Sunday, November 08, 2020

As the Trump Administration Fades into the Shadows of History (and Myth) Lessons Left Unlearned

Pix Credit: William Blake (British, 1757–1827) The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun (Rev. 12: 1–4), ca. 1803–1805 – Brooklyn Museum

 My astrologer friends tell me that 2020 marked the high point of an astrological rectification campaign for the United States. Amplified somewhat from these periodic (roughly 35year interval) moments of accounting,  these moments are meant to hold a mirror up to the nation so that it may admire not its beauty but its grotesqueness. And there is much of that to go around from every corner of every faction and societal field arrogant enough to think that its interests ought to be privileged in some way--any way.  

Sadly, these moments of lesson learning tend themselves to be twisted to the advantage of those who survive (or triumph).  In their wake they leave the triggering past to history.  But more importantly, they reconstruct it as myth that can then be used for internal factional discipline (the scary stories used to frighten children into behaving)  and as  an effective way of marginalizing and demonizing competing perspectives, the way that Christianity and then Islam demonized so-called Pagan religions reducing them to myth and their practitioners to the incarnation of savagery in the service of their own agendas. In this case there is a perfect vessel for that purpose--the incarnation of the American prince of demons in the body of the soon to be former President Trump. Not that this is necessarily unfair in a moral sense within the field of politics; nor does it always go in one direction. But the direction it goes suggests the thinking of the vanguard elements in American political, social, and cultural life from time to time. The attempted construction of the person of the 44th Presidency as another prince of demons provides a case in point, though that is also still a work in progress among the acolytes of that religion. 

The Temptation of St. Anthony by Martin Schongauer
The pity is that in the joyous process of demon (or angel) making, the hard lessons  of the (now constructed) reign of the prince of demons might go unlearned.  So unlearned, they will come back to haunt, in contextually appropriate form.  But they will come back to haunt us all the same.  And so the failure to recognize a rectification and to learn from it leaves us all potentially receptive to being ourselves remade in the image of the prince of demons  whose mythological overthrow is viewed as some sort of political apotheosis leading to a glorious state of the good, the beautiful and the (near) perfect. That has now happened twice--in 2016 and in 2020--and both times to ill effect on the polity. That is myth making, of course.  And its makers only partially believe it--though it serves as a useful cover for the factional fighting that comes over the corpse of the Prince of demons. That is the great pity,   

Saint Michael Overwhelming the Demon (c. 1503) Louvre

And so, while they are fresh in mind, perhaps it serves some small purpose to briefly list some of the long term lessons that might be lost in the euphoria of the narrative of casting demons back to Hell--the moral of the story that is evidenced by our collective behaviors--now exposed.  These are purely idiosyncratic.  They will quickly be forgotten, buried beneath the glorious incantations of the myth making that will provide the catchy tunes that can distract the masses and keep them on course.  Still, the recognition of demons might provide even marginal protection against temptation.  We might in the end find solace in the fact that the temptations to which we will succumb will be different that those of our ancestors, and to that even myth making may prove of some value; clarity more.  

Pix Credit: William Blake, The Number of the Beast is 666
1. The privileges of the press have produced quite poisoned fruit. News media are deeply political actors embedded in their own webs of ownership and control; the temptations of those webs, and of the class and political interests of those who serve press organs, have been both realized and effectively deployed. But in the process the Americans have lost their press, at least their myths about the press and press purity.  Since the time of the second US race war (from the late 1950s-1980s) the press, so-called, as been extended privileges grounded in myths of utility (they are essential to the operation of our Republic) and morality (they are news sources, in modern parlance, platforms in which markets for ideas may be traded, whose product "fact" thus acquires substantial positive moral value).  None of this is new, of course; what has been exposed is the quite large gulf between the mythologies of the press created by those who found press purity myths useful half a century ago, and the realities of the press as both business (a strategic asset for large multinational enterprises), a tool of state; and the mouthpiece of ideologically constituted factions. The line between fact and opinion, the use and abuse of editorial discretion (what to report and in what way), and the embedding of news cadres within wider networks of those they report, already difficult to disentangle, have become jumbled. The difference, then, between the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Chinese People's Daily may be their ownership structures and working style.  One can live with them as political actors--they will contribute to the richness of the debate in the Republic; but one ought to abandon the myth of press purity.  Yet this will likely be the easiest lesson to forget, especially as press organs distract the masses by an endless fighting about the construction of press purity hierarchies and their place in it.  The normative exercise is itself the myth making; the rest is politics.

2. Cruelty never pays.  The temptation to be cruel runs deep in American politics--of both the left and the right.  The Trump Administration gave in to the temptation of cruelty.  It is hard to conjecture the reasons (though in the construction of Mr. Trump as the Prince of Demons it will likely be ascribed to some sort of immoral lust, which is appropriate for demons in general, and suitable for the much larger appetites of princes among demons). The approach to the important issue of migration proved a lasting case in point, and especially the policy toward migrant children. There were others.  But a reputation for cruelty will be remembered.  But its temptations are also easily adopted by those hear their own demonsong as the singing of the choir of angels. The left enjoys ruining individuals on the basis of accusation related to deviations from their strategically advanced orthodoxies.  And they have found willing accomplices in business (not an obvious ally) but there is a business case to be made for serving as the instrument of orthodoxy when, like the inquisition in medieval Europe, its effects tends to fall on individuals and the victims tend to be in the way of the ambitions of others. 

Pix Credit HERE

3. Respect the dead and dying.  American cultural taboos remain strong in connection with the dead and dying; especially those who are dead or dying and who have given service to the state.  Their political views, the correctness of their positions, or their alignment with a speaker make no difference.  Leadership that fails to respect the dead and dying produce the sort of feeling of dirtiness that inevitably shows up in the polls.   Here one encounters a growing rift between the societal narrative taught to the masses through endless production of television reality shows that have instructed the masses in appropriate interpersonal behaviors in which rudeness and lack of respect are the coin of the realm, and the still strong narrative of leadership in a democratic republic. Mr. Trump has still to apologize for choosing the path laid out for the masses in television shows in his behavior toward, among others, John McCain, John Lewis, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  In the crassest possible terms, that behavior made enough people feel dirty enough that their own self respect triumphed over their political inclinations. This is a lesson that will also have to be learned by those who believe they have constructed themselves as angels--especially as they go against those long dead. The lack of respect can be contagious--and it is lesson as ill learned by the left as it has been by the right. One disrespects oneself double when one projects that disrespect onto others--especially fallen opponents.

4. Loyalty is a prime value. The troop withdraws from Syria and Iraq were not merely a political choice.  They were received as acts of disloyalty to comrades who had sacrificed lives, livelihoods, and honor for their allies. Abandonment is certainly the prerogative of empire--but it runs against core principles of American morals. Loyalty, honor, respect--these are crucial elements in the American social order--derogation of which without sufficiently powerful explanation harms those engaging in these behaviors as much as their targets. Like him or not, the resignation of Mr. Mathis was not a political but a moral statement. Little people in great office sometimes believe that acts of disloyalty (for the sake of strategy or expediency), like cruelty, shows their strength.  It is almost always the case that the opposite is true.  And weakness is a dangerous virtue to cultivate in a leader.  Mr. Trump's opponents  are unlikely to learn this lesson--one so badly practiced during the last several administrations, none of which were known for their loyalty and strong moral leadership character especially when it counted.  Yet it remains an important lesson which, especially when accumulated with other failures, can produce significant effect.  There is an added element as well, the subject of No. 15 below.

5. Bullying plays well to the masses; but only for a short time. The psychology of the bully is well established, even in national and international relations.  It is a sign of weakness and while tolerated for a while (short term value of concessions to bullies may be useful in well thought out), one might want to be able to use bullies without being one  That was a lesson unlearned after 2016. And it is the great lesson that will have to be learned by other great states, and their helmsman int he coming decade. The bully eventually falls if only because, left to her own devices long enough, it becomes possible for former enemies to unite or establish a short term alliance to rid themselves of the bully. Bullying does play well with the masses, though.  And it is a fne line to determine who and when the device is to be used.  In the long run, though, its costs usually exceed its value. More importantly, the great lesson unlearned after 2016 was the great difference between bullying and strategic pressure that still permits an opponent some room to save face.

6. Social media is now a political territory in private hands. The tweet will never be the same again.  All actors are now learning the art of managing twitter accounts and of the development of policy through tweets.  Only the old worry about this.  And they fail to see the real danger--one already apparent in the delegation of public responsibility to a private press itself subject to the pressures of business and of the market--that delegations of public spaces to private organs require either substantial management or expropriation.  The partisanship of the great social media platforms, as well as their increasing willingness to serve as both platform and player do not bode well for the integrity of the discourse of the Republic.  

7. Your friends are not your enemies and your enemies are not your friends. Mr. Trump started out with a good idea--and one at the top of the list of Democratic and Republican Administrations since the Kennedy era--touching on the management of the great post war alliance of developed states in the maintenance of security and economic ordering.  That will inevitably result in hurt feelings and strategic behaviors as former client states, now feel entitled to pretend that they have somehow returned to the glory of their days of center of colonial imperial systems--but without the bother of colonies.  That is fair enough (and I might do the same). The lesson is not in that, but in the way in which friendships are managed and cultivated. A hierarch makes for a very bad ally even when the reality of the relationship is hierarchical. Bu worse, of course, was the appearance of treating friends contemptuously while appearing to cultivate the friendship of enemies.  The strategies underlying communication might have been sound, the performance of that strategy was both sloppy and dangerous for the Republic.

Pix Credit: William Blake the Great Red Dragon and the Beats from the sea
8. If one is going to be ruthless one should not hold back. Playing "footsie" with adversarial states is one thing; failing to be ruthless when it is required is another.  The Obama administration, on occasion, could be counted on its ability to do that (though to some tastes not often or pointedly enough--but that is the usual quibble of politics). This Administration was better at drawing lines in the sand and acting on them, but then not following through.  That was the worst possible lesson that was learned from the Obama administration.  And after 2016 substantially inhibited policy implementation in ways that made the Republic's leadership appear confused and irresolute. Ruthlessness, of course, requires consensus at the top, and the failures of leadership capable of producing and acting decisively on such consensus has plagued both the Trump and Obama administrations.

9. Sloppiness is fatal in an administrative state. This is a lesson that will likely be learned well. The Trump Administration became famous for its administrative gestures--through executive orders, and the discretionary decision making of its officials in areas deeply unpopular with Administration's political enemies.  They were almost entirely unprepared to defend these by resort to the language and discourse of the modern administrative state.  And as a consequence many of the Administration's signature initiatives were thwarted or successfully challenged--not because they could not be defended, but because no one took the time to make them more challenge proof.  Those are mistakes that the incoming administration will not make. Yet the temptation to act may overcome the lesson--especially where it is the performance of the action (the issue of a flawed executive order, for example) is the object rather than its eventual implementation.  As a result though, the real lesson is that rule by decree is going to become a principal means of political administration constrained only by the forms of ts expression and the willingness of the courts to indulge the administration. Yet the underlying lesson is more destabilizing--the use of political gestures within administrative mechanisms as signaling mechanisms and gestures may increase the potential for destabilizing the administrative state. If that is what the administration intends, then perhaps it ought to have the courage to attempt it directly.  Contemporary politics makes that impossible. 

10. If you are going to break something have an alternative already prepared. The two signature failures of the Trump Administration: (1) its inability to put forward a vigorous and appealing alternative to pre 2016 globalization (though models existed and strong frameworks could have been advanced); (2) its effort to reject so-called Obama Care without any alternative palatable to anyone. What policy was reduced two in these crucial cases was quick and short term gestures and then a slw and pathetic decline and passivity with fracture rather than planning driving small efforts that in the end amounted to little.  That littleness applied both to the development of theoretical or strategic alternatives (the unfortunately named America First was one, which ironically will be re-branded and re-emerge in the next several years) and to efforts to actually produce implementable programs. Too little too late and a gesture driven culture relating to big issues will prove fatal to an administration--not with the masses (they tend to be managed well through careful gesturing amplified by a complicit press, something that was also absent in this case)--but with elites crucial to adoption and implementation.   

Pix: Singin' in the Rain
11. If you want to be a star be sure that the camera likes you and that you know your lines. There is almost nothing more revealing than the lens of a camera.  Americans became aware of that during the Nixon-Kennedy debates more than half a century ago.  Americans love a pretty face, they tend to be horrified  by camera presence that exposes   President Trump's television performances during that short period of daily COVID briefings  provided just the wrong kind of exposure over a sustained period of time that made it impossible not to make judgments even if one might seek to mitigate that judgment. This was particularly the case where two things went quite badly--(1) the use of the briefings to paint a picture of the heroic leader in charge; (2) the briefings evidencing a smoothly functioning and coherent administration strategy grounded in something. In inability to articulate what that something was, the sub text that might be read from those present, and ultimately the battles over modelling combined with an inability to explain it coherently exacted a high price. Those briefings will likely be required viewing for all aspiring politicians in the US at least for the near future. 

13. "Not my President" has become an irresistible tactic of American politics.  The opposition first to President Obama and then to President Trump refined the value of the agit-prop technique of "Not my President." Otherwise laughable fro its sad commentary on those taking this stance, both political parties and the fringes around them have turned what had once been marginal theatre into the core of a strategy of existence grounded in undermining the legitimacy of the person, and indirectly of the office in which a majority of votes have placed hi (and eventually her). It has become too useful to resist.  But the price of its use is increasingly steep. Indeed, agit prop appears to be among the most interesting new avenues for political work in the West. That it has become respectable speaks volumes to the character of a polity. More pointedly, the irrational now sells in US politics.  It is merely a matter of packaging it.  But the irrational is both unstable and difficult to control. Yet both the enemies of Mt. Obama and those of Mr. Trump used it effectively--one to block presidential initiatives, and the other to undermine the legitimacy of the office and its holder. Either way the political factions' victories might not be easily equated with a gain for the polity.
14. Majorities do not make mandates. The myth of majority power continues to exert a fatal influence on elected officials whose inclination to believe their own election propaganda leads to the sort of hubris that produces fatal miscalculations. Bare majorities ought to counsel caution and respect for the entirety of the polity, especially respecting subtle and complex issues of policy grounded in easier to understand (if not to embrace uniformly) core principles.  That lust to treat a majority as a mandate is an object that exacts sacrifice--one usually paid by the Republic rather than by those officials who invoke the myth. In the "old days", less than a generation ago, that might just produce failures of initiatives or losses in negotiation toward something less palatable than what was promised. Now the myth of majorities ted to feed two quite distinct tendencies.  The first is to increase the influence of are factional extremes (aided by profit driven press organs always looking for something to sell a population constantly in search of the next great attention grabber). That was much in evidence starting with the later Obama Administration and then virtually institutionalized after 2016. The second is to increase the value of obstruction.  There is a  vast gulf that separates partisanship (as distasteful as it was then) during Bush I and Clinton, than from the time of the Obama Administration onward.  Obstruction now pays--it makes for great television, enhances media presence, and feeds into the agit prop machinery of the extreme at little short term cost (it is all done on principle--which serves as the necessary moral veil). One might expect much more of this at least for the short term.   

Pix credit HERE
15. Personal disloyalty produces betrayal. This was an administration notorious for the extent to which its former members engaged in increasingly passionate betrayals of their former leader.  There is a connection but it is more complex than the usual quid pro quo analysis.  Embracing a culture of disloyalty tends to attract like minded people.  The charterer of the leader s then reflected in her subordinates.  An office the operative glue of which is disloyalty would also tend to embrace betrayal as a useful (defensive and offensive) tool. Thus the character of both the leader and his subordinates is revealed. No one trusts a traitor, whatever the motive; and traitors are produced in an environment in which loyalty is not rewarded and betrayal (or its potential) becomes a key either to longevity or revenge. "All of this, of course, is fair play given the mores, the morally binding customs of a particular group (in this case of the high functionaries), of early 21st century America, And perhaps it augurs, like much of what is happening in 2020, the start of a new era, the character of which is still up for grabs." (Ruminations 91).

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