The great fear among Trump-fearers is that he will deal with this elite opposition by effectively crushing it — purging the deep state, taming the media, remaking the judiciary as his pawn, and routing or co-opting the Democrats. This is the scenario where a surging populism, its progress balked through normal channels, turns authoritarian and dictatorial, ending in the sort of American Putinism that David Frum describes darkly in the latest issue of The Atlantic.
But nothing about Trumpian populism to date suggests that it has either the political skill or the popularity required to grind its opposition down. In which case, instead of Putin, the more relevant case study might be former President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood leader whose brief tenure was defined both by chronic self-sabotage and by the active resistance of the Egyptian bureaucracy and intelligentsia, which rendered governance effectively impossible.
The Egyptian deep state’s sabotage of Morsi culminated in a coup. This is not my prediction for the Trump era. But what we’ve watched unfold with refugee policy suggests that chaos and incompetence are much more likely to define this administration than any kind of ruthless strength. (Ross Douthat)
Trump has turned out to be what we knew him to be. We've elected to the presidency our rich, ignorant, bigoted, conspiracy-theory-obsessed uncle. It was all supposed to be a big joke, except he wasn't let in on it--still hasn't been let in on it. He hasn't a clue, but and he's actually taking it all so seriously. Sad. Awkward. Who is finally going to tell him? Not the Democrats. Chuck Schumer is our other cluelesss, if more benign, rich uncle, a foolish man who also takes himself way too seriously. Maybe it will take the friendly folks at Deep State to give Trump the tap on the shoulder to tell him the joke's over, and it's time to move on.
Assuming Douthat is right and Frum is wrong, and I tend to agree with him with Douthat on this, all Trump will accomplish is chaos. But while I'd rather live with a regime of chaos than live with a well-organized authoritarian regime, chaos often leads to the well organized authoritarian regime. Egypt is a cautionary tale. We're not Egypt, but there are analogies to be drawn from it and other situations like it in history.
Remember all the hope that was in the streets during the heyday of the Arab Spring? How did that turn out? It was so OWS, so idealistic, so, you know, democratic. But when you sweep away the bad old guy, what did the democratic process produce? An even worse new guy--the religious fanatic Morsi. And that in turn led to the military coup. But that could never happen in America, right?
Trump must be resisted, but all that resistance energy will have been wasted if it just creates opportunities for the worst parts of our society to move in. Trump's a clown, but there are people waiting on the sidelines who are not. A sane, progressive, tough leadership that knows how power works must emerge out of this chaos. Otherwise leadership will default to the Deep State or worse. and the best case scenario will be to return to the status quo ante in which our senatorial-class elites will reassert their control.
And once they do, as a group--a few senators and other elites will protest ineffectually--ally themeselves with those elements in the Deep State--NSA, FBI, Homeland Security--to make sure that these disruptive, populist energies, whether channeled from the Left or the Right, will have little chance for making any kind of real trouble in the future. The infrastructure for suppression of any significant dissent is in place; the question is whether factions within this country will rise into positions of power who will use it for that purpose. Look at what the relatively moderate, sane Obama administration did to whistleblowers.
But there's an opportunity here. It remains an open question though who will emerge to best exploit it. If it's to be a sane, progressive leadership, I don't see it yet. But it's early, and let's face it--anything can happen.