Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Uncharted Waters

WARNING: politics ahoy.

I am not a historian, but I do read a good many history books. What follows is my best attempt at analyzing what's going on in the wake of Donald Trump's election. I'm specifically trying to be factual rather than polemical, but obviously my prejudices will color my conclusions.

So now what? Well, whatever else it may be, Trumpism is manifestly:
  • Nationalist, in that it it embraces an "America First" ideology;
  • Populist, in that it stokes up and harnesses anger directed at elites; and
  • Authoritarian, in that an admiration for "strength" seems to be a core belief both for Trump and for his followers.
Regardless of whether you believe these things are good or bad, that's an empirical capsule description of Trumpism.

The United States has never before had a mass nationalist-populist-authoritarian political movement--at least, not one with this kind of power. Andrew Jackson came close, but Jackson in the 1820s was at least in harmony with his own political party. Huey Long took some steps in that direction before he was assassinated. The 19th-century "Know-Nothings" were profoundly nativist, and (briefly) had significant political power, but they didn't have the other characteristics.

So, as the title says: we're in uncharted waters.

However: other nations have had, and continue to have, nationalist-populist-authoritarian political parties. Historical comparisons are unavoidably fraught with emotion, but there are plenty of current examples. Consider Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, and (no avoiding this one) Vladimir Putin in Russia. To find out what's in store for the U.S., we can look at these. I draw these conclusions:
  • These regimes tend to become repressive over time. The weaker the nation's civil and political institutions, the faster the repressiveness comes. If anyone has an example of a nationalist-populist-authoritarian regime which has not tended toward repression, please leave me a comment.
  • A core constituency develops whose members will never under any circumstances turn on the leader. It doesn't matter how far the leader goes or in what direction. As long as they feel that the Strong Man stays strong, his adherents will follow him.
  • When I say "the leader," I mean "the leader." It's not a group or an explicit ideology that animates the movement. It's hero-worship of a particular man. (I can't come up with a single female example off the top of my head.)
  • The leader usually surrounds himself with loyalists. They may be competent or incompetent; that's neither here nor there to the boss. They are never strong enough to stand up to the autocrat in their own right, but they often use their position to build up their own power bases.
  • Once in power, the regime takes steps to remain in power. Opposition politicians, bureaucrats, judges, and so forth are removed or neutralized. Non-core or borderline supporters are forced to choose: join the movement, or be purged. The vast majority of them join.
In our case, I expect that the last bullet point will occur first. Trumpism is the new normal in the Republican Party. This would (in my opinion) surely have occurred if Trump had lost, but now it will happen faster and more thoroughly. A few formerly-mainstream Republicans will make ineffectual gestures towards resistance, but the rank and file will go along.

The third bullet is another interesting point. Trump is seventy years old. Strong-man leaders don't have a great record of transferring their authority to anyone else (Nicolas Maduro and Dmitriy Medvedev are cases in point). We're probably still too early in the process for him to pull off a family dynasty a la North Korea or Syria. Prognosis: unknown.

Finally, the U.S. has generally had strong civil institutions. It may be that they will check the repressive tendencies of the neo-Republican/Trumpist movement, or at least slow it down--through sheer inertia, if nothing else. Barring a major policy blunder, however, I think we are likely to see our politics dominated by mobs of insecure and angry white people for some time to come.


  1. I like the analysis. I find myself hoping that this is the beginnings of the death rattle of the patriarchy. Dinner conversation tonight was on how the drivers of the American Civil War may resemble the divisions of today.

    1. Thanks!

      Regarding the Civil War, there are some similarities, but there are more differences. Regardless of the influential fibs of the Lost Cause historigraphers, the Civil War was about slavery. The proximate cause was the legal election of Abraham Lincoln as president, followed by the violent refusal of the south to recognize the results. I don't see anyone refusing to accept a Trump Presidency.

  2. I think it's a solid analysis. Scott and I have been discussing this. He is also an avid student of history. Your thoughts are pretty much in line with his opinion on Trump. I really hope that our civil institutions hold up against the repressive tendencies we may see in the next few years. I fear the effects of angry white voices and backlash against them.

    An example of this facing off against Black Lives Matter has been playing out in a neighborhood a few miles from us since last Saturday.

    1. Thanks. I hope everything stays peaceful.

    2. Maybe, maybe not. There was an ugly incident yesterday. I was glad to see that a prominent Black Lives Matter activist is publicly condemning it.

  3. What about Berlusconi in Italy and Modi in India?

    1. I don't think Berlusconi really had the nationalist card down. He had a lot of the other characteristics, including particularly "Once in power, the regime takes steps to remain in power."

      Insufficiently familiar with Modi's policies to comment, I'm afraid. Tell me more.


    Pre-election jitters: