Has Revolutionary Extremism Overtaken US Politics?

I have written for some time that American politics is in the midst of a revolutionary upheaval in which the stakes up for grabs are not just whether Republicans or Democrats will govern but whether the norms, traditions, rituals and processes through which American democratic politics has been conducted for nearly 250 years will long prevail.

The emergence of a lawless authoritarian like Donald Trump, who has contempt for anyone or anything that stands between him and the exercise of his arbitrary and capricious whim, is merely the logical culmination of these fears.

As we’ve learned from the apparent immunity Trump enjoys from the serious consequences of his serial depravities and prevarications, we’re at a moment (in the words of Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick) “when the public trust in institutions has all but disappeared.”

Among those institutions is the rule of law itself, which is seen by Trump supporters as just one more “rigged” system “teeming with partisan hacks and vengeful bad actors.”

The problem with that worldview, says Lithwick, is that the legal system and the American political process with all its flaws “is also pretty much the only thing keeping the partisan hacks and vengeful bad actors from running completely roughshod over us all. Fomenting doubt about the value and integrity of the law itself is one of the most frightening things the Trump campaign has consistently done.”

It's not hard to understand how we’ve arrived at this moment in time, which might be called a crisis of “politics.”  Politics requires compromise, and compromise is predicated on trust and respect for the legitimacy of one’s political opponents – even enemies. 

Trump has said many times that he is the leader of a movement and not a conventional or “normal” political party.  It is a movement variously described as “populist,” or “nationalist” or “ethno-nationalist,” all of which involve demographic issues of “identity” that make normal politics based on civil debate and peaceful coexistence problematic if not impossible.  

The late Crane Brinton was one of the foremost students of revolutions and whose work provides insights into the crisis America faces with a possible Trump presidency. 

If the political upheavals in America follow the trajectory of the four societies Brinton studied in his classic work, The Anatomy of Revolution, he might say that America stands at the border between "the failure of the moderates" and "the accession of the extremists."

Most people elected to Congress think they've been sent to Washington to govern. The freshman Tea Party Republican class of 2010, on the other hand, thought it had been sent to Washington on a "mission."

One example: What was exposed by the Tea Party's manufactured crisis over the debt ceiling in 2011, as Jonathan Chait said at the time, was "not merely the weakness of the US economy or the paralysis of its fiscal policy, but the instability of its very political system."

The battle between Democrats and Radical Republicans is not so much over spending and taxes, said Chait, as it is about "the political legitimacy that's inherent in our system."

In the past, as Chait points out, America managed to avoid a final confrontation over the irresolvable question of who, in the end, finally gets to speak for the American people, by means of "social norms that could sustain themselves in a government with weak parties."

Those courtesies and conventions that held our divided government together for more than two centuries have now broken down as the political culture, and especially the Republican Party, have become more ideological and partisan.

Close on the heels of the question about political "legitimacy" that Chait raises, are questions about political "sovereignty." Have we, in other words, arrived at a place where the "polarization" we are experiencing in our politics is a manifestation of the fact that our political parties now align themselves against one another as the hostile representatives of what are, in effect, two different countries?  

Certainly Republicans are behaving as if they have no obligation to work with Democrats to govern one country on behalf of the American people as a whole. Look at the flimsy rationale they offer for their bogus claim that they represent the interests of the whole American people instead of just one part of it -- the part that voted for them.    

And so, when shown innumerable polls documenting that Americans, by overwhelming margins, oppose the direction House Republicans are steering the country on taxes, spending, the deficit and much else, Republicans simply shrug their shoulders and recite en masse: "The American People sent us to Washington to cut spending, not raise taxes, which is the worst thing you can do in a recession."

It's hard for most of us accustomed to the conventions and customs of American democratic politics to comprehend the immovable radicalism of this new Republican Party. But Professor Brinton would have no trouble recognizing the type.

The first thing that strikes one about extremists in most successful revolutions, says Brinton, "is their fewness of numbers." But though few in number, these radicals are also "fanatically devoted to their cause."

And just like Tea Party radicals or those who were with Donald Trump from the start, the fact that extremists might be in the minority does not dissuade them from claiming that they speak for all the American people.  Note, for example, how quickly Trump redefined Hillary Clinton’s ill-advised comment about a “basket of deplorables” as being an attack on all hard-working patriotic Americans and not just the small cadre of racist authoritarian xenophobes enthusiastically supporting his campaign.   

Indeed, in most revolutionary societies that Brinton studied, "these radicals were very conscious, and usually very proud, of their small numbers. They felt definitely set off from their countrymen, consecrated to a cause which their countrymen were not consciously and actively equal to. Some of the radicals may even have satisfied themselves that they really represented the better selves of their fellow countrymen."

Or, as Communist leader Leon Trotsky put it: "Those against the insurrection were 'everybody' - except the Bolsheviks. But the Bolsheviks were The People."

Even though political moderates dominate over the long run, in the four revolutions Brinton surveyed - the English, American, French and Russian - moderates come off as pathetic victims in the short term, as revolutionaries run rings around them with their more intense passion, ruthlessness and focused objectives.

The reasons are not hard to fathom. When societies are consumed by what Brinton calls the "fever" of revolution, all prevailing assumptions and expectations are turned upside down as the moderates' greatest strengths - their prudence, their sense of responsibility, the fact they care - becomes their greatest source of weakness.

There is, for example, the "paradox" which Brinton notes that one cause of the moderates' downfall is the fact they hold "the machinery of government" and so, little by little, "find themselves losing the credit they had gained as opponents of the old regime."

Invested with the responsibilities of government, neither do moderates have the time and energy for the political games extremists like to play. Moderates are able to cultivate "the sober virtues that go with power" but lack the time for "army committees, or Jacobin clubs or soviet meetings." This puts them constantly on the political defensive, where they inevitably make "mistake after mistake."

Further, the moderates' moral scruples make them "temperamentally unfitted for the rougher and dirtier work of the politics of direct action."

There seems to be "an almost organic weakness in the position of moderates" who are no match for the extremists "discipline," their "contempt for half measures," their willingness "to make firm decisions," their freedom "from libertarian qualms" and their willingness to "centralize" - not just power, but thought.

Moderates take free speech and democracy seriously. They actually believe in treating political opponents with respect and trying to work with them to build consensus. This puts them at an obvious disadvantage against radicals who do not share the moderates' allegiance to popular, participatory government.

As conventional politics gives way to those more revolutionary in nature, human reason itself becomes absurd - almost insane.

"The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper," wrote Thucydides of the revolutionists of his time, 2,000 years ago.  

"Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage. Prudent delay was the excuse of a coward. Moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness. To know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood, because a partisan was more ready to dare without asking why."

And only in the lunatic world of the extremist, says Brinton, is it possible for someone "to kill men because he loves Man, to attain peace through violence, and free men by enslaving them."

Donald Trump's position on immigration hadn't changed, one of his surrogates famously said.  The only thing that's changed are the words he used to describe it.  

Such irrational contrasts - destroying a village in order to save it - would almost certainly "paralyze a conventionally practical leader," says Brinton.

"But the extremist seems quite undisturbed by it. Where the ordinary man would be troubled by something like a split personality, where his conscience or sense of reality, or both, would be haunted, the extremist goes boldly ahead. Wide though the gap between the real and the ideal is, he can cross it at his own convenience," says Brinton.

Unrestrained by such moral qualms, extremists are able to sap the strength and morale of moderates with their endless construction of illogical rhetorical labyrinths designed to frustrate what we might call the moderates' innate instinct for "bi-partisan compromise."

If moderates give bread to the poor, says Brinton, the extremists will accuse them of "attempting bribery." If they do nothing to ease the hunger of the masses, the extremists will complain that moderates "lack a social conscience."

We're an empire now, we make our own reality, says the Tea Party and Donald Trump.

The passions of war and economic anxiety can explain some of the radical's single-minded determination to achieve his narrow aims. But Brinton believes a more complete explanation of political extremism lies in the fact that it is a "manifestation of an effort to achieve intensely religious needs on earth."

In all of the revolutions Brinton studied, the extremists behaved like men who were "under the influence of active religious faith."  

All these extremists, he said, "sought to make all human activity on earth conform to an ideal pattern, which like all such patterns seems deeply rooted in their sentiments."

To most people, such an effort to achieve moral or ideological perfection -- call it "inhuman" -- "means stern repression of much that men have been used to regard as normal," says Brinton. "It means a kind of universal tension in which the ordinary individual can never feel protected by the humble routines to which he has been formed."

Those are deeply conservative ideas and sentiments, whose survival it now seems to be the job of America's liberals to defend.

As the grip of extremists upon a nation's political life tightens, says Brinton, "tempers are strained to the breaking point" and crises develop over matters that "in a stable society are capable of an almost automatic solution."

Most normal politicians like Hillary Clinton try to steer clear of crises. Not so the revolutionary, says Eric Hoffer in his classic account of revolutionary movements, The True Believer.

"Chaos is his element," writes Hoffer of the committed revolutionary. "When the old order begins to crack he wades in with all his might and recklessness to blow the whole hated present to high heaven. He glories in the sight of a world coming to a sudden end.  To hell with reforms! All that already exists is rubbish and there is no sense in reforming rubbish."

No wonder Trump creates nothing but crisis, confusion and uncertainty all around him – and revels in it.  

Views: 399

Comment by Zanelle on September 16, 2016 at 10:45am

Oh so well put.   Thank you.  There is no place for compassion in the revolutionary mind set.  Liberals are vulnerable.  And the digital age makes it all move so rapidly that we get confused which is exactly when the radicals move in.  Yikes.

Comment by Keith Joiner on September 16, 2016 at 10:47am

In all honesty, I am NOT a great student of history, nor politics for that matter. Having said that, today's extreme right does not bring to mind the word revolutionary. They seem more like cave men to me. Cave men that walk out of their cave one morning to discover the world has changed and they do not like the change. They are not change agents. Their agency seeks to cement a now old and defunct, status quo. They are not seeking to revolutionize anything. In a few years the demographics will be such that we will continue to hear their wails of pain and anguish, but they will not have the numbers to be effective politically, as their day in the sun will have long past. 

Just how I see it. If there is a revolution afoot, I suspect it will be what happens when the guard has been changed and the new guard, lead by progressives, can work its will through the ballot box. 

Comment by alsoknownas on September 16, 2016 at 11:12am

None better than Eric Hoffer to sum it up.

Comment by Zanelle on September 16, 2016 at 11:23am

Good point, Kosh.  Revolutionaries usually have some higher goal. When Trump talks about his revolution it is all about him.  

Comment by Maui Surfer on September 16, 2016 at 11:47am

Revolution to what? Just who is keeping these credulous saps down? Oh, the oppression! So much to bear! We had to have a Black Hawaiian save us from our trickle down no reg imbecilic economic 'policy', the pain is so great from that. No, the revolution is for the African American, who was brought here by force, for the Latino, who lost a couple Wars and thus territory, for our Asian brothers and sisters, who on their own came here to make a new life, and did, and are now thriving in the American Dream. But the Tea Baggers and their KKK doppelgangers? Nah, no revolution just another attempt at what they did during Reconstruction, to destroy everything once they begin to lose control of it. Says volumes about who they are, Confederate Traitors all who don't deserve to be compared to the French or Russian proletariat.

Comment by Keith Joiner on September 16, 2016 at 12:54pm

Maui, I like the way you talk :)

Comment by Maui Surfer on September 16, 2016 at 1:33pm

I left out the First Nation peoples (including mine). Once we've addressed the rest we can then move towards real healing and some form of closure with indigenous groups and finally become the greatest country in the world.

Comment by nerd cred on September 16, 2016 at 3:04pm

Aaarrrggghhh - I can't even finish reading -  the brilliant Dahlia Lithwick writes for Slate and Newsweek.

Comment by Ted Frier on September 16, 2016 at 8:20pm

Thanks Nerd, good catch, I'll change that.

Comment by nerd cred on September 16, 2016 at 9:00pm

Sorry if I overreacted, Ted but it's Dahlia Lithwick!  so it wasn't even a catch. It just jumped up at me. (I really like her.)

You take so many questions I've dithered about for so long, the mindset of the revolutionary probably since the late sixties, and make them so clear. That is, you or one of those you cite.

We are taught all our lives to revere our own founders as wise and learned men, not at all rash or extreme. They were also revolutionaries. Do you think they fit the patterns you describe here?

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