Donald Trump’s antics put me in mind of an old documentary called Point of Order! directed by Emile de Antonio. It’s about the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954.
Senator Joseph McCarthy led the anti-Communist witch hunt at the height of the Cold War between the United States and Russia. The result was a purge of left wingers and trade unionists in the state apparatuses, Hollywood and the mass media, and private industry.
Then McCarthy started meddling in the US Army. He had gone too far—the military, represented by the ex-general Dwight Eisenhower as president, were sacrosanct. The US establishment turned against him.
The film records his downfall.
Trump may also have crossed a line with the military. On Monday of last week, when protests were at high pitch, Trump made a highly publicised walk to St John’s Episcopal Church in Washington DC. Demonstrators were bombarded with pepper spray and smoke canisters to clear his way.
Trump was accompanied by defence secretary Mark Esper and general Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, in full battle dress. He was signalling his intention to use the power of the military to end the protests.
Trump had ordered into Washington 3,900 National Guards from as far away as Idaho and Utah and later had 1,600 combat-ready troops deployed outside the capital.
This provoked a huge backlash. Washington mayor Muriel Bowser, a black Democrat, tweeted it was “shameful” that “w/o provocation, federal police used munitions on peaceful protesters”.
By mid-week Esper had directly defied the president. He publicly opposed Trump’s threat to use the Insurrection Act to send troops to cities throughout the US against the wishes of the local authorities. Esper also sought to cut back the troop deployment in Washington.
His predecessor, ex-general Jim Mattis, who resigned in protest over what he thought was Trump’s mismanagement of the US empire, went further.
“Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath”—to defend the Constitution—“would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens,” he said.
“Much less to provide a bizarre photo op for the elected commander-in-chief, with military leadership standing alongside.”
Mattis has been backed by other military figures. Among them are ex-secretary of state Colin Powell, David Petraeus, who commanded US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Admiral William McRaven, organiser of Osama bin Laden’s assassination, and Trump’s ex-chief of staff, John Kelly.
They have many deaths on their consciences. But they—like the ruling class generally—see the might of the Pentagon as an instrument of US imperialism as a whole, not the plaything of any particular politician.
McCarthy had served his purpose. The witch-hunt prepared US society to wage the Cold War and seriously weakened the organised working class. The Pentagon was off limits. Maybe Trump is beginning to discover this too.
Trump was never the candidate of the upper echelons of the capitalist class, even if the big banks and corporations welcomed his tax cuts and plans for deregulation.
His business supporters have been concentrated among small and medium-sized firms supplying the domestic market.
Many in the US ruling class may be beginning to wonder whether Trump is worth the trouble. They are facing a nationwide rising against racism on a scale not seen since the 1960s.
Trump is fanning the flames in the hope of being re-elected on a white backlash. But US society is much more diverse than it was when Richard Nixon successfully used this strategy in 1968.
Meanwhile it is the Democratic Party establishment that is stepping in to contain the anger. Bowser addressed the huge demonstration in Washington on Saturday.
The Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden looks like a duffer. But he beat Bernie Sanders thanks to the support of the black Democratic leadership. Playing the race card may prove to be Trump’s downfall.