Evaluating most things in real time is a difficult process, because you do not have the benefit of seeing how things end. It is why hot-takes in the middle of a news event always sound stupid in retrospect. Those evaluations are more about the mood of the moment and the desire for attention than sensible analysis. It is only after the thing ends and the dust has settled that you can get a grip on what happened. This is the case with the Trump phenomenon, which ended months ago.
Now, we do not know if Trump will run again. He says he will start doing rallies this fall, but so far, no news on that front. For now, he has been commenting about old enemies and endorsing candidates who have said nice things about him. Elise Stefanik, for example, has gotten the Trump endorsement to replace Liz Cheney. The fact that Stefanik is one of the most liberal Republicans in the House and is nothing but a sock puppet for the establishment makes no difference.
That is a good jumping off point to think about why the Trump years never amounted to more than lots of noise. The Stefanik example is part of a pattern with Trump with regards to how he does politics. He tended to endorse candidates on whether they would win, rather than if they were on his side politically. He endorsed Mitt Romney, for example, who has been a life-long fink. He also endorsed the two Georgia senators, who were everything he allegedly opposed.
Trump’s politics were always an extension of Trump’s business approach, which was just an advanced form of personal brand management. He wanted the Trump brand to carry weight in politics in the same way it worked in real estate. For most of his life, the game was to promote the brand, while others found deals where the brand could be the difference between success and failure. The Trump brand would push the deal over the top and thus earn Trump a lion’s share of the profits.
This started way back in the 1980’s when Trump figured out that the way for him into the world of big-time real estate was to create a media image for himself as the big time deal maker. He was the real life Gordon Gecko, the character from the 1980’s hit movie Wall Street. This got him on television chat shows where he perfected the style that has become synonymous with Trump. The pop culture icon became the brand that would make Trump the real estate mogul.
From the late-80’s forward, the Trump business model was simple. He would swap some of his brand prestige for shares in a deal, like a casino. The people on the other end needed the brand to promote the project to investors and politicians, so they were willing to cut Trump in on the deal. Genuinely smart real estate people from the Trump organization would then swoop in a maximize the profit for Trump Inc. They got their money first and often at the expense of the resulting project.
The genius of this approach is every new casino or resort property with his name on it enhanced the brand, thus opening up new deals. Trump Inc. became a frog in a pond full of lily pads. They just hopped from one to the next. Unlike other real estate developers, they did not have to find new deals and cultivate the political relationships required to make the deal a possibility. Others did that and brought these opportunities to the Trump people, hoping to get the Trump endorsement.
This worked amazingly well in real estate, but not in politics. The Trump brand never counted for much in Washington, where the voters are looked upon as ants at the picnic, rather than a source of strength. Trump’s miracle win in 2016 meant nothing in a world where 95% of incumbents win reelection. Compounding it, the only deals that happen in Washington are the deals that benefit the insiders. The only thing Trump could swap his brand value for were deals his voters hated.
That was the story of his four years. One side of the uniparty was focused only on destroying the Trump brand. Trump never experienced that sort of conflict in the business world, so he was ill-equipped to counter it. The other side of the uniparty was willing to bring him deals so he could attach his name to them, but those deals did nothing for his brand or his voters. Throwing open the jails and giving the store away to rich people was the equivalent of a Trump casino in Tehran.
Where the Trump style failed the most was in the organization. In the 1980’s, Trump attracted a group of very savvy people into his organization. They were the ones who did the deal making and profit extraction from those deals. This allowed Trump to be the head of brand management. Trump’s people knew their job was to make sure the final deal boosted the Trump brand, because that meant more deals. Trump’s role was to use his brand to endorse the deal and take the credit.
It was a good system that was never replicated in Washington. His team was ignorant of how things were done in Washington. His son-in-law was actually working for interests outside the Trump administration. Official Washington was happy to send a stream of their people to fill posts and undermine Team Trump. His organization never had a chance to turn the Trump brand into anything, because they did not know how to do it, even if the brand had real value to official Washington.
That is why the Trump years were lots of promises, but no delivery. Team Trump would bring out the brand hoping someone would come forward with a deal. Either the deal on offer was garbage or there was no deal to be had. Trump’s DACA moves are a great example of the no deal. He was sure he could trade that for his wall. Instead, they ignored him entirely. Trump was begging them to do a deal on DACA and they just ignored him harder. The art of the deal had no market in DC.
The Trump phenomenon is a good example of why democratic reform is impossible in a liberal democratic system. The only way to reform the system is to understand its internal workings and have people willing to make the changes inside the system to create the desired reforms. The reformer has no choice but to engage the system through the rules of the system. There is no way to reform the system from the outside, as the outsider has no access to the system.
For generations now, the political system has been selecting for people who defend the interests of he system and the people in it. You cannot get a job at any level of politics unless you are useful to the people in the system. The entry points of the system, primaries, elections, staffing jobs, are all designed to filter out people who could be unhealthy for the system and select for those who will defend the system. Even if a reformer sneaks in, they are surrounded by antibodies of the system.
This is something the paleoconservative thinker Sam Francis recognized with the conservative movement a million years ago. As soon as they decided to engage in democratic politics, they would be forced to trade their conservative principles for access to the system. Otherwise, they would be shut off from the system. Over the years conservatism has traded everything away. They are now a shuffling husk that staggers long behind the Left living on scraps.
This is the inevitable crisis of liberal democracy. Those “liberal principles” that are supposed to constrain the excesses of democracy end up becoming obstacles to democratic reform. On the other hand, a genuine effort to reform the system from outside is framed as a threat to liberal principles. Trump immediately became Hitler, the great bogeyman of liberalism, solely on the grounds that he was a creature that existed outside the liberal democratic system.
That is the real lesson of the Trump years. There is no way to reform liberal democracy from the inside, as it has evolved to prevent reform. It is impossible to reform from the outside as liberal democracy is defined by opposition to outside pressure. That means the only reform possible is replacement, which requires a rejection of both liberalism and democracy as anything more than expedients. Real reform begins with the rejection of the system and its moral framework.
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