No One Is Actually That Smart

The first weeks of the Trump administration bring to mind a term inherited from the previous era when a Republican occupied the White House: shock and awe. It has been the modus operandi of Trump, and particularly of his “deputy” Steve Bannon, to maintain a virtually uninterrupted assault on what are generally considered the pillars of the American liberal order. Whether it’s the don’t-call-it-a-ban-on-Muslims ban on Muslims or the refusal to accept decrees from federal courts or the reorganization of the National Security Council or the ranting calls to foreign leaders, the constellation of these actions appears designed primarily to overwhelm and exhaust.

Concomitant with this barrage, we have seen a proliferation of thinkpieces whose intent is to try and decipher what exactly all this means. A prominent example of the genre was a piece by Yonatan Zunger suggesting that Trump’s recent actions represent a “trial balloon for a coup.” Other posts have floated around suggesting that the various executive orders are merely “headfakes” to take our eyes off something more important. I don’t want to get too deep into the analysis, which I don’t think holds up all that well; what I’m more interested is the psychology and rhetoric behind such pieces and the intellectual current they represent.

The problem, ultimately, with all of these articles is not that they attribute excessive malice to Trump et al. but that they engage in torturous reasoning to do so. The chain of logic is strongly reminiscent of the conspiratorial theorizing exhibited by the subjects of Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: the enemy is always a twisted genius, constantly outhinking the simple citizen. If the conservative solution to this problem is purity of heart and spirit, the liberal counterpart is the teasing out of every possible thread of causailty until the web of intrigue is unraveled. Conservatives are the daytime soap opera and liberals are the police procedural. This tendency speaks to the state of the liberal intellectual order: deprived of any actual influence over policy, it finds comfort in the “secret knowledge” afforded by deciphering the allegedly-complex puzzles presented by its enemies. As Matt Christman noted on a recent episode of Chapo Trap House, all we had left during the Bush years was our ability to know we were being had, and now even that is in danger of disappearing. So liberal commentators engage in the pursuit of an esoteric knowledge that does not exist and wouldn’t actually illuminate anything even if it did.

Sometimes, of course, there really is a web to be unraveled; actual conspiracies do happen, after all. But typically, the unraveling comes after the fact and is driven by uncovering what actually happened. Real conspiracies are invariably banal and straightforward and the main mystery to be solved consists of finding out what the principals want to conceal. The attempts to forecast Trump’s and Bannon’s actions, on the other hand, are prospective and are predicated on the assumption that the actors involved have a complex, multi-phase plan that they are carrying out.

The evidence for such a plan is virtually nonexistent, and indeed, it would make very little sense for such a plan to exist, or for the people ostensibly carrying it out to believe that it would actually work. The reason is simple: plans are good for situations where your opponents’ moves are strongly constrained and can be reasonably predicted in advance. Politics notably does not fit this schema: even zero-order predictions of how a policy will be received are proven wrong all the time, much less any higher-order effects. The reactions of political opponents also cannot be predicted, nor informational secrecy insured; the ship of state is constantly leaking, and never more so than when the government is as unpopular as Trump’s. Even if some secret plan existed on a whiteboard in a secret office, it would be delusional of its designers to think that it could actually work. Which is not to say that Trump is not delusional, but rather that we should not attribute to delusions the character of actually feasible master plans.

The disadvantage under this administration operates, in this day in which information literally travels at the speed of light, is that by the time anything has been planned it will very likely already have been made public. There is a large and experienced cadre of legal analysts in American society who are more than equipped to properly parse things like executive orders, so that five minutes after something becomes public, we can expect a pretty good analysis of its actual effects. In such an environment, multi-phase long-term plans that rely on successive stages of implementation would be useless: any meaning that can be read into a public document can almost certainly be read out of it, and such things have to be public in order to actually take effect.

All of which is not to be confused with the message being broadcast by some institutionalists that consists more or less of “don’t worry.” Do worry, but worry about the right thing. The people running the Trump administration are not particularly smart, but they do exhibit a certain animal cunning. In this, they are very much like the authoritarian regimes they tend to admire; such regimes have only a few ways of influencing people, typically either by trying to build support through mass media, or by visiting violence on their opponents. The tools at their disposal are actually very crude, which in my view is much more of a reason to be concerned, because history suggests that when the gentler methods of persuasion fail, Trump and Bannon will gladly move on to violence.

Trump is barreling into the teeth of the American institutional order because that is all that he understands. The various cranks and lunatics who work for him are not people who have bothered to spend any time comprehending how anything actually works; they only understand the language of domination. In this they are of course the distilled id of the Republican party, the culmination of a decades-long process of purposeful self-stupefaction in the service of revanchist ethno-nationalism and looter capitalism. Having hollowed out the pillars that hold up the country, they are now running into them head-first, intending to topple them entirely. Were they more subtle, we might have more to be concerned about the continuing erosion of these pillars in more circumspect ways (c.f. John Roberts), but subtelty is not a thing that they are either spiritually or philosophically or constitutionally capable of.

What we should concern ourselves with is not hypothetical twelve-steps-removed manipulations but the outright violence that is being worked first on actual living human beings and second on protective American institutions. Any effective confrontation with Trump has to start from those positions. But we also need to recognize that the danger we are fighting is not remote; it does not exist at multiple stages of remove from our current situation, stages that are decipherable only by some analytical priesthood. On the contrary, the sequence of steps is very clear and publicly visible to anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to gaze into the abyss. Sooner or later, whatever plans exist in Bannon’s fevered imagination will come in contact with reality, at which point the question of the degree to which the American state is willing to do violence to its political opponents1 will become paramount and the protective constraints will either hold or buckle. Which is to say that Trump’s actions are not so much the “trial balloon for a coup,” as they are just the coup itself.

  1. Which is, of course, quite high already, especially for anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male.