January 6th’s images of the storming of the Capitol are so fit to bust so many American myths that the torrent of commentary and outrage that has followed in their wake should be unsurprising. But what was happening behind those images, if we can put it this way, in the murky backdrop of relations of power? What ultimately happened on Wednesday, I think, alongside the storming of the Capitol, was the withdrawal of support by the American ruling class from the project of Trumpism.
It began with the withdrawal of military support, which manifested in the letter that all ten living former US defense secretaries signed and made public days before the certification of the election in congress. (It was the gesture more than the content of the letter that emitted the real signals.) The withdrawal of political support was evinced in Vice-President Mike Pence’s distancing from the administration’s antics, via his own publicly-released letter, followed by senior GOP congressmen’s soft veering away from their entrenched positions. That the market woke up on Thursday emphatically climbing can be read as an exclamation point on the newly signed divorce between capital and Trumpism—and as a sign of the withdrawal of economic support, along with the more obvious corporate refusal to continue funding Trump-associated candidates.
A coup of the sort that was fantasized needs specific social conditions to succeed, which at the moment are not present in America. It’s in its inability to understand structural conditions, as much as in its despicable white supremacist displays and QAnon conspiracies, where Trumpism’s analytical poverty shines. A helpful ingredient for a coup of the sort dreamt is the presence of internal dissent within the ruling class itself, a moment in which one sector of it needs to mobilize new forces to acquire power over another sector. This is not a moment in which a society is turned upside down, but in which the ruling class needs to rearrange itself before new historical conditions in order to remain in place, as it happened, for instance, with the rise of the mercantile bourgeois in Europe and their efforts to displace the landed gentry. This was not a war between classes, but a “war,” fought in legislative bodies and media outlets and university campuses rather than battlefields, between a new emerging part of this social strata that had acquired wealth and wanted power and another part which had power but, in a changing technological landscape and before new social relations, was losing its capacity to perpetuate the conditions through which it generated the wealth that sustained its power.
It’s easy to conclude that the quickly changing post-war American landscape would be a perfect scenario for intraclass struggle with the emergence of a group of people who figured out how to extract wealth from information and new telecommunication technologies facing a ruling class whose power rested on good old American industrialization and empire-building. But it seems that the conflicts that may have arisen in such a volatile situation were tempered by the economies of financialization that began in the 1980s, and the concurrent globalization that allowed for the displacement of actual manufacturing to various parts of the planet without the class of owners suffering as a result.
Both sides of the ruling bloc, in a world of finance, extract wealth from capital itself, as much as from the “means of production” that they have at their disposal. This situation consolidated the American ruling class—made up of corporate power (including the new tech titans), venture capitalists, inherited wealth, military leadership—into a single front. This front, in an experimental mode, supported the project of Trumpism to see what restrictions could be loosened in order to accelerate the reproduction of wealth. Hence the rampant deregulation, corporate tax breaks, austerity policies, and cuts to social safeguards of the last four years. Hence, also, the massive multiplication of wealth in the higher strata of American society since 2016.
But the usefulness of Trumpism met its limit when the chaos it unleashed threatened to collapse the very political arrangement—with two parties always available to curtail any real progressive change and a legislative branch always eager to please the right interests—that had been so good, on the whole, to the upper echelon of American society for the last century and a half. Had the American ruling bloc not been at the moment a unified front, had one part of it been struggling to rise over another and required the state’s institutions to gain the upper hand, populist mobilization as an instrument in this intraclass changing of the guard would have been supported to the very end. January 6th’s storming of the Capitol would have turned into a real storming of the Winter Palace and not simply been the maddening but ultimately sad and useless spectacle of misguided knuckleheads in Viking customs rehearsing, as an unintentional parody skit, revolt as cos-play and adolescent yelping, shamefully claiming five lives.