Great Men, Black Swans, and the End of the Mandarins

One of the worst ideas in American history has been the establishment of schools of government and the professionalization of the Washington press corps. Both are intellectual artifacts of the Progressive Era, monuments to the notion that democracy is too messy to be left in the hands of the people, and that therefore the government and its putative watchdogs should be administered for the public good by a priest class of wise men, schooled like the mandarins of ancient China, in the intricate arts and ways of the imperial capital.

Like all the crackpot schemes of the Progressives, this one was grounded in “scientific” principles, much as economic Marxism had been a few decades earlier. There was a right way to organize human affairs—which could be codified, studied, and interpreted, much like a religion—and a wrong way. The wrong way had been that of the 19th-century, with its succession of Great Men, describing an arc from Napoleon to the outbreak of the Great War. And look where that had got us. Far better to build on the example of the civil service system, which had begun in 1883—if we could professionalize clerks, why not grand pooh-bahs as well?

This notion was memorably articulated by the newspaper columnist Walter Lippmann in his 1922 book, Public Opinion. He very much included public intellectuals like himself in this priest class and, mistrustful of democracy, was concerned about the “defective organization of public opinion.”

I argue that representative government, either in what is ordinarily called politics, or in industry, cannot be worked successfully, no matter what the basis of election, unless there is an independent, expert organization for making the unseen facts intelligible to those who have to make the decisions . . . .

My conclusion is that public opinions must be organized for the press if they are to be sound, not by the press as is the case today. This organization I conceive to be in the first instance the task of a political science that has won its proper place as formulator, in advance of real decision, instead of apologist, critic, or reporter after the decision has been made.

The result has been the sclerotic federal government of the past half-century and more, a bloated, ineffective, failure-proof collection of Ivy League credentialists who, obsessed with ritual, have forgotten why they ever went into government in the first place, except for their own personal self-enrichment. No matter which party was in power, nothing ever really got accomplished (except the process of “process”) and nothing ever really changed, either—except for the worse. From Nixon, who gave us OSHA and the EPA, through Carter, Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, the Permanent Bipartisan Fusion Party and its auxiliaries in the media, tortured the country even as it bored us to death.

“Stability” was the key. Mediocrities like Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry could jet all over the world, busying themselves with activity and calling it action, but nothing ever changed—because nothing was ever supposed to change. North Korea, the Middle East, and other hot spots were to be preserved, not sorted out, as full employment for the mandarins.

Suddenly, all that changed with the election of Donald J. Trump. Heedless of protocol, contemptuous of niceties, and scornful of Washington business-as-usual, Trump has blown past one impossible task after another in what is already the most consequential presidency since FDR’s. Practically from the day he took office, the listless Obama economy vanished. American oil production boomed. He ended Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional DACA program, laughed off the Paris “climate change” foolishness, tore up the Iran “deal,” got Kim Jong-un’s attention in Korea, and moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem to fulfill the combined campaign promises of at least the past three presidents.

And they said it couldn’t be done. In fact, they’re still saying it, even after it has been done, with lots more to come.

#TheResistance to Trump’s Black Swan presidency so far has been triggered by fear—a fear that has molted over the course of the past year. First it was the fear of losing the White House, then it became the fear of the Outsider; latterly, it’s the fear that Trump may not be as vulnerable as they thought, that their deep state rogue intel op to take him down has failed, and that the public actually likes what he’s doing, even if they won’t admit it to pollsters.

And now it’s the fear of abyss itself: if Trump is successful, the entire Progressive project has been a fraud. All the Kennedy School of Government bureaucrats and functionaries in the world cannot affect the course of history as much as one man who doesn’t give a damn what they think. What Trump’s doing is far more important than simply upending the D.C. establishment and putting the Circumlocution Office on notice that its services are no longer needed. He’s single-handedly reviving the Great Man theory of leadership, and daring the rest of the world, including the colorless, impotent, and barren harem eunuchs of Europe, to catch up.

Thus, Trump’s carrot-and-stick handling of Kim not only got the little dictator’s attention, it also emboldened the president to apply a cattle prod to the genitals of the mullahs in Iran; naturally, the Lippmanns of Washington decried both moves as “destabilizing.” But destabilizing an insupportable and disgraceful status quo is exactly the platform Trump ran on; the president may not be an intellectual, but he understands chain reactions, and can’t wait to start them.

To take the most recent example, in Israel: moving the embassy will have diplomatic ramifications, but its practical significance is far larger. For the first time in ages, somebody has finally said no to the Palestinians. The embassy’s opening was greeted with riots in Gaza, and an attempt to filtrate Hamas fighters into Israel under the cover of “peaceful protest.” But instead of accommodating them, and reacting “proportionately” (the Lippmanns love that word, because they know it means “defenselessly”), the Israelis shot the rioters dead. And you can bet they cleared that with Washington in advance.

So what the embassy move really signifies is this: the “peace process” is over. The Palestinians have lost. All their threats were to no avail, and the tut-tutting of their allies in Europe and in the Democratic Party mattered not. Israeli snipers opened fire at agents provocateurs and Hamas sappers, and the only reaction that mattered was, gee, that’s too damn bad.

Wars don’t end by “negotiated settlements” or via “exit strategies.” They don’t even end when one side has clearly won. Rather, they end when the losing side realizes it has lost. Hotheads with rocks cannot defeat patriots defending their homeland with Tavors. In the end, the Palestinians will get some land (none of their Arab brethren seem to want them, certainly not the Saudis or the Jordanians), be told to settle down and shut up and, if they behave…

They might be allowed into Jerusalem to visit the American embassy, sit before one of the demoted mandarins, and maybe, if they’re lucky, get a visa for travel to the United States so they can visit their cousins in Dearborn and wonder why they didn’t give up years ago.

Photo credit:  Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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About Michael Walsh

Michael Walsh is a journalist, author, and screenwriter. He was for 16 years the music critic and foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, for which he covered the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. His works include the novels As Time Goes By, And All the Saints (winner, 2004 American Book Award for fiction), and the bestselling “Devlin” series of NSA thrillers; as well as the recent nonfiction bestseller, The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. A sequel, The Fiery Angel, was published by Encounter in May 2018. Follow him on Twitter at @dkahanerules (Photo credit: Peter Duke Photo)