Biden Faces Authoritarianism at Home and Abroad by Jordan Rosenberg Cobos

President Biden is increasingly focused on foreign affairs due to the demands of a Second Cold War with fascist Russia, but his efforts are undermined by the Republican Party’s authoritarianism at home. Biden hosted the mid-June Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, which was seen as a failure. Promoting his theme of democracy over autocracy, and under pressure from the hawkish Senate Foreign Affairs Chair Bob Menendez, Biden did not invite Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to the summit. Left-wing Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Honduran President Xiomara Castro, and Bolivian President Luis Arce refused to attend in response, and right-wing Salvadoran President Nayib Buekele, and Guatemalan President Giammattei also skipped the summit. Also missed was an opportunity to attempt to convince Venezuela to increase oil output which would reduce gas prices which are beginning to fall from all-time highs in the United States. The summit’s failure underscored that no U.S. Administration has prioritized Latin America since the 1980s. Biden remains clearly focused on Eurasia and the Indo-Pacific.

The Group of 7 (G7) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meetings in late June did focus on the Russo-Ukrainian War and the quasi-official China-Russia strategic partnership. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez hosted the Madrid NATO summit which ensured Sweden and Finland would join NATO in the coming year, expanding the alliance to 32 members. While NATO was formed by the United States and Western Allies after the defeat of fascism in World War II “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” in a historic first the alliance mentioned China as a concern. Equally unprecedented was the attendance of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand in the summit. In contrast to the lack of a strong agenda for the Americas it is clear the Biden Administration is focused on the importance of the Indo-Pacific and close coordination with Eurasian and Indo-Pacific allies.

June’s NATO meeting was historic, but it was not unpredictable. July was. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson finally declared he would resign amid a torrent of scandals, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo was assassinated, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government collapsed, and a revolution in Sri Lanka forced the ruling Rajapaksa dynasty to flee the country with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa resigning from Singapore via email. A nationalist who frequently defended and dismissed Japan’s war crimes during WWII, Abe’s main political goal in life was to amend the pacifist articles of Japan’s constitution. In death he may achieve that goal. Following his death, for the first time Japanese elections returned a two-third majority of parties who support amending the constitution. It remains to be seen if Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida can push through the changes with Abe removed from the scene. China’s economy slowed due to a zero covid policy increasingly ineffective against the latest omicron variety. China’s second quarter GDP reported a growth of 0.4%, meaning that in reality Chinese growth likely contracted (the Communist Party underreports growth in good times so it can also underplay contractions in bad times.) The nationalist refusal to use foreign mRNA vaccines rather than domestic Chinese vaccines is the heart of the crisis.

With China’s economy retrenched,  global supply chains are strained resulting in reduced demand for oil. In hopes of reducing the global price of oil further and achieve a success at homeBiden reversed himself and met with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince after denouncing him for directing the murder of Washington Post journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.  Biden also rejected with the Palestinian family of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Palestinian American journalist assassinated by Israel

While Biden is focused on the threat of authoritarianism abroad, within the United States an increasingly far-right Supreme Court moved the nation further on the path to authoritarianism at home. The most right-wing term ofthe Supreme Court since the 1930s revoked the Constitutional right to abortion, weakened Native American tribal sovereingty, usurped power from states seeking gun control as well as from the Environmental Protecion Agency (EPA).. Roberts’ West Virginia v. EPA opinion was vague but weakened the powers of regulatory agencies while strengthening the Court. Although not as disastrous as it could have been as the EPA still can regulate carbon emissions, the West Virginia decision showed the unity of the six conservatives in weakening the regulatory Chevron doctrine which let Congress defer to executive branch agencies the details of regulations according to Congressional intent. This classic Roberts decision advances the Republican agenda bit by bit over the decades, a clear instance of so-called  salami slicing tactics.

With the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision overturning Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Chief Justice Roberts clearly lost control of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority to Justice Clarence Thomas. Thomas is the most senior member of the Court and so can assign who writes the majority opinion if the Chief Justice is in the minority opinion. With five Justices to Roberts’s right Thomas can now command a majority of the Court if he disagrees with Roberts. Given Ginni Thomas’s documented support for former President Trump’s attempted coup attempt on January 6, 2021, this is clearly a very bad decision. The Thomases are a power couple and both should be fearing prison for involvement in coordinating the insurrection. The Dobbs decision may signal conservative confidence as they can get away with policy victories during a Democratic midterm year. But it also reads like a far-right majority which is unsure if Thomas will still be on the Court in a year or two’s time due to his involvement with the violent January 6 coup attempt, and is rushing to get extreme Republican policy goals done as quickly as possible. Thomas assigned Alito, likely embittered since he almost became Chief Justice instead of Roberts, to write the Dobbs opinion, which underlines just how much a far-right Republican party threatens women and queer people both at home and abroad. Overturning the 1972 Roe decision was the result of a half-century of conservative backlash. 

Now we are getting backlash to the backlash. Inflation rose 9.1% in the past year, due to Putin’s genocidal invasion, rising oil prices and recurrent covid lockdowns in China straining global supply chains. Biden’s approval rating is in the mid-30s and there may be a recession due to the Federal Reserve raising interest rates to lower inflation. But while a traditional midterm election features voters turning against a sitting president’s party due to bad economy or perceived executive overreach, the Supreme Court’s unpopular Dobbs decision has upended these calculations. Over 60% of Americans oppose the Court revoking the right to abortion and leaving the issue to the states. Congressional polls which had the GOP leading now show them tied with the Democrats. While the Democrats may still lose the House, they may be able to make gains in the Senate. Disillusionment with a creaky presidential system is pervasive, with 58% of American voters saying the United States needs major reforms. Reforms are especially necessary in the face of the Trumpista fascist movement. 55% of Americans believe Trump’s actions after the 2020 election went so far that he threatened American democracy. Inflation may be bad, but the memories of the recent coup attempt along with the fall of Roe and Republicans floating the idea of banning abortion in every state if they take control of Congress may give us a November surprise.

The hearings by the U.S. House of Representatives January 6 Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol show just how Trump directed a multi-pronged deadly coup attempt at the start of 2021. The hearings have made it increasingly clear how Trump led a Vichy Republican cabal which encompassed members from all three branches of government to attempt a coup and insurrection on January 6. Led by Congressman Bennie Thompson, the committee is doing a careful yet robust job establishing Trump’s criminal intent. Perhaps the most crucial testimony so far was by former White House counsel Pat Cippolone. Cippolone revealed a long and unhinged White House meeting on December 18, 2020 in which Trump and his most craven advisors shouted at each other, hurled insults and swears over a downright dictatorial proposal for the Trump Administration to order the U.S. military to seize voting machines. Ultimately the putschists decided on a coup centered on the January 6th Congressional certification of Electoral College votes from the November election. After the meeting Trump tweeted:

Trump’s putsch attempt centered on inciting armed Trumpistas to become terrorists, storm the U.S. Capitol, and have the presiding officer of the Senate refuse to certify Biden’s election victory and illegally declare Trump the winner. Jason van Tatenhove of the Proud Boys testified that the far-right militia’s president Stewart Rhodes asked him to create a deck of cards, or “who’s who of key players on the other side they wanted to take out.” This was modeled after the  playing cards used by the George W. Bush Administration to represent the most wanted terrorists after the September 11 attacks. Van Tatenhove refused to do this and said the country was exceedingly lucky there was not more bloodshed.

Since the Vice President acts as President of the Senate and so certifies the new presidential term, Trump pressured Pence to go along with his golpe. Former Vice President Dan Quayle adamantly told his fellow Indiana Pence that he had no choice but to certify Biden as the winner under the rule of law. Trump pressed on:

“If these people say you had the power, wouldn’t you want to?” Trump asked.

“I wouldn’t want any one person to have that authority,” Pence replied.

“But wouldn’t it almost be cool to have that power?”

“No,” Pence replied. “I’ve done everything I could and then some to find a way around this. It’s simply not possible.” 

Trump did not take this well, shouting, “No, no, no! You don’t understand, Mike. You can do this. I don’t want to be your friend anymore if you don’t do this.”

On January 5, Senate President pro tempore Chuck Grassley said he would preside over the electoral college certification instead of Pence; “we don’t expect him to be there.” Grassley has served in Congress since 1975 and yet he seemed as willing a participant to overthrow the U.S. constitutional system as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Greene is an eager putschist who took part in the coup planning even before being sworn into office. The involvement of the most senior Senate Republican in the plot against American democracy highlights just how far Trump has turned the Republican Party into his own cult of personality. 

Surprise witness Cassidy Hutchinson, a former aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, gave crucial testimony which established Trump did not want to do anything to stop the January 6 insurrection and actually attempted to join his followers at the Capitol to complete the coup. Hutchinson revealed that Trump wanted armed supporters to attend his speech inciting the January 6 insurrection. “I don’t fucking care that they have weapons. They’re not here to hurt me,” Trump said. 

Convicted insurrectionist Steve Ayers testified he did not plan to go to the Capitol until Trump “got everybody riled up, told everybody to head on down” to the Capitol. Trump told the crowd he would meet them at the Capitol. Given Trump lies far more than he tells the truth, I did not take this as important until Hutchinson revealed Trump actually did try to go to the Capitol despite the Secret Service forbidding it. Trump physically attacked a Secret Service officer in a failed attempt to drive to the Capitol. He lost the fight and returned to the White House. The Secret Service was later found to have destroyed evidence of texts sent around January 6.

During the Capitol attack, Trump’s insurrectionist mob shouted “hang Mike Pence,” and even constructed a gallows. The congressional certification ceremony was disrupted and the Secret Service attempted to take Pence away in a car. 

Pence refused: “I’m not getting in that car.” He feared being taken away from the Capitol and not being allowed to return, or worse. 

After listening to the “hang Mike Pence” cries from the Trumpista mob, Trump said, “Maybe our supporters have the right idea. Mike Pence deserves it.

Later Trump tweeted, “Mike Pence didn’t have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution, giving States a chance to certify a corrected set of facts, not the fraudulent or inaccurate ones which they were asked to previously certify.” Trump’s referral to Pence in the past tense is particularly ominous since it suggests Trump may have been under the impression Pence had indeed been killed by Trump’s followers.

The hearings are having the intended effect: Trump is losing his grip on the Republican base; only half of them now support a Trump campaign in 2024. About 50 to 60% of Americans say Trump should be charged for his role on January 6. The best way to puncture a fascist cult of personality is to defeat the leader either in court or in war. But it is clear that even if Trump is gone, authoritarianism on the far right remains a threat to U.S. democracy. 

So how do we fight this? On abortion rights in particular, there is a way forward: the Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA. The amendment states “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” In January 2020 Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the amendment, which would normally enshrine it in the Constitution. However, the time limit which expired in 1982 can be removed by a simple act of Congress. If this act clarifies that states cannot revoke amendments (six states rescinded their ratifications), then the ERA will instantly become part of the Constitution. But if the Democrats cannot gain seats in the midterms to do this, they could argue abortion is prohibted by the 13th Amendment. But given how conservatives ignored the Reconstruction Amendments after the Civil War until the desegregation case Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, they would almost certainly strike down such an interpretation.

Also unlikely would be the conservative supermajority accepting the ramifications of the ERA. So what should we do going forward? First we need to uncap the House of Representatives, which was set at 435 seats to limit urban Black, Catholic, and Jewish influence on U.S. politics after the 1920 Census. For the first time the U.S. was majority-urban and the bipartisan conservative white supremacist establishment wanted to keep Anglo Protestant dominance of U.S. politics. Next, we should admit the U.S. territories and Washington, D.C. as states because continued colonial rule is unacceptable and they deserve to be full American citizens, not subjects. This will help the Senate bias towards small, white rural states and encourage the Republicans to win over more voters of color in these new states. We can also get rid of the Senate filibuster, which President Barack Obama correctly called a “Jim Crow relic.” This would allow us to codify abortion protections into law and enact the Equal Rights Amendment.

Then we must reform the Supreme Court itself. There should be 18-year term limits for Supreme Court Justices and they should be required to follow an ethics code. The latter is especially needed since throughout the history of the United States the Supreme Court is typically the most elitist and reactionary of all three branches of government. The notable exception is the liberal Warren Court in the 1950s and 1960s. By refusing to let lame-duck Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama fulfill vacant Supreme Court openings, far-right Senators Strom Thurmond in 1968 and Mitch McConnell in 2016 ensured a conservative and then reactionary majority would dominate the Supreme Court. Thurmond took the Court back from the liberals and McConnell ensured that it would remain reactionary. Expanding the Supreme Court to undo Thurmond and McConnell’s appointment rigging will discourage such attempts in the future. With a liberal court majority, pro-democracy policies such as mandatory voting could  be implemented without a Republican Court striking it down. This would go a long way to revitalizing U.S. democracy and would be the best way to end voter suppression efforts. This would also help the image of the U.S. abroad as a beacon of democracy and a continued leadership of the free world.

Jordan Rosenberg Cobos works for Sunrun. He is a recent graduate of the Johns Hopkins SAIS-Tsinghua University Dual Degree Masters Program, where he focused on the geopolitics of energy. He lives in the Los Angeles area.

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