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Bronner writes: "Donald Trump is neither the first nor likely the last demagogue with a loyal mass base. He is also not the first 'man of the people' whom self-styled "pragmatic" elites believed they could control."

Donald Trump. (photo: Mark Seliger)
Donald Trump. (photo: Mark Seliger)

Trump's Worries

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

08 August 17


onald Trump is neither the first nor likely the last demagogue with a loyal mass base. He is also not the first “man of the people” whom self-styled “pragmatic” elites believed they could control. Such was the case with the arch-reactionary “cabinet of the barons,” whose members believed that Adolf Hitler, supposedly the last bulwark against proletarian rule, would fall into line when surrounded by his betters. Worried Soviet bureaucrats meanwhile thought that they had found the perfect “yes-man” in Stalin, the plodding and provincial general secretary of the communist party, who had stayed in the shadows as his more famous rivals battled one another into exhaustion during Lenin’s terminal illness. Countless other examples come to mind. But then the insiders usually have little knowledge of history. Even when they do, their arrogance lets them think that this time things will be different: that hasn’t turned out very well.

Republican elites never doubted that they could control Donald Trump. Nor did they ever take seriously his promise to “drain the swamp.” Like other demagogues from the past, the new president boasted that he alone could fix things, that he alone stood above parties, and that he alone could “Make America Great Again!” His campaign was not about programs, or ideas, or coherence: it was about him! That’s why he insisted that the citizenry believe him and not think about what he had just said, and why elites assumed that (with a little flattery and indulgence) they could keep him in check. Sophisticated generals and billionaires rolled their eyes at his bullying manner, exaggerated claims, crude lies, and ebullient megalomania. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and Trump’s humiliated competitors for the presidency obviously couldn’t stand him. Nevertheless, he had orchestrated the biggest upset in American political history (with or without Russia’s help) and the bumbling fool still commanded loyalty from his base.

With off-year elections looming in 2018, Republicans mostly bit their tongues. They needed the president, whatever his faults, and they also felt that he needed them. The newcomer would come to his senses soon enough. He was never a man for the nitty-gritty of programs and legislation; Trump would surely let the insiders run the show from behind the scenes. They possessed knowledge about congressional protocols, obscure rules, and the tricks necessary for passing legislation. They comforted themselves that Trump would come around – except that he didn’t.

Apparently, the president wasn’t quite as charismatic as he thought while insiders and activists couldn’t seem to overcome their ideological disputes. The Republican Party soon found itself in shambles. Its leaders tried to understand what had taken place. But they were not very successful. What so many of them view as the president’s deep flaws are actually traits endemic to authoritarian rule. Consider the embattled White House in which nothing gets done and delineations of authority are lacking. Confusion will inevitably result and endanger the president’s legislative agenda. Increasing chaos, however, might also heighten the president’s capacity to act in unilateral or arbitrary fashion. More important than the passing of this or that bill is perhaps his more general desire to stand above the fray, take credit or shift blame, and foster an image of himself as indispensable for resolving a set of (self-generated) crises.

Creating a cult of the personality has nothing to do with passing successful legislation or programs and, in this vein, Trump’s exaggerated reliance on an inner circle is also par for the authoritarian course. Setting up a shadow government insulates against institutional accountability and it renders the power of any intimate completely dependent upon the leader’s mood at any given moment. Subordinates come and go as the president’s whim dictates, and policies are often decided spontaneously, at the spur of the moment. Bringing in the family is also part of the process, but there are no guarantees regarding the official status of this or that member. The numerous titles heaped upon Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, may flatter the young man’s vanity, but they are ultimately as meaningless as those that were heaped on Hermann Goering (and became something of a public joke) during the Nazi regime.

The shadow government can change in the batting of an eye and, in turn, this complicates any demand for public accountability. Civic agencies are threatened with losing their independence, institutional checks become entangled with one another, and it becomes unclear who is responsible for what. No unaccountable and all-knowing “deep state” is conspiring against the duly elected president and his legitimate advisors; it is rather the other way around. An arbitrarily constructed inner circle, unconcerned with basic norms of political behavior or administrative rules of procedure, is engaged in undermining and circumventing the institutional checks and balances deriving from the separation of powers.

Trump’s reliance on executive orders is therefore not simply the product of his legislative incompetence. Countervailing authorities are obstacles standing in his path, and untrustworthy elites are mired in the swamp that he promised to drain. It only makes sense then that his legislative efforts should fail, in spite of the Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. Only the president can make America great again! His base and the citizenry at large need only believe that the threats to his enterprise are real – and, if they are not real, then they need to be made real. That need is becoming all the greater. In the face of massive geo-political miscalculations, diplomatic blunders, mendacious propaganda, and erratic unilateral initiatives by his administration, Trump needs a win!

Afghanistan is disintegrating; Syria’s opposition lacks even the pretense of a sovereign in waiting; China has not buckled in the face of American economic threats; Iranian policy is in limbo; North Korea is still building its missiles; our Russian policy veers between treating it as a “friend” or an “enemy;” Europe is going it alone; withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has turned into a debacle; and prospects for peace have dimmed even further between Israel and Palestine. The president is facing further rebellion in the Republican ranks in the wake of his failed healthcare initiative, passage of harsh economic sanctions against Russia, public defense of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, and increasingly ominous governmental investigations. There are also unpassed budgets, incoherent tax proposals, racist anti-immigration policies, leaks, purges, and more.

Losing power in the off-year elections of 2018 and his office in 2020 are becoming ever greater possibilities. Should these prospects become real, most likely, the president will go quietly into the good night. But there is another possibility: identifying the national interest with his own, fearing indictments, Trump might feel the need for dramatic action. Either way, he needs that big win – and fast! So the president might feel impelled to create the crisis that only he can resolve: bomb Iran or North Korea, heighten tensions with Russia or China, shut down impeachment proceedings, or engage in a preemptive strike against the elections of 2018. Who knows? There might yet be method to Trump’s madness – and that might prove the greatest danger of all.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University. He is the author of more than a dozen works, including The Bigot: Why Prejudice Exists (Yale University Press) and The Bitter Taste of Hope: Ideals, Ideologies, and Interests in the Age of Obama (SUNY Press).

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+13 # Dale 2017-08-08 11:07
NEWS FLASH. In was announced today in the classified section of the Wall Street Journal that the Trump Hotel near the White House in Washington is for sale at a price of $40billion. The deal would include the White House as a bonus for $1, but would also include a 10% commission on all monies accrued that can be attributed to the President’s White House business deals during this tenure, expected to be short. This makes the high price for the hotel attractive and the White House owned by those who would know what to do with it, perhaps open as an historical tourist attraction while Homeland Security and The Pentagon do all the ongoing political work.

Fake news invented by Dale Johnson
+3 # Jaax88 2017-08-08 11:08
Certainly something to worry about with an ego like trump has and his instability and crazy, no, just plain unproductive conduct.

Is trump to be admired with all his lying, self-dealing and disorganization ? Do people want to have their children emulate or admire trump? Not on your life. Isn't it time to ask if trump is unpatriotic and a disgrace? Well passed time IMO. Isn't it time to call out his GOP enablers and see they are defeated at the polls?
+8 # Majid Amini 2017-08-08 13:37
Nothing new you have said in this well-written article. Those of us, who unlike the vast majority of the misguided and misinformed citizenry of this country are not filled with falsehood and dangerous of nationalism sentiment, hollering U.S.A … U.S.A!!!!, believe that the Republican Party is a fascist party. Their goals have been, is, and will be to reach to power regardless of means, that is the true character of conservatism, for they have found the truth, whether is based on nationalism or religious (which in the USA is based on both)... the most danger and difficult challenge facing mankind.

M. Amini
+7 # Wise woman 2017-08-08 18:38
In light of tonight's breaking news, trump has begun his crisis move toward N. Korea. Stephen Eric Bronner is prescient. It certainly didn't take very long. Lock trump up and keep him away from the red button. Those pesticides they use on golf courses have completely destroyed his brain.

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