Many Americans are approaching the elections with a deep sense of uncertainty, if not dread. The savage attack on Paul Pelosi that left the 82-year-old with a fractured skull is only the latest outrage unleashed by the legitimation of political violence and the conspiracy lies pumped out by Trump and the Republican Party. A foretaste of what was to come was the attempted assault on FBI agents following the agency’s search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. The episode signaled a new milestone in the rise of extremist vigilantism directed both at the institutions of state and at people, like Nancy Pelosi, demonized by Trump and his followers.
On the morning of Aug. 11, Ricky Shiffer, wearing body armor and armed with an AR-15 rifle, tried to breach the FBI field office in Cincinnati. When agents accosted him, he fled. He drove onto Interstate 71, was spotted by a trooper, and, like some scene from a Hollywood movie, started firing at the pursuing vehicle as he sped off the interstate and onto a rural road, where he stopped his car and fled on foot. After refusing to surrender, he was finally shot dead in a standoff in an Ohio cornfield. Shiffer, a 42-year-old navy veteran, was already on the FBI’s radar. He had been at the capitol on Jan. 6.
Prior to his attempted assault on the FBI, Shiffer had posted his intentions on Trump’s Truth Social platform:
“People, this is it … this is your call to arms from me … get whatever you need to be ready for combat. We must not tolerate this one. They have been conditioning us to accept tyranny and think we can’t do anything for 2 years. This time we must respond with force.”
This one that Shiffer is referring to is the FBI search at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate. The intent to kill FBI officers for having carried out a legal warrant to recover classified documents is a new inflection point in the continuing crisis of political legitimacy in the U.S.—a further widening of the established order from the extremist forces galvanized by Trump and legitimized by the party he has molded in his image. The crisis of legitimacy that has been building for decades in the U.S. and abroad is a global phenomenon igniting the rise of new forces—both reactionary and progressive—reacting to the collapsing order of the liberal state.
This is the subject matter of my current book, Civilizing the State: Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good. The unprecedented events that are now playing out in the U.S. are shedding a deeply worrying light on the plight of democracy and raising serious questions about how, and whether, the institutions of contemporary representative democracy will survive—not only in the U.S., but globally. The book’s forward begins with an account of the capitol insurrection and states categorically that Jan. 6 defined a new era in global politics.
Everything that has happened since then confirms this view. Indeed, if things looked very bad on Jan. 6, the revelations that have emerged since have only served to highlight the astonishing breadth of the corruption that Trump engendered during his time in office. The manic energy—and the ease and impunity—with which Trump twisted the institutions of state to serve a mafia model of political power is staggering.
Trump’s last days in office were devoted to suborning the ministries of defense and justice to his dictatorial aims. Had he more time, he may have succeeded. More worrying still, as time has passed and these facts have become public, there has been no lessening of Trump’s hold over the minds and hearts of his followers. The search on Mar-a-Lago only served to increase the devotion of his base and to further radicalize his movement against the legal institutions of the state. In the weeks following the search, millions of dollars were raised by Trump supporters fired up to fight this latest tyranny of the “deep state.”
Shiffer’s doomed attempt to kill FBI officers is the pure expression of a populist movement that has lost all anchorage with reality. Fueled by Trump’s lies and propagated by a poisonous right-wing media universe, this ultra-nationalist form of white, evangelical, right-wing populism has been legitimized by a Republican Party that has been reconstituted as a proto-fascist political machine. Those who speak of “reclaiming” the Republican Party to its conservative roots are in delusion. That party committed suicide when it failed to impeach Trump while it had the chance.
The undermining of trust in the institutions of state and the legitimacy of the political system is encapsulated in the continuing propagation of the lie that the 2020 elections were stolen. Striking at the heart of the democratic political process, this lie has been embraced by 65% of Republican voters who now question the validity of voting itself. In the midterms, over 250 Republican candidates for public office are election deniers. So, the question must be posed: When one of the nation’s two political parties no longer believes in the democratic process, what happens to democracy?
In Civilizing the State, I make the case that in an environment as toxic as in the U.S., where political opponents are demonized and where people no longer share a common view of reality, the only way to bridge such polarization is through mechanisms that incentivize people to rebuild a sense of community and mutual trust through cooperation in service to a common good. From health care to affordable housing to social care, there is a wide range of issues in which Americans of all political stripes share a common interest. Reproductive rights are another issue that unites many Democrats and Republicans. The massive voter rejection of attempts to remove abortion protections in Kansas—a deep-red state—is a ray of hope. Promoting public policies that empower cooperative solutions to bridging issues at a community level is a concrete way of addressing the political divisions that are tearing American society apart.
Powerful examples of such initiatives from around the world are profiled in the book. From the grassroots municipalism of Barcelona to the deep democracy programs of Kerala in India, governments are partnering with citizens at all levels to grapple with problems of political legitimacy by promoting the democratic values that are the bedrock of representative democracy. At the same time, they are taking aim at the social and economic inequities that have fostered the rise of right-wing populism and the attacks on the liberal state that provide both fuel and focus for this new mass movement.
In the U.S., the real question is whether the political forces that define the party system in the age of Trump can ever allow such initiatives to emerge. It is clearly not in the interests of demagogues like Donald Trump or Ron DeSantis for this ever to occur. Their fortunes are bound up in the propagation of social disorder, in sowing division and disintegration. The U.S. political system is caught in an existential moment. Failing a political solution within the established system, those who believe in democracy must confront the fact that democracy in the U.S. might only be salvaged by the exercise of brute power. It is a time of reckoning.
In the final analysis, democracy can survive an authoritarian insurrection only by the deployment of force. And, just as happened during WWII, when western democracies were faced with an analogous condition on a global scale, the democratic forces in the U.S. must be ready to do battle with the proto-fascist populist forces that are now mobilizing against them. That is the real calculation that is facing the Democratic Party if it is to survive—and representative democracy along with it. Will the Democratic Party become militant enough to withstand the Republican onslaught?
The right-wing populist movement in the U.S., like all such movements, employs democratic means to destroy democracy. The Republican Party that leads it does not believe in democracy and twists democratic norms to its own undemocratic ends. And this reveals the weakness of democracy itself—it is viable so long as the political players believe in it. Once this ends, all devolves into a contest of brute force, and in such a battle, a party that plays by democratic rules against another that ignores them has little hope of success. This is amplified manifold when the contending forces occupy two opposing universes of meaning. The media networks that reflect and reinforce the conspiracy myths and mindsets of the extreme right are essential to this process of delegitimation. The current attacks on the Department of Justice and the effort to discredit legal process are prime examples. Polarization, and paranoia, are their stock in trade. Paradoxically, in such an environment, the democratic principle of a free and open press may only be protected by shutting down those circuits of misinformation and outright lies whose effect is to destroy the very basis of democracy itself—a shared commitment to the idea of truth and the honest exchange of ideas.
The Republican Party, and the right-wing populism it now leads, is not yet fascist. But it is becoming so. Republicans who speak the truth are excommunicated and receive death threats. Sen. Lindsey Graham appears on Fox News and threatens riots if Trump is prosecuted for his crimes. Its leadership is purely opportunistic and seeks primarily to hold on to power at any cost. It shares no real ideology beyond this. Trump himself has the reflexive instincts of a dictator, but he lacks any ideology whatever. Fascists like Hitler and Mussolini believed in the ideas that destroyed the lives of millions. Trump believes only in himself and the grift. If anything were to describe the regime he would head, it would be a griftocracy, a mafia state managed by sycophants and enforced by any means. The closest analogue would be Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, an authoritarian democracy.
The forces of hatred and grievance that are now being mobilized against the liberal order and the fraying institutions of American democracy can never be met nor neutralized by the ambivalence and compromised politics of the Democratic Party as it is. The Republican Party now heads a fully constituted proto-fascist movement that will not be stopped until, like all such movements, it is defeated by overwhelming force. Stoked by Trump and his enablers, 53% of Republican voters already believe the country will be at civil war within the decade. Given the environment, and the presumption of violence from the Trump base, this is entirely possible.
At some point, a line will be crossed. One would have thought that line was the capitol insurrection on Jan. 6. Instead, the Republican Party and its right-wing allies are doing everything in their power to erase both line and popular memory. In the end, the pathos of Ricky Shiffer, shooting it out with federal agents in some forgotten cornfield of Ohio, is a scene embodying the tragedy—and trajectory—of American politics today.
The vicious assault on Nancy Pelosi’s husband and the failure of Republicans to denounce it have cast a deeper pall over the state of politics in the country. What the midterms will produce in terms of electoral victories is difficult to predict. The volatility of the electorate is palpable. What is predictable is that the procession of violence, of election subversion, and of the purposeful undermining of public confidence in the institutions of democracy is only beginning.
John Restakis is the former Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association and has been a consultant for co-op development projects in Africa, South America, and Asia. He is a practitioner, educator, and pioneering researcher in international cooperative economies and the author of "Humanizing the Economy." He lives in Vancouver, BC.