Anthropologists are addressing the mystery of President Donald Trump. They are trying to decipher what his victory portends and whether it is an anomaly (caused by Russian hacking, a weak Democratic candidate, and a rogue FBI director) or, along with the Brexit vote, a symptom of a deeper shift in global affairs. One set of reflections has been made available by the journal Cultural Anthropology. Another set of essays will be published by the journal American Ethnologist in May.
Most of these essays analyze how Trump won the 2016 presidential election, focusing on the roles played by a racial “whitelash” as well as the deindustrialized white working class in Pennsylvania and the Rust Belt states of the Midwest. Few of these analyses pay much attention to how Trump is actually governing. Yet this is a question of vital importance and, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, the United States’ survival as a pluralistic democracy may hang on the analysis.
I believe the best example of the kind of political system Trump admires is the contemporary authoritarian oligarchy in Russia. This is a system in which the outward trappings of representative democracy legitimize an authoritarian regime that derives energy from a cult of personality centered on President Vladimir Putin. The regime is a mechanism for brokering bargains between wealthy oligarchs who divide the spoils of the national economy among themselves behind closed doors. Anyone who steps out of line—especially by challenging Putin—incurs punishments that can range from losing access to the spoils system, being investigated and incarcerated by the state, or (as in the cases of Boris Nemtsov and Alexander Litvinenko) dying in suspicious circumstances.
In contrast to the old Soviet regime of the Cold War, which espoused an internationalist communism, Putin’s regime is intensely nationalistic; it seeks to undermine transnational institutions such as the European Union, seeing them as instruments of a global liberal order that, by promoting democracy, self-determination, and human rights, obstruct its military expansionism and domestic repression. And the political system is increasingly based on a direct relationship between the populace and Vladimir Putin (who holds televised town hall meetings on a regular basis) rather than on the institutions of representative democracy and civil society.
In putting together his cabinet, Trump has selected an oligarchy of the wealthy. The combined net worth of his cabinet picks was estimated by Forbes magazine in December 2016 at US$4.5 billion. It includes the financier Wilbur Ross ($2.5 billion) as secretary of commerce; the Amway heiress Betsy DeVos ($1.25 billion) as secretary of education; former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson ($325 million) as secretary of state; the subprime mortgage king Steven Mnuchin ($300 million) as secretary of the treasury; the neurosurgeon and entrepreneur Ben Carson ($29 million) as secretary of housing and urban development; Elaine Chao ($24 million), the daughter of a shipping magnate, as secretary of transportation; and the businessman and orthopedic surgeon Tom Price ($10 million) as secretary of health and human services. It also includes two retired military officers who are multimillionaires.
Trump’s oligarchical coalition centers on the carbon industry, finance, the military-industrial complex, and medicine. Left out are Silicon Valley and much of the media industry. This coalition plans to lower taxes on the wealthy, roll back federal regulation, make it easier to extract natural resources such as oil, gas, and timber, and dismantle the Obamacare system, which gives health care subsidies to poorer Americans. It is now clear that when candidate Trump spoke of “draining the swamp” in Washington, he was referring not to the special interests that have corrupted the legislative process but to the government regulators who impose some restraint on them.
Meanwhile, Trump exhibits a presidential style that seeks to weaken the checks and balances traditionally at the heart of the American system of government. He uses campaign-style rallies and tweets to communicate directly to his supporters, sometimes blindsiding cabinet officers and government agencies with his policy announcements. He is using presidential executive orders to centralize power and appointing cabinet secretaries who are committed to dismantling sizeable portions of the government apparatus; and, rather than respecting the judicial branch and the media, he has embarked on a campaign of intimidation against them when they get in his way.
For example, in a manner that has no precedent in the annals of recent presidential conduct, he responded to Judge James Robart’s ruling against his executive order on immigration by tweeting, “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” He followed up with another tweet: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system.” When the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Judge Robart’s ruling, President Trump tweeted, “SEE YOU IN COURT, THE SECURITY OF OUR NATION IS AT STAKE!” A few days later, his senior policy adviser Stephen Miller added, “the powers of the president to protect our country … will not be questioned.”
Trump has also repeatedly referred to the mainstream media as “disgusting,” “dishonest,” and “failing.” He and his press secretary Sean Spicer regularly dismiss critical media reports as “fake news,” and his chief strategist Stephen Bannon, having described the press as “the opposition party,” said the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while.” Using a type of locution favored by Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong, Trump referred to the media as “the enemy of the American people.”
It would be silly to claim that we live in an American version of Putin’s Russia, but in his first six weeks in office Trump has made it clear that he envisions a country where power is centralized in the executive branch, to which the judiciary defers; where any stepping out of line (whether by senators, Nordstrom, or Meryl Streep) will invite a swift punitive response; where investigative reporting and media criticism will be countered with a mix of denunciatory bluster and strenuously asserted false claims that leave the public confused as to the actual truth; and where the government will use its official microphone to whip up suspicion of foreign others—from Muslims to Mexican migrants.
This style of governing has begun to elicit powerful opposition from a variety of sources: the liberal grassroots (whose women’s marches were of unprecedented scale); the judiciary (which keeps striking down Trump’s immigration restrictions); a number of state attorneys general; the mainstream media (which regularly put the words “lie” and “Trump” together in headlines); and the “deep state” (which keeps leaking damaging revelations to the media about the Trump administration’s alleged link to Putin). And there are signs that it is beginning to dawn on Trump’s working-class supporters that dismantling Obamacare might not be such a good idea for them after all. If we extrapolate, it is reasonable to expect that the administration will bog down in a swamp of scandal, controversy, and judicial reversals, and that the 2018 elections will deal reversals to Trump.
But we should not extrapolate.
If there is one thing that authoritarian populists understand, it is that war and the threat of terrorist attack can be used to destroy domestic opposition and rally the people around a charismatic leader. Margaret Thatcher was on course for electoral defeat before she led the U.K. to victory over Argentina in the Falklands War of 1982, following which she won the 1983 election by a large margin. Russian opinion rallied behind Putin when he started the Second Chechen War in 1999 on the premise that five recent bombings in Russia had been carried out by Chechen terrorists. (One retired U.S. general with extensive experience in Russia told me he believed the bombings were carried out by Putin’s security services, not by Chechens, and he is not alone in this belief.) And, of course, in the 1930s Hitler managed to eliminate domestic opposition and rally the formerly pluralistic society of Germany around him, first in response to the Reichstag fire—which was allegedly set by a foreign communist—and then by starting World War II. Nothing feeds authoritarianism like war.
So we should be prepared for a deliberately entered war or the exploitation of a terrorist attack to consolidate Trump’s power and discredit domestic opposition. It looks as if Trump is already clearing the path ahead by pre-emptively blaming the media and the courts for any future terrorist attack. We can only rob this scenario of its anti-democratic force if we have identified it beforehand as a cynical power grab, and if—with the help of people of conscience in the intelligence agencies and the media—we expose it for what it is as it happens. In other words, the more we publicly declare that we are expecting Trump and his allies to attempt this move, the less power the move will have if and when they make it.