Let’s start with Trump, since he’s really a fairly simple politician and is technically the head of the country. Donald Trump has a dark, dark view of the world these days. Why? For one, he’s getting old. He hugely values youth, superficial beauty (“looks”), and people’s opinions of him — all of which often aren’t super optimistic topics when you’re 70 years old. Furthermore, the world has changed a lot in his lifetime, and like it is for many older people, that is increasingly disconcerting and difficult to deal with mentally, emotionally, and practically. Aging, combined with the fast-moving threats of change (along with one other matter I’ll get to in a moment), have helped to put Donald in a very dark place.
In essence, it is Donald’s “normal” attributes in this regard that I think really helped him to get elected (along with ~51 other “black swan” ingredients*): He’s not a politician. He genuinely has the concerns of many “average” Americans. And the public could sense these things during the election season, in a time when many of them were tired of politicians, were tired of being spoken down to, and were tired of hearing the world was fine and the future would be bright when they could see themselves that their world was crumbling and death was around the corner.
This is how the future voted. This is what people 18-25 said in casting their votes. We must keep this flame alight and nurture this vision. pic.twitter.com/ivuXrar869
— Eliza Byard (@EByard) November 9, 2016
To be clear, I think the more practical, specific ways in which a dark worldview led Trump politically were:
- The nearby 9/11 attacks freaked him out. (That could have been him! That could have been Trump Tower!) I think this is really what directly pushed him into politics.
- A “funny looking,” young black man with an odd name (Barack Hussein Obama) that reminded Donald of the “evil guys” became president. (Can’t be true. Can’t be legitimate. Can’t not be a conspiracy. This guy isn’t qualified to be president, and hey, he may even be a terrorist in disguise. Is it too extreme to say that he founded ISIS?)
- Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, and other “trustworthy” sources told Donald what he was obsessed with hearing and what his fear-focused biological hunches told him. (The Muslims are coming for him. There’s a vast government conspiracy that’s after him and his freedom. Obama’s not Christian and not even American. The Bushes were in on the conspiracy too.) Note that Trump has expressed belief in numerous conspiracy theories — from Obama not being American or Christian, to global warming being a hoax, to 9/11 being a conspiracy that then-president Bush was in on, to lead not being harmful and just being a Mafia-invented problem. Also note that Fox News has heavily hyped some of these conspiracy theories — though, the lead one seems to have come from another era and the specific region Trump is from.
- You can see why Trump largely doesn’t trust the experts, doesn’t trust the scientists, and doesn’t trust people he “has a bad feeling about.” And I think it’s absolutely clear he knows that he isn’t capable of evaluating the science or the details. What he knows is that well-connected people can bend the truth and outright lie to get what they want, so why can’t the scientists? Specifically in reference to global warming and climate science, I don’t think he has enough scientific experience to understand why that can’t happen in a broad, robust scientific community — I don’t think he understands the scientific process itself. Anyway, this distrust of experts propelled his campaign, and now his presidency. He has also found an ally in that regard in Steve Bannon, but the two are actually hugely different in their personal approach (as one note on that: Bannon reads like crazy whereas it’s questionable if Trump can read well at all) and their aims.
As mentioned above, I think that’s the story of a large mass of Republican voters to one extent or another — they aren’t driven by ideology, just by propaganda and reactionary opinions. (Trump just had the celebrity, brand, branding experience, money, and influence to turn that into a winning presidential campaign.)
On the contrary, I think the vast majority of politicians — Republicans as well as Democrats — are deeply driven by ideology. Many may simply be chasing money and not have an ideological bone in their body, but I think most of them are genuinely convinced that pushing one specific ideology, one basic theory, or one combination of theories will result in better results for the country and their jurisdiction. (Naturally, I think the GOP’s obsession with deregulation in an overly deregulated economy like the US is a bad idea and big problem, but that’s not quite the focus of this article, so I’ll mostly leave “us vs them” ideology alone and finish with Trump before getting on to other current GOP leadership.)
As noted above, Trump is really a simplistic politician. Others have highlighted before that he has swung left to right to left to right on various topics. It’s been widely emphasized that he hardly reads, doesn’t like to dive deeply into topics of any kind (has a super short attention span), and gets his information and ideas from watching TV, especially Fox News. He didn’t delve into social theory at some point in his life and come to the conclusion that some intricate theory or another should drive the country forward. His “ideas” are much more reactionary and second-hand. And, for that matter, his policies are largely just the results of the people he has decided to trust and put in power. Make no mistake: the critical nuances of his executive orders and policy proposals are not his — they come from the ideologically driven politicians who have climbed the political ladder or jumped into politics from the top of a big corporation in order to use Trump’s inexperience and superficial nature for their own aims.
And that brings us to the real policymakers in the Republican Party. For various reasons, people on both sides lump them all together. “They are all just working for the rich,” some simplistic explanations may contend. “They are the only ones fighting for liberty and the Constitution,” some obviously misled or misleading members of the party may claim. Actually, though, I think there are some vast differences in the Republican Party that will increasingly come to light now that the GOP has “full” political rule, and as I’ve written before, I think the party’s civil war is just starting because of these differences, other social differences, and changing US demographics.
The most simplistic — but I think quite valid — way I can find of describing the differences is that there are 1) moderate “small government” Republicans, 2) extremist anti-government Republicans with shallow ideological perspective but who actually like social support systems and basic societal protection (just don’t realize this until it touches their lives), and 3) extremely extremist Republicans who think the whole system needs to be destroyed to some degree or another.
Moderate Republicans just lean toward the general ideology that “less regulation = good.” Again, I think they miss one of the fundamental purposes of the government in many specific cases here by making this blanket assumption, but many of them also do recognize that we need government to protect our air, our water, our climate, and our economy from societally damaging activities that some corporations have a tendency to take. At some point, many of these Republicans will draw a line and won’t support more premature death and suffering. (Though, I have to admit that I’m a bit astounded at how spinelessly many of them let the pollution industry push its harmful desires through the Republican agenda.)
Extremist anti-government Republicans, like Trump, who like existing social support systems and basic societal protection but have more or less been brainwashed so effectively and have such a shallow ideological standing that they somehow think government involvement in everything is fundamentally the problem. “If only the government would leave corporations alone, everything would be swell. … But wait, I still want my social security, medicare, medicaid, clean air, clean water, and basic worker rights.”
Trump’s decisions to put an anti-worker billionaire in charge of the Department of Labor, a pro-pollution lawyer who wants to destroy the EPA in charge of the EPA, an anti-public school billionaire who has no direct experience with public schools in charge of the Department of Education, etc., etc., are a clear indication he falls into this group. However, there’s also a good chance he knows very little about these people, wasn’t very involved in vetting the options or selecting them (i.e., had other people do it for him), and really handed over the power to other people in this cohort or in the next cohort.
Extremist Republicans who think the whole system needs to be destroyed include well-read but radically focused people like Steve Bannon, Nassim Taleb, Michael Anton, and Curtis Yarvin. These people think our current governmental structure and political situation is so broken that it needs to be broke some more … broken badly … practically destroyed. They are hugely anti-government, but not based on superficial Fox News brainwashing. They are hugely anti-government based on deeper, intellectual brainwashing from people who much more genuinely understand what this means and believe it is somehow a good thing. Concern for the downtrodden, the least advantaged, the lower classes, and minorities is not a strong suit of these people, from what I’ve seen. Oddly, they are often Christians who seem to vehemently disagree with forms of compassion heavily promoted in The Bible.
As a more personal example, this discussion on the following Real Time with Bill Maher show includes one moderate Republican and one Trump-like anti-government extremist with thin ideology:
To be clear, no member of group #3 was represented in that video.
As it stands right now, it seems that some of the members of group #3 — most notably, Steve Bannon — are running the show in the executive branch. Trump is trusting them because he knows he can’t trust himself. Also, remember from above, he doesn’t trust the establishment, so he doesn’t want to turn to establishment politicians. Furthermore, note that these anti-establishment extremists were some of the first people to support him — which is not surprising when you realize their goal is genuinely to see the system collapse and Donald Trump immediately seemed like a great character to bring that about.
It’s not that these people are 100% pure evil — that’s a thing of fiction, in my humble opinion — but they have a very dark view of democratic government (which is fundamentally the masses stepping in and deciding that we all deserve certain protections — from other individuals and from corporations — and should get a basic level of support from each other). Here are two segments of the article linked above for more of a summary explanation:
Bannon’s readings tend to have one thing in common: the view that technocrats have put Western civilization on a downward trajectory, and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline. And they tend to have a dark, apocalyptic tone that at times echoes Bannon’s own public remarks over the years—a sense that humanity is at a hinge point in history. His ascendant presence in the West Wing is giving once-obscure intellectuals unexpected influence over the highest echelons of government.
Bannon’s 2015 documentary, “Generation Zero,” drew heavily on one of his favorite books, “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, which explains a theory of history unfolding in 80-100 year cycles or “turnings,” the fourth and final stage of which is marked by periods of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced—a current period that, in Bannon’s view, was sparked by the 2008 financial crisis and has now been manifested in part by the rise of Trump.
“The West is in trouble. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, and Trump’s election was a sign of health,” said a White House aide who was not authorized to speak publicly. “It was a revolt against managerialism, a revolt against expert rule, a revolt against the administrative state. It opens the door to possibilities.”
All of these impulses are evident in the White House, as the new administration—led by Bannon and a cadre of like-minded aides—has set about administering a sort of ideological shock therapy in its first two weeks. A flurry of executive orders slashing regulation and restricting the influx of refugees bear the ideological markings of obscure intellectuals both in form and content. The circumvention of the bureaucracy is a hallmark of these thinkers, as is the necessity of restricting immigration.
Many political onlookers described Trump’s election as a “black swan” event: unexpected but enormously consequential. The term was popularized by Nassim Taleb, the bestselling author whose 2014 book Antifragile—which has been read and circulated by Bannon and his aides—reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.
It’s a broadside against big government, which Taleb faults for suppressing the randomness, volatility and stress that keeps institutions and people healthy.
Part of the criticism of Elon Musk participating on one of Trump’s key advisory panels is that any involvement of non-extremists lends some legitimacy, sense, and overall support to an otherwise destruction-focused team and agenda. The more that progressives, Democratic moderates, and members of group #1 and even #2 bail from Trump, the more he and his team will stand out as extremists clearly unsupported by the simple masses they want to guide off a cliff (for their own good, of course — or just because they’re the wrong Americans).
I think a key point here — particularly for Elon — is that Steve Bannon isn’t technically the president — a confused Donald Trump is — and there’s still the possibility that people like Elon, Ivanka(?), and the masses could pull him away from people like Bannon, who presumably understands very well that climate change is happening but may well want the ensuing destruction to come.
One of the problems is that moderates bailed on Trump early on (well, in many cases all the way to or through the end), and the more they do so now, the more they leave the Bannon clan to be Trump’s “trusted buddies” and run the show.
Ivanka may well write some things off as “crazy old grandpa Donald is angry again,” but she probably also has the sense that Bannon is in control and has a rather dark agenda. It’s hard to know how much or how deeply she is really thinking about these things (rather than simply being elated about the family win, eager to make the most of it for herself and her own agenda, and focused on the family business). It’s also hard to know where Jared Kushner stands on critical policy topics, Bannon, and whether or not the US government should really be destroyed. And it’s hard to know how much influence any particular person has on Trump at any given time. As they probably all know by now, it could be them one minute, Sean Hannity the next, Alec Baldwin the next, or “just a hunch.”
Stepping away from the presidency, Congress is another hugely important and related matter. How many of the Bannon kin are in power? How many of the brainwashed Trump & Tomi Lahren kin are in the House and Senate? How many of the Lindsey Graham and Bob Inglis kin are left?
At some point, are moderate Republicans in Congress going to start breaking rank and blocking extremism? Republican congresspeople have fallen in line to a tremendous degree, and many of the ones who tried to get away with independent thought on some topics have quickly been run out of power.
The voters seem to still not understand that their party has been pushed hugely to an extremist cliff, moderate Republicans have systematically been pushed out of power and out of office, and the agenda of the ruling GOP has gotten darker and darker. Confused but good-hearted blue-eyed boy scouts like Paul Ryan (and a few others) make good Republican mascots and keep many voters convinced the party is looking out for their interest, but with the most extremist Republicans in power to an unprecedented degree, how long until their true aims and the results of those aims come to light?
The most critical matter in this next phase, in my humble opinion, is how much the moderate Republicans in power say “enough is enough,” find their spines, form a worthy group of resistance themselves, and try to take their party back from the brinks of societal destruction and insanity. It’s time for some thoughtful, compassionate Republicans to become heroes.
*Technically, I probably should write “genes,” but I was afraid that would just be confusing.