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.

http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/jared-kushner-and-mohammed-bin-salman-princes-of-tech-disruption

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.

Reading Shattered, an account of Hilary Clinton’s failed election campaign by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, I’ve been struck by how limited political modelling has proved in recent elections. This had been in the case in the 2008 primary contest with Obama, in which the unprecedented character of his candidacy (as well as the candidate himself) repudiated the assumptions built into the campaign’s models. From pg 132:

By the time in 2008 that she realized Obama had a better strategy for racking up delegates by dominating her in low-turnout caucus states and among African American voters, it was way too late for her to reverse the cold mathematical reality of her defeat. In that year, African Americans had voted as a bloc in southern primaries, delivering massive delegate hauls to Obama.

We can see similar tendencies throughout the 2016 campaign. The primary challenge provided by Bernie Sanders confounded expectations, as can be in his mobilisation of first-time primary voters in Iowa. From pg 116:

Reading the data in the boiler room, members of the analytics team were surprised by the reports on new registrants. The overall number was a little more than they had expected. But they had also underestimated the margins for Bernie. The first-timers were breaking 90 percent to 10 percent in his favor. Running the data through their models, they could see why the race was so tight.

The subsequent developments are a good example of the practical implications of such changes. The campaign can overcome such failures but, through doing so, might fail to learn the lessons. From pg 116:

Hillary’s get-out-the-vote team on the ground, bolstered by a handful of talented veteran organizers, had been built with the expectation that Bernie wouldn’t do as well as he did. They overperformed, and their work had bailed out the analytics squad. That was good news in that Hillary had eluded defeat, but the outcome served to obscure flaws in Elan Kriegel’s modeling—namely, that it hadn’t correctly accounted for the number of new registrants or the degree to which they would break for Hillary—and Mook’s corresponding allocation of resources for in-person contact with caucus-goers. “The seeds of what we see across the campaign were present there,” said one person familiar with the campaign’s strategy and tactics. “It was a warning sign that they just barely scraped by, and I don’t think they took that seriously.”

If we rely on past and present data to predict future events, the weakness of the model we use will reside in its capacity to cope with genuine novelty. One response to this might be to account for such novelty as once-in-a-lifetime chance occurance. But one of the conclusions we might draw from the Centre for Social Ontology’s Social Morphogenesis project is that social novelty is being generated at an ever-increasing rate. In large part this is because novelty breeds more novelty: the unprecedented character of Obama’s candidacy generated novelty in ideological form, political constituency, electoral methodology and communications strategy. This novel campaign then provides the backdrop for Hilary’s failed campaign, transforming the inherited context to a much greater degree than any campaign did prior to Bill’s own.

This might seem like a unnecessarily abstract way of saying politics is becoming more unpredictable. But I think it’s important that we attempt to account for that unpredictability, its origins, character and consequences. The question which really fascinates me is who will be empowered if, as seems likely, these failures trend towards ubiquity. In light of this, it’s interesting to observe how closely Donald Trump’s instincts converged with Bill Clinton’s. From pg 128-129:

Neither a traditional poll nor Mook’s preferred analytics—voter-behavior models based on surveys and demographic data—were as finely tuned as his own sense of political winds, Bill thought. They were an important part of a modern campaign but not the only part. “You couldn’t place all of your eggs in the data/polling basket,” one of Bill’s confidants said of his thinking. “He had the ability to sort of figure out what’s going on around him, to sort of take everyone’s feedback and synthesize it and measure [it] along with his experience and then report back.” Bill had done this thing twice. His handle on politics was as natural as Jimi Hendrix’s feel for the guitar. Hillary couldn’t grasp the sentiment of the electorate, the resentfulness white working-and middle-class Americans felt watching the wealthy rebound quickly from the 2008 economic crisis while their families struggled through a slow recovery. Her team didn’t really get it, either.

And from pg 130-131:

Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player—a senator, a governor, or a former president—could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data—he loved poring over political numbers—but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics.

From The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 86-87. I’m beginning to try and catalogue public examples of this defensiveness because some of the over-reactions seem fascinatingly unbalanced:

It is surprising how much fear his timid policies have generated among the big-money boys. There are no rational grounds for the hyperthyroid reactions of hedge fund bosses like Steven Schwarzman when Obama is largely a champion of the status quo who raises much of his money among Schwarzman’s colleagues. Nevertheless, the neoliberal mandarins at the venerable Economist say Obama has an image as one “who is hostile to business.” 36 It is one thing to shake our heads at the behavior of gun nuts who fear Obama will take away their firearms and send them to a FEMA concentration camp in Montana and quite another to consider that many canny Wall Street operatives, whose business model is based on a reptilian calculation of their own material interests, have succumbed to the irrational idea that totalitarian socialism is just around the corner and that Obama is going to usher it in, when he is only a more hesitant version of his predecessor. 

That such a weak reed, who has acceded time and again to the entrenched interests of the permanent state, should incite so much negative passion among so many in the billionaire class suggests they are displacing their fears of the simmering discontent among the 99 percent onto a convenient political symbol. Their touchy defensiveness reveals the contradictions within the political system they dominate. President Obama, who appears to administer that system without enthusiasm or belief, has dissatisfied key constituencies of the Deep State even as he has alarmed the traditionalists who defend the remnants of the constitutional state.

Barack Obama quoted in The Deep State, by Mike Lofgren, pg 63. The demands of fundraising for US politicians are exceptional but I assume a similar process can be found elsewhere, as an elite gradually becomes one’s reference group if this was not already the case. How else to explain the belief of UK MPs that they are poorly paid?

Increasingly I found myself spending time with people of means—law firm partners and investment bankers, hedge fund managers and venture capitalists. . . . I found myself avoiding certain topics during conversations with them, papering over possible differences, anticipating their expectations. . . . I know that as a consequence of my fund-raising I became more like the wealthy donors I met, in the very particular sense that I spent more and more of my time above the fray, outside the world of immediate hunger, disappointment, fear, irrationality, and frequent hardship of the other 99 percent of the population—that is, the people that I’d entered public life to serve.

And intelligence agencies contribute to that socialisation as well. From pg 87 of the same book:

Perhaps the most telling example of the relationship between President Obama and the Deep State comes from a March 2015 interview of John Brennan, his frequently embattled CIA director. Obama has shown Brennan great loyalty through two presidential terms. How did Brennan repay that loyalty—with a humble demonstration of gratitude and respect, perhaps? Obama, he said, did “not have an appreciation” of national security when he came into office, but with tutelage by himself and other experts “he has gone to school and understands the complexities.” The tone of headmasterly condescension is unmistakable, giving the listener ample grounds to wonder who is really in charge, the president or his national security complex. It is the inner workings of that national security complex that we shall turn to next.

How widespread is this? From The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 585:

Emanuel, with his day-to-day focus on “getting points on the board,” scrambled for quick results, trying to win each day’s news cycle. As Bob Rubin told one of his many acolytes in the White House during a phone call, “Rahm’s more inclined to want to get a bill passed than really be worried about what’s in the bill.”

From The Confidence Men, by Ron Suskind, pg 459:

Geithner denied the charge, later made in internal White House documents, that “once a decision is made, implementation by the Department of the Treasury has at times been slow and uneven,” and that “these factors all adversely affect execution of the policy process.” The parlance for that is “slow walking.” “I don’t slow walk the president on anything,” he said. “People who wanted to do other things often accused me of slow walking, but I would never do that.” But Tim Geithner added, with some satisfaction, the battle over restructuring the financial industry “was resolved in the classic way, that plan beats no plan. “No one else had a plan.” Including Barack Obama.

From Confidence Men, by Ron Susskind, pg 23-24:

But it was hard to know how even Lincoln’s rhetorical genius would have met the awesome challenge of modern politics: to explain hugely complex problems and offer first-step solutions in all of sixty seconds. Hillary Clinton could do it just like Lincoln split wood: steady and true, swing by swing, as the clock ticked—fifty-four seconds… fifty-five… fifty-six—her final summarizing sentence would hit its period and leave her three seconds to step back and consider what she had said, as though it had all just dawned on her. Obama watched her, on stage after stage, suppressing his amazement. He found the demands confounding and unreasonable, and he responded with a professorial mien, oddly uncertain, offering what felt like introductions to dissertations never to be completed.

How much of the professional socialisation of contemporary politicians represents a direct or indirect response to this challenge? A whole apparatus serves ultimately to facilitate strategic communication under such constrained circumstances. 

In contrast Donald Trump rambles when speaking at length and accelerates when denied time to ramble. How does this help prop up the sense of the authenticity of his speech?

I recently finished Race of a Lifetime, purchased because I confused it with this book that I’d actually intended to buy… it’s a great read in many respects. I love reading politics books like this because of the snippets of insight they can offer into the processes by which politicians are socialised (and socialise themselves) into leadership:

As McCain bumbled publicly, Obama was privately conducting for himself what amounted to an on-the-fly series of postgraduate seminars, holding lengthy conference calls night and day with his party’s brainiest economic savants. Many of the people to whom Obama turned were Clinton veterans: former treasury secretaries Bob Rubin and Larry Summers, former Council of Economic Advisers chief Laura Tyson. Obama also turned to Clinton himself, calling the former president several times, soliciting his advice, impressing him (for the first time, really) with his approach to the crisis. Obama was talking regularly with Fed chair Ben Bernanke and daily, sometimes more often, with Paulson. The treasury secretary was astonished by the candidate’s level of engagement. On one occasion, Obama kept his plane on the tarmac for a half hour after the final event of his day, with a long flight ahead of him, so he could finish a conversation with Paulson. On another, Obama called Paulson late at night at home and spent two hours discussing the intricate details of regulatory reform. As much as the substantiveness of the discussions struck Paulson, so did their sobriety and maturity. I’ll be there publicly for you at any time, Obama told him. I’m going to be president, and I don’t want to inherit a financial system that’s collapsed

I’m morbidly fascinated by the political culture of the American right and someday hope to do work on it, though I’m not sure what form that might take. In the 10 years or so I’ve been keenly following American politics, it’s got progressively weirder and shows no signs of abating. In fact it reached a new level of inanity. Consider the results of this poll:

Almost one in four Republicans suspect that Barack Obama is the Antichrist. That’s one of the most astounding findings from a notably stunning new online poll from Harris Interactive. Majorities of Republicans also believe that Obama is a socialist (67 percent), that he wants to take away Americans’ guns (61 percent), is a Muslim (57 percent), has done “many” things that are not constitutional (55 percent), and wants to turn the country over to a one world government (51 percent).

In fairness to the GOP the poll indicates that the country generally seems to have become a bit unhinged. Overall, 40 percent of Americans think Obama’s a socialist, 32 percent think he’s a Muslim, and one in four think that “he is a domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of.

http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/robert-schlesinger/2010/03/24/party-of-nuts-poll-shows-gop-thinks-obama-is-muslim-socialist

Even on the most charitable interpretations Republicans are, at least, complicit in the growth of these bizarre views:

Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) held another lively town hall meeting this weekend, playing host to a constituent who accused President Barack Obama of “sedition” because he had allegedly lied to voters about his true political allegiances to “socialism, communism and Nazism.”

In a discussion about health care reform, a woman told Walsh that she believed the United States was losing its freedom because of elected officials who were falsifying their ideologies to get elected.

“It is sedition. I mean, they did it underground. If they are honest brokers and they believe in what they’re saying and where they want this country to go, like Obama, then you’re right. He should have said it before he was elected, and said ‘I’m a socialist, I believe in socialism, in communism, Nazism,’ whatever, and say ‘this is where I want to lead the country’ — not do it underhandedly,” she said.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/21/joe-walsh-town-hall-obama_n_1532768.html

And many (including myself) would argue that they’re wilfully fuelling them for their own short term gain. It’s the intensification of a longer standing strategy and it risks becoming almost indescribably self-destructive, as the Republican party is now driven by true believers who have been motivated to join the party largely because of their acceptance of this nonsense. But could something similar happen here? I would have thought not and yet the last few weeks would seem to suggest that an attempt is being made. After all, it’s seemed clear to me for some time that the current government have been reading from the Republican playbook for the last few years (e.g. ideologically motivated deficit hawking has been a driver of party politics for longer there than it has here) and there are demonstrable links between UK right-wing think tanks (in which the Cameroons are deeply entwined) and their American equivalents. Owen Jones offers a great analysis of this in yesterday’s Independent:

That in mind, I wonder what Ralph Miliband would have made of his son’s transformation from a “laughable blank sheet of paper” to “frothing-at-the-mouth Communist who is going to nationalise your mother quicker than you can say ‘Friedrich Engels had a cracking beard’”. Ed Miliband’s suggested crackdown on land-banking (once endorsed by Boris “Commie” Johnson) and a temporary freeze on energy prices (backed by arch-Leninist Tom Burke, the former Tory special adviser on energy) have provoked comparisons with undesirable elements ranging from Robert Mugabe to the Bolsheviks. After he stood on a soapbox in Brighton and indulged a bystander asking when he would “bring back socialism”, the British right have behaved as though Labour are planning to finish what Lenin was doing before he was so rudely interrupted.

In part, it is the sinister red-baiting of Ed Miliband through his dead father, culminating with the Daily Mail accusing the Labour leader of planning to drive “a hammer and sickle through the heart of the nation so many of us love”. Pass the spliff, Mr Dacre. “Like a good Marxist,” writes The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore, “he detects the cowardice latent in capitalists,” accusing Miliband of being “part of an ideology” which is “ultimately pauperising and totalitarian.” Jeremy Hunt odiously endorsed the Mail’s lunacy, arguing that “Ralph Miliband was no friend of the free market and I have never heard Ed Miliband say he supports it.” George Osborne, meanwhile, accuses Ed Miliband of making “essentially the same argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital.”

This is what is really going on. The right are so drunk on three decades of free-market triumphalism, so used to the left being smashed and battered, that they believe even the mildest deviation from the neo-liberal script is unacceptable. They thought all of these battles had been won, that they were rid of all their turbulent priests, and now they are incandescent at the alleged resurgence of defeated enemies. Don’t you know you’re supposed to be dead? It’s not even the most moderate form of social democracy that the right are trying to drive from political life. Anyone who does not advocate yet more aggressive doses of neo-liberalism – more privatisation, more cuts to the taxes of the wealthy, more attacks on workers’ rights – is liable to come under suspicion, too.

The British right’s strategy is pretty clear. They want to do to “socialist” what the US right have done to “liberal”: turn it into an unequivocally toxic word that no-one in public life would want to associate with, and use it as a means to smear political opponents deemed to deviate from Britain’s suffocating neo-liberal consensus. Bemusing, to say the least, given Labour first officially declared itself a “democratic socialist party” under Tony Blair in 1995 as a sop to the left in the party’s new revised Clause IV. He even wrote a Fabian Society pamphlet entitled Socialism. Yes, granted it meant nothing more to him than motherhood and apple pie, and he had more leeway than Miliband because it was rather more difficult to pin him down as a heartfelt lefty, but the point is even New Labour could happily bandy “socialism” about.

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/ed-miliband-isnt-offering-socialism–but-the-tories-are-still-terrified-8862388.html

I struggle to fathom the depth of the demonstrable stupidity I’m presented with when encountering someone who believes Ed Miliband is a socialist. Which leads me to assume that they don’t really mean it. Or by ‘socialist’ they mean someone mildly to the left of New Labour orthodoxy. When I encounter Obama being called a Islamic Commie Nazi (etc) I can find it kind of funny (less so with a potential US default imminent) because of the distance. But it worries me a lot that this toxic political culture could be willingly inculcated in the UK. I’m pretty certain some are making the attempt but I doubt it could take root. I’m less sure of this then I used to be though.