America in Crisis: Will there be a peaceful transfer of power?

Jan 24, 2024 | Expert Commentary

The United States enters 2024 with a deep sense of foreboding.

As Republican primaries loom to find their nominee for the November presidential election, US politics hits new lows. Donald Trump’s CV plumbs new depths as several states are contemplating barring him from the primaries altogether, on the charge of insurrection, while Maine and Colorado have already excluded him from the ballot. The US Supreme Court will ultimately have to rule on this.

This is uncharted territory other than after the civil war that ended in 1865, when the Constitution was amended to prevent former insurrectionist confederate states’ officials from taking public office. Add that onto Trump’s list of accomplishments – twice impeached, facing 91 indictments including for insurrection and election interference, and court battles over sexual attacks. His violent speeches – invoking Hitlerite language of “blood poisoning” and “vermin” in regard to immigrants, minorities, refugees, liberals and the Left – add to the sense of foreboding. He is “fighting like hell” for the White House, and refuses to believe that he could lose the election other than by “deep state” conspiracies.

What are the chances of a peaceful transfer of power in the shadow of such conditions and forces?

But that’s not all – half the world is voting this year…

Meanwhile, the 2024 US election rubs shoulders with a worldwide wave of elections. States representing billions of people and around 50% of world GDP are going to the polls this year. Many states face potentially volatile election processes in geopolitically fraught times, as well as with widespread domestic volatility – UK, Taiwan, India, UK, EU, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, among others.1

Several of those global elections – UK, EU, South Africa, India, Taiwan – have a direct impact or at least implications for the US, especially regarding geopolitical rivalries (attitudes to Ukraine war and military aid, for example, Taiwan’s posture towards Beijing and the USA, Israel’s war on Gaza and the politics of a ceasefire resolution), and the prospects for international economic coordination. The war in Ukraine, the fear of Israel’s onslaught on the people of Gaza spiralling into a regional war, impact and implicate the United States, the world’s regional power. The only superpower that is virtually omnipresent, to which everywhere is a national interest. The privileges of full spectrum dominance and forward power projection.

The implications for President Biden’s re-election bid are increasingly bleak as national polls show Trump leading the incumbent, and as Arab and Muslim-Americans develop campaigns against the administration’s support for Israel and blocking of a ceasefire resolution at the United Nations. Though they are a very small minority of the US population and electorate, Muslim-Americans could tilt the balance of power within swing states towards Donald Trump.2 As ominously, voters under 35 years of age, a much larger slice of the electorate, who supported Biden by large margins in 2020, seem to be deserting him.3

But America remains great….

Yet there remains an incontrovertible and fundamental fact: that while worldwide elections are important, their impacts are largely confined to specific regions or domains. The US election, however, is pivotal on all fronts – geoeconomically, geopolitically, politically – with worldwide ramifications. For all the talk of ‘decline’ or the transition to multipolarity, the US remains the world’s pivotal state.

The fundamental issues for the United States are domestically-rooted – in its politics, political system, and political economy. Factionalisation is the core political problem; a political party system deeply divided, political violence at enduringly high levels, an indicted GOP candidate leading a party uncommitted to free and fair elections and rules of the game; social and economic inequalities and polarisations. And corporate dominance of both parties and their political-economic agendas remains4.

Recent research also shows that the top executives of major US corporations are leaning even more heavily to the GOP, even as they mouth slogans about diversity and face accusations of “wokism” from the Right.5 The corporate constituency behind a fascistic Trump-led political party has grown.

And the reasons are not hard to find. When asked recently if he would be a dictator were he returned to the White House, Trump replied that he would be for just one day. On that day, he would close the borders and, very significantly, abolish government regulation of fossil fuel corporations. Racist divide and rule twinned with corporate freedom – the core of Trump’s political strategy.6

This is a toxic recipe for political strife, violence, far right and fascistic extremism, and state repression against popular resistance.7 Discussion, fearful and shocking, about fascism and civil war is now common, even if the mainstream media does not recognise it, as Bill Clinton’s labour secretary Robert Reich, recently claimed.8

Barbara F Walter’s important study – How Civil Wars Start (2022) remains the key reference point in regard to the “factionalisation” process and road to civil war and political violence: it remains relevant to understanding US politics today including the path to the 2024 election and its ramifications.9

Crises galore – poly, perma, organic…

There is a fundamental legitimacy crisis – a crisis of authority of the two main parties and their leaders – which remains the core underlying bedrock problem. It is the motherlode from which emanate all other schisms and faultlines. Call it what you will and from whichever part of the ideological spectrum – poly crisis, perma crisis, organic crisis – crisis is now part of the lexicon of our times. The new normal.

This crisis has a face – two faces, actually, as exemplified by the two likely main contenders for the US presidency: Donald Trump and Joseph Biden, in a country seen by the majority of voters as heading in the wrong direction. Trump’s age, criminal indictments (and 2 impeachments) and march towards American style fascism; and Biden’s age and health, and foot-dragging on indictments of Trump since 2021. Major complicating issues.

A mere 8 swing states may determine the election outcome – Arizona, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, North Carolina – another tight race between two unpopular candidates. If there were such a choice in 2024, “None of the Above” would win the election. The lesser of two evils or the evil of two lessers?

Meanwhile, Trump’s name on ballots in several states is in jeopardy or removed. The matter will end up at the door of the right-wing majority US Supreme Court. Another first for Donald Trump. Whichever way the chips fall – most likely towards Trump and his incensed fan-base – political peace is unlikely to prevail in 2024.

But the Supreme Court will need to keep an eye on setting a precedent when it rules on barring Trump from the 2024 election. If Trump is ruled to be exempt from the 14th amendment’s article 3, which bars insurrectionists from holding office if they have taken an oath to protect and uphold the Constitution, there would be wider ramifications. The right-wing majority Supreme Court would also be giving virtual carte blanche to any future president of a political persuasion uncongenial to the GOP to refuse to leave office following electoral defeat.

However laughable the notion that a US president is not an officer of the United States, this is the main plank of Trump’s case. And the claim that barring him for insurrection is anti-democratic reinforces the upside down logics of American political culture today.

Will there be a peaceful transfer of power? There wasn’t one in 2020. Thousands of politically-vetted national guard were on duty during Biden’s inauguration.

Could the US break-up along political lines with some states accepting and others rejecting the outcome? Who knows?

That these questions are being asked at all is an indication of the new reality of US and therefore global political life, of the global disorder.

About the Author

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics and associate dean of research in the School of Policy and Global Affairs at City, University of London, a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, and a columnist at The Wire. He is an International Fellow at the ROADS Initiative think tank, Islamabad, and author of several books including Foundations of the American Century. He is currently writing a book on the history, politics, and powers of the US Foreign Policy Establishment.