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Why isn’t Trump about to be jailed for his criminal behaviour?

It’s because the centre-right alliance, in effect since 1876, remains intact

USA Politics

Photo by Marco Verch/Flickr

The television broadcasting of the select congressional committee hearings on the January 6 Capitol riot confirms what we already knew, though with a lot of gory details added. Donald Trump is a criminal to a degree that deserves greater punishment than what a house thief or even a bank robber gets. After all, he committed sedition which will get you the death penalty or life in jail in many parts of the world.

But we know that the leaders of the Democratic Party don’t want to deal a fatal blow to the right-wing politicians of the Republican Party, because their strength bolsters the claim of centrists of being the true defenders of the non-privileged as well as of racial justice. That way the centrists appear to hold the moral high ground while furthering the interests of their corporate backers. They uphold progressive ideals rhetorically but end up watering down electoral promises in order to reach agreements with their colleagues across the aisle. For that reason, the centrists have always treated the right and the Republicans in general with kid gloves.

If leftists were to do half of what Trump and his cohorts and backers have done they would have been locked up from the very start. Just take the use of arms by rightists in the name of the Second Amendment. When the Black Panthers defended the same right, they were hounded by the FBI and many of their members received life-long prison sentences or were murdered as in the case of Fred Hampton.

When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, any illusion that he may have been a truly progressive president was shattered at the outset when he harped on “reaching across the aisle” and “consensus politics” and began the “kid gloves” treatment. He could have taken advantage of the honeymoon of his early months in office by going after Dick Cheney and others in the Bush administration for their admitted use of torture and defense of it. Public opinion at the time would have approved of a full investigation into black sites and waterboarding. The results would have been devastating to the Republican Party. Instead, Obama revealed that he didn’t want to “look backward” and so, in effect, let Cheney and company off the hook. Some argued that such lenience was a mistake because the right quickly recovered and then went on to sabotage all of Obama’s initiatives. But it wasn’t a mistake. It’s been the Democratic Party strategy all along.

That strategy dates back to 1876 when the northern liberal Rutherford Hayes (the “liberals” were then the Republicans) cut a deal with the ex-slave holding southerners whereby institutional racism known as Jim Crow became the law of the land in the south. In the twentieth century the Democratic Party centrists of the north accepted the racist practices of their southern party companions who, due to voter suppression in the south, achieved seniority in Congress and with it the chairmanships of key congressional committees. Thus southern Jim Crow was tolerated and in return the Democrats counted on all those electoral college votes in presidential elections. Furthermore, the northern Democrats accepted (just as they do today) undemocratic practices in the south and elsewhere under the guise of respecting “state rights,” which allegedly is what “democracy” is all about.

On appearance, the Democrats are going after Trump and are outraged by what happened on January 6. But there is a limit to what they are willing to do to right the wrong. The Democrats would much prefer to tolerate rightists, no matter how outrageous their actions are, than to clobber the right and run the risk of permitting the emergence of a leftist pole in US politics that would fill the gap. Not only do Democratic leaders prefer it. So do their corporate backers.

Steve Ellner, a retired professor of the Universidad de Oriente in Venezuela, is currently Associate Managing Editor of Latin American Perspectives. He is co-editor of Latin American Social Movements and Progressive Governments: Creative Tensions between Resistance and Convergence (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023).

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