Trump v. the Ruling Class

[EDITORS’ NOTE: Angelo Codevilla is—though he would likely disavow the honor—one of a small number of thinkers who anticipated Trumpism.  In an extremely prescient article published nearly six years ago (!) and subsequently turned into a book, Codevilla sketches the outlines of America’s bipartisan, Davoisie “ruling class” and shows how little their interests overlap with, and often diametrically oppose, those of the American people.  But while Codevilla’s diagnosis may concur with Trump’s, when it comes to the cure, he is emphatically opposed.  We are honored to present, once again, the thoughts of one of our great teachers—this time on what Codevilla gets right, and where his analysis could use some fine tuning.]

Codevilla understands the ruling elite in terms of a class interest—the court as opposed to the country party.  But that makes sense when the authority of the political is understood in terms of economic and social classes: aristocracy or oligarchy versus the people or the poor.

The authority of the ruling elite in America is not social, economic, or even political.  What unites the ruling elite—what establishes their prominence and legitimizes their public authority—is knowledge.  They understand the world through their attachment to their professions: academia, science, economics, business, media, entertainment, and even religion.  They have no political consciousness of themselves as a class.  Many of them do not even think of themselves as political.  They are professionals, whose interest and loyalty is to what it is they profess to study and what they think they know.

What unites them, and establishes their intellectual and political authority, is their role in the production of what passes for knowledge in the administrative state.  The administrative state has made it possible to politicize the elites in a manner that disguises their political role.  When nearly every social, economic, scientific, religious, political problem is decided in a bureaucratic, or legal, way—and always from a central authority (Washington mostly, but sometimes New York or one or two other places)—the professional elites are given a stake in the political and bureaucratic world.  That is why public intellectuals, liberal or conservative, detect the danger—to their interests—from Trump.

Codevilla’s attempt to equate Trump and Obama misses the mark.  Obama has far more in common with both Bushes (and of course with the Clintons) than he does with Trump.  All of the latter have all utilized the ruling elites to help them create strategic and scientific appeals to organized minority groups, whose geographic and political identity (race, gender, ethnicity) is established and legitimized in order to make elections more predictable by dividing the electorate.

Trump, by contrast, is making an appeal that attempts to unify the electorate by focusing on what all citizens have in common.  His appeal is directed to citizens (not the knowledge elite), to those who seek to pursue a common good on behalf of the country’s true sovereign, the people.  Recent presidents, whenever they have made an appeal based on a common good—whether Obama’s rhetoric of getting past race, or Bush’s (abandoned) promise of no more foreign policy adventurism–once elected they’ve all ruled on behalf of the organized groups that provide their core support while ignoring the broader public appeal that provides the margin of victory.  I think that actually Chris Matthews is closer to understanding Trump’s appeal.  He noted that it seems as if Rubio and Cruz talk always about government, while only Trump speaks about the country.  Pat Caddell also observed that in the debate which Trump skipped, the talk reverted to government and policy, ignoring the kind of regime questions that Trump always brings to the fore.

If Trump is going to exercise his will in the same manner as Obama, why does Trump make his case directly to the people, and not to the interests?  Did not Clinton, Bush and Obama alike all exercise their will on behalf of the administrative state?  And did not Congress and the courts go along with their use of executive power in the service of the administrative state?

If America were still properly a constitutional republic, we would not have to fear the will of the executive; the legislative branch could easily bring it to heel.  The problem is that all of the establishment elites are defenders of the administrative state.  The question is whether Trump will be able to begin the process of re-establishing the authority of the people.  In appealing directly to them, he has bypassed the intellectual authority of the knowledge elite.  I think Codevilla’s analysis underestimates what the rational or administrative state really is dependent upon.  The real source of power in the modern state is the research university.

—Cato the Elder