This is a remarkable day in the history of our country. We have never over our centuries inaugurated a man like Donald Trump as president of the United States. You can select any random group of former presidents – Madison, Lincoln, Hoover, Carter – and none of them are like Trump.
We’ve never had a major national leader as professionally unprepared, intellectually ill informed, morally compromised and temperamentally unfit as the man taking the oath today. So let’s not lessen the shock factor that should reverberate across this extraordinary moment.
It took a lot to get us here. It took a once-in-a-century societal challenge – the stresses and strains brought by the global information age – and it took a political system that was too detached and sclerotic to understand and deal with them.
There are many ways to capture this massive failure, but I’d rely on the old sociological distinction between gemeinschaft and gesellschaft. All across the world, we have masses of voters who live in a world of gemeinschaft: where relationships are personal, organic and fused by particular affections. These people define their loyalty to community, faith and nation in personal, in-the-gut sort of ways.
But we have a leadership class and an experience of globalization that is from the world of gesellschaft: where systems are impersonal, rule based, abstract, indirect and formal.
Many people in Europe love their particular country with a vestigial affection that is like family England, Holland or France. But meritocratic elites of Europe gave them an abstract intellectual construct called the European Union.
Many Americans think their families and their neighborhoods are being denuded by the impersonal forces of globalization, finance and technology. All the Republican establishment could offer was abstract paeans to the free market. All the Democrats could offer was Hillary Clinton, the ultimate cautious, remote, calculating, gesellschaft thinker.
It was the right moment for Trump, the ultimate gemeinschaft man. He is all gut instinct, all blood and soil, all about loyalty over detached reason. His business is a pre-modern family clan, not an impersonal corporation, and he is staffing his White House as a pre-modern family monarchy, with his relatives and a few royal retainers. In his business and political dealings, he simply doesn’t acknowledge the difference between private and public, personal and impersonal. Everything is personal, pulsating outward from his needy core.
The very thing that made him right electorally for this moment will probably make him an incompetent president. He is the ultimate anti-institutional man, but the president sits at the nerve center of a routinized, regularized 4-million-person institution. If the figure at the center can’t give consistent, clear and informed direction, the whole system goes haywire, with vicious infighting and creeping anarchy.
Some on the left worry that we are seeing the rise of fascism, a new authoritarian age. That gets things exactly backward. The real fear in the Trump era should be that everything will become disorganized, chaotic, degenerate, clownish and incompetent.
The real fear should be that Trump is Captain Chaos, the ignorant dauphin of disorder. All the standard practices, norms, ways of speaking and interacting will be degraded and shredded. The political system and the economy will grind to a battered crawl.
That’s ultimately why this could be a pivotal day. For the past few decades our leadership class has been polarized. We’ve wondered if there is some opponent out there that could force us to unite and work together. Well, that opponent is being inaugurated, not in the form of Trump the man, but in the form of the chaos and incompetence that will likely radiate from him, month after month. For America to thrive, people across government will have to cooperate and build arrangements to quarantine and work around the president.
People in the defense, diplomatic and intelligence communities will have to build systems to prevent him from intentionally or unintentionally bumbling into a global crisis. People in his administration and in Congress will have to create systems so his ill-informed verbal spasms don’t derail coherent legislation.
If Trump’s opponents behave as clownishly as he does – like the congressmen who are narcissistically boycotting the inaugural – the whole government will get further delegitimized. But if people redouble their commitment to constitutional norms and practices, to substance and dignity, this thing is survivable.
Already you see the political system uniting to contain Trump. In negotiations on the Hill, administration officials feel free to ignore his verbiage on health care and other issues. Members of his team are already good at pretending that Trump doesn’t mean what he clearly does mean, on matters of NATO and much else.
I’ve been rewatching “Yes, Minister” these days. That was a hilarious British sitcom about a permanent government apparatus that contained and overruled a bumbling political master. America will need a beneficent version of that sort of clever cooperation.
With Trump it’s not the ideology, it’s the disorder. Containing that could be the patriotic cause that brings us together.