CRUMBLING DICTATORSHIP-The shocking defeat of GOP Senator hopeful Roy Moore may not spell the end of Trumpism, but you can see it from there. The president’s unconventional peasant rebellion has now reached its high-water market, with a countervailing tide threatening to inundate an increasingly vulnerable GOP.
One good piece of news: the once common hysteria about Trump as a new authoritarian threat should start to recede. Constitutional limits, such as elections, tend to undermine even the savviest would-be dictators, and Trump is far from that. His endorsement of Moore, uncontrolled tweeting, and otherwise un-presidential behavior likely has squandered any promising chance for using a robust economy to expand his base. The GOP Goldman Sachs-crafted tax plan, whatever its long-range impact, likely will offer little encouragement to the working and middle-class voters who have supported him.
Trump: Manna from Heaven for bureaucracy
Trump’s incompetence has turned out to be the gift that keeps giving to the growing mandarin class who dominate much of the upper bureaucracy, media, academia and increasingly the corporate world. With the feared Trumpian Reich already collapsing, we may see the revival of another subtler form of authoritarianism, this time from the re-empowered progressive establishment.
In contrast with Trump’s assertive know nothingism, our long entrenched expert class — behind so many miscalls from peak oil and dietary advice to Syria and the Soviet Union — seems a bit more credible. Instead of “draining the swamp,” Trump has managed to unite all the elements of the so-called “deep state” including both predictable big government progressives with historically conservative agencies like the FBI and most of the national security apparatus.
The establishment opposition, defined by undermining leaks and a relentless Russian prosecution, suggests that Trump’s aggrieved sense of persecution appears at the same time both petty but not totally delusional. “It’s no mystery why Trump doesn’t trust U.S. intelligence agencies,” as long-time national security reporter Eli Lake put it. “As the old saying goes: Just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. Trump understandably believes the intelligence agencies are out to get him.”
From stupid to smart authoritarianism
America’s authoritarian shift did not start with Trump’s election, but has been brewing for years. In the Obama years, we lived under “pen and phone” rule by decree that largely disempowered both Congress and local control. The former president’s legacy to the progressive coalition — paused briefly when power unexpectedly went to the GOP — means continued Democratic support for agglomeration of power in the executive.
This form of executive dictatorship is now more likely to return to the White House in 2020. The notion of enlightened rule from above may have even been further justified by the very fact that what Time’s Joe Klein has called “a nation of dodos” voted for Trump in the first place. The hoi polloi can be appealed to and cajoled, it appears, but not really trusted.
Unlike Trump, whose political methods are both offensive and self-defeating, the mandarins can count on support from most of the media, the non-profit world and the ascendant techie wing of the tech/media oligarchy, what Daniel Bell called “the priests of the machine.” Unlike the factionalized Republicans, the new mandarinate — entertainment, news media, law, software — share a strong commitment to a common progressive ideology.
More important still, the mandarins control most of the means of communication, particularly those that attract younger people. This will assist, as our secular pontiff, Jerry Brown, put it, efforts to successfully “brainwash” the masses. China’s recently anointed emperor, Xi Jinping, admired by Brown and many other American mandarins, may emerge as the new role model. That is, after Xi has shown how control of education and media can work on getting the masses to embrace “right thinking.”
Fire or ice?
The great poet Robert Frost once wondered if the world would end “in fire or ice.” Neither prospect is pleasant. In some ways Trump was “fire,” uncontrolled and seemingly dictatorial, lighting up the barrooms and living rooms of the Fox-fired middle America of small towns and unfashionable suburbs.
Yet these forces appear now to have squandered their moment in the sun. They will end up never having achieved a long-term grip on power. They have only succeeded in making noise and, often enough, fools of themselves. They fought well above their weight last year, but largely due to monumental Democratic incompetence and miscalculation.
But with Trump increasingly marginalized, power seems destined to return to the powerful mandarin class that bases its legitimacy on seemingly unchallengeable views of science and its strong faith in the superior wisdom of a hyper-educated meritocracy. They can count on some help from their own Red Guards, the enforcers of political correctness, whose agenda they share, except when it comes to taking away their money and “privilege.”
So even with Trump neutered, the authoritarian threat continues to mount, powered in large by mounting concentrations of wealth and control over information. Authoritarianism’s future is shifting decisively from Trump’s faux imperial tomfoolery to a renewed hegemony of those who remain in firm control of our most venerable institutions.
(Joel Kotkin is the R.C. Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange and executive director of the Houston-based Center for Opportunity Urbanism (www.opportunityurbanism.org). He also appears in the Orange County Register where this article was published.)