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The election of President Trump made it clear that America is not engaged in politics as usual. We are in the midst of a political war.
If this wasn’t evident to some observers before, the furor this week over the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe should have driven it home. These are not ordinary political times.
Regardless of their partisan leanings, those earnestly seeking to grasp what is happening understand that President Trump is, as Venkatesh Rao says, “more consequence than cause” of the underlying conflict. Perhaps he is a consequence of the fact that “[t]he fault line in American politics is no longer Republican vs. Democrat nor conservative vs. liberal but establishment vs. anti-establishment,” as William Lind put it at the American Conservative.
What we mean when we say “establishment” versus “anti-establishment” is the question of the hour, but as Jordan Greenhall declared, “while 2016 still formally looked like politics, what is really going on here is a revolutionary war.”
War is confusing. In the fog of battle it is not clear what might be happening or even who and where one’s friends and enemies are. While this is especially so in the midst of a revolutionary war, there is agreement among keen observers as to what the revolution is against.
Eight years ago, Claremont Institute Senior Fellow Angelo Codevilla called it the “Ruling Class,” a popular thesis which he turned into a book (The Ruling Class) and used deftly to explain the 2016 election and its aftermath. Michael Anton, in perhaps the most significant essay of the election, called it the “Davoisie oligarchy,” or the “Davos class” and recently coined the word the “oligogues” to describe the majority of elites in their camp that flatter and support them.
On our rulers, widely disparate thinkers agree. In 2012, Joel Kotkin called these same elites the Clerisy, which he says minister to the Oligarchs. In 2014, Kotkin published a book, The New Class Conflict, which aptly applies to explain the 2016 election and beyond. Jordan Greenhall calls it the “Blue Church.” The influential “Dark Enlightenment” thinker Curtis “Mencius Moldbug” Yarvin, calls it “the Cathedral.”
Regardless of its name, the ruling class attempts at present to reinforce, daily, morality tales of justice and injustice surrounding a single battlefront.
The political and media establishments relentlessly promote a tale in which Donald Trump became president of the United States by colluding with a foreign government and the inappropriate use of digital media.
President Trump and his supporters say this narrative is fictional.
These positions are irreconcilable.
As Trump’s opponents will readily tell you, at stake is not a normal matter of policy but the legitimacy of the Trump presidency itself and its power to set policy. There is, however, another side to that coin. Also at stake, in a way it has not been for nearly a century, is the legitimacy of the administrative state itself—at the moment most prominently represented by the FBI. Further, given its long time collusion with and partisanship on behalf of the administrative state, the legitimacy of the old media as a whole hangs in the balance of the outcome of our revolutionary cold war.
Weekly events like the McCabe firing and reports about Cambridge Analytica prompt only a doubling down on all sides. Trump’s administration is “all in,” defending its political life. Most of the political establishments and most established media outlets are “all in,” in defense of various interpretations of the status quo that would allow them to hold their respective positions.
For some time now, the political stage has been inexorably set for a collision course on the matter of collusion and digital media.
Make no mistake: the process is now indeed inexorable. In this digital age of “leaks,” if the truth is that Trump colluded with the Kremlin, it is hard to imagine that it will not eventually out. If the truth is that the political establishment and the deep state, aided and abetted by a zealous media, colluded against Trump, it is hard to imagine it will not eventually out, if it has not already.
But the truth does not always win wars, be they about rhetoric or geography. Geographic wars are won by means of physical maneuver and violence. Rhetorical wars are won by means of strategic communication and persuasion. And what is at stake is nothing less than the means of communication and therefore persuasion in America.
There is a tightly controlled communications technology that has profoundly and purposefully influenced and manipulated American society, behavior, cultural self-understanding, and politics without most people realizing its deeper effects for decades: it’s called television. The medium, as Marshall McLuhan taught us, is the message: ultimately, digital rhetoric is never going to be able to be controlled the same way elite society was able to control discourse and cultural self-understanding in the era of TV. Until figures like Mark Zuckerberg can find the courage to tell the establishment to go to hell, however, it will seek to find a way.
At first, the oligogues cheered and gloated when the co-founder of Facebook or the CEO of Google and the top minds in tech worked directly for and with President Obama and candidate Clinton. But when the message fails, the messenger blames the medium. Since President Trump’s win media establishmentarians have begun to turn viciously—and ungratefully—against the larger digital corporations, putting increasingly intense and grossly unfair cultural, political, and legal pressure on them to control speech and fall in line with “Blue Church” dogma and politics.
Meanwhile, almost every opportunity the mainstream media has had to moderate or qualify themselves in relation to the Russian collusion narrative has been rejected in favor of all-out attacks.
They had better be right.
Like most American cultural and civic institutions, the old media is already distrusted by historic numbers of Americans, but has not yet been dealt a knockout blow. If it turns out that there was no collusion, CNN has become the Ivy League version of InfoWars.
Trump has already begun to wrest the #fakenews spear—hand-forged for use against him by titans like Obama, Clinton, CNN, and the New York Times—from their hands. The question is whether he’s able to drive it right through their beating hearts over the next year on the matter of collusion. Their hands are wrapped around his so tightly it looks—and, if he is right, will continue to look—as if we are witnessing a kind of old media seppuku.
It is the fact that they are waging total war against an active opponent in the White House that makes this a potential last stand: regardless of the usual obfuscation in the aftermath, if it turns out old media is wrong about Russian collusion and digital media, its collapse will be complete. It will diminish over the next few years, to be re-processed and subsumed forever into a new digital landscape.
For most Americans, the results will be deeply unsettling, but mesmerizing: like watching the old family car catch fire, crackle, and melt as it goes up in smoke.
In the meantime, it would be wise for Silicon Valley to hedge its bets. Thoughtful observers ought to recognize the frenzied desperation and shrieking hysteria coming from the side with the most to lose. Methinks they protest too much.
Blame President Trump all you want. He didn’t actively work for decades to create a “post-truth” era. Our educational and cultural leaders did. He didn’t “weaponize” communications technology or the federal government. His predecessors did. He didn’t destabilize democracy. That happened under the long and increasingly decadent watch of our ruling class, which is now irrationally blinded by rage that their house is on fire.
President Trump didn’t start the fire. The fire summoned him.
Impeach him tomorrow, and it will rage on. Install an establishmentarian from either party in his place, and the fires will only burn brighter and more dangerously than they did before.
Let those with ears to hear and minds to apprehend begin to think longer term about new modes and orders of rhetoric, and new coalitions of power. Take some advice from Generation Z: “Let the past die.”