Notes on the Peaceful Transition of Power: The Continuity of Violence in America's Imperial Democracy


Bryant William Sculos I Politics & Government I Analysis I February 2nd, 2017



In the weeks leading up to and the hours after Donald J. Trump's inauguration as President of the United States, we've seen the media (and by media I mean the major network television and print media like CNN and Washington Post, just to name a couple) repeat and glorify the so-called "peaceful transition of power" that Inauguration Day represents. President Barack Obama has been applauded for working with and speaking so respectfully about Donald Trump's transition team. Former US Secretary of State and former Democratic Party 2016 Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has also been complimented for her near-complete silence during this period since the election. The supposed peaceful transition of power is often treated as the pinnacle achievement and representation of the greatness of the American political process, and the 2016-2017 instantiation has been no different.

While there were certainly no troops marching into Washington, DC to remove Barack Obama from office to install Donald Trump as President, nor did Trump need to resort to assassination to ascend to the American throne; there is a difference between a nonviolent transition of power and a near-complete acquiescence to the revived and remodeled cast of American neo-fascism represented by the newly empowered Trump administration.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and their progressive left Democratic ilk have been bright spots, as have been the thousands more organizing around the country and world to protest and resist the far-Right agenda of Trump and his alt-Right allies (though this agenda is certainly not outside the GOP platform in most respects). There is an awakening resistance, a resistance that we certainly needed more of over the past eight years when it came to demanding that Obama maintain his support for the public option, against the unending and illegal global drone war, against the increase in support for Saudi Arabia's assault on Yemen, and against Israel's apartheid regime and expanding occupation of Palestine. The good news is that the resistance is emerging again now.

What we see now is a transformation of the fugitive democratic power of the people in cities across the country and around the world, and given the near ubiquitous presence of the police and practices of state violence at these marches, rallies, and protests, these resistances to the transition of power can hardly be considered peaceful. When the people have the power and it is exercised by and for the people, in the absence of state or structural violence, only then could it ever rightly be considered peaceful.

There were mass, structural, and direct violences (re)produced by the Obama regime and there will be some of the same violences along with new, different ones under Trump (and the same would have been true under a Hillary Clinton presidency as well). The idea of the peaceful transfer of power is a troubling mythology, despite its very superficial truth. Here are several aspects of this supposed transition of power that reflect the continuity, and potential exacerbating, of structural and direct violence:


1. In one of his final acts as commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, President Obama ordered B-2 bombers to launch one final (at least of his presidency) assault against supposed ISIS-affiliated fighters in Libya . This event was seemingly ignored by the American public (because it was mostly ignored by the mainstream media and wasn't tweeted about by Trump or Kim Kardashian). What does a new president mean for the people of the countries we have been bombing over President George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's presidencies? A peaceful transition of power would seem to preclude "one last bombing for good measure," which seems to be the only way to explain this last military act-apparently not. Additionally, there is a continuity of military operations in these various countries from Obama to Trump. New standing orders will be needed for specific bombings and new campaigns, but much of the existing fighting around the world, where US troops or operational and/or financial support are involved, will continue in support of American-capitalist imperialism. The peaceful transition of power means the US will continue to kill innocent civilians around the world; they might be different people in different countries, perhaps even quantitatively less of them than under Obama (who could trust anything Trump has said, but he has promised to decrease US involvement in military operations around the world), but there is no doubt people who have literally no say in the US electoral system will continue to be subject to the systematic vengeance of our empire. This is the peaceful transition of power.

2. Another act that President Obama undertook prior to his departure from the west wing was the commutation of much of the remainder of Army whistleblower-turned political prisoner and trans-rights icon Chelsea Manning's sentence (she will be released on May 17, 2017 instead of May 17, 2035). Edward Snowden, Leonard Peltier, and the remaining detainees at Guantanamo Bay prison had no such "luck." The peaceful transition of power represents the endurance of structural and direct violence against all of those who were not pardoned nor had their sentences commuted. Obama, without violating any aspect of the constitution or law or costing himself politically (at least in regards to any potential reelection), could have pardoned or commuted the sentences of all political prisoners and those convicted of non-violent crimes. Trump certainly won't. Hillary Clinton certainly would not have. In this context, the peaceful transition of power means the maintenance of the mass incarceration system and mass violation of human rights.

3. According to a recent Oxfam report , eight men control 50% of the world's wealth. The peaceful transition of power means the endurance of this most egregious truth and the system that allows and encourages this truth to remain truth. The peaceful transfer of power represents the continuation of mass poverty and inequality in the US and around the world. People will continue to struggle to feed their families, while the world's richest men, some of whom (though none of the eight richest) have found new employment in Donald Trump's cabinet. The peaceful transition of power means failing to comprehensively reject the structural possibility for any people to be so wealthy while others on any scale, never mind the scale to which we are witnessing around the country and around the world, struggle and suffer so manifestly. The peaceful transfer of power means the transition from one group of plutocrats to even more wealthy plutocrats.

4. Relatedly, the peaceful transition of power means those who continue to lack health insurance or access to health care in any consistent or substantial way will continue to lack health insurance and access-and if the GOP has their way, even more people will lose the limited access the Affordable Care Act granted them as well as those crucial women's health services provided by Planned Parenthood in the US. Maintaining a health care system that is nearly entirely privatized is the epitome of structural violence. It may seem obvious, but it bears emphasizing: in the US, if you cannot afford preventative care or even life-saving treatments, including to necessary prescription drugs, you are truly shit out of luck-even if the number of those who are shit out of luck has decreased under the presidency of Barack Obama. Without a universally accessible public option, the peaceful transition of power means the reproduction of the barbarism of the US health care system.

5. Lastly (though there are certainly more we could come up with), the peaceful transition of power means some people could very likely lose the right to their family, whether because they of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or their immigration status. People could lose their parents, and others could lose the right to become parents. Children could lose the right to be with their parents, and others could lose the right to be adopted by gay or trans parents. Whatever Trump and the GOP do with regard to immigration, it will likely follow in the footsteps of "deporter-in-chief" Barack Obama's policy of mass deportation . Whatever Trump and the GOP do with regard to LGBTQA+ rights, it will likely only be enabled by the inability of the Democratic Party to structurally secure these rights more fully when they had the opportunity to in the first two years of Obama's presidency.

As opposed to the self-deceiving mythology of a most grotesquely violent "peaceful transition of power," we need to give new meaning to this perverse phraseology. The peaceful transition of power should only mean the end to imperial warfare and the corporate, consumer capitalist system that undergirds it. The peaceful transfer of power can only mean the democratic seizure of the means of political, economic, and social power by the people and for the people. Until then, the peaceful transfer of power will remain a cruel untruth. Until we succeed-a process that will surely take a generation or more-the peaceful transfer of power must be our goal, not the mythological paean that has never been reflective of any reality of the American system. Until that time, we will only have the violent maintenance of violent power-whether the US President is Black, white, female, or orange.



Bryant William Sculos is a contributing writer with the Hampton Institute, a PhD candidate in political theory at Florida International University, and Politics of Culture section editor for Class, Race and Corporate Power . He writes on topics including Critical Theory, global ethics, democracy, and (post)capitalism. His work has been published in New Political Science, Political Studies Review, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, and New Politics . Bryant is an at-large member of Socialist Alternative in the US. He can be reached at bscul005@fiu.edu .