Concertina razor wire tops the 2.4-meter 'non-scalable' fence that surrounds the US Capitol the day after the House of Representatives voted to impeach President Donald Trump for the second time on January 14, 2021, in Washington, DC. Image: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images / AFP

According to the mainstream narrative, US President Donald Trump’s incitement of his supporters during the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral victory led to the “insurrection” at the US Capitol on January 6, resulting in the banning of Trump’s social-media accounts and his second impeachment by Congress.

According to so-called conspiracy theories, however, Biden’s victory in the November presidential election was “stolen” from Trump through electoral fraud, and the storming of the Capitol was staged or allowed to happen in order to bring about Trump’s impeachment and prevent him from coming back to power in 2024.

It may be even more complicated; a report by the Swiss Policy Research website, for example, suggests that the right-wing QAnon movement, heavily supportive of Trump and prominent at the event, like Russiagate, is the product of a psy-op (psychological operation) launched by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to discredit Trump.

The public may never know the truth behind the January 6 events, the mysterious “Deep State” or the growing polarization between so-called pro-Trump white supremacist “domestic terrorists” and the anti-Trump multicultural, progressive liberals.

However, the search for peace, justice and democracy at this critical time requires transcending simplistic polarizations and understanding the systemic roots of the conflict that is tearing America apart.

Polarization

Donald Trump is a member of the ruling elite representing its own interests. His assaults on the environment and mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic have put the entire country at risk.

While claiming to represent the interests of the alienated and underprivileged white population, he introduced massive tax cuts and corporate deregulation, worsening their social and economic positions. His rhetoric against minorities and immigrants has exacerbated racial and ethnic tensions and political extremism.

Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, heavily funded by the billionaire class, also represent elite interests at the expense of the general population. Under Barack Obama’s administration, economic inequality increased and black poverty, mass unemployment and police brutality persisted.

The identity-focused rhetoric of liberals has stimulated racial and ethnic politics, and the rise of groups like Black Lives Matter. Often portrayed as progressive and “radical,” BLM has been significantly co-opted by corporate liberal interests and has received extensive funding from leading corporations including Amazon and Microsoft.

The corporate media have aided and abetted disunity and violence by silencing moderate and alternative voices that seek to understand and question the motives and strategies of both pro and anti-Trump extremists.

The polarization of politics and media hinder and mask an understanding and dialogue needed to move forward. For example, is there an equal risk of fascism, albeit more insidious, arising from the corporate liberals opposing Trump?

Reclaiming perspective

A handful of corporations led by big tech and finance control the US political process and practically all aspects of society. The overwhelming focus on identity politics deflects attention from the dangers of deepening techno-corporate control and the destruction of freedom of speech.

The events of January 6 have already contributed to plans for a federal law against “domestic terrorism” and the criminalization of dissent, which would likely be based on the 2019 Confronting the Threat of Domestic Terrorism Act introduced by US Representative Adam Schiff. Anti-terrorism acts, such as the Patriot Act, are notorious for being used to crush dissent and marginalized groups.

Systemic violence and repression are not new to the United States. The noble ideals of democracy, freedom and human rights aside, the US was founded on plunder of the land and exploitation of people ­– native Americans, blacks, Asians, and underprivileged whites as well.

Likewise, the American Empire was established and maintained with systematic plunder and exploitation and massive military and political interventions around the world that continue today.

The Empire’s costly military adventures (the US defense budget approved for 2021 is now up to $740 billion), along with global economic shifts such as manufacturing and job outsourcing and displacement by technology, have impoverished large segments of the American population, both white and people of color.

Corporate deregulation and the decimation of labor unions weakened the working class and strengthened corporate authoritarianism. In recent decades, the Republican and Democratic parties have differed little in their pursuit of corporate and imperial interests.

While the United States has had a history of social movements for people’s rights including labor and civil rights, recent initiatives for systemic change have experienced serious setbacks.

The anti-globalization movement that came to prominence during the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle in 1999 was undermined by the Patriot Act (with Joe Biden being a key architect) and other policies introduced soon after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

The Occupy Wall Street movement that emerged after the 2008 financial crisis and its slogan “We are the 99%” brought attention to the excesses of the financial sector and growing economic inequality. But this movement also dissipated, largely because of state and corporate tactics of division, repression and propaganda.

In the electoral realm, despite an unprecedented grassroots movement backing him, Bernie Sanders was blocked from winning the Democratic presidential nomination by the party elite in both 2016 and 2020.

The ideals of true socioeconomic reform have been squashed and subverted by the liberal establishment adopting the language of the progressive left but equating justice with racial and gender diversity and playing down economic equality. This reframing channels progressive energy away from threatening corporate control and profit into a safe zone of identity politics, which only further divides and disempowers the general population.

Techno-oligarchy

Just as unemployed and uninsured Americans are pleading for support during the Covid crisis, the combined wealth of US billionaires “surpassed $1 trillion in gains since March 2020 and the beginning of the pandemic,” according to a study by the Institute for Policy Studies.

The top five US billionaires – Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and Larry Ellison – saw their wealth grow by a total of $101.7 billion, or 26%, during this short period. The increasing digitalization of life during this period represent an enormous augmentation of the political and ideological power of the technocratic oligarchs.

Silicon Valley tech firms, financial supporters of Joe Biden, withdrew attention from issues potentially harmful to his campaign. Even some left-leaning media platforms refused to publish an article critical of Biden just before the election. Such a move by The Intercept led its co-founder, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, to resign.

Social-media companies swiftly deleted the accounts of President Trump and thousands of others after the January 6 event on Capitol Hill on grounds that they incited violence and extremism.

While it is true that hate speech and incitement of violence should not be allowed, should a handful of unrepresentative, unregulated tech corporations, such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and YouTube, exercise social and political control that exceed that of the state elected to represent people’s interests? Who decides what is appropriate and inappropriate, and on what grounds?

Clearly, democratic policies and institutions are needed to oversee the right of free speech guaranteed under the First Amendment of the US constitution.

Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, called for corporate accountability and planned to introduce policies for deregulation including the breakup of monopolistic companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google.

However, given lack of support from the dominant corporate wing of the Democratic Party, Warren was not able to secure even the vice-presidential nomination over Kamala Harris, the choice of the liberal corporate establishment.

System change

The mainstream narrative propagated around the world paints a rosy picture of a return to a post-Trump era of freedom and democracy with the Biden-Harris inauguration this Wednesday.

However, even if Trump is barred from running for office in 2024, the attitudes and grievances of the 70 million or more Americans who voted for him are unlikely to dissipate without serious efforts for change from those in power, and not just a return to corporate-dominated gesture-liberalism.

Indeed, all the issues of polarization and the inherent racism of society cannot be reduced to economic inequality and corporate dominance. Yet there has to be recognition of the suffering and despair of ordinary people on both sides, be they incarcerated blacks or unemployed whites.

As economic inequality deepens and the middle class disappears, vast segments of people of color as well as whites have become economically desperate and politically alienated from the status quo.

In the absence of genuine leaders to unite people and bring fundamental change, self-interested parties exploit and fuel discontent, anger and hatred by directing it toward one another. Use of epithets such as “criminals and rapists” against Latino immigrants by Trump and “basket of deplorables” against Trump supporters by Hillary Clinton have only fueled division and animosity.

Political “street warfare” between the extreme-right Trump supporters and extreme-left anti-fascist groups is now a common occurrence across the US.

It is urgent that more and more people speak up and help move society beyond the polarization that is helping solidify techno-corporate totalitarianism and the police state. The us-vs-them, good-vs-bad dualism needs to be overcome with an appreciation of inherent human and planetary interdependence and the need for freedom and justice for all.

To quote the words of Robert F Kennedy on the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr on June 6, 1968:

“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. You can be filled with bitterness, with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

“We can move in that direction as a country, in great polarization … filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort … to understand and to comprehend, and to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand with compassion and love.…

“What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.”

Asoka Bandarage

Asoka Bandarage PhD is the author of Sustainability and Well-Being, The Separatist Conflict in Sri Lanka, Women, Population and Global Crisis, Colonialism in Sri Lanka and many other publications. She serves on the boards of the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate and Critical Asian Studies and has taught at Yale, Brandeis, Mount Holyoke, Georgetown, American and other universities.