Europe: Populism and the agony of the elites

Elites on the edge: Merkel, Macron, May

Over the past month, protests have swept across France.  What began as an objection to the fuel tax became violent displays of general outrage.  These are the surface symptoms of a deeper crisis of authority in Europe’s political order.  The “yellow vest” movement lacks leaders, programs, or an ideology.  But the protesters know what they stand against:  the government, the system, above all the young French president, Emmanuel Macron, avatar of the elites.  And who are the elites?  They are the men and women who run the institutions of modern society.  There is a sense that this group has lost its bearings – that it has retreated an immense distance away from the concerns of ordinary people.

Loathing elites has become the most potent political force in Europe.  It mobilized the “Brexit” vote in Britain, and just squeezed Prime Minister Theresa May through the wringer of a party no-confidence vote for botching negotiations with the European Union.  It visited a series of electoral humiliations on German chancellor Angela Merkel, whose tenure may be counted in months rather than years.  In France, it has driven popular support for the yellow vests:  at its peak, it reached 80 percent by one count.  Everywhere, it has shattered the political coalitions, right and left, that governed the continent since World War II, and raised to prominence new parties and persons nominally attached to the right or the left but always fractious, sectarian, “populist.”

What is a populist?  Ambitious people have moved into the gap between the public and the elites.  They’ve tended to be unpolished outsiders, vulgar and abrasive in their rhetoric.  Populist is an elite term.  It seems to imply that certain opinions are popular when they shouldn’t be.  Populists of a nationalistic strain have won elections, handily and repeatedly, in Hungary and Poland.  In Italy, two very different populist parties, cats and dogs together, share in running the most popular government in Europe, with 68 percent approval ratings.  (By comparison, Macron’s approval numbers have plummeted as low as 23 percent.)  Elites ascribe these victories to demagoguery:  populists win elections by misleading the public.  The reverse of this proposition is more nearly correct.  Populist parties and politicians are riding, sometimes uneasily, on the wild kinetic energies surging from a mutinous public.

And what is the public?  It is a creature of the new information landscape.  Not long ago, elites in government and media could silence outsiders by the simple expedient of denying them an audience.  Today, information has slipped the leash.  Amateurs have taken control of the conversation.  The hordes that swarmed into the Arc de Triomphe began their march on the digital steppes – in their case, Facebook “anger groups,” in which hundreds of thousands of French citizens vented their hostility to Macron’s government.   Behind the anger groups stood people from nowhere, who had been quite invisible to the elites:  bricklayers, truckers, therapists, workers and the self-employed of small-town and rural France.

The same process has been repeated elsewhere in Europe.  The public has taken command of the information sphere, and political life has tumbled into turbulence and unpredictability.  As early as 2011, the indignados of Spain, having organized for months on Facebook, attracted millions of ordinary citizens to their street protests.  (In their rejection of leaders and positive programs, and their utter disgust with the status quo, the indignados and the yellow vests bear a strong family resemblance:  both are almost ideal archetypes of the kind of movement I described in The Revolt of the Public.)  In 2016, the Brexiteers dominated the digital discussion, even as Britain’s respectable media, in its entirety, supported remaining in the EU.  Both of Italy’s populist parties have a powerful online presence.  The largest of the two, the Five Star Movement, began with a blog by a former comedian who called himself Beppe Grillo, after the “Jiminy Cricket” character in Pinocchio.  Grillo straddles the three domains that absorb the public’s attention:  entertainment, politics, and the web.

The public has learned to speak about politics in the style of the web:  the rant.  Populists have naturally followed suit.  Violent language and political incorrectness trigger elite fury, and so reward the populist ranter with that most valuable currency, attention.  An impenetrable wall of noise presently surrounds every political decision.  Leaks and rumors, facts and opinions, truth and falsehood, poured out in massive volumes, inspire a permanent sense of uncertainty and frustration.   No statement is beyond dispute.  No outcome is ever final.  To this day, Remain voters in Britain – like Clinton voters in the US – are unreconciled and wish to litigate the results.

The insurgents are vague on details but sharply focused on the big picture.  They want the pyramid flattened, and their rulers brought into closer proximity.  The elites, in turn, are embedded in arrangements reached over a century ago during the industrial era, which enshrined top-down decision-making made by accredited experts with pseudo-scientific pretensions.  The elites think mathematically, in terms of a single rational “solution” to each political “problem.”  The public’s voice, erupting from below, they find not only disagreeable but deranged.  Whatever isn’t settled from on high always comes as a surprise.  The indignados’ arrival on the streets startled Spain’s political establishment.  The Brexit vote shocked Britain’s.  The new Italian government horrified Europe’s elites.  The yellow vest protests caught Emmanuel Macron utterly unprepared.  The gulf between the public and the elites is very wide, and probably getting wider.

Europe’s politics, as a result, tremble on the verge of a nervous breakdown.  From Sweden to Spain, the status quo is everywhere under attack.  If it endures, it will be in an enfeebled condition.  Increased fragmentation and even disintegration are possible, as the public in regions like Scotland and Catalonia hacks away at the ties that bind the nation-state.  Yet there are few proposals for reform on the horizon.  The left calls for more government intervention and redistribution of wealth.  The right wants more nationalism and less immigration.  These are worn-out ideas, and they can be imposed on an anarchic digital culture only through compulsion.  It may be that the European elite class, now permanently under siege, will arrive at the opinion that compulsion is necessary.  A more hopeful possibility is that the turmoil and anguish currently gripping the continent represents one stage in a necessary, if painful, process:  the replacement of the industrial elites by a younger generation that will align democratic politics more closely with digital expectations.

Posted in democracy, geopolitics, the public | 4 Comments

‘Revolt of the Public’ to be published today

Today is publication day for the new edition of my book, The Revolt of the Public.  In a gorgeous design by Stripe Press (see above), with upgraded images and graphics, this new edition includes a foreword from Arnold Kling and a long section updating the thesis of the book into the age of Trump and Brexit.  If you’ve read the e-book, this edition is more than worth it.  If you haven’t read the e-book, then you must read this…

Followers of this blog are no doubt aware of its close relationship to The Revolt of the Public.  It was here that I tested and refined the ideas that found their way into the first edition of the book.  Since that edition came out in 2014, this is the place I turned to if I wanted to project the book’s core thesis onto the shifting landscape of the present.  The new edition extends this process in greater detail and depth of research, while beginning the search for paths that will lead us out of our rant-ridden moment to something resembling social and political health.

For those of you who have earned my gratitude with your kind and constructive comments in the past, I have one more favor to ask.  Pass the word about The Revolt of the Public.  Review it if you have a blog of your own.  These ideas are important.  Let’s get them out to as large a body of people as we can.

You can get the hardcover or Kindle versions of the book on Amazon (hardcover link below) – an Audiobook is available as well.


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The elites of Pueblo Bonito

Ruins of Pueblo Bonito

In my recent travels in the Southwest, I visited Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, site of the most complex and astonishing pre-Columbian civilization in North America.  My guide was Tori Myers, an archaeologist from nearby Salmon Ruin (whom I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone wishing to decode in person the puzzle that is Chaco Canyon).  She shared what little is known of the people who built the place, and offered some educated speculation to fill in the cracks.

I had just finished writing a long chapter for the re-publication of The Revolt of the Public.  My head was buzzing with odd thoughts about the fate of our elite class.  Maybe for this reason, the story Tori told about Chaco sounded almost like a warning:  an object lesson.  Though I’m pretty sure history never works that way, I’m inclined to tell the tale anyhow – with the understanding that whatever is correct in what follows pertains to my wise guide, and whatever is just-so or fanciful or plain wrong is, as should be expected, entirely my doing.

Take it as a reconstruction of (pre)history or as a parable of social failure – either way, food for thought.


The people who built Chaco Canyon are often called Anasazi – as with so much today, the name is politically controversial.  Their cultural footprint covered an enormous area of the Four Corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona.  There are Anasazi sites near Albuquerque and on the Grand Canyon:  that’s a 320-mile jog.  Between 900 and 1300 AD, this far-flung people pulled off the first monumental construction program on American soil.

The beating heart of Anasazi culture was Chaco Canyon, which is dotted with a multitude of “great houses” – really walled, beehive-like settlements erected in the local sandstone.  The greatest of the great houses is the subject of my story:  Pueblo Bonito.  It holds over 800 perfectly aligned stone rooms stacked as high as five stories, dozens of ceremonial and community structures, and a large open plaza within the walled enclosure.  Population must have exceeded 1,000.  Pueblo Bonito was a huge stone village, the largest of many at Chaco.

Only when you stand in the desolate landscape does the strangeness of Chaco as a site, and the magnitude of the builders’ achievement, become apparent.  The prehistoric environment was much like today’s:  grit and sagebrush, with weather prone to extremes.  On the day we were there, in late April, a windstorm pounded us like a hammer.  Later, it snowed.  Shoved tight under the north wall of the canyon, Pueblo Bonito must have endured sizzling summers, frost-bound winters, frequent drought, and terrifying rockfalls.  Except for stone, few resources were readily available.  Water was scarce.  The big timbers needed to support five-story structures were brought from 50 miles away, on the backs of strong men – the Anasazi had no wheeled carts or beasts of burden.  Pottery was imported, and so, I suspect, was food in the many bad years.

So how could such an unforgiving place become central to a civilization that built for the ages, laid down roads through the wilderness in every direction, and traded luxury goods as far away as Mexico and the Pacific coast?  The answer leaps out once we are willing to put aside the multicultural illusions of the moment.

The distribution of gifts across peoples in history, alas, has never been equal – and the elite class of Pueblo Bonito was gifted with extraordinary genius.  Engineers, architects, mathematicians, astronomers, masons, and craftsmen all worked at the highest possible levels of achievement.  The thick walls of Pueblo Bonito rose and turned with straight-edged precision.  The stones were dressed to beautiful effect.  Structures aligned meticulously with cosmic forces.  One long wall followed an 18-year cycle of the moon – a remarkable feat of cultural memory for a people who lacked writing and whose life expectancy for men was 35 years (for women it was 24).

The massive ruins of Chaco Canyon reminded the modern Americans who first encountered them of the Aztecs.  Given their love of clean straight lines, symmetry, and order, and their penchant for monumentality, a more apt parallel to the Anasazi, I think, would be the old Romans.  Like the Roman colony, Pueblo Bonito was built to a plan.

Someone had to know and implement the plan.  Someone had to make the decisions that kept Pueblo Bonito safe and fed while the timber was being cut, the mortar mixed, and the stones dressed and arrayed.  The genius of the builders extended to organization:  to government.  The elites of Pueblo Bonito must have been a class apart.

As might be expected, this, too, is controversial.  The Pueblo Indians, who descend from the Anasazi but dislike the name, portray themselves as extreme egalitarians.  They reject the notion that their great-grandparents might have been bossed around by aristocrats.  However worthy the sentiment, the evidence runs in the other direction.  The body of a man was discovered under a room in Pueblo Bonito, wrapped in a splendid cape of macaw feathers.  Since macaws had to be imported, with some care, from Mexico, this was a personage of some importance.  Other graves have been found outside the rooms and without goods.  These were people of little importance.

You can’t run a complex matrix of activities on a thin resource base without giving someone the power to make invidious choices.  A brilliant few must have given orders – most obeyed.  I imagine that at Pueblo Bonito, as with us, those who labored with their hands – farmers, construction grunts – were at the bottom of the pyramid, while those with specialized knowledge stood at the top.  Still, I wouldn’t make too much of this.  Pueblo Bonito was a privileged enclave.  The people at the bottom probably felt superior to all outside the walls, much as a Roman plebeian, by virtue of being a citizen, considered himself above the most exalted barbarian lord.

The bonds of solidarity were strengthened by ceremonies at the “great kiva”:  an enormous circular structure roofed with heavy timbers, capable of containing much of the male population.  In the great kiva, the elites of Pueblo Bonito probably had a place of honor, but everyone sang and danced to the same tune.

Late in the life-cycle of the village came the first event crucial to my story.  An internal wall was built across the settlement.  It was a typical Pueblo Bonito wall:  arrow-straight, beautifully dressed, touching the outer wall north to south.  Careful scholars have speculated on the purpose of this structure, but to me it seems perfectly obvious.  The elites wanted to separate themselves from the riff-raff.  Their sense of symmetry and order now extended to social proximity.  In effect, they had moved into a gated community.

At the same time, the great kiva was demolished.  Two smaller great kivas were built:  one on each side of the wall.  You can almost hear the gloriously-robed architect telling his laborers, “We’re not better.  We’re different.  We need a little more space.  And look!  You get your own great kiva!  Works out for everyone, right?”

The new arrangement may have been an ideological response to a system driven into crisis by persistent drought.

For an aristocracy or oligarchy to endure, it must engender strong feelings of class loyalty.  Otherwise those at the highest levels will be tempted to push everyone below into the ranks of the deplorables.  The latter is precisely what happened at Pueblo Bonito.  The nearness of rude humanity on the other side of the wall was clearly felt to be unbearable.  Physical separation had to be commensurate with the immense social distance between the golden few and the bestial many.  In parallel, the definition of who belonged with the elites was made far more restrictive.  Former members in good standing of the upper crust were taken down – and out.  The club at the top became impossibly small.

In the final act of my story, virtually the entire population has been pushed out of Pueblo Bonito.  The evidence suggests that they weren’t cast into the cold.  At this time, despite the drought, feverish building projects were undertaken in nearby Chetro Ketl and Pueblo del Arroyo.  It’s reasonable to suppose that the new construction absorbed the outflow of plebeians from Pueblo Bonito.  Again, one can imagine some exalted being saying to the departing peasantry, “You’ll be happy living with your Aunt Millie – you like her so much!  And it’s not like you’re never coming back.  We’ll invite you to all the parties…”

The handful of families that remained in Pueblo Bonito, super-elites all, turned the place into a ceremonial center.  These people had achieved their ideal of complete social separation.  They were a vanguard that no one followed, monarchs that ruled over a great human silence.  Their exceptional talents were applied to hosting elaborate feasts, in which people from all over brought them offerings in exchange for something:  spiritual enlightenment, possibly, or knowledge, or maybe just prestige.  The last gift of the elites of Pueblo Bonito has been lost to the blind night of prehistory.  Certainly, there was no more building to be done – no more straight walls or cosmic alignments.  There was no need.

For a generation or two, they lived the high life.  Then the stone village was abandoned to the mule deer, the rodents, and the wind.

Drought is usually blamed for the demise of the Anasazi.  In the case of Pueblo Bonito, I believe there may have been an additional factor:  an elite class of world-historical genius that came to think its purpose was to be, rather than to do.  When the crisis arrived, elite ingenuity had turned to sterile ends, and could not forestall disaster.

A fatal love of order…

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The schizoid presidency of Donald Trump

The Curious Schism Between Trump and Trump

How is one to think of a president who is unfit for office in his rhetoric and presentation yet mainstream in his policies and actions?

I speak, of course, of Donald Trump.  Who doesn’t?  As an impossibility come true, the president offers a cosmic riddle to any analyst worth his salt.

Let me specify what I mean by “unfit for office.”  I don’t mean that he has committed high crimes and ought to be impeached.  I mean, rather, that at the time of his election candidate Trump was appallingly inexperienced in every qualification for the presidency.  He also seemed ignorant of our history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, and impulsive and irresponsible in his interactions with the world.

All these terms characterize President Trump’s rhetorical style – and so, one would think, the man.  In manner and attitude, his communications tend to float on the shallow waters of the news cycle and the social media shitstorm, untethered to precedent.  In substance, the president’s rhetoric often relies on propositions that are false, offensive, thoughtless, and framed to incite a strong reaction rather than to explain or persuade.  The two drivers of Trump utterances seem to be an insatiable hunger for attention and the itch to get even with anyone who has criticized him.

I take it for granted that the evidence in support of this characterization is vast and redundant, and makes citing cases unnecessary.

From the first, however, I nursed a suspicion that Trump-in-action seemed like a much less outlandish character than Trump-in-words.  We now have 12 months of incumbency behind us.  The evidence on this, too, is clear.  The actions and policies of the Trump administration are little different from what, say, a Ted Cruz or even a Jeb Bush administration would have implemented.  From a Republican and conservative perspective, such actions and policies appear to be perfectly mainstream.

The Grudging Evidence of NeverTrump Conservatives

In what follows, I am not endorsing or “resisting” Donald Trump.  I’m performing analysis.  I want to compare the president’s policies to his rhetoric, on the one hand, and to mainstream Republican and conservative ideas on the other.  Note that I’m also not endorsing or resisting these ideas.  What I’m after is a thesis that explains how a president can be rhetorically unfit for office yet mainstream in his policies.  Finally, I’ll try to make sense of it all from the larger perspective of the revolt of the public.

If style really is the man, it’s difficult to see how the rhetorical failings that make Trump unfit for office – ignorance, impulsiveness, love of the limelight – would not spill over, disastrously, to his policy decisions.  Mostly, that hasn’t happened.  From immigration to tax reform, from his judicial appointments to his anti-regulation zeal, the president has followed prescriptions habitually endorsed by Republicans and conservatives before him.

Much the same can be said of foreign policy.  Except for a slight tilt to protectionism, the Trump way on, say, NATO and the UN, or China and Afghanistan, adheres pretty closely to regular Republican practice.  He has been less interventionist than George W. Bush but more aggressive – with ISIS, Iran, and North Korea, for example – than Barack Obama.  And for all the conspiracy theories, he may well be tougher on Russia than his immediate predecessor.

The schism between person and policy is reflected in the grudging acknowledgements of “NeverTrump” conservatives, who despise the man’s character.  Noah Rothman has written of the “damage done by Trump’s big mouth,” yet accepts that the president is governing “not as a populist firebrand but a conventional Republican.” Ross Douthat observes with some surprise that the administration’s Middle East policy is “close to what I would have hoped for from a normal Republican president.”  Yet another member of the NeverTrump tribe, Rich Lowry, concedes:  “It’s hard to see how a conventional Republican president would have done much better.”

The words “normal” and “conventional” are never, ever used to characterize Donald Trump the man – not by anyone, of any persuasion.  Yet, in a conservative, Republican context, they keep cropping up with regard to his policies.  It’s the political version of William James‘ “divided self.”

So what’s going on?

The Theory That Trump Is Really What He Appears To Be

One explanation may be that President Trump and his unfit rhetoric have been squeezed into a mainstream straightjacket by the institutions of the Federal government.  On this account, a combination of reality and institutional pressure has compelled an outlandish character into conventional policy behavior – “malevolence tempered by incompetence,” as one anti-Trump commentator phrased it.

The thesis has a shred of truth to it.  Ferocious opposition to the president’s policies has inspired a constant stream of legal challenges.  Some of these have been successful, forcing the administration into a more cautious, conventional approach.  The fate of the first travel ban is a case in point

However, I believe this explanation rests on flawed assumptions.  It also begs the big question.  If an ignorant, irresponsible president can appoint competent, responsible officials who steer him toward mainstream policies, we are back to our original dilemma:  how is this possible?  If an unfit character can recognize reality and adapt his actions to it – if pressure produces moderation rather than delusion or aggression – then the explanation, let me suggest, is itself in need of explaining.

Another possibility is that Trump is only interested in rhetoric and presentation, and leaves the actual business of governing to others.  But this retains many of the contradictions of the straightjacket thesis, and smacks of a cheap shot besides.  Everything wrong or outrageous can be blamed on Trump, and nothing successful or normal can be credited to him.  No doubt, this is possible.  Certainly, it’s attractive to the feverishly partisan anti-Trump camp.  But the evidence, in my opinion, points in the opposite direction.  One of the president’s least attractive traits is his constant public berating of his own people.  For better or worse, he seems engaged in government.

Because of the tremendous polarizing power of Donald Trump’s personality, the simplest explanation may be hardest to accept.  Suppose that the president’s predilections in policy run, in fact, toward the mainstream.  Suppose his rhetorical gift is to frame these mainstream positions in outrageous, irresponsible language.  Once again we must ask how this is possible – but now the answer leaps out of the record at us.  Instead of “control the borders,” you say “build a wall and send the president of Mexico the check.”  Instead of “protect against Islamist violence,” you say “Muslim ban.”  Examples, I imagine, can be multiplied at some length.

Call it the Mannerist Theory of Trump:  nothing proposed is particularly outrageous for a conservative or a Republican – but the manner of proposing it is.

The implications are interesting.  That strange shadowy figure, the populist, would come into focus as the embodiment of a political style rather than a set of policy choices.  The populist is whoever tramples on elite proprieties, tastes, and taboos, without regard for ideology.  We should not be surprised, then, to find that one sort of populist is also a Marxist (Alexis Tsipras of Greece), while another is a right-wing nationalist (Hungary’s Viktor Orban).

I find the theory plausible, on the evidence.  It moves the question about Trump’s schizoid style of governance from the how to the why.  To answer this second puzzle, we must look beyond the buzz of US politics to that global uprising against the institutions and elites, of which Donald Trump is both a product and a vector.

How the Trump Style Surfs the Zeitgeist

The revolt of the public is no longer a new or startling development.  Everywhere, patterns of action and reaction have hardened to an almost ritual precision.  The public has been mobilized by the force of its negations and the repudiation of the status quo, while remaining uninterested in a positive program of reform.  Because the impulse to revolt was born in the turbulent digital universe, it has inherited the style peculiar to the web.  Rather than deal in finely-tuned arguments or meticulously researched studies, the public prefers the language of outrage.  It speaks in rant.

Trump’s character and rhetorical style appear remarkably in tune with this environment.  He has attacked the political and media elites – naming names – without restraint.  He perceives only his own side to every question, and hurls crude insults at those with different perspectives.  He plays fast and loose with the truth – all that matters is settling scores and winning the argument.  He tweets impulsively, compulsively, first president to place social media at the heart of his rhetorical arsenal.

Many of the qualities that make Trump seemingly unfit for the presidency in fact increase his attractiveness as a weapon in the hands of a mutinous public:  his utter lack of experience, for example, his disdain for history and tradition, even his vulgarity.  The people who voted for Trump expect him to humble the elites and break a lot of institutional crockery in the process.  They demand different.

In this context, a preference for mainstream policies becomes a liability.

The Sectarian Dilemma and the Question of Fitness

Politicians swept into office by the anti-establishment flood face an immediate dilemma.  Once in government, they can continue to smash away at the institutions – but this will damage the economy and consequently their popularity.  Alternatively, they can move to the mainstream and compromise with the elites – but this will damage their credibility and alienate their base of support.  Few have found a way out of the labyrinth.  Alexis Tsipras, to cite one example, tried each approach in turn and failed at both.

Barack Obama evaded the dilemma by removing himself rhetorically an immense distance from the government over which he presided.  He felt free to condemn and repudiate the evils of the system, such as economic inequality, while accepting no responsibility for ending them.  (That the former president’s personal success did not extend to his governing coalition or the Democratic Party suggests that the forces of negation exacted their punishment nonetheless.)

The bizarre schizoid style of the Trump administration becomes intelligible as an attempt to escape this dilemma.  Elected as an agent of negation, President Trump must now promote positive policies and programs.  Any direction he takes will alienate some of his supporters, who were bound together largely on the strength of their repudiations.  A predilection for the mainstream will alienate most of them.

Against this background, the loud and vulgar sound of the president’s voice becomes the signal for a mustering of the political war-bands.  The subject at hand is often elite behavior unrelated to policy:  “fake news” in the media, say, or an NFL star kneeling during the National Anthem.  Those who oppose Trump can’t resist the lure of outrage.  Their responses tend to be no less loud or vulgar, and are sometimes more violent, than the offending message.  Groups on the other side of the spectrum, now stoked to full-throated rant mode, rally reflexively to the president’s defense.

I have described this process elsewhere.  It’s a zero-sum struggle for attention that rewards the most immoderate voices – and, without question, Donald Trump is a master of the game.  His unbridled language mobilizes his anti-elite followers, even as his policies appeal to more conventional Republicans and conservatives.

The political risks, I would think, are extreme.  Trump was never a popular candidate.  He is not a popular president.  To retain his base, he must provoke his opposition into a frenzy of loathing and condemnation.  Many Americans of all denominations still expect the chief executive to behave with a minimum of decorum.  That’s unlikely to happen in this administration.  The maneuvers performed by the president resemble a high-wire act without a net:  one false step and the game is over.

The question I first posed was what to make of a president who is rhetorically unfit yet mainstream in policy.  The answer very much depends on one’s perspective.  Mine is that of a simple defender of liberal democracy – of the “system” now under attack along so many fronts by so many angry factions.

Among the latter the opinion can be found that President Trump’s verbal aggressions make him a new Hitler or a new Mussolini – certainly an “aspiring dictator” of some sort.  To the extent that the Mannerist Theory holds true, he can’t be any of these things.  In one avatar, instead, he is a totally mainstream policy-maker.  In another, he’s a man propelled to the heights by forces he neither controls nor understands, which at any moment may fling him down to earth again.

Words have an impact, however.  The nihilist style of social media, when wielded by the president, is destructive of trust in government and makes a mockery of democratic debate.  Basic principles of liberal democracy are sometimes trashed by the extravagant rhetoric.  To the extent that this throws open the doors of legitimacy to truly anti-democratic players – nihilists in action as well as words – I would consider Donald Trump an unworthy successor to Washington and Lincoln, Roosevelt and Reagan.


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Video: My presentation

For those who prefer image to text, here is the video of my presentation to the Hannah Arendt Center’s conference on “Crises of Democracy” at Bard College.

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The Other at Bard College

Marc Jongen of Alternative for Germany

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, New York, recently sponsored a conference on “Crises of Democracy:  Thinking in Dark Times.”  I attended as a presenter, but stayed on for the entire two-day affair.  Discussions were lively and free-flowing, particularly in comparison with the usual boilerplate churned out at academic conferences.

As might be expected in that setting, most of the presenters leaned left.  To cite just one example:  Micah White, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, talked about his experience with radical politics.  White stated that his goal was “revolution,” though he conceded that the legacy of “the twentieth century” made that an improbable hope.

Since I had researched OWS for my book, I found White’s presentation fascinating.

The head of the Arendt Center, Roger Berkowitz, labored mightily to diversify the conceptual range of the speakers at the conference.  As part of this effort, he invited Marc Jongen, prominent member of “Alternative for Germany” (AfD), a political party invariably characterized by the media as “populist” and “far right.”  With 13 percent of the vote in recent elections, AfD has become the third largest party in Germany.  It’s a new and imponderable force – from my perspective, a carrier of the revolt of the public.

In his presentation, Jongen sought to equate populism with popular consent.  He portrayed Angela Merkel, Germany’s eternal chancellor, as an aloof and arbitrary ruler.  Two issues seemed to be of abiding importance to the AfD:  spending German money to prop up weak EU economies like Greece’s, and inviting a million Muslim refugees into the country.  On neither question, Jongen contended, had German public opinion been consulted.  The Merkel government had simply imposed its will, under the mantra “there is no alternative.”

Jongen made politically incorrect statements about the cultural differences between Arab Muslims and Germans.  He associated the immigrants with an increase in crime, and said the German public had been “traumatized” by their sudden arrival.  But he was thoughtful and measured in both tone and content.  His responses to aggressive questioning acknowledged the validity of other points of view.  I have no idea how accurately he described AfD’s positions, but nothing Jongen said at Bard sounded to the right of Donald Trump.

Unknown to me, I was witnessing a controversy.  A large group of academics not only disagreed vehemently with Jongen’s opinions, but had condemned Berkowitz and the Arendt Center for allowing them to be voiced.


This angry band of Ph. D.’s initially put pressure on Bard College to un-invite Jongen.  When that failed, they published an “Open Letter” in the Chronicles of Higher Education to protest the event.  It was signed by 56 academics.

Their argument seemed to be that Marc Jongen and his ilk must never be allowed to speak in respectable society, because this would “legitimize and normalize” his “far-right,” “racist and xenophobic” views.  Jongen should be placed in the intellectual equivalent of solitary confinement.  By bringing him out in the open, Berkowitz and the Arendt Center had created a “direct threat” to the “plurality” they claimed to espouse.  So said the protesting professors.

The theory that a political debate can only be won by silence should sound strange in the mouths of people who toil in the realm of ideas.  Alas, it isn’t strange at all.  I have a friend who compares his academic work today to “a mine-clearing operation”:  at any moment, you might step on a hidden sensitivity and blow up.  The once-rowdy American university has become a place of conformism and fear.

But even on its own terms, the “Open Letter” makes little sense to me.  The AfD received six million votes.  It’s already a legitimate political organization in Germany.  To say otherwise is to deny the democratic principle.  If the party really presents a threat to plurality, its ideas should be confronted and exposed.  That was Berkowitz’s intent in inviting Jongen.  To place a ban on AfD representatives in academic conferences will not add or subtract to their legitimacy, any more than inviting Micah White added or subtracted to the legitimacy of his nostalgia for revolution.  On the other hand, such a ban would deny conference attendees the opportunity to measure and criticize, face to face, the extent of any threat to democracy or plurality from AfD.

Writing in The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, who also spoke at the conference, dismisses with some contempt the legitimacy of AfD’s vote and rejects any implication of censorship in the call to disinvite Jongen.  What matters for Gessen isn’t so much legitimacy or democracy.  It’s ideology.  She equates Jongen with Trump, and makes it clear that neither should ever be allowed to speak in the polite circles of academia.

The controversy had nothing to do with censorship – that’s certainly true.  Jongen is free to speak his mind from any number of platforms.  But Gessen appears to believe that by invoking the potent taboo “far right,” she has made an argument that places Berkowitz and the Arendt Center in the position of having to offer special reasons for inviting Jongen.  The reverse is in fact the case.  Gessen and the “Open Letter” signers have an obligation to show why, in a freewheeling conference on the travails of democracy, a significant slice of the ideological spectrum should be denied a voice.

Gessen praises the stature of the professors who signed the letter.  No doubt they are excellent scholars and people of good will.  However, “This political opinion will never be spoken among us” is a dangerous rhetorical weapon even in such worthy hands.  Wielded by lesser creatures, it has, historically, emboldened the enemies of democracy.


At the conference I heard discussion of white privilege and the demonization of the Other in US society.  Inclusiveness and tolerance, in that largely liberal crowd, were the primary virtues of politics.  But “the Other” in every instance meant a certain stereotype of victimhood with which the speaker was very comfortable.  The Other, so conceived, represented respectable diversity.

Jongen said distasteful things about Muslims and immigration.  His opinions – his very existence – made sensitive spirits uneasy.  He was “far right”:  the Other at Bard.  I note that members of the audience there handled it just fine.  They asked tough questions and elicited interesting answers.  But for the 56 signers of the “Open Letter” and their allies like Gessen, that was not enough.  Jongen, that rough beast, must be banished to the nether regions before he can reach Jerusalem.

Ultimately, Berkowitz had his way.  He was supported by Bard’s remarkable president, Leon Botstein, who found the “self-righteous stand of the signatories” to have “a family resemblance to the public denouncements of the Soviet era” – an allusion that scandalized the anti-Jongen professors.  (Gessen, born in Russia, devoted a full paragraph to explaining what totalitarianism really means.)

So Marc Jongen, of the AfD, spoke at Bard College under the auspices of the Hannah Arendt Center.  “What Jongen said had been said before, and could have been discussed in his absence,” Gessen complained – but this is true of every presenter at every conference since the world began.  I learned something from the encounter, at any rate.  Possibly, others did as well.

In a real sense, it was a victory for intellectual openness over the dogmatic impulse and fear of taboo.  The whole affair nonetheless felt more like pathology than politics:  another psychotic episode in the strange ongoing breakdown of the American mind.

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My talk at Bard: “Democracy in Dark Times” and the revolt of the public

 [Below is the text and slides of the presentation I delivered October 12 at Bard College, New York, at the invitation of Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard’s Hanna Arendt Center.  The occasion was a conference on “Crises of Democracy:  Thinking in Dark Times,” hosted by the Center.  I have invoked the author’s privilege of refining the text to make myself sound more articulate than I really was.  I have also inserted links to the quotes whenever possible.]

My subject is the tectonic collision between a networked public and the old hierarchical institutions we have inherited from the industrial age.

I worked in the corner of CIA that studies global media.  There, around the turn of the new millennium, my fellow analysts and I watched a tsunami of digital information swell and build and then crash over the landscape, leaving little untouched. At first we were mesmerized by the sheer volume of the thing.  The sum of human information, which since the days of the cave paintings had grown in a stately, incremental manner, was now roughly doubling every year.

But it was the effects of the tsunami that mattered.  Human relations were being transformed:  social and commercial relations first of all, but in time, and in consequence, power relations as well.  We could see fierce old dictatorships losing control over their own stories.  A surprising number of them collapsed.  Democratic governments became terrified of the public, and with good reason.  The wave of information resembled an acid bath of negation.

Information, it turned out, has authority in proportion to its scarcity – the more there is, the less people believe.  That is the theme of my story today.


So what do I mean by authority, and why is it in crisis?  Before we get to the revolt of the public, let’s reflect on its target:  the old dispensation.

For around 150 years, authority resided in the great institutions of the industrial world:  modern government, of course, but also the corporation, the labor union, the university, the media, the scientific establishment.  The elites who mediated between these institutions and the public were the keepers of truth and certainty.

How was this possible?  Well, first of all, no alternatives existed.  Each institution held a semi-monopoly over the information in its own domain.  When Walter Cronkite, face and voice of a great institution, CBS News, told us “That’s the way it is,” we had no way of falsifying him.

Now, the human race has been organized hierarchically since we attained meaningful numbers.  The industrial mind just made the pyramid bigger, steeper, and more efficient.

Frederick Winslow Taylor was one of the great prophets of industrialism.  He preached “scientific management,” and that has always been the mantra of the industrial elites:  that they are scientific.  Their authority is derived from esoteric knowledge that the public lacks.  In Taylor’s system, that knowledge justified control over every step of the manufacturing process.  His ideal worker was a sort of robot programed from the top.

Politics followed a parallel path.  In the great mass movements and totalitarian dictatorships that arose after the First World War, the individual disappeared into the masses.  Democratic governments became both more intrusive and more remote.  Policy-making devolved to a class of experts with Taylorist pretensions and utopian ambitions.

Politicians made, and make to this day, extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can command the transactional swirl of the modern economy, for example, or engineer social equality, or win a “war” against poverty (or crime, or drugs, or cancer).  Juscelino Kubitschek, democratically elected president of Brazil, promised to compress “fifty years of progress in five” by building Brasilia – that hyper-modern City of Man.

The reality is that democratic governments have been pounding away at the same projects for over a century.  We know by now what they can do well and what they can’t.  They can build highway systems and they can eradicate contagious disease.  But they can’t fix whatever is broken in the human animal.  They can’t deliver utopia.  Whenever they tried, they failed.

Brasilia failed to deliver 50 years of progress in five. The wars against social conditions such as poverty and crime ended with the enemy standing pretty much where he had been when hostilities began.  Most of the grandiose projects of the 20th century failed on their own terms – but the story told about these efforts wasn’t one of hubris and failure, but of a soaring ambition to improve the human lot, of reaching for the stars.

So long as the elites held the commanding heights of information and communication, they were the only authority in town.  Once the tsunami fractured that monopoly, the elites as a class, their authority, and the institutions they managed, all lapsed into crisis.


The forces that swept away the old dispensation came almost entirely from below.  They represented the voice of the gifted amateur, of the articulate non-elites.  In terms of institutional standing, the individuals responsible were often insignificant persons – people from nowhere.  Shawn Fanning was 18, an unknown kid, when he released the first version of Napster in June 1999.  The shock of that beta release sent a mighty institution, the music industry, into a downward spiral from which it has yet to recover.

Hossein Derakhshan, better known by his blogname, Hoder, was an ordinary Iranian twenty-something who, in September 2001, succeeded in adapting blogging software to the requirements of Farsi script.

The consequences were remarkable.  Tens of thousands of Farsi-language blogs materialized in Iran.  Many commented on political news, advocated feminism, criticized the corruption of regime officials.  Poor Hoder spent six years in prison for “insulting the sanctities” of the Islamic Republic.

Wael Ghonim described himself as “an ordinary Egyptian,” and so he was in many ways.  He created a Facebook page and, in the form of a Facebook Event invitation, called for the protests that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime.  Over a million Facebook users viewed the invitation.  Around 100,000 said they would attend.

Ghonim was thrown in prison during the protests, then was released and negotiated with by government ministers who clearly believed he was an important revolutionary leader.  Symbolically, that was true.  He embodied the tsunami.  But empirically he was a political nobody whose claim to fame was that he administered a Facebook page.


With Wael Ghonim and his kind, we come to the hero of my story – or maybe the anti-hero, depending on your perspective.  What is the public, and why – if I may quote old Mel Brooks – is it revolting?

First, let’s specify what the public is not.  It isn’t the people, or the masses, or the crowd.  It isn’t a fixed body of any kind.  It isn’t even one – it’s many.  I should rightly say “publics” – but that sounds terrible, so I don’t.

The public was formed by the dissolution of the industrial masses and their migration away from the center toward vital communities that represented their true interests and obsessions all along.  In many cases, the journey has led to distant islands of personal identity.  Information has been the catalyst – the perturbing agent – in this process.  The tsunami is really the public, asserting its opinions and tastes.

Digital platforms provide the public with its organizational form:  the network.  Nothing within the bounds of human nature could be less like hierarchy.  Digital networks are egalitarian to the brink of dysfunction.

Walter Lippmann, whose definition I used, tells us that the public is “merely the persons interested in an affair.”  That affair can be trivial – cute cats, Taylor Swift, Star Wars.  But when the public engages in politics, it’s to promote some specific cause, to right a specific wrong, to tag some specific event or person or policy with the correct modifiers.

Online political communities were spawned by the traditional right and left, but are not interested in working out coherent ideologies.  They care, passionately and obsessively, about their particular affair.  Anti-globalists, for example, care about the tyranny of corporations.  Anarchists and libertarians care about the tyranny of government.  Neither imagines that they are espousing a system of ideas that might be opposed by a different system of ideas. They think that they know truth, and that their opponents must therefore be liars and cheats.

These groups are born in negation – friction with the status quo brings them into being, and they exist to attack, condemn, repudiate.  Negation binds a network and transforms it into a political force.  You stand against Mubarak, for example, or Obama, or capitalism.  Once the oppositional impulse is spent, there’s very little left.  If you asked an indignado or an Occupier or a Tea Partier what they stood against, you would get long, long lists of grievances.  If you asked what they stood for, you’d get throat-clearing noises and generalities like “social justice” or “the Constitution.”

Any form of organization, of command and control, is offensive to the egalitarian spirit of the web. Digital networks resemble barbarian war bands that roam the political landscape looking to win honor and fame in heroic combat with the enemy.  The weird dynamics of the web makes verbal violence – ritual rage – the only acceptable rhetorical posture.  Every political controversy ends in personal abuse and death threats.

Extreme actors on opposite sides rejoice in finding each other.  They can engage in loud and vicious combat, attract attention, drown out moderate voices.  There’s perverse satisfaction, almost happiness, when the people you oppose perpetrate some horror.  It proves beyond reasonable doubt that they should not be allowed to exist.

The public has bought into the exaggerated claims of competence of the politicians.  This is very strange, very central to our predicament.  Even as the public repudiates modern government, it imposes fantastic expectations on it.  On the one hand, government is the instrument of self-serving elites.  On the other, it must deliver not only social justice and freedom but personal fulfillment and even identity.  Political failure – which, given the expectations, is inevitable – evokes intensely personal feelings of injury and anger.

Mind you, the carriers of this anger rarely belong to marginalized groups.  They tend to be young, university educated, highly articulate, owners of digital devices, masters of the information sphere.  Their rage, in fact, is informational:  Facebook and YouTube and Twitter torment them with a world full of unbearable things.

The web exists in a state of nature. Things are said and done there just because they can be said and done.  A great deal of hypocrisy is therefore baked into those political communities that are born online.  The rage is mostly rhetorical.  The death threats are mostly a grab for attention through outrageous behavior.  But when negation and repudiation play the part of ideology, when rage, stoked to the max, is the default rhetorical posture, when attention is the highest value and is earned by the intensity with which opponents are demonized – then we shouldn’t be surprised if individuals cross the hazy frontier between the virtual and the real, materialize among us, and begin to shed blood.

The two nice-looking young men on the slide, between them, murdered 126 innocent strangers and wounded and maimed many more.  They represent the nihilist:  the public as destroyer of worlds.

The question has been posed at this conference whether we are witnessing the rise of authoritarian or fascist governments.  Among the old democracies at least, I believe the opposite is closer to the truth.  Democratic governments are terrified of the public’s unhappiness.  They know that heroic actions are expected of them, but also that every initiative will be savaged and every failure amplified.  Their behavior is the opposite of authoritarian.  It’s a drift to dysfunction:  to paralysis.

Yes, there are Nazis among us.  They are one byproduct of the public’s escape to sectarian islands of identity.  These people with their tikki torches look pretty amusing – but they are no joke.  One of their number, all of 20 years of age, plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and hurting many others.  So far as is known, the perpetrator wasn’t acting on orders from his fuehrer or from anyone else.  He acted on an impulse:  the impulse to kill and to destroy.  Given our structural realities, I don’t worry too much about the authoritarian or the fascist.  I worry about that young man:  about the nihilist who believes, with passionate intensity, that destruction and slaughter are by themselves a form of progress.

And maybe we should all worry whether the nihilist impulse has gained a broad enough acceptance with the public to make itself felt in the highest reaches of power.


Donald Trump has been good to me.  He has sold a lot of copies of my book.  Still, I suspect he’s the reason we’re here, talking about democracy in dark times.  Hillary Clinton may be the very model of an entitled elite – but if she had won, few here, I’m guessing, would have had cause to raise apocalyptic political scenarios.

Why?  What’s so terrifying about Trump?  Well, he’s Frankenstein’s monster.  He’s Hitler.  He’s Mussolini or maybe Augusto Pinochet.  These things have been said.  Allow me to take a somewhat more analytical approach.  I see Trump as an episode in the revolt of the public.  Only in that context, I believe, could such a strange figure rise so far so fast.

Trump is a peacock among the dull buzzards of US politics.  The one discernible theme of his life is the will to stand out: to attract all eyes in the room by being the loudest, most colorful, most aggressively intrusive person there.  No question that he’s succeeded.  By every measure I have seen, Trump sucks up our attention to a staggering degree.  He’s less Adolf Hitler and more P.T. Barnum – only the circus is himself.  This aligns him with a public that often confuses personal fantasies with practical politics.

Trump has mastered the nihilist style of the web.  That, to me, is the most significant factor separating him from the pack.  His opponents speak in jargon and clichés.  He speaks in rant.  He attacks, insults, condemns, doubles down on misstatements, never takes a step back, never apologizes.  Everyone he dislikes is a liar, a “bimbo,” “bought and paid for,” the equivalent of a child molester.  Ian Buruma has written that this sort of abuse is “what aspiring dictators have sought to do.”  But dictators don’t deal in tweets.  Trump is in the style of our moment:  a man from nowhere, with no stake in the system, ignorant of history, incurious about our political habits and traditions, but happy to bash and to break old and precious things in exchange for a little attention.

Rhetorical aggression defines the political web.  By embracing Trump in significant numbers, the public has signaled that it is willing to impose the untrammeled relations of social media on the fragile forms of American democracy.

I want to leave you with a question:  what I call the cosmic Trump question.

Imagine a world in which an insignificant person with a talent for self-promotion decides to enter an election because all the cameras are there, with no thought of winning, and is catapulted to the presidency by historical forces over which he has no control, and which he does not in the least understand.  What follows?

Well, if you think Trump is Hitler, you can relax.  He’s not.  You can quit the resistance and go to the ballpark.  Trump doesn’t need your help to fail.

But if you’re me, tracking the trajectory of this structural conflict between political elites who are bleeding authority and a public that is stuck in negation – if you’re me, you worry that in a few years we might look back on these dark times and think of Trump as the good old days…

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