Politics & Policy

Trump and the Establishments

Trump arrives at the Captiol for his inauguration, January 20, 2017. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/Reuters)
He is the latest American leader to ascend to power on a wave of revulsion against the courtiers of Washington.

President Trump looked out over the Mall last week and declared: “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. . . . The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.”

TV pundits thought the speech unprecedented in its divisiveness, yet it was nothing new under the sun. Students of Anglo-American history are familiar with the recurring antagonism between the “court” (the establishments of the metropolis) and the “country” (all those who feel left out of those comfortable and lucrative arrangements).

When, in 18th-century England, an intimacy grew up between the government at Westminster and the financiers of the City of London, a party of self-styled “country” patriots arose to denounce the new “monied interest,” one that in their view was growing parasitically rich by repackaging the national debt and fobbing it off on the naïve. To add insult to injury, the new elite was entrenching its power through public-sector patronage.

The result, the historian J. H. Plumb opined, was the growth of a court oligarchy in Britain. Its interlocking establishments were viewed with special trepidation by Britishers across the ocean in America, who wildly imagined that the luxuriant self-dealing of London foretokened an age of slavery, in which virtuous yeomen would be subjugated by a decadent metropolitan elite. The colonists’ fear that the corruption of the court was “sapping the foundations” of liberty, the historian Bernard Bailyn wrote, was an underlying cause of that aboriginal Brexit, the Revolution of 1776.

America obtained her independence, yet the innocence was short-lived. Sophisticated banking and credit machineries, thought even by the enlightened Jefferson to be a form of monarchical corruption, proved to be essential to the young Republic’s growth.

But useful things may be abused. When the self-dealing of American insiders has grown too blatant, “country” parties have risen against it, rallying to the banner of some plausible charlatan who yet, for all his faults, was alive to the abuses of the court.

Thus General Jackson led the struggle against the Second Bank of the United States; William Jennings Bryan, the populist crusade for free silver; and Franklin Roosevelt, the war on “economic royalists.” Half a century after FDR launched the New Deal, Ronald Reagan took on the entrenched liberal establishment, declaring in his first inaugural address that “an elite group” in Washington had hijacked the country.

Donald Trump, in denouncing America’s “rigged” system, is the latest figure to ascend to power on a wave of country-party revulsion against the court. Like his predecessors, he has inspired much doom-saying. (Jackson was charged with being not merely a vulgarian and a criminal but “one of the six beasts spoken of in Rev[elation] and Daniel.”) Yet Trump won anyway, in part because none of his competitors so astutely fingered the complacency of self-satisfied establishments or challenged policies that seem disproportionately to benefit a favored few.

But is it a pose? Is Trump another Duc d’Orléans, the French aristocrat who during the French Revolution rechristened himself Philippe Égalité? After all, Trump is, in his personal and professional avocations, closer to the courtiers whose policies he questions than to the country folk he champions. Senator Rand Paul has deplored the president’s “Bilderberg” cabinet, and it is hard to tell, from a distance, whether Trump is co-opting the Davos club or being co-opted by it.

Assume, for the sake of argument, that his conversion is genuine. Will it do any good?

Trump’s country patriots chant ‘Lock her up,’ seeking a vengeance against Mrs. Clinton that will hinder the realization of their most important policy goals.

The country philosophy is so far true: Elites really do grow complacent and self-indulgent, and periodic house cleanings, properly managed, are a good thing. But country patriotism is also a phenomenon of mass civilization, a civilization that works to undo older, locally rooted consolations and mechanisms of assuaging popular frustration. Such a civilization entices people to invest their emotions in the world at large, to identify with distant celebrities whom they will never meet, to live fantastically in a celluloid or plasma universe remote from their own hearths. Rival cults of personality emerge and attract fanatical followings.

This mass fervor is cathartic, yet also, when tinged with hysterical righteousness, ominous. Trump’s country patriots chant “Lock her up,” seeking a vengeance against Mrs. Clinton that will hinder the realization of their most important policy goals. On the other side, adherents of the court faction as luridly paint Trump as a blood-and-soil fascist who has, somewhat contradictorily, sold his soul to Moscow.

Much depends on how Trump manages his rebellion. He can kick the court all he likes, but if in implementing his program he fails to bring along others outside his country base, his reforms will be as flimsy, and almost certainly as ephemeral, as many of Barack Obama’s are proving to be.

Obama never succeeded in emulating Reagan, who communicated the rationale for his policies with a force, a precision, and a dramatic clarity that brought a good number of Democrats and independents along with him: He moved the center. Obama was never able to do that: He never succeeded in building a durable consensus for his most controversial acts.

If Trump’s country-party revolution is to succeed, he can’t simply preach to the converted or rely on stump-speech dogmatism to justify his program: Like Reagan before him, he must find novel and convincing ways to explain not only what he wants to do, but how he intends to do it, and why he thinks it will work.

Michael Knox Beran — Mr. Beran, a lawyer and writer, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871 and Murder by Candlelight, among other books.

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