With jobless claims now past an astonishing 16 million with no end in sight, the COVID 19 pandemic is likely to push the US into another Great Depression. If that is the case, the countless indices of human misery will put enormous pressure on political institutions that are ill-equipped to respond adequately, opening the way for radical visions on both left and right.
Already, Congressional action so far has fallen far short of any ability to slow its catastrophic effects across the economy. The Fed has announced a $2.3 trillion expansion of its lending and bond-buying plan yesterday that even the Wall Street Journal sees as a sop for risky financial assets that will allow small businesses falter and collapse. Trump continues to flail in countless ways – failing even to act as a proper authoritarian. Biden continues to demonstrate how singularly ill-suited he is for this moment. And with Sanders out of the race, the party is likely to continue float downriver using navigational equipment that has not been updated to show the giant waterfall just over the horizon.
So what can we learn from the last Great Depression? Historical comparison is always risky, but in a moment as new and disorienting as this one we have take what we can get. One important point is that stock market crash in 1929 and its aftermath opened up novel political possibilities on both the right and left. One big difference in the United States between then and now however is that there was both a large and organized left, and a labor movement that had demonstrated its leverage in an industrial economy.
We might want to imagine that the vast immiseration which will exaggerate already extreme inequalities in the US will propel ideas and movements from the left. But historically the right has also shown deft ability to interpret crises. Even in the era of the New Deal, as conservative Republicans were largely stymied, the radical right flourished. Father Coughlin’s radio broadcasts, which blamed both “international bankers” and communists had a regular audience of millions by the early 1930s. The fascist Silver Shirts blamed Jews for the Depression, and offered a European model of corporatism with built-in racial designations. Various other Klan-related groups like the Black Legion emerged as well. What these groups shared was a politics addressed to the crisis as such, incorporating left elements of analysis into right-wing solutions that were nationalist, racist, and sharply hierarchical.
Within the Trump administration, the nationalist tide continues to rise. Attorney General William Barr in an interview on Fox News this week with Laura Ingraham, “I’ve felt for a long time ― as much as people talk about global warming ― that the real threat to human beings is microbes and being able to control disease, and that starts with controlling your border,” he said. “So I think people will be attuned to more protective measures.”
Beyond the White House, many mainstream conservatives are doing little more than grumbling about the economic cost of lockdown orders. But the populist right is on the move. Tucker Carlson’s right-wing populist attacks on immigrants on the one hand and Wall Street profiteers on the other shows is well-pitched to his millions of viewers in the coming economic collapse. As more migrant workers and working-class urban Latinos and Blacks are disproportionately struck by the virus, it is not hard to imagine more intense demonization of these communities, along with Asian Americans.
Among some on the right there is a nearly welcome embrace of the virus. As Benjamin Teitelbaum wrote in the Nation this week, Steve Bannon sees the suffering caused by what he calls the Communist Party virus in daily radio programs as part of an inevitable shift away from globalization and toward the rise of a new nationalism. Indeed, COVID 19 is an almost perfect expression of the idea Bannon has been peddling for years based on his adherence to thesis of the book, The Fourth Turning, which posits cyclical eras of great suffering that precede new moments of cultural renewal made possible by great austerity and militaristic authoritarianism.
Whatever comes, the right will seize on opportunities presented both by the virus itself and the economic misery in its wake to creatively mix old ideas with new interpretations to engender novel political formations. The left should be doing the same.