(Originally published here in the South China Morning Post on October 26, 2021)
The American Democratic Party just handed its opponents another victory in the battle for control of the US government.
The US House of Representatives voted last week to hold Steve Bannon, a strategist in the Trump administration, in criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to comply with its investigation into the January 6 insurrection against the US government.
The result might seem to be the start of a process that would shine a light on the machinations that led to what White House press secretary Jen Psaki refers to as “one of the darkest days in our democracy”, and bring to justice a former president who was impeached for inciting the mob, but ultimately acquitted by the Senate.
Largely along party lines, the vote showed us that there will be no attempt by the Republicans to reconcile themselves with what former US president Donald Trump did on January 6. Bannon is surely elated.
There are many steps ahead, including the House’s referral of the case to the Justice Department for possible prosecution, which would mean a trial that could drag on for who knows how long. Every step will be an opportunity for the new Republican Party to, as Bannon would say, “flood the zone with shit”.
Throughout, we will see this strategy at work. Its effectiveness has allowed the party to all but snuff out its former identity – the one that let Richard Nixon know that they would not stand by him after the Watergate revelations.
The one that would have distanced itself from a president found to have extorted a foreign ally to find dirt on a political opponent and his son.
The one that would have condoned face masks and breakthrough vaccines in the midst of a pandemic instead of making resistance to such measures a litmus test and allowing Covid-19’s Delta variant to overwhelm vaccine-resistant Republican strongholds this past summer.
Here’s a quick history lesson for those scratching their heads trying to figure out how American politics got here.
Decades ago, when former president Lyndon Johnson made civil rights for black Americans a key policy objective, the Republicans absorbed the “Dixiecrats”, the largely southern-based wing of the Democratic Party along with most of America’s fundamentalist Christians in an odd but effective coalition with big business.
A mostly centre-right bloc, the Wall Street Republicans, largely kept the party’s most virulent racists and holy warriors under control.
But as one of the brains behind Trump’s 2016 election strategy, Bannon kicked away all the restraints. He knew that those left behind financially in the boom years of the 1990s and throughout the recovery from the Great Recession were tired of being taken for granted by the Democrats. He turned on American multinationals for selling out American workers through offshoring, putting big business on its back foot politically.
What does all this mean for the political drama that is playing out around Bannon and his connection to the insurrection.
Consider that Senator Josh Hawley, who saluted the pro-Trump mob with a fist pump soon before the violence began, is now more popular than he was a year ago. He took some hits in the immediate aftermath of the riot in the form of lower approval ratings, but the efficiency with which Republicans framed the riot as a left-wing plot with Bannon-esque, flood-the-zone propaganda about Antifa agents planted in the crowd undid the damage.
According to the results of a survey by Saint Louis University and YouGov in Hawley’s deep red Republican state of Missouri in July, the senator’s approval rating had risen by 3.6 percentage points year on year.
This is not to say that the full force of the law should not be brought to bear on Bannon if there is evidence that he helped orchestrate the January 6 insurrection. It’s just that anyone hoping that a criminal contempt conviction will lead to a just resolution should understand that contempt for Congress is what gives Bannon his power.