Jan. 6 Looks Different Through the Lens of ‘American Carnage’

This article is part of a collection on the events of Jan. 6, one year later. Read more in a note from Times Opinion’s politics editor Ezekiel Kweku in our Opinion Today newsletter.

From justified fury to impotence: That about sums up the tragic cycle of American populism, from the early republic down to our time. So it was, all too often, with Jacksonian democracy and the later agrarian revolts of the 19th century. And so it may be with Trumpism, which harnessed popular rage against the elites of both parties but couldn’t operate the machinery of power and devolved, in the end, into the cornpone intifada of Jan. 6, 2021.

For many people, Jan. 6 was the day freedom almost died, the culmination of four years of Trumpian attacks on our democracy. It has demanded nothing less than total condemnation and an iron resolve to make sure it never happens again. This is to be expected: The latest populist surge hardened our elite consensus as never before, forcing most elites, center, left and right, to notice they share more with one another than either camp does with Donald Trump’s base.

So be it. Yet the event takes on a different aspect when set against a backdrop populated by figures like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan. From that view, the trouble with Trumpism appears to be something else: It’s not that it was too radical — it wasn’t radical enough. It did not go to the true root of the nation’s festering problems.

The elite forces arrayed against the 45th president and his supporters deserved a populist rebuke. For four years, they sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Trump presidency on the pretext of a dubious and feverishly hyped charge of Russian collusion. Media, academic, corporate and tech institutions — the regime — threw overboard all the old norms, in the name of defending norms.

But when America’s oldest daily, The New York Post (where I was the op-ed editor), uncovered suggestive evidence of the son of the regime-favored candidate arranging a meeting between his father and a Ukrainian energy firm that was paying the son as much as $83,000 a month, that story had to be buried under the thickest cover of darkness Silicon Valley could provide. Much of the media legitimized the censorship. Fifty eminent ex-spooks, after all, had called The Post’s reporting a “Russian information operation.”

Given this balance of forces and their own talents, the Trumpians parried these blows the best they could. But they didn’t deliver on any larger populist mandate.

Like its antecedents, Trumpism appealed to many of its supporters as a response to perceived structural, class-based injustices. Like its antecedents, it said it would seek to shift the balance of social forces in favor of the left-behinds and underdogs. And like its antecedents, it finally couldn’t break free of the myths that are part and parcel of the American economic order and that help legitimate it.

The “American carnage” Donald Trump railed against in his 2017 Inaugural Address was the product of specific policies and a specific mode of economic governance. The symptoms of the “carnage”: stagnant real wages; pervasive health and job insecurity; the disappearance into thin air of America’s industrial base; ruthless labor, tax and regulatory arbitrage by corporations, in the form of offshoring and open borders; the corollary decline in union power in the private economy; the ravages of fentanyl; and, at the level of cultural and ideological production, the rise of Big Tech, with its power to discipline not just what workers do and earn but also what they can say and think.

To reverse the carnage would have required reform and a sturdy willingness to govern. On those counts, the Trumpians came up short, beholden as they were to American populism’s irrepressible libertarian spirit.

The template should be familiar enough to students of history. Andrew Jackson’s epic battle with the Second Bank of the United States provides an early example. President Jackson, the candidate of Western farmers and small business owners, was determined to throttle the Eastern “money power” that menaced his constituents. In the 1820s, that power was embodied by the national bank, an institution that had earned its reputation as a vehicle for the entrenched and well connected.

But the crises of engineers and shopkeepers went far beyond the national bank. They were the result of an economy promising equal opportunity and exchange among smallholders — but gripped in reality by the brutal topsy-turvy of the market and by monopoly and privilege. In many cases, the bank actually helped mitigate the problems, for example, by disciplining the flow of credit and stabilizing national finances.

Nevertheless, Jackson smashed the bank by withdrawing U.S. government funds. A result: a depression followed by severe inflation, with privilege and market crises no less restrained than before. The Jacksonian impulse — just get rid of government-linked privilege and leave me alone — couldn’t tame the complex crises, and private tyrannies, of the emerging market system.

What was needed was better governance of market forces. Needed — and unfulfilled. Jackson, in this case, walloped where he needed to exert institutional control.

A similar story could be told about William Jennings Bryan and agrarian populism in the closing decades of the 19th century. The crises of the American farmer came about because he too often sought to make a quick buck off land values rather than his produce, leaving him vulnerable to the predatory creditor, and because the American agricultural system was increasingly vulnerable to global fluctuations.

But Bryan, with his monomania about gold-backed currency as a form of government privilege that kept farmer’s prices down, sapped many of the movement’s more promising reform energies, diverting them, finally, into sheer crankery.

Sound familiar?

The Trumpians began from the undeniable premise that for at least two generations, America’s rulers — center, left and right — had failed the nation. The neoliberal economic consensus that took hold beginning in the 1970s had hollowed out the material base necessary for working- and middle-class Americans to live ordinary lives of security and dignity, even as it enriched the owners of capital, large corporations and the professionals who service them.

In response, Mr. Trump’s major legislative accomplishment was … a tax bonanza for corporations authored by House Speaker Paul Ryan. Mr. Trump’s China tariffs did some good, not least by challenging the Republican Party’s attachment to free trade.

The gig economy, with all its injustices and evisceration of workers as a class, roared on. Mr. Trump complained on Twitter about Silicon Valley power, but his party did nothing to reform the legal architecture that allows Big Tech to act as publishers without any of a publisher’s traditional liabilities — and then the president himself was booted from his favorite platform and could post no more.

Trumpism spoke to workers but didn’t govern in their favor, and they descended, as the American populist base too often does, into impotent rage.

The regime won another round. Whether it learned any of the lessons of Trumpian democracy is a different question.

Sohrab Ahmari is a contributing editor of The American Conservative and a visiting fellow at Franciscan University.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button