King Donald and his Court

Democracy is participative

In this article I want to argue that the election and presidency of Donald Trump is a symptom of the crisis in US democratic institutions and US society. Focusing on the personal characteristics of Trump himself only gets you so far – one has to answer the questions: how could such a man get so many votes and retain such a devoted following? What does this say about the capacity of the government system in the USA to solve deep seated problems? What kind of future does it portend?

The proper aim of any government is looking after an abstraction called “the public interest” but this is not an easily defined thing and the whole point of political activity is to advance or defend different interpretations of what is in the interests of society as a whole – as well as who can be accepted as being a part of the society in the first place – with corresponding rights and responsibilities.

Democracy on a sloping playing field

My argument is that a healthy democratic society is inherently participative and if it is not then the institutions of democracy will wither away as a smaller group take all the decisions, in their own interest, shutting out everyone else. There are no societies in which democracy operates perfectly and great inequality of power and influence has been a feature of American politics for a very long time. Even though citizens have equality in having just one vote politics is always played on a steeply sloping playing field in which an insider group are well resourced, well connected, well informed (about insider power agendas and issues though usually poorly informed about the conditions of ordinary people). Their affairs are well publicised when they want them to be and well hidden (in secrecy jurisdictions and tax havens) when they want to hide. They are also well represented by fancy lawyers and advocates of various kinds and well protected if need be – by security guards in gated communities. They are well educated – not necessarily to a high level of intellectual ability but to a high level of self confidence and arrogance – which is also because the conditions of their lives are so secure so that they know that they can survive repeated set backs that would destroy the lives of 99% of the population.

In principle if decisions were all made at the lowest possible level in a society and economy which is largely local or regional there would be plenty of scope for participation by people with close personal connection to the issues. However as institutions and corporations become larger, richer and more influential they operate out of distant power centres out of the reach of most people. This is both geographical distance but even more socio-economic distance. In the power centres money talks and those without money are not heard. The possibility of direct participation falls away and governing decisions are taken by a small elite of insiders in response to powerful and wealthy lobby groups. The phrase “pay to play” expresses well what is happening. The 1%…and even more the 1% of the 1%…take all the key decisions.

Such conditions set severe limits on the operation of democracy and have done for a long time. It is arguable that as the US economy hits increasing problems at the limits to growth the degraded condition in which US democracy operates is getting dramatically worse. In the conditions that prevail on the edge of social collapse – a dramatic deterioration of the conditions of the 99% – the chief profit opportunities are those of “disaster capitalism”: arms sales, security, prison building and incarceration, ripping off the increasing number of sick and desperate people, exploitative debt…and a flourishing propaganda industry for the challenging task of continuing the manufacture of consent for elites and their agendas even though by most obvious criteria the 1% are failing spectacularly.

How the 1% keep the lid on…

In order for elite insiders to continue their hegemony they must control, or at least influence, the broadcast and print media and manage it in such a way as to “manufacture consent”. Over many years control over what gets reported and how it is interpreted occurred in one-way mass media channels (newspapers, radio and TV). Now the elite are in a race to manage their propaganda on the internet too.

The Manufacture of Consent in the one way media

In their 1980s classic, The Manufacture of Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward S Herman describe 5 editorially distorting filters that operate in the corporate media – (1) news is rarely presented in such a way that would upset the owners of the media (2) or their advertisers, (3) for the news media it is cheapest and easiest when the news is routinely sourced from the large corporate and political administrations and bureaucracies but this leaves non-routine sources that are not part of the club of power struggling for access; (4) powerful and rich interest groups have the resources to organise flak against news they do not like – eg threatening legal action or loss of advertising or setting up fake grass roots organisations to present their view as if it was from a community, or hiring people to generate lies and obfuscation. (5) Writing in the 1980s Chomsky and Herman showed how blanket anti-communism was a bogeyman used to discredit alternative viewpoints – nowadays the war on terror is used for the same purpose – bearing in mind that alternative voices are typically against the wars and the hysterical xenophobia used by the elite to scare people into their camp.

The insidious effects of television

Although the internet has recently become an alternative and interactive source of information, particularly among the young, television has had a powerfully negative effect over many decades in undermining the sort of participatory society that is needed to underpin a genuine democratic process. Because television has been with us for over half a century it is a taken for granted feature of modern life and most people are unaware of its long run effects, in particular on the decline in social connections and activities. In his book The Growth Illusion Richard Douthwaite quoted from research from the 1970s.

“In 1973 Tannis Williams, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, learned that a town of 2,500 people, which had been unable to receive television, was to be provided with a signal in a year’s time. She immediately began to study the town, which she called ‘Notel’, using standard psychological tests. She also arranged for the same tests to be carried out in two similar towns in the same area, Multitel and Unitel, which had been receiving television for years. Guy Lyon Playfair describes what she found in his book The Evil Eye: The Unnacceptable Face of Television (1990)
One of her findings was completely unexpected: Notel adults were a good deal brighter than those of the other two towns. They were much better at creative problem-solving tests, and those individuals who were unable to solve tasks would try for much longer than Multitel or Unitel people before giving up. ….

….A year after television had arrived things were different. There was a dramatic drop in community participation, with fewer people going to public dances, parties, meetings, concerts, parades and bingo than before they had television in their homes. Moreover when the young people were tested for physical and verbal aggression they now scored above the two control towns. Reading skills had also suffered. particularly among those who found it difficult anyway and Williams suspected that individual personality had been lost and that people had become mentally more passive.”
Quoted in Richard Douthwaite The Growth Illusion Green Books p168

Fox News – partisan politics as spectacle staged for emotional impact..

In ancient Greek society the word “idiotes” was used to describe free men (i.e. who were not slaves) who did not participate, as they were entitled, in the democratic process but instead pursued their private interests. It is the origin of the word “idiot”. The “Notel” case study illustrates how, without television, people in a small town participated in the life of the community. Their participation is associated with the possession of greater creativity and the ability to think properly. Then along came TV.

Several decades further along came Fox TV and, for many, has made the situation worse. What we can see is that the role of the media is not merely one of information management. The channel works by the manipulation of mass emotion in particular “market segments” – in their case the victims are middle aged and elderly.

What Fox News has done intentionally is to create “partisan conservative politics staged and acted out as a kind of “performance art”. Without viewers being aware of it interviews are staged managed and pre-planned. What happens is somewhat akin to the pre-arrangement of what happens in a wrestling match.

The aim is an emotional hit for the audience….

“There is NO better feeling in life than when a person’s existing beliefs are attacked and then a smart sounding expert PROVES you right all along. Fox News turns this process of ideological attack and ultimate victory of the righteous into partisan performance art of steroids.”

Computational Propaganda – manufacturing consent through online media

It can be argued that the more interactive characteristics of the internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter are changing all of this and making for greater democratic participation. There is some truth to this, particularly among young people whose political identity and activism is particularly routed through social media. In general over 60% of Americans rely on social media for political discussion. It is not surprising then that, in recent years there has been a race to adapt the process of manufacturing consent to new media technologies through the use of “computational propaganda”. Academic studies are showing that

“….political elites have figured out how to harness social media to exert power and control. Donald Trump used one digital tool in particular to circumvent the need for traditional political advertising. That tool was Twitter.”

What Trump has been able to do is use twitter for “megaphoning” – a process of attention grabbing that spoke over the mainstream. One of his methods was being willing to say and do outrageous things, often on twitter and thus bypassing the mainstream – this created delight among all those who felt their prejudices restrained by “political correctness” – while moving on so quickly that the mainstream media could not keep up. Whereas other candidates would have suffered for what he said, “Trump would say or do something else and a misstep would be forgotten in the next day’s media cycle.”

Through his success at megaphoning or attention grabbing Trump set and kept the news agenda focused on him and his repeated slogans and phrases.

“Experts from every quarter have since weighed in on what caused the Trump win. Communication scholars have suggested it has to do with the fact that, despite his disregard for traditional advertising and what his supporters have derisively deemed “the mainstream media,” he received far more media attention than any other candidate. According to MediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of candidates, Trump received nearly five billion dollars’ worth of free media attention compared to Clinton’s three million (Harris, 2016). …. In a conversation with CBS’s 60 Minutes (2016), Trump himself said that Twitter and Facebook were key to his victory.”

What makes this somewhat disturbing are trends to automate the manipulation of consent. Data from people’s use of facebook and twitter about what they “like” and what they click onto can be harvested and used to place people into individualised “psychometric” or “psychographic” categories. This in turn can be used to tailor propaganda messages to them uniquely and directly.

Whereas an attractive feature of the internet is its ability to increase the range of information available to individuals, and to give the scope for following up on issues in more depth, there is also a danger here of delivering to people information tailored made to confirm their prejudices and limiting the possibility that they will accidentally encounter alternative viewpoints and facts that might challenge their world view.

This can be combined with the use of “bots” – messages get sent out not, as at first right appears, from individuals but automatically by computer programmes. Thereby appearances can be manipulated powerfully.

“Social media bots manufacture consensus by artificially amplifying traffic around a political candidate or issue. Armies of bots built to follow, retweet, or like a candidate’s content make that candidate seem more legitimate, more widely supported, than they actually are. This theoretically has the effect of galvanizing political support where this might not previously have happened. To put it simply: the illusion of online support for a candidate can spur actual support through a bandwagon effect.”

The emotions that are exploited

For this purpose common emotional vulnerabilities can be and are exploited. It is OK to upset people but in a way that affirms insecurities and prejudices and brings out indignation at scroungers, criminals and foreigners. For those of us who live in the UK, descriptions of Fox News programmes have similarities to news stories written for the UK newspaper, the Daily Mail:

“The ideal….story is one that leaves the reader hating somebody or something.”

Celebrating Ignor-ance

A taken for granted conservative world view is confirmed. The hidden propaganda does the very opposite of challenging pre-conceptions. There is no uneasy awareness for readers or viewers that they do not know what is going on. On the contrary, states of mind are encouraged where “experts” are hated and despised and there is a celebration of ignor – ance and the ignor – ant.

How is this achieved? On what is it based? Organisations like Fox News have learned to tap into real emotions. Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone magazine explains:

“Trump voters almost uniformly don’t begrudge someone for being an entrepreneurial success….But they can’t stand the book smart college types who make cushy livings pushing words around in what these voters see as competition averse professions that reward people who in real life have to phone AAA to change a tire….This was one reason that Trump supporters seemed so stubborn in their lack of interest in “the facts”. They are contemptuous of anything that came from us and our habit of rubbing their noses in their mistake – well it was just as off putting as correcting their spelling, another thing educated liberal types tended to do a lot, especially on social media.”

Trained by his experience of reality TV Trump has been able to find soaring popularity tapping into the same anti authoritarian reflexes that makes a celebrity of the rebellious kid in school class who defies know-it-all teachers by refusing to shut up and who breaks taboos by asserting with confidence all the things that are politically incorrect (and usually factually incorrect – like the idea that immigrants have a higher propensity to commit crimes – in fact the incarceration rate for people born in the USA is 2 to 5 times that of immigrants).

This serves the interest of the power elite by leaving people unaware of their failings, their ignorance and their blundering incompetence.

Context free news – goodies, baddies

The result is catastrophic for democracy. Millions of people prefer the news interpreted in the simplest of all explanatory frameworks – who are the “goodies” and who are the “baddies”. This is achieved by a style of presenting news without history or deeper explanation in short clips of “context free” reporting so that a large part of the population has no collective memory of why problems and conflicts have arisen in the first place. All complexity is absent.

The presentation of news about North Korea gives an example. Without knowing the history of that country one is left with the impression of a bizarre and inexplicable hatred and paranoia of the USA which is doing its best to defend human rights and democracy. Putting the history back makes North Korea a lot more understandable.

During the Korean war the US air force “bombed and napalmed cities, towns and villages across the North. It was mostly easy pickings for the Air Force, whose B-29s faced little or no opposition on many missions. The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders. “Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,” Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed “everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.” After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.” (Washington Post March 24 2015).

Another observer, Bruce Cumings of Chicago University, points out how Washington policy makers and most of the media refuse “to ever investigate our 72-year history of conflict with the North; all of our media appear to live in an eternal present, with each new crisis treated as sui generis. Visiting Seoul in March, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asserted that North Korea has a history of violating one agreement after another; in fact, President Bill Clinton got it to freeze its plutonium production for eight years (1994–2002) and, in October 2000, had indirectly worked out a deal to buy all of its medium- and long-range missiles. Clinton also signed an agreement with Gen. Jo Myong-rok stating that henceforth, neither country would bear “hostile intent” toward the other.”

Georrge Bush then promptly revoked the agreement and declared North Korea to be part of the “Axis of Evil.” Kim Jong-un subsequently saw what happened to Saddam Hussein and Gadaffi and drew his own conclusions about trusting deals made with the USA.

Without knowing the historical context all we have is a media that tells the public and the politicians what is going on now with the firm conviction that the US are the “goodies” so that the other side in any conflict are automatically mad and/or bad.

This ignor-ance by a large proportion of the American public AND by the bulk of its elite has catastrophic consequences. With Trump it has sunk to its lowest level ever. He can appeal so well to the Fox News audience because he is a part of that audience and one of the dupes who imagines that he understands what is going on in the world after watching their broadcasts.

The point here is that not only was Trump almost totally ignorant when he became president, he was unaware that he was ignorant. If you are aware that you are lacking in knowledge you can appoint people with relevant expertise and do some research yourself. But that is not Donald Trump – he works with family members and people from his inner circle – who also have no expertise.

Given what Trump represents however this is not a problem – in a perverse sense it is positively advantageous. To run “disaster capitalism” properly and to make money in a period of decline decision makers who are ignorant of, and unconcerned about, the wider implications of their actions go the furthest.

Money buys influence – insiders and outsiders

So far my argument has mainly focused upon misinformation and techniques of emotional management which have blocked or diverted the possibility of an informed and participative democracy. Most people cannot get personal contact or relationships with the decision makers – unless they are very wealthy and can afford to pay for lobbying, think tanks and/or direct membership of the clubs of powerful people. Money buys influence.

This is the key point of the Trump business model for the presidency. As Naomi Klein has explained in a recent article in The Intercept, Trump and family have not divested from their business empire in any way. On the contrary what they now peddle is his name and influence as a branded product which is a package with the hotel and hospitality business. “Crooked Hillary” was attacked for sponsoring “Pay to Play” – where political donations buy influence. However Trump and family have taken this to a new level.

As Klein puts it – the presidency is the ultimate extension of the Trump brand. Indeed “any distinction between the Trump brand and the Trump presidency is a concept the current occupant of the White House cannot begin to understand” (Klein ). Thus current membership rates at Mar a Logo have doubled…

….and why not, if you go there you may meet the Chinese President and overhear a discussion about bombing Syria?

More is at stake here than the ability of the Presidents family to make a lot of money. The potential for conflict of interest between running property empires and having global political responsibilities could not be more clearly displayed than in the Qatar crisis. Why Donald Trump appeared to take the side of a hothead young Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and other Gulf autocrats against Qatar, when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Pentagon were trying to de-escalate that conflict, has been a bit of a mystery, especially as the chief US base in the Middle East is in Qatar. However suddenly the revelation that the Presidents son in law tried, and failed, to get a large loan from Qatar to bail out the Kushner property empire from the consequences of his mistakes, suggests a reason why Trump may have had a grudge against the Qataris.

This is a style of politics in which the idea that the state is there to represent the interests of all of society disappears.

The old fashioned idea of the state is that it exists to respond to the full variety of stakeholders in society and to the full range of issues that they each face in order to represent a general interest. Of course this has rarely been what has happened. Powerful groups in society get their interests put ahead of the interests of others and while some things are considered very important the interests of poor groups in society are ignored. However, with Trump, this is now carried to a higher level.

The American state adapting itself more completely to disaster capitalism

As suggested earlier this can be seen as the American state adapting itself more completely to ‘disaster capitalism’. Although economic growth is no longer possible there is still scope for “insiders” and the “well connected” to make money. There is still scope for “uneconomic growth”. The costs and harms predominate and are spread across wide areas of the population and the environment. But insiders can still benefit at the cost of everyone else. Insiders can still speculate in the knowledge that they will get bailed out even as their restless and reckless activities ruin millions of others.

Fracking is a example where countless “little people” have learned that they cannot depend on government agencies to protect them. It has long been the case that regulatory regimes are chiefly shaped by polluters with money who have the lobby influence in distant government offices. Increasingly people can see how the regulation is not for real. At the higher levels of government politicians side with business to create regimes full of loop holes and plenty of looking the other way. But now the Trump’s administration is removing even the semblance that the regulatory agencies like the EPA are there to protect citizens.

“In just the last three months, with Mr. Pruitt in charge, the E.P.A. postponed a long-planned rule requiring companies like Devon to retrofit drilling equipment to prevent leaks of methane gas — a major contributor to climate change — and to collect more data on how much of the gas is spewing into the air.

The Interior Department, meanwhile, announced this month that it would reconsider a separate rule limiting the burning of unwanted methane gas from wells drilled on federal and Indian lands, a process called flaring. That announcement came the same day the Senate narrowly rejected industry calls to repeal the same rule.

Interior officials have also announced their intention to repeal or revise a contentious rule requiring companies like Devon to take extra steps to prevent groundwater contamination caused by hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, a drilling technique in which chemicals and water are forced into rock formations.”

In this kind of government ignorance helps

Running government like a business means effectively pushing out and/or ignoring a range of stakeholders who are unlikely to acquiesce and withdraw quietly. It involves ignoring a range of issues – which then emerge instead metastasized as resistance, sickness, climate change, increasing prison populations. But there is money to be made with a privatised prison sector whose populations are cheap labour for corporations – there is money to be made in privatised health and conflict means more work for the security industry, police and armed forces.

The fact that the President is incredibly poorly informed is beside the point. In order to go for uneconomic growth – for disaster capitalism that produces bads more than goods, and thrives on the the damage it creates – it actually helps to create a “three wise monkeys” approach to policy at the heart of government.

A government that curtails research is unable to see the damage it is creating and so are the public that would have been informed by the research which does not now take place. It sees and hears no evil and its officials are unable to speak about it either.

Quasi monarchy – the new court of King Donald

It therefore does not matter that Trump is ill informed. Indeed it is possible to argue that it helps. Trump is not in the business of formulating appropriate policy for solving social and economic ills. On the contrary he is there to ignore them and to promote the family brand in a permanent reality TV show.

For millions of people he is and will be judged on how well he promotes his brand on TV and how entertaining the Donald Trump show is, more than any policy.

Like an old fashioned monarchy the American state is there for the greater glory of its leading family – and can be expected by the rest of the world to send its armed forces – “to make their country great”.

Back at home the monarch speaks directly to his subjects – in this case, over the heads of the media by twitter – and to lower level officialdom there is the theatre of Executive Orders which requires federal agencies to issues reviews and reports on issues like education, immigration or trade.

Absolute monarchs do not need to justify their “policies”. The game that people are supposed to be playing is loyalty which is first and foremost to the “family brand”. If you don’t like it that’s irrelevant – you put up with it and, if you don’t, there are plenty of “spies” and intelligence services to keep an eye on you backed up by laws to crack down on sedition.

Of course things have not gone quite this far in the US – yet. In his attempts to govern like this Trump has been continually stymied by the courts. There are legal moves against him because of the way his business interests and government are so entangled. The Executive Orders too are not that effectual – especially in an admistration slow to appoint its senior departmental managers and demoralised by idiot managers. Indeed there are a great number of Executive Orders which have simply not been done on time.

In short the effectiveness of the state bureaucracy is degrading – while conflicts between differing and opposing factions of the governing elite paralyze the branches of government. Over all of this a budgetary crisis looms with a serious potential for closing down many branches of government.

In conclusion

In the writings of archeologist and historian Joseph Tainter there is a theory of why complex societies, civilisations collapse. Over time they become more complex adding hierarchical layers, specialist institutions, new technologies and regulations to solve the problems of society until there is a huge level of complexity. The society cannot respond to the stresses and problems facing it because of a gridlock in the agencies that would be tasked in solving the new problems. At this point stress surges lead to a paralysis in the governing and managerial systems and with Trump we can see how this could be happening.

The “simplification” involves abandoning large sections of the population to its fate. Instead of attempting to respond in a “general interest” political economic responses are organised only for and by a narrow circle of insiders – what emerges is, or may be, something like a court structure where influence is bought and sold while the pretence that all are equal before the law is abandoned – starting first with marginal social groups whose status is further reduced by their criminalisation and incarceration…In this structure the state has little need for specialist experts except in the security and military industrial complex.

This is the challenge for all of us to find an alternative to…and this has to start at a local level, networked horizontally, where ordinary people are no longer passive recipients of a toxic television and media culture but actively involved in doing what they can for their local community. Fortunately the decay of federal politics in the US has led to the rise of political movements and activities whose immediate focus is on what can be done at the level of their state, their city or their locality. At this level climate and energy policies have been picked up and promoted – as well as policies that protect minorities and other victims of social and economic breakdown.

This trend to evolve alternative policies at a local level as federal level politics becomes increasingly dysfunctional is a source of hope….but also a potent source of future conflict. If Trump manages to fight off impeachment this conflict may emerge as the most important of all for determining what will be the future of the USA.

11th July 2017

My thanks are due to Jim Martin-Schramm for comments on an earlier version of this paper – as well as to participants at the 2017 Feasta Workshop in Ross Beithe. All the errors or judgement are mine….