The revolt of the Yellow Vests: My interview with

[The following is my interview with Nicolas Goetzmann, chief economics editor of, a French online publication.  It was translated into French and published Saturday, March 23.  Francophones who wish to read it can link to it here.

The interview was in writing.  I have slightly edited it to make the interlocutors sound slightly wiser.]

1 – Your 2014 book The Revolt of the Public has been presented as a kind of prophecy of the Yellow Vest movement in France. To what extent do you think the ideas developed in your book match the French situation?

My book’s thesis is that the decisive conflict of the twenty-first century isn’t between left and right, or between Islam and the West, or even between democracy and tyranny.  The pivotal struggle today pits an angry public, newly empowered by a dazzling array of communications technologies, against the elites who run the great institutions of modern society – very much including government.

These institutions received their form and spirit during the industrial age.  They function from the top down, hierarchically, methodically, ponderously, obsessed with five-year plans and pseudo-scientific position papers.  They make extraordinary claims of competence:  that they can deal with unemployment and inequality, for example.  To retain their legitimacy, therefore, industrial institutions require a monopoly over the information in their own domains.  Today, that monopoly has been swept away by the tsunami of information set in motion, around the turn of the millennium, by the digital revolution.  A roar of strange new voices now drowns out government pronouncements and explanations.  An overabundance of information, it turns out, is subversive of every kind of authority.

The elites still possess all the guns and most of the wealth – but they know they have lost their authority, their ability to command, and they are disoriented and demoralized.  The public in revolt can organize online and erupt in street protests, seemingly out of nowhere, at any time.  And the elites are always surprised:  from Tahrir Square to Brexit to the Yellow Vests, governments were shocked by the sudden radical change in the political landscape.  The elites had no idea of what was coming, and they have been unable to learn since.

Now, I don’t believe in prophecy.  I think that, in principle, we can’t know the future of complex systems like human societies.  Accurately describing the present should be the analyst’s task:  and that’s hard enough.

That said, the Yellow Vests and their movement match my description (not prophecy) of the public in revolt to a remarkable extent.  To begin with, they gathered below the digital horizon, in Facebook “anger groups” where they could whip themselves into a frenzy of grievance and repudiation and yet remain beneath the notice of the media and the politicians.  Then tens of thousands appeared, as if by magic, on the streets, branded by the yellow vests and a consistent anti-Macron rhetoric.  They lack leaders.  In fact, they are anti-leader, a super-egalitarian feature of movements that begin online.  They lack programs.  Programs pertain to government, and government is never to be trusted.  They lack a coherent ideology.  They are neither left nor right, and their identity is a sort of non-identity:  they are nobodies who wish to be recognized as something.

Above all, with absolute conviction, they stand against.

The political web is a fractured place, crowded with sects and splinters of opinion.  The public is not one but many.  Positive proposals divide and frustrate it.  The public can become a political actor, unified in purpose, only in the act of repudiation:  in the negation of the social and political established order.  And that is the sentiment that pervades the public’s online voices – the rhetoric of rage that attracts more attention the more vehement and violent it becomes.  Ultimately, a revolt driven entirely by negation risks tipping into nihilism at every occasion.  Vandalism in that case is a virtue.  Destruction appears as a form of progress – a razing of corrupt, exploitive structures.

The Yellow Vests have been an almost ideal illustration of this trajectory and these attitudes.  They began with the angry rhetoric of the Facebook groups and ended by smashing at the Arc de Triomphe and burning banks.  They are also typical in one more respect.  The public never takes “yes” for an answer.  I can’t think of a single street protest in my research that was disarmed because of policy concessions by government.  The grievance that ignited the Yellow Vests’ rage was a fuel tax – but the rage, and the protests, continued after the tax was withdrawn.

2 – Emmanuel Macron started his 2017 presidential campaign by publishing a book, Revolution, in order to convince French citizens of his ability to deliver a real change. Ironically, a IFOP/Atlantico poll published this week shows that 39% of the French people think a revolution is the solution to the situation in France, far more than in Italy (28%), in Germany (20%) or in Spain (13%). Are we seeing here another piece of the puzzle described in the Revolt of the Public?

My short answer to the last question would be:  no.  Revolution means conquering power, and the public has shown no interest in doing that.  The clearest thinker on this subject (as on many others) is Pierre Rosanvallon.  In Counter-Democracy he writes: “Radicalism no longer looks forward to un grand soir, a ‘great night’ of revolutionary upheaval… To be radical is to point the finger of blame every day; it is to twist a knife in each of society’s wounds.”  That, of course, is the rhetoric of rage – the preferred form of discourse by the public in the digital era.

Nobody, public or elites, believes revolution is desirable.  Worse, nobody believes it’s possible.  What are the alternatives to liberal democracy?  What would be the new order?  The Chinese “model”?  Putinism?  Liberal democracy endures despite the public’s anger and distrust because at present no conceivable alternatives exist.  This provides a minimum of political stability but also feeds the stream of nihilism:  better nothing, a blank page, than the status quo.  Our conceptual sterility has also made it possible for some to embrace the corpses of old ideals, like socialism and nationalism, that were long ago laid to rest by history.

I suspect that the 39 percent of the French who voted for revolution in the poll meant many things by this gesture.  No doubt a message of repudiation was intended, but there is probably a cultural element as well.  I’m American, but I was born in Cuba, and I have observed that in France, as in Cuba, the word “revolution” is nearly synonymous with “patriotism.”

3 – In the same poll, 81% of the French say that the opposition between the elites and “the people” should be strong in the short term. You made a distinction between “the people” and “the public” in your book. Today, who is the public in France, and what relationship does this public have to the elites? 

As I use the term, the public is not “the people,” though it often claims to be.  It’s not “the masses,” which is a concept from the last century.  It’s not exactly “the crowd,” either, though in the day of the mobile phone the crowd and the public share an intimate relationship.  I took my definition from Walter Lippmann, who said that the public is not a fixed body of individuals, but merely the persons who have been mobilized by interest in a particular affair.  Thus the Yellow Vests are mobilized by the affair of getting rid of Macron.  The Brexiteers were mobilized by the affair of getting out of the EU.  Trump voters were mobilized by the affair of “draining the swamp” in Washington DC.  It is always some sharp interest, some irritant, that brings the public to life.  Today, that almost invariably means the repudiation of something.

The French public is like the public everywhere.  It is fractured along many fronts.  It can unite and mobilize only in opposition to the established order.  But it lacks alternatives to the ruling system, and it has no interest in seizing power:  so it lapses, on occasion, into nihilism.

The French elites rest uneasily at the top of the pyramid.  They once ruled supreme in a national system that gave the top greater power than most democracies tolerate.  Now they are besieged by protests and uncertain about what comes next.  In a very real sense, the French elites created the French public and by their sheer blindness provoked it to the present state of unhappiness.  The elites never knew such people existed.  They were invisible from the top.

Although he is usually portrayed as the last hope of the status quo, Emmanuel Macron is a creature of the revolt of the public.  En Marche didn’t exist a year before it won the election of 2017.  That is unprecedented in the Fifth Republic.  Macron had never held elected office before he won the presidency.  That is also unprecedented.  These are new people – literally so, as many citizens entered politics for the first time to support the Macron campaign.  That is the mark of a populist movement.  Macron’s language, which exhorts the French to return to their former greatness, often echoes that of Trump.

A number of adventures and accidents led to Macron’s election, but once in office he had within his grasp an astonishing possibility:  the fusion of the tremendous political energies released by the public with the permanence and purpose of the institutions.  That never happened.  I won’t pretend to inhabit the mind of the French president, and explain what went wrong.  He was inexperienced.  Possibly, he lost his way.  He wrote a book called Revolution yet spoke of an Olympian presidency and gave his first major speech in the Palace of Versailles.  He is ambitious.  My guess is that he was tempted by the crown of the Holy Roman Empire:  the dream of becoming the next Angela Merkel.  He was, when all is said, an elite of the elites, a graduate of the grandes écoles, and he threw in his lot with his class.  The people around him speak at best with ignorance and usually with contempt about the public.  Gilles Le Gendre told an interviewer that the government had been “too intelligent, too subtle, too technical” for ordinary people to understand its achievements.

The 81 percent in the poll who spoke of strong opposition between public and elites surely had statements of this sort in mind.

4 – How could we reconcile the nihilism of the public and the government’s claims of competence? 

I would rephrase the question:  How can we reconcile an unruly public to the democratic system?  Here is the great dilemma of our era:  our riddle of the Sphinx.  The answer is usually couched in economic terms.  The public is said to want more money, more jobs, more government programs.  That may well be true in specific cases.  But I note that in no instance that I am aware of have the poorest or most marginalized members of society participated in the public’s revolt.  The Yellow Vests are not from the most destitute classes in France.  They own laptops and smartphones and they know how to gather on Facebook.  The indignados in Spain were mostly university educated.  Similarly, the crowds in Tahrir Square were the children of Egypt’s educated elites.  The Occupy Wall Street protests in the US lost their charm when homeless persons began to infiltrate the protesters’ camp.

I don’t have any towering solutions – and I am suspicious of anyone who claims to have one.  We are in the early stages of a massive structural transformation.  The industrial model that for the last 150 years has become for humanity almost like part of the natural world is now being battered to bits.  This includes the industrial model of democracy:  top-down political parties, executive-dominated government, cozy arrangements between politics and media.  Many of the old ways are already gone with the wind.

But democracy predates the industrial age, and it is not too much to hope that it will survive it.

When I read the public’s complaints, not just in France but globally, I find two overriding themes:  distance and failure.  The public feels that elected officials climb to the top of a very steep pyramid, then disappear from sight.  Presidents aren’t Olympian gods.  Politicians aren’t Hollywood stars.  That is contrary to the democratic spirit.  When the public demands increased proximity, frightened elites draw away.  Le Gendre will explain that political elites are “too smart” for this conversation.  Hilary Clinton will observe that, in any case, they are dealing with “deplorables.”

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, our political elites must behave as if they believe in equality.  They must speak in plain language rather than jargon.  They must participate in the endless digital conversation.  And they must do more than talk:  they must listen.  They must come down from the pyramid, with fewer bodyguards, fewer limousines, and be seen to belong to the same mortal species with the public.

Failure is less an empirical assessment about the functioning of the modern state than a perception, not entirely false, that much is promised and much less is delivered.  Politicians make extraordinary claims about their ability to “solve” unemployment, say, or economic inequality.  But society isn’t a mathematical equation.  Complex historic conditions are not liable to be “solved.”  Candidates thus run for office on promises that will often destroy their credibility once they are elected to government.

If we want to reconcile the public to democracy, the elites will have to embrace the limits to human knowledge, and learn to speak with humility.  They will not tempt the public by promising them all the kingdoms of the world.  They will not speak as if the normal state of humanity is utopia, so that any fall from perfection must be blamed on selfish and corrupt forces – their opponents.  They will have the integrity to speak the truth as they see it, and they will have the courage to say “I was wrong” when necessary.

None of this will be easy.  None of it, I imagine, will come without a struggle.  The elites like their distance from the deplorables.  That’s the joy of being elite.  The public, for its part, wants to believe in miracles.  Politicians who speak the truth in all humility will have to overcome much prejudice and persuade many cynics.  Is that an impossibility?  I have come down against prophecy:  I can’t say.  But at some point one has to move forward on faith.  The democratic system has weathered turbulent times before – for example, in the 1930s, when totalitarian governments appeared to own the future.  There is no reason to believe that democracy can’t surmount the present crisis of authority.

5 – After the decline of Yellow Vest violence in the beginning of the year, new violence broke out last Saturday in France. The French government has chosen to respond to this security question by deploying – symbolically – French army units against the Yellow Vests’ next street protest. Where does the path of this logic lead?  

nce protests begin, governments have very limited options.  Weakness will be exploited by the protesters.  Shows of force will produce shocking digital images that scandalize independent observers.  The current government in France is caught in this vise and keeps wriggling this way and that.  First it offered a number of concessions, including the withdrawal of the fuel tax.  Then it staged a “great debate” with Macron on one side and shadowy figures on the other.  Now the talk has turned to deploying the military against protesters.

It may well happen that the Yellow Vests become exhausted and end their protests.  That happened in Spain with the indignados and in Israel with the “social justice” movement.  These protesters were able to remain irreconcilably against for only so long; in the end, they lost interest in their affair and went home.  But government action had very little to do with that.

I take the question to mean that civil war or military authoritarianism may be immediate threats to French democracy.  I can only say that, despite the rhetoric of rage so prevalent today, organized violence between hostile parties – protesters and the government, for example – has yet to occur on the scale of civil war anywhere in the democratic world.  Individual nihilists and small sects have perpetrated atrocities, as in Bataclan theater and more recently in Christchurch.  Can such tactical horrors be expanded to all of society?  ISIS achieved this in the Levant.  But let’s be clear:  in democratic nations, the horrors so far have been mostly verbal and virtual.

And the image of Emmanuel Macron as authoritarian is, frankly, risible.  Invoking the military is a sign of weakness.  The malady of democratic governments in this turbulent age isn’t that they have become dictatorial, but that they have lost the trust of the public and thus their authority.  That is equally true for Macron, Merkel, Salvini, and Trump.  They rule from the top of disintegrating pyramids, and can only muster weakness in the face of nihilism.  If we accept that reform is imperative, every attempt at reform must start by acknowledging this reality.

Posted in democracy, geopolitics, the public | 2 Comments

Has modern government failed?

Emmanuel Macron at the Palace of Versailles

I want to point readers of this blog to Noah Smith’s generous review of The Revolt of the Public (ROTP), posted a couple of weeks ago.  I would characterize the piece as “critical engagement” – for an analyst, the ideal treatment of your work.  A standing ovation is a wonderful thing, but when it’s over you are left there, smiling awkwardly, wondering what to do next.  If you are booed off the stage, on the other hand, all you can do is go home and have a good cry.  But critical engagement means that your ideas are moving forward, are in fact leaving their author’s grasp, so that you must think harder and move faster if you want to catch up with your own intellectual offspring.

That, in any case, was the way I felt on reading Smith’s review.

Here I want to re-examine the relationship of modern government to the revolt of the public, in light of what Smith had to say about it.  An entire chapter of ROTP is dedicated to “The Failure of Government.”  Smith believes this is much too bleak a view of the matter, and makes the case that “government often gets things done.”

What follows, however, shouldn’t be construed as a disputation or defense of the book, but rather as my reflections on Smith’s critique:  my attempt, if you wish, to move forward and think harder about the origins of our current predicament.

How Can We Tell When Government Has Failed?

Smith offers empirical evidence on behalf of modern government.  Some of it is, I think, indisputable:  governments have built highway systems and paid for cheap, near-universal health care.  Other claims are more controversial:  that government has been responsible for a reduction of poverty, for example.  But even if we grant all of these achievements, a troubling question presents itself.  To what extent is the failure or success of government susceptible to empirical evidence?  Stated somewhat differently:  what is the relation between statistical data and legitimacy?

A standard of judgment divorced from reality would seem like the definition of lunacy.  A government that fills its jails with opponents and pauperizes its people, like the regime in Venezuela for the last two decades, must be considered a failure.  Venezuela, of course, is an extreme example of statistical disaster – and what I find interesting about it is how many people, both inside and outside that country, would reject the imputation of failure.  The regime there still has defenders who would presumably bring up non-statistical factors – benevolent intentions toward the poor, say – to keep critical data out of the jury’s hands and so arrive at a much more favorable verdict.

A government’s success or failure isn’t derived from a number.  It’s an opinion based on something – and that something can shift ground in a most disconcerting fashion.  It can be economic growth measured in GDP.  It can be a government’s embrace of a particular ideology, as is the case with Venezuela and socialism.  It can also be an event – World War II and the Vietnam War determined the success and failure of several American administrations.

The turbulence of our moment in history adds to the confusion.  We are clearly in a time of transition, as industrial society devolves into a flatter, faster, and less tangible digital model of organization.  Our statistics look backward to the industrial age:  they miss or mis-measure much of the current reality.  Like so many aspects of contemporary life, the economy, Arnold Kling once told me, has become increasingly illegible.

Statistics like GDP or the unemployment rate are immense aggregates that create the illusion of a single national reality.  They follow the first commandment of the industrial age:  one size fits all.  Yet every day we are more fractured and fractious in our opinions, if not in our social lives.  Most of us are migrating away from the crowded Center to solitary islands of identity, and our political judgments are being transformed in the process.  It is entirely possible for magnificent GDP numbers to conceal shadowy patches of unhappiness and pain.  It is entirely possible for unhappy groups, though small in numbers, to assemble online, storm into the streets, and taint with failure an elected government.  That has been the trajectory of the Yellow Vest Movement in France.  The people involved in the movement were invisible to the statistics, and probably represent a minority view:  but they have pulled Emmanuel Macron, and his soaring ambitions, crashing to the ground.

In the darkling plain of our divisions, reality itself is a battleground.  Every standard and measurement dissolves in an acid bath of distrust.  The triumphs of high modernist government, which Smith cites, are turned into evidence against contemporary decadence and failure.  Nobody believes that government today could build the interstate highway system.

I remain comfortable with the two frameworks for success and failure I put forward in ROTPgovernment’s claims of competence and the public’s expectations of government.  Both include subjective elements – but both can be measured to some extent.  I’ll deal with expectations below.  About government’s claims to competence I will say only that these are spun out of our expectations, but tend to be sincere.  Barack Obama claimed to know to the decimal point how his stimulus would reduce unemployment, even though such projections could be falsified by events – as, in fact, they were.  When Donald Trump enthuses about his “big, beautiful wall,” he probably means it.  We have trained our politicians to self-delusion, and so increased the likelihood of failure.

And failure, alas, is likely.  How can I know that?  Because an unimpeachable witness has told us:  government itself.  On becoming president, Barack Obama looked back to the previous administration and spoke about our “collective failure to make hard choices,” our schools that “fail too many,” our “nagging fear that America’s decline is inevitable.”  When his turn came, President Trump reviewed the work of the Obama administration and perceived an “American carnage” in which “Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth.  Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

The odds are high that Trump’s successor, regardless of affiliation, will not have nicer things to say about his time in government.

What Drives the Public’s Alienation?

I have described the public as spurred primarily by negation, sometimes tipping over into nihilism.  Smith disagrees with this characterization.  “Recent protests in the U.S.,” he writes, “have not been completely nihilistic – often, they’ve motivated real, concrete policy changes.”  Occupy Wall Street, he maintains, led to financial regulations.  The Black Lives Matter protests inspired police reforms.  The Tea Party forced Obama to cut spending.

These connections seem pretty tenuous to me, but in any case I am concerned with the public’s temper rather than the policy trimmings of the elites.  And the public never takes yes for an answer.  Does anyone suppose that OWS protesters were satisfied with regulations ordained from the top of the political establishment?  Or that Black Lives Matter militants have been mollified by police reforms, any more than Tea Partiers were by the sequester?

Protests triumph or peter out – but the public is never satisfied.  I can’t think of a single instance of an insurgency disbanding because of policy concessions.  The Israeli tent city protesters rejected legislation that addressed their concerns.  Many refused even to speak to the government.  The Yellow Vest Movement has rumbled on after the original grievance, a fuel tax, was eliminated.  The crowds that gathered in Tahrir Square to demand the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak were back to demand the same of his duly elected successor, Mohamed Morsi.

Modern government, that vast pile of procedural machinery, has no way of transacting with the public’s action-hero aspirations.

Harking back to an old, sound concept, Smith suggests that the revolt of the public may well be a “revolution of rising expectations.”  That’s accurate enough.  The public craves perfect justice and meaningful identity.  It seeks to make France fraternal and America great again.  Yet it is condemned to drudge in the workaday world instead:  a source of alienation and despair.  The rebels have been mostly well-fed and well-educated.  They rage for existential reasons beyond the reach of politics.  In a landscape denuded of true authority, they turn to power, in the form of government, and place the blame.  Failure under these conditions is inevitable, and triggers the urge to smash at anything that blocks the way to utopia – notably, the institutions of government.

It is at this point that the nihilist – the public as destroyer of worlds – appears on the scene.

How the public has arrived at its extraordinary expectations is a question for which I have no answer.  No government has ever delivered the Kingdom of Heaven, and no government – not even Venezuela’s – has failed at every undertaking.  So the question is begged:  success or failure, relative to what?  If we wish to stick close to the facts of human experience, I can think of just two axes along which this judgment can be plotted:  that of the past and that of currently existing governments.   Donald Trump’s administration can be compared, illustratively, to Abraham Lincoln’s in the 1860s or to Theresa May’s in Britain.  Every other method, in my opinion, must lean on abstractions that verge on the fictional.

Yet our quarrels today are remarkably empty of examples from the world or from the past.  We gesture towards “iconic” moments, good and evil – the beaches of Normandy, Jim Crow – but to an astonishing degree we are devoid of interest in any place or time other than our own.  We are all surface and no depth – all skin, without bone or muscle.  Unlike previous radical movements, like Marxism, which were obsessed with history, the public in revolt views the past as worse than an irrelevancy:  it’s the mother of all injustice, to be abolished rather than understood.  The consequences have been predictable.  Tattered old ideas, like socialism and nationalism, are advocated in a vacuum of historical context, as if they were invented yesterday.

Of course, nothing has changed in reality.  We are still caught in the coils of history.  We are simply unaware of it.  We behave like sociopolitical stroke victims.  An organism in that condition will tend to make bizarre decisions.

At this juncture, we enter the realm of morality:  never a comfortable place.  But if untethered expectations lead beyond government failure to nihilism, then we really should pause to examine the part each of us play in the drama.  To cite a well-known example:  behavior on social media can be atrocious.  The elite response has been to blame the platforms involved, and demand filters to prevent privacy infringements, hate speech, fake news, etc.  Some wish to “break up” social media, as if they could re-impose the silence of pre-digital times.  That’s way too easy on them and on us.  The collapse of human decency online can’t be bandaged over with algorithms or anti-trust threats.  It must be starved of an audience, one user at a time.  The burden is personal, not technical or political.  It falls on me – not thee.

The fault, dear reader, is not in Facebook, but in ourselves – and so, I believe, is the fix.

Are We Slouching Into Darkness or Racing to the Dawn?

The question of government failure is hopelessly entangled with potent, long-term forces that are changing us by the hour.  There is an almost comical disproportion between the pettiness of political life and the enormity of our social transformations.  The actors strutting on stage look small, deluded, self-important.  They are overwhelmed by the backdrop:  we glimpse, behind the players, a tremendous firestorm of technological innovation, irrevocable, unpredictable, thundering with strange new voices.  The public rants about failure because government can’t meet its fantastic expectations.  The elites mourn democracy’s death in darkness because the public is now ascendant.  Even for polar opposites – cats and dogs – negation is the protected gathering-place.

The industrial mode of organizing humanity is retreating in disorder before the whirlwind of change.  How much ground it will yield, and exactly where or when – these are open questions.  Nothing is predetermined.  Everything will depend on our personal choices.  I have frequently described the encounter between industrial institutions and the digital age in violent terms, as a collision, a conflict, a war of the worlds.  In my zeal to explain the elements of our political turbulence, I may have overdone the rhetoric.  History rarely deals in either-or.  Industrial and digital are interpenetrating far more than they are colliding.  A good Hegelian would expect a synthesis to be engendered by this dialectic – the birth of a new, future-facing model, neither one thing nor the other, a creature of the dawn.  That scenario seems at least plausible to a non-Hegelian like me.

The task at hand is to re-form and vivify the institutions of liberal democracy.  Through all the years in the wilderness, we, the chosen people of this tortured epoch, must sustain and convey our covenant against the dead hand of the elites and the vandalism of sectarians.  The promised land is not a place but a time:  that happy morning when the public is once again reconciled to the system.

If government failure and the broader crisis of authority are, to a considerable extent, a function of unrealistic expectations, then we must ask what we can realistically expect from our political institutions.  The promises of candidates must be measured against the limits of human knowledge, rather than accepted as a down payment on utopian dreams.  Elite claims of competence must be regarded with skepticism.  No movement, however passionate or single-minded, can save the earth.  No politician, however eloquent, can endow an empty soul with meaning.  No government will ever validate your identity.  These are spiritual hungers, best left for religion to satisfy.

A whole literature has blossomed that insists we know a lot less than we think.  I’ll name Paul Ormerod, N. N. Taleb, Duncan Watts, and Tyler Cowen as my favorites in this bracing genre:  their arguments overlap and draw the boundary-lines of what can be promised.  We should turn to these writers when confronted with the Amazonian flood of political and policy prescriptions that aim to fix everything from the climate to obesity.  They will remind us that miracles, like meaning, are the province of religion.  Any attempt to make a religion of power will reprise that 70-year run of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” called the Soviet Union.  Failure will then be complete, and come attended by murder.

If even expert knowledge is too frail to lean on, can any government deliver the changes needed to reconcile the public to our democratic institutions?  This is actually a portentous question:  our riddle of the Sphinx.  I’m not sure I have a confident answer – but I know that I like Tyler Cowen’s.

In Stubborn Attachments, Cowen acknowledges that we exist in a state of “radical uncertainty.”  The future is, and must remain, contingent.  (Paul Ormerod will say, flatly, that “it is not in our power to ordain the future.”)  What follows?

Tolerance should follow.  Since even the wisest lack access to revealed truth, we should respect all opinions offered in good will.  The elites aren’t Platonic guardians.  They can see no better or further than the rest of us, and should therefore speak carefully – and humbly – about the future consequences of proposed programs.  The public, for its part, should treat online discussions as tests of character rather than occasions for primal screams.  That jerk you disagree with on Twitter could well turn out to be right.

A reinforced sense of the importance of morality should follow.  Since we are radically uncertain about the long-term consequences of our actions, we must choose in the moment between right and wrong.  Human life thus becomes high moral drama, riven with doubt and self-judgment, rather than a series of mechanical moves engineered to obtain predictable outcomes.

For government, the most important implication of Cowen’s uncertain world concerns the crafting of policies and programs.  Even if the policy goal is clear, the way there never is, so the marching orders should include a great deal of trial and error and the possibility of self-correction.  To avoid the fatal illusion of a steady-state reality, big, ambitious programs must advance one step at a time.  We need not surrender to cynicism or despair.  Government can play its part in bringing about the changes needed to reconquer the public’s loyalty – but it must show greater flexibility between ends and means.  “Our attachment to particular means,” Cowen writes, should be “highly tentative, highly uncertain, and radically contingent.”

I find myself wanting to live in the adventurous world Cowen describes:  and it may be that I already do.

Where, finally, do we stand?

The public’s quarrel with government, and its perception of failure, is driven as much by elite behavior as by an assessment of how political institutions have performed.  The generation of elites that was young when industrial giants roamed the earth is now failing, literally and physically.  Its enjoyment of the large corner offices within the pyramid will soon go the way of all flesh.  Many expressions of extreme political despair coming from the elites can be ascribed to a panic of mortality.  Young people are displacing old.  The latter have had their day.  Of the young, an analyst should say as little as possible, other than to wish them the best of luck.

When I consider our unsurpassed affluence, high levels of education, and freedom from oppression, I’m inclined to agree with Noah Smith that the rumors of government failure have been greatly exaggerated.  That is the perception nonetheless.  Part of the responsibility falls on political rhetoric:  confident claims of competence too often crash and burn against Cowen’s contingent reality.  In part, as we have seen, failure is a function of the utopian hopes of the public.  These are largely subjective factors.  A naïve observer would imagine that they can be easily changed.  I can only say that I have plowed this particular field for many years now – and it has been my experience that nothing is harder to change than a human mind.

Posted in democracy, the public | 3 Comments

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 | 8 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…

Posted in cataclysm | 12 Comments

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.

Posted in democracy, the public | 1 Comment