Elite Failure and Populist Trump It

Cross-posted at Zenpundit.com


GOP Front Runner, Donald J. Trump (Image: Michael Vadon)

A friend sent an essay by the prolific IR scholar, Professor Angelo Codevilla that had been posted at Powerline Blog.  It was good.

For the unfamiliar, Codevilla often writes on national security and intelligence matters and some readers may be familiar with his (with Paul Seabury) book,  War: Ends and Means; but in recent years Codevilla has, like Walter Russell Mead and a number of other intellectuals, turned his attention to the shoddy performance, ethical deficiencies and arrogant demands of the new American “ruling class”, writing a biting critique of their “meritocratic regime”.

In his essay for Powerline, Codevilla turns his attention to the political phenomenon of the improbable GOP presidential front runner, billionaire and reality TV star, Donald Trump.  Unsurprisingly, Dr. Codevilla is not a huge fan of the bombastic Mr. Trump, but his analysis of why Trump has captured the moment so easily has some astute insights about the decaying state of our political system and the seething anger of the electorate:

Does Trump trump?

“In the land of the blind,” so goes the saying, “the one-eyed man is king.” Donald Trump leapt atop other contenders for the Republican presidential nomination when he acted on the primordial fact in American public life today, from which most of the others hide their eyes, namely: most Americans distrust, fear, are sick and tired of, the elected, appointed, and bureaucratic officials who rule over us, as well as their cronies in the corporate, media, and academic world. Trump’s attraction lies less in his words’ grace or even precision than in the extent to which Americans are searching for someone, anyone, to lead against this ruling class, that is making America less prosperous, less free, and more dangerous.
Trump’s rise reminds this class’s members that they sit atop a rumbling volcano of rejection. Republicans and Democrats hope to exorcise its explosion by telling the public that Trump’s remarks on immigration and on the character of fellow member John McCain (without bothering to try showing that he errs on substance), place him outside the boundaries of their polite society. Thus do they throw Br’er Rabbit into the proverbial briar patch. Now what? The continued rise in Trump’s poll numbers reminds all that Ross Perot – in an era that was far more tolerant of the Establishment than is ours – outdistanced both Bush 41 and Bill Clinton before self-destructing, just by speaking ill of both parties before he self destructed
Trump’s barest hints about what he opposes (never mind proposes) regarding just a few items on the public agenda have had such effect because they accord with what the public has already concluded about them. For example ,Trump remarked, off the cuff, that “Mexico does not send us its best.” The public had long since decided that our ruling class’s handling of immigration (not just from Mexico) has done us harm. The ruling class – officials, corporations, etc.- booed with generalities but did not try to argue that they had improved America by their handling of immigration. The more they would argue that, the more they would lose. At least if someone more able than Trump were leading against them.
….The point here is simple: our ruling class has succeeded in ruling not by reason or persuasion, never mind integrity, but by occupying society’s commanding heights, by imposing itself and its ever-changing appetites on the rest of us. It has coopted or intimidated potential opponents by denying the legitimacy of opposition. Donald Trump, haplessness and clownishness notwithstanding, has shown how easily this regime may be threatened just by refusing to be intimidated

[Emphasis mine]

Read the rest here.

Codevilla is right. He may even be understating the nature of the problem, as remarkable as that may seem.

Our bipartisan ruling elite have, in the short space of fifteen years, managed to: lose two wars; collapse at least three states into permanent anarchy; turn Russia into an enemy again; suffer the greatest counterintelligence failures in history; and nearly melt down the entire global economy and vastly enrich themselves while presiding over the greatest loss of household wealth for ordinary Americans in history, save for the Great Depression. If that is not a level of incompetence that should disqualify them from public office forever, I’m not sure what would.

Despite this track record of utter failure and brazen venality, our elite have managed to remain firmly in the saddle. Why is this? In normal countries they typically have revolutions and coups over far less, but our leaders of both parties managed to cruise from disasters to debacles to win re-election, often by substantial margins.

One reason may be that the elite, broadly speaking, have managed to restore a substantial degree of control over the information the general public consumes, that they had briefly lost  in the early 2000s and subsequently narrowed and shape the terms of “acceptable” political debate in American society more than ever before.

Once upon a time, the mass media ecology was relatively simple and politically reflected what historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. termed “the vital center” of Cold War liberalism.  The New York Times editorial page set the general line for informed opinion and most regional and local papers dutifully fell in line, with the Washington Post, TIME, Newsweek, LIFE and US News & World Report generally critiquing whatever debate the Times had begun in greater depth. The three networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, by contrast simplified and reinforced these narratives with the immediacy and power of television. The “Fairness Doctrine” effectively made the system an elite monopoly by freezing out dissenting opinions from the Left or Right from radio or television broadcast. Cold War liberalism was de facto defined as a politically neutral position not requiring “equal time”. It also represented shared values between most journalists and editors and the American leaders upon whom they reported.

This center began to lose its vitality when liberalism itself became divided over the Vietnam War between hawks and doves and support for various counterculture and cultural liberation movements; the media landscape began to shift and diversify after the Reagan administration terminated the Fairness Doctrine, and with the rise of cable news and talk radio. The era of wailing by the gatekeepers really commenced though with the rise of the blogosphere and the early days of social media, which contributed to and coincided with the implosion of the newspaper publishing industry as ad revenue tanked. For a while, the Internet meant that the elite lost control of the conversation, carefully constructed media scams were outed, scandals were discovered and online tsunamis of anger came down on the once high and mighty.

Elite control over discourse has been reestablished to a degree, not as a monopoly but as a loose hegemony based on the principles of Co-option, Coordination and Coercion.

The media elite are now fully integrated into the political and economic elite, intermarrying with them, sending their kids to the same prep schools, Presidents hiring spouses and siblings of network executives and political aides becoming faux journalists. It’s as if James Reston’s brother or Walter Cronkite’s wife had gone to work for Richard Nixon and their kids to school with John F. Kennedy, Jr.  The journalists and editors covertly coordinate news campaigns with each other, politicians, the White House, parties and advocates of causes that they support and when this fails to persuade, the elite like to intimidate.  From abusing the powers of government to harass political opponents to whipping up tribal partisan mobs on social media to furiously abuse or dox some hapless private citizen, perhaps trying to ruin their livelihood for daring to express unwelcome of opinions on subjects the elite find distasteful.

And the list of proscribed beliefs and topics grows increasingly long. The following is a partial list of topics or views generally not supposed to be mentioned by candidates, much less debated by the national standards of American politics and mainstream media:
Seeking victory vs. intentionally losing wars
Big donors and corporations which benefit financially from our foreign policy decisions
Criticizing crony capitalism not as vague generalities but as systemic corruption and identifying criminal behavior
Islam’s role  in terrorist ideologies
Muslim immigrant radicalization and participation in terrorism here and in Europe
Anti-semitism on the Left
Abuse of freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of religion by government officials
Foreign money in our political process and elections
Mass surveillance/”creepy-statesecurity theater abuses of the rights of American citizens
Violent crime statistics broken down by race, especially rates of violent crime committed by young Black males
Disparities in sentencing broken down by race, especially  harsh sentences for young Black males convicted of non-violent or minor offenses
Successful self-defense with a gun (if criminals/terrorists die – so will the story in short order)
Mexico’s narcoinsurgency and its staggering death toll and ghastly atrocities
Questioning radical feminist ideology’s suitability as a premise for public policy
Raising living standards for ordinary Americans as proper intent of government policy
Anti-white male ideology among the elite and Democratic Party; really a crude and reflexive cultural bigotry against middle and working class white males, especially Southerners 
That Federal monetary, fiscal and trade policies are intended by design to harm the interests of the American middle-class to the benefit of the very wealthy, large corporations and foreigners
Immigration, esp. illegal immigration or that the  Immigration Act of 1965 was intended to change national demographics and drive down wages of skilled professionals and unskilled workers.
Systematically tilting the scales against admitting the children of middle class and working class white and Asian-Americans to elite, “gateway” universities
Erosion of Rule of Law  (including the following)

And this is only a partial list.

To do well in the first Republican debate, Donald Trump need only show up and select a few of the more emotionally charged themes and throw them like bombs at the other GOP hopefuls on live television who will scatter but be unable to escape the collateral damage. Trump won’t need a plan or a policy or even a reasoned argument because his opponents have no way to talk sensibly about touchy subjects on the minds of millions of voters that their financial backers and the media don’t want them to even acknowledge. Harder still if Trump is getting laugh lines in at their expense. All of Trump’s vainglorious posturing like a professional wrestling heel aside, the man is absolutely at home in the television medium and comfortable in his own skin (to say nothing of his hair).

A real quandary. Attacking Trump personally, calling him names, ganging up on him or echoing liberal media criticisms will only boost his poll numbers with the GOP base and energize his clown car crash of a presidential campaign to new heights. Having nothing to lose himself with his self-parodying run, no need of campaign donors, Trump cannot be controlled and in a live format could drag down any other candidate with him. Or the Republican Party.

Trump would be an absolutely terrible president – its not even clear that he is serious about wanting the job – but as a candidate he is a walking, talking, club for Joe Sixpack to bludgeon an overweening, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian bipartisan elite.

The beating though is richly deserved and long overdue.

15 thoughts on “Elite Failure and Populist Trump It”

  1. I believe that article really articulates the anger I – and millions of others – feel – torards Washington.

    And they don’t get it.

  2. I’ve mentioned it before, but one key point shows how incapable the Republican elites are of handling someone like Trump. For the reasons noted, they are of course not going to engage him on the issues [which must not be named]. So they attack him personally. But he is a big boy and can take care of himself. So they attack those who support him to any degree as “stupid”, “racist”, “retarded”, “bitter clingers”, etc. echoing the hatred that comes from the Left only it is coming from the party that is supposed to be on their side.

    If someone tells me, repeatedly and loudly, that they hate me, my family, my society, my culture, my religion, and my little dog too; I just may decide to take them at their word. And my response is going to be “right back atcha” only harder.

    The problem is, the Republicans’ only hope of winning any putative election in 2016 requires that those people who they are insulting vote Republican.

    They are willing to lose 50 million conservative votes, to seek a few million illegal Hispanic votes. Not a profitable trade.

  3. I agree that the huge appeal of Trump is that he refuses to be intimidated into shutting up about the issues that enrage the rest of us. On the other hand, he’s a nut whose social and political principles often seem up for grabs, and who has no noticeable talent for leadership. I think what that makes him is a better prophet than king. I say give him a megaphone and keep reporting on the issues he refuses to be quiet about, but support someone else in the primary.

  4. “Trump would be an absolutely terrible president –…” I don’t get that. One has to admit that, to some extent or another, he has organizational skills, the ability to persuade (even charm) others, and possesses the ability to delegate authority. This part of his character is proven simply by the fact of his financial empire and experiences. Additionally the man is energetic and at a point of life that allows one to be a serious person. Contrast that with the crypto-American leader now in office. Of course, at least with the c-A and his team (simply by dismissing the repeated historical failure of top-down collectivism they put their characters and intelligence into question) one has ineffectual governing – in this case a good thing. Consider for a moment what effective governing would be like with these people. Trump may make the “trains run on time” and still send us in the wrong direction. That is a a concern and I’d like to see the what an extended platform would be.

    Bill Buckley’s quote – “I’d rather have any of the first 400 people in the Boston phone book president than the Harvard faculty” comes to my mind. He was right and we’re seeing the wisdom of that statement these days.

  5. I keep hoping that someone with nothing to lose (no current political office) like Carly might take up some of his themes.

    Imagine, as a thought experiment, if William Jennings Bryan had been elected president. What would have been the result ?

    He demanded “Free Silver” because it reduced power attributed to money and put more money in the hands of the people. He was a peace advocate, a supporter of Prohibition, and an opponent of Darwinism on religious and humanitarian grounds. With his deep, commanding voice and wide travels, he was one of the best-known orators and lecturers of the era. Because of his faith in the wisdom of the common people, he was called “The Great Commoner.”

    Would his policy have affected the Panic of 1907 ? It gave us the Federal Reserve Bank. We got Prohibition anyway and Wilson did much of the rest.

    I’m starting to wonder if Trump is going all the way. We will learn a lot tomorrow night.

  6. The list of “unspeakable” topics is worth the price of admission.

    Camille Paglia recently made a similar point about Trump saying the unsayable, but she cast it as satirical comedy:

    So what I’m saying is that the authentic 1960s were about street theater–chaos, spontaneity, caustic humor. And Trump actually has it! He does better comedy than most professional comedians right now, because we’re in this terrible period where the comedians do their tours with canned jokes. They go from place to place, saying the same list of jokes in the same way. But the old vaudevillians had 5,000 jokes stored in their heads. They went out there and responded to that particular audience on that particular night. They had to read the crowd and try out what worked or didn’t work.
    Our politicians, like our comedians, have been boring us with their canned formulas for way too long. So that’s why Donald Trump has suddenly leapt in the polls. He’s a great stand-up comedian. He’s anti-PC–he’s not afraid to say things that are rude and mean. I think he’s doing a great service for comedy as well as for politics!

    Camille is right. Trump makes his audience laugh. It is the laughter of relief that someone is finally saying out loud what many people think and feel. His mockery of politicians coming to him and begging for money is spot on.

  7. Great post.

    This country is going down really fast and republicans have demonstrated they can’t even “manage the decline,” as Thatcher once said. Regarding our political system, Trump is a renegade. The problem with most critics of Trump, including the poster, is that they want someone like Trump but perfect. But leaders can’t be created, they appear (or don’t) when circumstances demand and they could be good, mediocre or bad. Things are so bad that Trump may be the type of leader we need at this dire moment, at least as a transition, and I would rather take my chances with him than with any of the other losers.

  8. ” Trump would be an absolutely terrible president . . .” He couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve had for the past six years.

  9. “He couldn’t be any worse than what we’ve had for the past six years.”

    Especially if he was smart enough to do what Bush did and have an old hand whose bona fides were good. I don’t think Cheney and Rumsfeld are available. Too bad.

  10. Hi Gents

    Thank you very much.

    In regard to my assumption that Donald Trump being a “terrible president”, several comments.

    First, I am not implying that Donald Trump is not smart or capable. Mr. Trump is very smart; his shtick as a sometimes outrageous TV persona ought not be confused with his abilities and shrewd judgement as a businessman. I would allow that in IQ points, I’d be surprised if Trump were not in the same league as Ted Cruz, whose academic record outshines most of his Congressional colleagues by a sizable margin.

    Secondly, I did not mean “worse than what we have now” (which, I think we can all agree, is remarkably bad) or “worst ever”.

    What I meant is that by available evidence, Trump has not given the substance of being President too much thought. Neither “the vision thing” or the nuts and bolts on how he would run and improve the mammoth USG so that it did not end up running him. Nor does Trump have any experience whatsoever in the military-intelligence -foreign affairs realms. I would argue that a quarter century of three back to back presidents who came into office with ZERO national security experience is more than enough. I’ve looked at the results; they ain’t so hot. The learning curve on the job in an international crisis is steep.

    That said, I think Trump the candidate has an opportunity to do the country some good tomorrow night and wish him well in that endeavor

  11. “I think Trump the candidate has an opportunity to do the country some good tomorrow night”

    I agree and have begun to think of him as William Jennings Bryan, with about as much chance to be president, which is not zero.

  12. Trump is a creature of the Clinton campaign. He is creating a carefully scripted theatrical persona whose sole purpose is to energize the disaffected elements of the Republican and independent voter blocs, who might have rallied to nominate and elect a conservative candidate instead of another McCain or Romney type moderate. Jeb Bush, for example, is exactly the kind of big government, moderate Republican who would do very little to upset the ongoing bi-partisan coalition.

    Trump’s entire purpose is to set up a third party run, ala Perot, and drain off enough conservative and dissatisfied independent votes to elect Hillary.

    Trump has supported the Clintons in the past, and conferred with them before beginning his campaign. He is not a republican or conservative.

    The Clintons are obviously trying to repeat the same dynamic that facilitated the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 by recreating the Perot movement that drew off a significant percentage of votes that might have gone to Bush Sr.

    I’m afraid I think that anyone accepting Trump’s shenanigans at face value is being terribly gullible.

  13. All you say is wonderfully consolidated and right. Thoughtful and thorough. But what people want isn’t really what Trump is, is it?

    His positions on issues conservatives care about – the border, immigration, taxation, crony capitalism, energy, health care, planned parenthood, states rights – seem to be crudely drawn and not where most conservatives are. For instance, does he seem to have thought about health care and do we really want to look at Canada and Scotland as models. He’s picked up dinner chatter somewhere – that isn’t a serious approach to the presidency.

    Republicans seem to have bought into some stereotype liberals have of conservatives. But he’s no Limbaugh – full of laughter and good humor, on top of history and politics, and fully aware that he could never be a politician but he can be an entertainer, courtly with callers. He’s what liberals think Limbaugh is. That’s the persona he has assumed.

    His ego would mean negotiations would be about him – not about the country.

    I would like someone who negotiated with the good of America in mind – but the thinness of his skin makes me suspect we’d have an Obama-like president who cared more that he could say that he could get a good deal when those stupid others couldn’t. That was exactly the theory of Obama and Hillary’s “reset” and John Kerry. They still say (I don’t know if they believe) that their policies were masterful, as the nation and the world fall apart.

    A small man makes that big office seem small. Obama sees no reason to restrain himself from gathering to him power appropriate to other branches, to the states, to the people. But in doing so, he shows his smallness. I can’t imagine Trump, who can’t even fake humility, attaining it.

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