Donald Trump in the Age of Cynicism


A model for understanding what’s going on today

I want to tell you a story about something that happened in the news a few days ago. Even though it didn’t turn into a giant disaster, it accidentally revealed a lot about what’s really going on in the United States right now — and may offer us a clue to understand the situation we’re in.

1: Cojones

Last week, ex-general John Kelly made public remarks that many interpreted as testing the waters for military rule. He explained how only members of the military, and the families of those killed in combat, can really understand the nature of government and legitimately criticize the President — unlike civilian members of Congress, or the press. The next day, Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on the point, saying it is “highly inappropriate” for a (civilian) reporter “to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general” — this despite the fact that Kelly is no longer a general, that civilian control over the military is a bedrock of the American system, or that this “debate” was over the fact that Kelly had provably lied several times in his remarks that previous day.

The idea that “only the military can really understand what it takes to run the government” is common rhetoric worldwide: from Thailand to Egypt to Argentina, it’s been the bedrock argument of why the military should seize power. Fortunately, and to our country’s credit, several other ex-generals quickly (and publicly) stomped down Kelly’s suggestion, and nobody seems to have taken up his idea.

But where did a former Marine general get the nerve to stand up in front of the White House Press Corps and question the legitimacy of civilian rule?

2: Legitimacy

There are not many institutions left in the US which the public trusts. Each week seems to bring the revelation that some childhood hero was actually a monster. Congress was last capable of cooperating to pass laws for the public good in the mid-1990’s — a good quarter century in the past. Political parties are viewed with increasing disgust by all sides, as being anything from incompetent to tools of a corrupt establishment; but mass movements from Bernie Sanders to the Tea Party have quickly gotten the appearance of being centrally coordinated and controlled.

Industry fares no better. Business leaders tout an “economic recovery” where it turns out that 94% of the net jobs created were actually contract, temporary, gig, or other kinds of “alternative labor” (as the euphemism goes), bereft of any of the stability or benefits which our system assumes jobs give people — and in fact, the era of mass employment seems to have come to an end.

Mauro Martino’s famous visualization of the increasing polarization of Congress, showing who votes with whom.

Two weeks ago, Google announced that it would commit a billion dollars to training US workers for high-tech jobs. When I posted about it, you can probably guess the responses right away: not merely critiques of “why are private companies suddenly responsible for doing basic government jobs,” but a conviction that this was part of a plan to distract the public from malfeasance on Google’s part, or to drive down wages by saturating the market with trained workers.

The problem with these concerns isn’t that they’re unreasonable: it’s that they’re very reasonable.

The people who used to be seen as public servants fare no better. Police brutality has always existed, but in 2015, with the murder of Michael Brown, it became news, and people started to talk about it. But where did that lead, where did the era of body cameras lead? To a world where we take it as read that we will frequently see video of a police officer killing someone in cold blood, that he will face no consequences, and that the right of police to execute someone for disobeying their orders is just the way things are.

The problem with these concerns isn’t that they’re unreasonable: it’s that they’re very reasonable. Companies, government, leaders, have betrayed the public trust so often in the past few decades that you would have to be a fool to take what they say at face value. And people aren’t fools.

We have entered an age of Nihilism, and it has been well-earned. I could fill 5,000 more words just listing examples of this, and all it would do is depress you.

I remember one other similar age of Nihilism: the age of Brezhnev. Soviet Communism was far too clearly a hollow shell, but every day, the government and its controlled press told you that everything was alright. People could read Pravda articles about new records in productivity while they waited hours in line to buy toilet paper.

The cynicism developed in these years proved crucial to understanding the next decades of Russian history: from distrust of Gorbachev’s reforms, to acquiescence at Yeltsin’s thievery, to seeing Putin’s iron rule as a relief, a sort of “return to normalcy” — even if that normalcy wasn’t very nice.

This is far from the only such case in history; I’ve heard it from Chinese friends about the Deng era, where the (forbidden) memory of the Cultural Revolution left a public that no longer had faith in either Confucian or Communist ideals, and was only interested in money, or (in even more hushed tones) about the post-Tiananmen era, where not thinking too hard about even the most obvious political questions has become a requirement of survival and success.

(Simply writing that paragraph guarantees this post will be illegal in China; nothing ever happened at Tiananmen Square, and why are you asking about it, Citizen?)

What all of these cases have in common is a combination of the widespread failure of public institutions, and people feeling like they’re not allowed to admit that they’ve failed. In the Soviet Union or Communist China, that was enforced by the secret police; in the United States, it’s a more social pressure, the feeling of American exceptionalism. To compare America to other countries — to do something like seriously compare what an American ex-general said to the language of third-world dictators, like I did at the start of this article — is just something not done. You may have felt that twinge of discomfort when you read those sentences, like I was making some kind of ridiculous comparison.

But what makes it ridiculous? America is a country. A rich, large, country, but there have been plenty of other rich, large countries in history, and there will be more in the future. But there is a pervasive cultural norm in the US that at the end of the day, this country is different from other ones, and that “even comparisons” with anything short of the Roman Empire are just wrong.

(I’ve often suspected that this is why soccer is so unpopular in the US. It’s a sport at which America isn’t anywhere close to top-ranked; the men’s national team just got eliminated from World Cup consideration by Trinidad and Tobago, not exactly a world-class team in their own right. Americans are uncomfortable in competitions where their country is not obviously going to be among the top contenders. It’s a sort of lèse-majesté: would people still take American policy and diplomacy as seriously if they could beat the US at a major sport?)

3. The military

The military is one of the few institutions in the US whose reputation hasn’t been as deeply tarnished. That’s not because of some special virtue that the military has; anyone who has served in it can list for you all sorts of ways in which it’s broken. Rather, it’s a consequence of the move to an all-volunteer force (the end of the Draft) and a post-Vietnam effect.

The phrase “support the troops” emerged during the first Gulf War. It became a rallying cry, not for the right, but for the left: a reminder that even though one opposed the war, one should not take this out on the individual soldiers who served. It was a very conscious reaction to one of the gravest mistakes of Vietnam: that a public incensed at a pointless war took out its rage on people who had done nothing more than to be drafted, letting them come home to contempt, disdain, homelessness, addiction, and loneliness. The conscious public choice not to repeat this was very important.

But at the same time, with the end of the Draft, soldiers were no longer people you knew. The US military has become profoundly class-separated from the rest of the country: you are likely to either know a lot of veterans or none, but nothing in the middle. And as the average American gets increasingly separated from the military, “supporting the troops” becomes a politically and emotionally inexpensive way to try to maintain that tie. It’s people without experience of the military who are most likely to lionize it in print nowadays.

4. The Vacuum

It’s a big step from a distrust of corporations to even a hint of military rule. Something else needs to happen, and that something else is Donald Trump.

Donald Trump came to office wanting to be a dictator. Nearly his first act was to order a ban on people from Muslim countries, even legal permanent residents, entering the country, while ordering his enforcers to ignore the courts when told this was illegal. (Not coincidentally, John Kelly was Secretary of Homeland Security, and chief of those enforcers, at the time) He was trying to see what he could get away with: would his (Twitter) popularity allow him to simply order things to be the way he wanted, and that nobody could tell him no?

As it happened, he was thwarted — and while he hasn’t stopped seeing what he can get away with for a moment, his view of himself as absolute ruler of the United States of America has been limited by the simple fact that he’s an idiot, and that nobody in Washington takes him very seriously anymore.

But you don’t need to be brilliant to be a danger to democracy; quite literally, an idiot could do it.

When there is a vacuum, someone will fill it… Where Donald Trump has failed to be Vladimir Putin, he has succeeded at being Boris Yeltsin.

Donald Trump has created an unprecedented power vacuum in the United States. There is effectively no President: he spends all his time golfing, watching television, and rambling on Twitter, and when actual emergencies crop up, they will either be handled by other officials or not at all. There is effectively no Cabinet: not only have many positions not been filled at all, but those who have been filled are with people dedicated to destroying their own departments, and Trump himself delights in publicly undercutting what little authority they have. This is how, when the Caribbean was recently devastated by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was left with no Federal assistance for days, and Trump appeared to be wholly unaware that the US Virgin Islands were part of his own country.

At the same time as he has created a tremendous power vacuum, Trump and his cronies have been openly looting public coffers, doing everything from having the government pay millions to rent space at Trump’s own properties to Interior Secretary Zinke granting a $300 million no-bid contract to two people from his home town to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electric system, complete with provisions forbidding anyone from auditing their books or suing them if they fail to complete the work.

When there is a vacuum, someone will fill it. When the country’s assets are being sold off for pennies on the dollar to friends of those in power, unimaginable wealth and power end up in those hands. We’ve seen this story before. Where Donald Trump has failed to be Vladimir Putin, he has succeeded at being Boris Yeltsin.

5. Thieves

More than any other man, Boris Yeltsin made Russia what it is today. He did this not with leadership, or savvy, but with a combination of corruption, spectacular incompetence and continuous drunkenness. In the years after the fall of Communism, when Russia critically needed to redefine its public institutions and build new systems, he alternated between sitting in a stupor, angry rambling, and selling off the country to apparatchiks and mafiosi — the people who would become Russia’s oligarchs.

Under Yeltsin, Russia experienced unheard-of mortality rates from everything from violence, to suicide, to hunger. Its economy and political power were gutted, taking the country from an unquestioned superpower to a second-, even third-tier backwater.

In an act of incredible foolishness and hubris, Clinton (then President of the United States) not only allowed this, but encouraged it. He gave Yeltsin plenty of camera time while casually ignoring Russia on every major political issue, even ones directly in the country’s back yard like the collapse of Yugoslavia and the wars which followed. The sudden and complete dropoff of the USSR from the political scene allowed the US to briefly become a “hyperpower,” with all the strength of a superpower and nothing to restrain it, while Russia simultaneously descended into chaos.

Why was this stupid? Wasn’t Clinton right to maximize American power, and take advantage of a moment when an opponent was weak?

Because nature abhors a vacuum, not least a power vacuum. The sources of Russian power hadn’t vanished; they were simply not under central control, and so were quickly snapped up by others. These oligarchs were numerous, little-known, and now had such strong independent bases of power that nobody could meaningfully control them. Russia became a base for international crime, and for corruption and thievery of unprecedented scales, and for public desperation.

Vladimir Putin’s entire term as President (and briefly as Prime Minister, although if you believe that he was out of power for even a minute then, I have some swampland in Siberia I’d like to sell you) has been a reaction to this. The reason for his (real) popularity in Russia is that he has been undoing what Yeltsin did: by seizing power himself, and making public and nasty work out of any oligarch fool enough to go against him. In so doing, he’s brought something resembling order back to Russian daily life, which after the better part of a decade of frantically trying to make it from day to day, was a welcome relief. Of course, he’s made equally public and nasty work out of any journalist fool enough to go against him, and his puppet warlord in Chechnya is setting up concentration camps for gay people; corruption is still rampant, but it must all go through quasi-official channels, now. Vladimir Putin has been effective — that doesn’t mean what he’s built is nice.

Donald Trump is America’s Boris Yeltsin. The manufacture of a power vacuum, together with the country being sold off cheaply to those with connections, is tremendously valuable to anyone who profits from the collapse of American power, from prospective oligarchs to foreign governments. But just like in Russia, a vacuum not only breeds mass suffering, it creates an opening which will be filled by something else.

I couldn’t offer you any guesses as to what might fill it. John Kelly appears to have thought the military might; the public response suggests that no, it won’t be. We are equally unlikely to get our own Putin; Putin is a very uniquely Russian leader, operating in a style with historical roots going back hundreds of years.

American history is too short to be easily read on this subject. It’s easier to think of things which whatever succeeds Trump will not be. It will almost certainly not look like our 20th-century system. In fact, it’s quite likely that what comes next will be a democracy in name only; democracies are specifically designed to make it hard to seize and keep power, and those are precisely the attributes typically required to unify control following a power vacuum. It is unlikely to be entirely disunited, since there is a strong public urge to remain a single country, and the political and military threats of the 21st century (especially giving the growing effects of climate change) will give a clear advantage to a government capable of centrally managing its responses. It is overwhelmingly likely to favor the interests of at least some subset of the oligarchs today holding or acquiring power, since they are the forces it will have to unify to succeed. But beyond this, I remain in the dark about what we are going to see down the road.

But at last, I think that I am finding a language to describe what we are encountering today: Donald Trump is the American Yeltsin.

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