Both the COVID-19 ‘New Normal’ and Trump Exploitation of the Backlash Pose Grave Threats to Freedom
by Bill Weinberg, Fifth Estate
Around Lower Manhattan, storefronts have been boarded up with plywood since the looting of early June. The plywood has now all been covered with murals and graffiti art on the theme of Black Lives Matter. Throughout June, angry protests were a daily affair, as in cities across the country, and continue intermittently as I write.
There is a sense that the United States is poised at a razor’s edge. The moment is ripe with potential for long overdue leaps of social progress—perhaps even a truly revolutionary situation. Anarchist ideas like abolishing the police are entering mainstream discourse with astonishing rapidity.
But as with gains for anarchist forces in Italy in the early 1920s, there is also the potential for a ultra-reactionary backlash—a descent into some kind of updated American variant of fascism.
The events surrounding Juneteenth were instructive. Trump planned his big rally, on the day that celebrates Black Emancipation from slavery, for Tulsa—the scene in 1921 of a generalized massacre of the African American community by white supremacist mobs and militias. It was clearly an intentional provocation by a president bent on fomenting a national crisis ahead of the November election.
Before the rally, Trump tweeted an open challenge: “Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma please understand, you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!” (Actually, the NYPD have even driven their patrol cars into crowds of protesters here in New York.)
But at the 11th hour, Trump blinked and pushed the date back by one day—apparently heeding words of warning within his own circle. It is actually the Pentagon that appears to be having a restraining effect, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper explicitly disavowing use military troops for domestic enforcement after the June 1 outrage in DC’s Lafayette Park. This is almost certainly due to fears of mutiny within the ranks and troops refusing to obey orders for repression.
Still, the threat persists of an imminent state of exception in the US, with basic rights completely abrogated—and, perhaps, the election postponed, suspended or cancelled. In short, the establishment of the dictatorship that Trump has clearly been dreaming of since 2016.
And there is another, more insidious threat waiting in the wings, brought to us by the COVID-19 pandemic. Even a post-pandemic return to “normality” will be concomitant with the imposition of a totalizing surveillance state and unprecedentedly intimate social control. All plans by the National Institutes of Health and international equivalents foresee a ubiquitous tracking of the population through our cellphones, with those found to have come into contact with a virus carrier to be placed in “social quarantine” enforced by GPS tracking. This is already being imposed in China, and is under study in Europe. Even liberal democracies like New Zealand are creating new special police corps to monitor the social contacts of the entire populace, with draconian powers to carry out warrantless raids of suspected quarantine offenders.
Another aspect of this “new normal” is the relegation of virtually all human activity to cyberspace, with the meat world and the street world—that is, real life—essentially abolished. All spheres of life will be mediated through digital technology—which of course means absolute surveillance.
And resisting this dystopia is a particularly tricky proposition—because the virus actually is a threat. Contrary to what Trump’s radical-right followers apparently believe, it is not a hoax or creation of the liberal media—it’s a real threat. And this second dystopia could be instated under a liberal democracy—such as the US under Joe Biden.
How it Could Happen Here
Two works of future fiction from the last century crystalize these twin threats with an almost preternatural clarity, eerily prescient in their portrayals of the world we now actually see unfolding.
One, predictive of Trump-fascism, is It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel about what it could look like in the United States if a figure like Hitler or Mussolini came to power.
The fascist who is elected president in this grim vision is amusingly named Buzz Windrip, and was inspired by Huey Long, the populist demagogue governor of Louisiana. But the parallels to Trump are extraordinary, with some of the rhetoric matching verbatim—for instance, the appeal to the “forgotten men.”
Although a Democratic senator from an unnamed Midwestern state, rather than a Republican New York billionaire who had never held public office, Windrip shares Trump’s amalgam of populism and racism. (Remember, Huey Long was a Democrat too; the current party postures were just beginning to take shape in the ’30s.) A part of Windrip’s platform is to instate Jim Crow at the federal level, with the best jobs put aside for white men, and Blacks (Jews too) officially disenfranchised of the vote. Today, we have “voter suppression” laws and strategies—seen most notoriously in the recent Georgia primary. And Trump, who rose to power by blaming perceived undeserving minorities for the decline of the white middle class, is playing to vicious racism more blatantly than ever.
Here’s the part that really is really worrisome at this moment. Windrip’s Reichstag Fire, so to speak, came on the day of his inauguration. Blacks gathered in Washington to protest, there was violence (possibly staged by provocateurs), and finally a massacre as troops fired on the demonstrators. This set the stage for Buzz to push through his legislative package establishing a dictatorship immediately upon taking office.
There are some important differences with the current situation, comfortingly. Four years into the Trump presidency, there has been no such metaphorical Reichstag Fire, and the formal rudiments of bourgeois democracy are in place—however precariously. This is partially due to incompetence, and partially to resistance from the “deep state”—those elements of the federal bureaucracy not coopted by Trump’s fascist agenda. And, again, probably warnings from the military brass, motivated by fears of mutiny, that they do not have Trump’s back.
And this brings us to another difference. Windrip already built his paramilitary force before being elected—akin to Hitler’s Brown Shirts or Mussolini’s Black Shirts, but patriotically named the Minute Men (another prescient touch). Right-wing militias are only coming to the fore now, and are a much more significant force than they were in 2016. They’ve been especially mobilized by white middle-class discontent with the COVID-19 lockdown measures. An armed movement is congealing now, loyal to Trump if not yet under any effective means of command.
We’ve already seen unaccountable right-wing militias, sometimes acting under color of law, attacking protesters from coast to coast. One particularly alarming case was in Albuquerqueon June 15, where protesters were fired upon by a gunman apparently associated with an outfit calling itself the New Mexico Civil Guard—a completely irregular force unanswerable to anybody. One protester was wounded, and assault charges against the arrested gunman have been dropped.
So there will, alas, be plenty of opportunities for a Trumpian paramilitary force to foment a Reichstag Fire between now and November. Or, as we nearly saw at Lafayette Park and Tulsa, the official security forces playing this role.
Rage Against the Machine —in 1909
But let’s turn back to that other dystopia that will still face us, even if we are lucky enough to make it past the election without being plunged into total disaster. Amazingly, it’s the book written earlier—way back in 1909—that predicted this second, more futuristic and high-tech dystopia.
The Machine Stops by EM Forster is exactingly predictive of a cybernetic totalitarianism in a post-pandemic normality. More than a century ago, Forster foresaw not only the Internet but “social distancing” and “distance learning,” and the eclipse of the meat world.
The novella takes place in a more distant future, after some unnamed disaster has forced the human race indoors. Everybody lives below ground in isolated cells which they rarely leave. Society is governed by the Machine—a vast network that connects all these individual cells all over the world. They can communicate to each other through the Machine, so they never have to actually see, or have any physical contact with, each other. Does this sound familiar?
The protagonist, Kuno, experiences a crisis of discontent, and plans to make an excursion to the Earth’s surface, leaving the underground artificial reality controlled by the Machine—which is considered completely taboo. Driven by a premonition that the Machine is going to start malfunctioning and eventually collapse, he makes his forbidden journey—and finds that there are still pockets of humans living on the surface. He returns to the Machine-mediated world, and his premonition is vindicated—the Machine stops, and because everyone was dependent on it for all their needs, society collapses amid mass death. The one note of hope is that those small communities of surface-dwellers will survive and start over.
In expressing his alienation from the Machine, Kuno states: “We created the Machine, to do our will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The Machine develops—but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds—but not to our goal. We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die.”
Predicting the kind of video-telephony today ubiquitous, Forster writes; “It only gave a general idea of people—an idea that was good enough for all practical purposes… Something ‘good enough’ had long since been accepted by our race.”
This is the approaching reality—students will never go to campuses or sit in classrooms again; political meetings, lectures, cultural events, musical performances—all will be done remotely. That’s going to be “good enough,” and people will forget in another generation what the real world was actually like.
This is, to stretch the definition, another face of fascism—or, at least, of totalitarian social control. It is not fascism on the classical model of Hitler and Mussolini, which Trump is now approaching. It isn’t motivated by ugly nationalism and ethnic hatred, but by concern with public health and security. It is what has been called “friendly fascism,” consistent (at least in its inception) with liberal democracy. But the mechanisms of control under this model, while less brutal, could be more complete—and could pose an even greater longterm threat to human freedom.
Moreover, these models are not mutually exclusive. Trump has thus far been playing to the backlash against social isolation, and downplaying the threat of the virus. That, however, could change in a minute. If his attempts to foment a national crisis fail, he could exploit the virus as the crisis, and use the pandemic as a pretext for imposing his more classically fascist order.
The Human Resistance
So whether we manage to avoid Trump-fascism or not, we’re still going to have to face the challenge of keeping alive some kind of human future in the high-tech post-pandemic dystopia.
Since New York City went into lockdown in March, some local activists have been rising to the occasion. Local “mutual aid” groups have sprung up in neighborhoods around the city, providing resources to meet local needs. Esneider Huasipungo of New York’s legendary Latin anarcho-punk band Huasipungo, is working with one such group—Centro Corona Mutual Aid, serving the extremely multicultural Queens neighborhoods of Corona, Jackson Heights and Elmhurst.
“When the pandemic hit, we decided to do this, because we knew a lot of people were gonna lose their jobs, not be able to leave home,” Huasipungo says. “How are we gonna respond?”
The mutual aid group emerged from the Centro Corona, which was launched five years ago, dong art classes and workshops, tutoring, and movie nights for local youth. It expanded to legal consultation for the area’s many immigrants—Colombian, Ecuadoran, Mexican, Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi. It is now operating from a former taqueria, primarily as a food distribution point.
“We send out some 200 boxes a week,” Huasipungo says. “Veggies, onions, potatoes, tomatoes, rice, beans, pasta, sugar, coffee. Also Tylenol, cough medicine, thermometers, diapers, baby food.” And while other such efforts send out packages indiscriminately, the Centro Corona prepares each one for a particular household. “Each box is labeled with the name of the family and its dietary needs.”
This is social solidarity that still maintains the necessary “social distancing,” as it is called. Delivery is direct to homes, usually by volunteers on bicycles. “There are no crowds at all,” says Huasipungo, who has done deliveries himself, as well as picking up foodstuffs at the Hunts Point wholesale market in the Bronx.
“Each weekend, deliveries are made, and we make sure everyone has a mask and keeps distance. Delivery teams are not allowed in the space, everything is set up for pick-up outside on the sidewalk.”
There are volunteers who speak such local languages as Dari and Urdu as well as Spanish, to learn the needs of each household. Money is raised through Venmo and Paypal, and there have been some donations from GrowNYC, the nonprofit that coordinates the city’s greenmarkets.
But Huasipungo emphasizes, “There are no strings attached. We’re not gonna be colonized by the nonprofits. We’re not gonna say ‘thanks to Citibank.'”
“We want people to realize they don’t have to depend on the politicians and nonprofits,” Huasipungo concludes. “And you don’t have to just look out for number one. You can look out for everybody.”
Such small efforts, in communities across the country, may help determine which way a society poised at the razor’s edge goes—and keep a sense of human spirit alive in a future that sure looks like it’s going to need it.
A shorter version of this story appears in the fall 2020 edition of Fifth Estate.
Image: Lacey Timberland Library
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