One of the more irritating framings of Donald Trump’s rise to power has been to stress his ‘disruptive’ credentials*. Such accounts often focus on the role of Jared Kushner, who has been granted a dizzying array of responsibilities in the Trump Whitehouse, prompting Gary Sernovitz to observe the overlap with recent events in Saudi Arabia:
When Donald Trump travels to Saudi Arabia later this month, the first country he will visit as President, the attention will be on geopolitics and the complicated friendship between Saudi Arabia and the United States. But the trip also highlights, just off center stage, an unremarked-upon similarity between the current Saudi government and the American White House: in both places, unelected men in their thirties have swiftly amassed power.
In Saudi Arabia, the thirty-one-year-old Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the deputy Crown Prince and son of King Salman, is now in charge of the oil industry, the economy, defense policy, a war in Yemen, and various domestic initiatives. In the United States, the national responsibilities of Jared Kushner, the President’s thirty-six-year-old son-in-law, include, according to the Times, “Middle East peace, the opioid epidemic, relations with China and Mexico, and reorganizing the federal government from top to bottom.” Kushner is technically the President’s senior adviser, but you might also call him America’s crown prince.
Both men are presented as “bringing modern and advanced ideas into stodgy government terrain”, empowered by ageing rulers in virtue of their “being in touch with the latest in finance and technology”. There is little to justify this veneer of being tech-savvy, but it certainly covers up the role of “family ties and court intrigues” in their respective advancement. In the case of Kushner, such a framing can give a superficial plausibility to his leadership of the Office of American Innovation, arguably entrenching, extending and radicalising Obama’s mission to ‘reboot how government works‘.
However I want to argue that Trump is a disrupter. But not in the sense in which the many tech-bros who cautiously applaud his assent are liable to understand the term. As Naomi Klein writes in her new book No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics on pg 3:
As this has been unfolding, it struck me that what’s happening in Washington is not the usual passing of the baton between parties. It’s a naked corporate takeover, one many decades in the making. It seems that the economic interests that have long since paid off both major parties to do their bidding have decided they’re tired of playing the game. Apparently, all that wining and dining of elected officials, all that cajoling and legalized bribery, insulted their sense of divine entitlement. So now they’re cutting out the middlemen—those needy politicians who are supposed to protect the public interest—and doing what all top dogs do when they want something done right: they are doing it themselves.
In this sense, we can see Trump as disintermediating politics. America has long faced a quasi-oligopolic situation in which elites rules through strategic influence, near to unopposed in a situation which the political sociologist Colin Crouch characterises as post-democracy. The disruption of the Trump presidency involves the removal of that mediation, directly empowering the most activist and reactionary tier of this plutocratic elite. As she goes on to write, from pg 3-4:
But the Trumps seem unconcerned. A near-impenetrable sense of impunity—of being above the usual rules and laws—is a defining feature of this administration. Anyone who presents a threat to that impunity is summarily fired—just ask former FBI director James Comey. Up to now in US politics there’s been a mask on the corporate state’s White House proxies: the smiling actor’s face of Ronald Reagan or the faux cowboy persona of George W. Bush (with Dick Cheney/Halliburton scowling in the background). Now the mask is gone. And no one is even bothering to pretend otherwise.
The idea of post-democracy conveys a ‘hollowing out’, rather than a negation. What’s so disturbing about recent events in America is that we may be seeing the early stages of a transition from post-democracy to non-democracy.
*Incidentally, this always reminds me of an Economist interview in which a reluctant conservative supporter of Trump explained how if you have an infestation of vermin, you call in the exterminator but that doesn’t mean you want the exterminator to run your house after the vermin have gone (or words to that effect). The point being that ‘disruption’ of politics is a culturally specific expression of a broader political sentiment.