Elites cannot act against their own interests, right?
Donald Trump has been running a populist campaign against the establishment. To many of his critics, this is absurd.
Why should a billionaire care for the working class? How can a man whose shirts and ties are made in China be against trade deals? Is Trump credible when he calls for a wall at the US-Mexican border, knowing he hired Mexican workers himself?
Trump is so much part of the elite that his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton even attended his wedding to Melania.
It appears that Trump belongs to the establishment which benefits from the status quo. Why would anybody who is a ‘winner’ in the system want to change it?
These critics, however, miss two important points.
First of all, the critics assume that members of the elite are only motivated by their personal financial interests. This, however, denies human nature. People have strong feelings on what is just and right. Elites have the means to become champions for others they sympathize with.
According to the Bible, Moses was adopted by the daughter of the Pharaoh. Moses abandoned a life of luxury at the Egyptian court to stand up for the enslaved Hebrews. After God had punished Egypt with the Ten Plagues, Moses went on to lead the Exodus of his people into the desert.
Louis Philippe II, Duc d’Orléans offers a historical example an elite acting against the interests of his class. The Duke of Orléans was a member of the royal family. Yet he was also an adherent of the ideals of the Enlightenment. He used his wealth to spread the egalitarian and anti-royalist ideas of his Jacobin friends. This ideology inspired the French Revolution, which abolished the monarchy and the privileges of the nobles.
Even though Trump is an economic elite, he is not part of the political establishment.
Secondly, even though Trump is an economic elite, he is not part of the political establishment. There are limits to the kind of political power money can buy. Sure, donations to politicians result in favorable treatments for the giver. Trump has been very explicit about this himself.
The Clinton Foundation faces accusations of pay-to-play by accepting money from foreign governments. Why would these pay millions of dollars, if not to buy influence? The same is true for Clinton’s speeches for big banks.
These quasi-legal bribes target individual politicians and their networks. But it takes more than that to change the consensus of the ruling class on the general direction of policy. Despite his wealth, Trump remains a political outsider.
The establishment consensus
So what is the Washington consensus, promoted by the political establishment and the mainstream media? If you want to understand the Trump campaign in less than five minutes, watch this video of Trump’s summary of what he is running against.
In one word: globalism. The United States that champions free trade deals. America’s military acting as a planetary policeman. Unlimited illegal immigration. All policies that are pushed by a small group at the top, but that do not have the best interest of the average American citizen at heart.
The globalist agenda is a bipartisan consensus shared by Democratic and Republican elites alike.
The globalist agenda is a bipartisan consensus shared by Democratic (D) and Republican (R) elites alike. Although Democrats are supposedly ‘left’ and Republicans ‘right’ on the political spectrum, a lot of their policies are almost identical once in they’re office.
President Bill Clinton (D) signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. Anti-globalists protested against the World Trade Organization (WTO) during Clinton’s presidency. China joined the WTO during the George W. Bush (R) administration. President Barack Obama (D) is trying to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
NATO bombed former Yugoslavia under Bill Clinton. America invaded Afghanistan and Iraq under G. W. Bush. Hillary Clinton (D), at the time a US Senator, voted in favor of military action against Iraq. Not deterred by the Iraq fiasco created by his predecessor, president Obama intervened in Libya while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State. Obama also expanded the drone program, killing people from Somalia over Yemen to Pakistan.
There are millions of illegal immigrants in the USA. Their numbers have risen under both Clinton and Bush presidents. The failure to act against millions who broke the law indicates that there is no will in the establishment of either party to confront this issue.
The fact that the establishment forms a rather closed group1 with a de facto shared ideology doesn’t mean that the elites act as a unity. Far from it, there are often bitter intra-elite rivalries for the top position.
Intra-elite fighting doesn’t question the role of the establishment in society, only who gets to be the top dog.
History is littered with conflicts among nobles for the crown. At one time, the authority over the Catholic Church was claimed by three popes at the same time. These conflicts are about power within the existing institutions. The warring parties take the role of the institutions relative to the rest of society for granted. The nobles didn’t want to get rid of the position of the king. The popes didn’t have theological differences. Elite infighting is about who gets to be the top dog.
The American political landscape has been strongly polarized between Republicans and Democrats for a long time. The amount of mudslinging to damage the other party’s candidate for the presidency has been a spectacle to behold long before the current election cycle. Yet before the Trump insurgency, nobody fundamentally questioned the bipartisan consensus. Obama promised hope and change, but as president he continued the globalist policies of the past.
Closing ranks against the plebs
A very different situation arises when the legitimacy of the authorities is questioned. At times when outsiders challenge the order of society, the position of the entire establishment is threatened. This is a good motivation for elites to stick together against external attacks.
When outsiders challenge the legitimacy of the authorities, the establishment sticks together.
History again provides us with examples of this behavior. The Czech priest Jan Hus undermined the doctrines of the Catholic Church. The pope reacted to the heresy of Hus by launching a crusade2 against his followers.
The Jacquerie was an uprising of Medieval French peasants against the nobility. Better organized and trained to fight, the outnumbered knights quickly put down the rebellion. Thousands of peasants were killed in retribution to the Jacquerie. In the centuries long string of peasant revolts, it happened only very rarely that knights chose the side of the rebels.
Nobody is questioning the institution of the American presidency today. But the 2016 presidential campaign has exposed an unease with the status quo among the bases of both major US parties.
Hillary Clinton, the establishment candidate for the Democrats was challenged by Bernie Sanders. Sanders had voted against the 2002 Iraq resolution supported by Clinton. Sanders was critical of the trade agreements of the US. As shown in emails released by Wikileaks, the Democratic establishment conspired to sabotage Sanders’ campaign.
At the Republican side, Trump has disrupted business as usual so badly that some conservatives have declared themselves “Never Trump”. These Never Trump-ers would rather vote for Hillary Clinton or a third party candidate than to vote for the nominee of their own party. Such betrayal would have been unthinkable in previous elections, when intra-elite fighting and partisanship were all that mattered.
Neoconservative Republicans rather vote for Clinton than Trump.
Neoconservatives have been among the most vocal Never Trump-ers. These Republicans represent some of the strongest supporters of America’s foreign interventions, especially on behalf of its client states in the Middle East.
The establishment revulsion for Trump is so strong that the Democrats use the Bush family, their supposed arch enemies, to advocate for Hillary. See also this picture of First Lady Michelle Obama with George W. Bush, the man who was regularly blamed when things went wrong during Obama’s presidency.
The risks of rebellion against the establishment
Rebelling against the establishment comes with huge consequences. Elites don’t take revolutionaries kindly. Jan Hus was burned at the stake. The leader of the Jacquerie was tortured and beheaded.
Even if the revolution succeeds, those who supported it cannot be assured of their safety. The French Revolution unleashed an orgy of bloodshed. The fact that the Duke of Orléans called himself citoyen Egalité (citizen Equality) to distance himself from his noble roots didn’t save him from the guillotine during the Terror.
Public beheadings have been replaced by boycotts and defamation.
Public beheadings are out of fashion today, at least in the West. But that doesn’t mean the uprising of Donald Trump is without danger. If he fails to “drain the swamp“, the swamp is likely going to swallow him. Remember that the elites have vast financial and media resources, as well as pawns in the power structures of the Justice Department and other bureaucracies.
Trump has said it himself: “Anyone who challenges their3 control is deemed a sexist, a racist, a xenophobe, and morally deformed.” They seek to destroy your career, your family and your reputation. The candidacy of Trump is already damaging his businesses.
The vengeance of the establishment and its lackeys is also one of the reasons many Trump supporters prefer to stay anonymous online. It also explains why the polls cannot be trusted. Questioning the status quo brings risks.
For example, the mere fact that Scott Adams writes about Trump’s strategies has hurt his income. Adams has become too controversial and is no longer invited to speak about Dilbert, the cartoon he created. Some people have wanted to boycott Peter Thiel, a billionaire businessman who supports Trump. Diversity and tolerance do not apply for those who diverge from the accepted groupthink.
No matter how advanced and modern we think we are, history always has lessons in store.
Standard disclaimer applies.
- What are the odds that two presidents come from the same family (George Bush sr. and jr., candidacy of Jeb; husband and wife Clinton) in a democracy of more than 300 million people?
- You probably didn’t know this, huh? The Czech and Baltic people don’t carry out terror attacks today in retaliation for crusades that happened centuries ago. Maybe some other people should take note.
- i.e. of the establishment