) – may come to the United States!. All of this might not happen, but we would be foolish and lacking in imagination indeed if we ruled it out.
Political scientist Nils Gilman organized the equivalent of “war games” in which he got participants to act out different scenarios. He reported “In June 2020, our group conducted scenario planning exercises to model different election scenarios: a big Trump win; a big Biden win; a Biden squeaker; and a truly ambiguous or uncertain result. The bad news: in each scenario other than a Biden landslide, we ended up with a constitutional crisis that lasted until the inauguration, featuring violence in the streets and a severely disrupted administrative transition.” (The entire article is well worth reading.)
A Biden “landslide” certainly is possible, but it is most definitely far from certain.
Certain legal time schedules also should be factored in. Although the exact procedures vary state-by-state, there are some federal deadlines: By law, December 8 is the legal deadline for resolving all disputed ballots. On December 14, the electors in each state are supposed to meet to formally decide whom to elect. On December 23, the president of the senate (the vice president – Mike Pence in this case) is supposed to receive the electors’ ballots and on January 6 those ballots are counted. Normally, all of this is simply a formality, but it is unlikely to be so in this case. It is also entirely possible that several states will not have all the mail-in ballots counted by the required deadlines.
What will happen then?
There are very likely to be court challenges, and in fact the Trump team is already mobilizing teams of lawyers in preparation to do exactly that. Among other things, they will be watching the mail-in ballots like a hawk, seeking to invalidate ballots for the smallest reason. And they are likely to succeed. The Washington Post reported that in the recent primary elections “tens of thousands of mail-in ballots were invalidated for technicalities like a missing signature or a missing postmark on the envelope.” That was in the primaries, where in a sense there is less at stake. Team Trump is mobilizing to challenge mail-in ballots on such grounds this time. Even a box not being fully filled in is likely to lead to a challenge.
Legal challenges will probably go directly to the US Supreme Court. In Bush v Gore, the Supreme Court ruled that since the Florida would not be able to recount all the votes in time, therefore the recount must stop and Bush must be declared the winner.
Does anybody seriously expect that this Supreme Court will be less partisan, especially if Trump gets to appoint yet another “justice” in the case that Ruth Bader Ginsburg can no longer serve?
US House of Representatives
We must also take into account the fact that several of the swing states have Republican administrations. One weird scenario is that two different results could be submitted from one or more of those states – one from the secretary of state and one from the legislature. Another is that some states simply don’t submit the results in time. In a close election, that could result in the House of Representatives making the decision. In that case, each delegation from each state gets one vote. Although the House is overwhelmingly Democrat, 26 of the 50 delegations are majority Republican and an additional two are half and half. That means that Trump would get at least 26 votes (out of 50) for reelection if it goes to the House.
Any of these scenarios would mean Trump’s returning to office despite the fact that by Constitutional standards Biden legitimately won the election.
As we said, these are not simply some formal, legalistic processes. The enormously heightened emotions on both sides would come into play. Even Democratic governors and mayors would have to move to “keep order”. At the very least, the police would be mobilized. All the major police associations have endorsed Trump, and that reflects the political views of the majority of the police. In addition, links between the rank and file police and white supremacist groups have been discovered. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider what role they would play. As for those few “good cops”: as is always the case, they will do nothing to restrain their brethren.
Under these scenarios, it is highly unlikely, almost ruled out in fact, that the military – which directly represents the wishes of the major wings of the US capitalist class – would intervene to remove Trump.
Dictatorship/Bonapartism: a theoretical explanation
This leads to some issues regarding bonapartism in general. Oaklandsocialist has tended to use one-person rule and bonapartism interchangeably and in most cases that is accurate. Further, in most cases a bonapartist ruler seizes power through the military and uses his or her position to carry out severe repression. Such military dictatorships were common throughout Latin America – for example the Galtieri dictatorship in Argentina and the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
The Mexican example
However, not all bonapartist regimes fit this pattern. Mexico was ruled for 70 years by a political party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), not an individual. Theirs was a bonapartist regime, but they did not rule through the military, which was intentionally kept small and weak. Nor was there a single strong-man who ruled; Mexico had (and still has) presidential elections every six years, and the president could not succeed himself. And there were opposition candidates. (It was widely believed that the PRI helped finance some of these opposition candidates in order to fragment the opposing vote.) The unions, the peasant organizations and the government bureaucracy were incorporated into the PRI. Louis XIV famously said “I am the state.” In Mexico, something similar could have been said of the PRI, which balanced and shifted between the working class and the capitalist class. Strikes were not uncommon, but they were decided by the state itself, occasionally even on the side of the workers. (I remember a strike of Volkswagen workers in Puebla, Mexico, in the mid-1990s. In the midst of this strike, the union pulled up stakes and took all its strikers to Mexico City to meet with the Secretary of Labor. I traveled with them on their bus. When I asked whether it would not have made more sense to stay there, keep the picket lines strong and build support among the rest of the working class I was told, “No, we are going to see the Labor Secretary. That is where the strike will be settled anyway.”) Nor was there overt and mass repression (imprisonment of tens of thousands, for example). Instead, in Mexico, what happened was that, for example, a rank and file workers leader who got out of line would simply disappear or, alternatively, die in a “traffic accident”. That plus the bureaucratic measures was sufficient to keep the working class (and the peasantry) in line.
Much more could be said about that extremely creative and interesting form of dictatorship/Bonapartism, but the main characteristic of that form of rule in general can be seen exactly through the unusual form it took in Mexico. The main characteristic is that the bonapartist ruler – or the ruling party in the case of Mexico – partially rises up above the capitalist class; the capitalist class has lost control over the ruler to a great degree.
That is the situation with Trump. His is not fully a bonapartist dictatorship, but neither would it be correct to either dismiss his tendencies in that direction or dismiss the idea that he could vastly increase those tendencies through the events surrounding this coming election. Nor is how far he can go in that direction predetermined.