Of the two themes that President Trump chose to focus on in his graceless inaugural address, the most important from the policy perspective was a single-minded and almost thuggish nationalism that he boiled down to what he declared were two simple rules: Buy American and hire American.
But the more interesting and more important theme from a political perspective was the unvarnished and almost thuggish enmity to elites — the political elites, the media elites, the corporate elites, the professional elites, the foreign policy elites, the educational elites, the entertainment elites, the social elites and the global elites. He not only won the presidency without their support but over their sneering dismissal and active opposition. And now he stood before them with his middle finger metaphorically raised high in the air.
“The establishment protected itself but not the citizens of our country,” he declared. “Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes starting right here and right now, because this moment is your moment.”
The message was also implicit in his refusal to hew to the norms for such occasions, eschewing the soaring rhetoric meant to unify the country after a hard-fought election while trashing the work and questioning the motives of the four predecessors listening respectfully just a few feet away.
The best historians could do in drawing a parallel to Trump’s nose-thumbing of the establishment was Andrew Jackson’s victory in 1828. Yet even Old Hickory was able to summon a modicum of respect in his inaugural address the following March for those who preceded him: “A diffidence, perhaps too just, in my own qualifications will teach me to look with reverence to the examples of public virtue left by my illustrious predecessors, and with veneration to the lights that flow from the mind that founded and the mind that reformed our system.”
In case we had any doubts, we now know the political dynamic that is about to play out. With the veneer of respectability conferred by the elite-looking generals and financiers who now constitute his inner circle, Trump will confidently roll out his plan for restoring the country to its lost power, wealth and glory. Dissent or criticism from experts or even inconvenient facts will be summarily dismissed as the self-interested whining of elites desperate to hold on to their power and privilege. Negotiation and compromise will be out of the question. That stops on Day One.
What’s not clear is how all of those elites will deal with this rejection not only of their role but the traditional norms of political behavior. As Larry Summers pointed out earlier on Wonkblog, once-contemptuous corporate executives have been tripping over themselves to accommodate Trump’s demands, desperate to avoid a PR firestorm and anxious to cash in on the promise of tax cuts and deregulation. Republicans in Congress have discovered a new talent for form fitting. The mainstream media, uncomfortable in its new role as Trump’s favorite whipping boy but driven by competition to cover his every move, soldiers on with its mission to shine a bright light on self-dealing, hypocrisy and untruth, only to discover that what used to horrify and disqualify is now largely ignored. At the think tanks and universities, policy elites contemplate the prospect of a similar irrelevancy.
Elites become elites because they have proven to be most successful at playing the old game by the old rules. They now face an existential challenge from a president who has not only beaten them at their own game, but done so by ignoring all the old rules. Trump made himself the “disruptive innovator” in politics in the same way that Amazon did in the retail space or Google and Facebook are in media. The lesson from business is that it is a mistake for the old elites to try to beat the disruptor at the new game playing by the new rules. The only way to win is to disrupt the disruptor.