Sunday, June 4, 2017

Leviathan still reigns, and Trump won't reverse that, even if wise advisers sometimes have his ear

Occasionally, a pundit shows up on my radar screen after my having not really ever sought out his stuff. I'd known who Joel Kotkin was for some time - a demographer whose conclusions about class, mobility and culture in general do not fit a lot of people's models of a Right or Left argument - but never really sought him out. Lately, though, I've made a point of reserving my pundit-sphere-scanning time for whatever his latest column is.

Today's serves as a fine example. His point is that, yes, the rise of Trump can be largely explained by this "populism" roiling beneath the surface of America's socio-political presumptions over the past several years, but that the populists' hero is proving to have n o grand plan for their uplift:

Trump did not emerge from and understand the mindset of those further down the social order, as did Jackson, Lincoln, Truman, Reagan, Nixon, and Bill Clinton. Trump simply stoked resentments, many but not all well-justified.
Trump has taken few concrete steps to address the causes of his supporters’ distress. Changes in trade negotiations and jawboning corporations are good first steps but limited in their effect. There is little in what he’s proposed since January that would help the middle and working class. Unlike Reagan, who cut rates across the board, Trump seems to be listening mostly to the Goldman Sachs grandees to whom he has entrusted our economy.
In the end Trump’s modern-day peasants will be left stranded like the supporters of European peasant rebellions of the European middle ages, like England’s Jack Cade in the 15th century, or the Taiping rebels in mid-19th century China. These movements grew bright, stormed across the countryside, and conquered cities, until the forces or order imposed themselves and eliminated the most rebellious of their subjects. Hong Xiuquan, the leader of the Taiping, committed suicide in 1864, as the 14-year rebellion failed. Cade, of course, was killed, as recounted in Shakespeare’s Henry the 6th, still proud of his “unconquered soul” but nevertheless despised by the ruling classes.
The Revenge of the Clerisy
Trump, of course, won’t end up executed, but simply excommunicated from polite society. He will creep back to his Manhattan keep, surrounded by gold and glitter, celebrated by as many retainers as he can afford. The same, however, cannot be said for those who rallied to his cause in the thus-far unrealized hopes that we could protect them from the cognoscenti’s plans to refashion, and largely diminish, ordinary American’s daily lives and economic prospects.
Trump’s faltering rebellion has been manna from heaven for the same swamp people—in both parties—who have been steering our democratic republic toward feudalism for a generation. Their ideology, notes author Michael Lind, sees themselves as a deserving meritocracy rather than a reflection of the persistence of social class. 
Earlier in the column, he cuts to the chase, saying Trump, beyond the "make America great again" slogan, "had nothing positive to say." How could he? He has not grounding in the foundational principles of Western civilization, which is the source of what has actually made America great.

Kotkin's been thinking about the context in which Trump rose - and, before him, Obama, albeit a very different type of critter ideologically, but a rallying figure to a swath of the populace that had at least a vague sense that it was getting the short end of some kind of economic stick. Fred Bauer's NRO review of Kotkin's The New Class Conflict from 2014 gives us a taste:

It is perhaps not entirely surprising, then, that the past decade or so has witnessed the simultaneous hollowing out of the middle class and the escalation of class-warfare rhetoric. The New Class Conflict offers President Obama’s administration as exemplifying some of the tendencies of the neofeudal era. Kotkin finds the president to be a major ally of the Clerisy’s cultural agenda even as he is in many ways supportive of the Oligarchs. For all the president’s rhetorical attacks on the super-wealthy, his policy choices have often benefited a select cadre of the economic elite and undermined the economic position of the middle. Kotkin argues that the Obama reelection campaign’s narrative of “The Life of Julia” embodies some of the traits of the modern serfdom: Atomized individuals are cut off from economic opportunity and dependent on government subsidies (the largesse of the new lord of the manor) to get by. The Obama 2012 campaign’s focus on the purported evils of the 1 percent could possibly be topped by some future Democratic contenders for the presidency waiting in the wings. The deeper the crisis of the middle class, the more likely we are to see demagogues anointing themselves as the tribunes of the suffering masses — even if the policies of such supposed tribunes serve to deepen the misery of these masses.
Kotkin's work reveals an interesting conclusion he's been zeroing in on: that the two most significant factors that could turn the situation around - namely, broad-based economic growth, and a revitalization of society's mediating institutions - have faded from the scene to the extent that their retrieval appears in doubt.

We bowl alone, but we protest basics of nature, such as human sexuality and an ever-fluctuating global climate, en masse.

That's because the university has been destroyed, the church is a muddled mess convincing ever-fewer of its actual message, and the whole notion of art as a noble human activity has been utterly ruined.

I'm drawn repeatedly to the phrase from the excerpt above, "atomized individuals." The administrative state - which, as PITD has pointed out on numerous occasions - was warned about as early as 1941 by the prescient James Burnham - sees a society thus composed as suiting its needs wonderfully.

I'm reminded of a point I made on this blog a few days ago:

I was reminded of a paragraph from my own post two days ago:

But we really are into some uncharted territory now. We have people assuming an air of great self-righteousness in their proclamation that we all ought to become fungible beings with no reason to find each other attractive in any natural sense, yet still craving the stimulation that we'd experienced in each other's company back when we were still boys and girls - and had some dignity and common sense. Just automatons existing for gratification and to perform whatever technocratic task the state deems us fit for. 
 . . .  when I read Gallagher's depiction of the two "big ideas" of this bizarre post-American age:

Our emerging morality has two big ideas: First, our most important job as a society is now to create good gender-neutral workers who have equal access to good jobs.This is the social task that is critical and must be accomplished. Second, our identity as sexual beings is socially unimportant except to the extent it brings us personal happiness. Sex accomplishes no important social task. Therefore it follows as marriage once followed sexual love that everyone must support all our sexual identities. There is no objective standard a reasonable outsider can apply. Even the intent of the artist doesn’t really matter. The consumer might hear it differently.

Now, it is cartoonishly broad-brush to characterize all big-corporation CEOs,  university administrators, and NGO heads as having social interests limited to cynically ensuring a steady supply of gender-neutral cogs for the leviathan they are erecting. No, many of these people really believe they are driven by noble and sublime value systems. I often bring up an example from my locale, because news about it is in my face daily: Cummins, a Fortune 200 company in the power-generation business. Its CEO, a Stanford Business School alum named Tom Linebarger, wrote a column for the Indianapolis Star, on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday last year rife with platitudes about inclusion, and a bit of crowing about how the states religious-freedom-law dust-up shook out.

But how did we come to ascribe nobility to such a hollow, perverse body of values?

It happened because those mediating institutions- principally a truly vital and effective church - were absent on the scene for a sufficient period of time for the rot to spread.

Anyway, read Kotkin's piece, and then explore him further.

His point is spot-on: Trump is in no position to restore this country from its post-American status, because, for all his bluster, he truly doesn't understand what's going on.

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