Analysis The Center Can Hold

To Save Us from Someone Like Trump, Look to Institutions

People have historically looked to “big men” for leadership. Institutions exist to rein them in.

Donald Trump
Donald Trump gives a speech in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19, 2015 (Michael Vadon)

Nothing, perhaps, is less sexy than an institution: a department’s interminable lines, the universal human experience of meandering through a faceless ministry of this or that, trying to accomplish some simple task.

Yet they may be all that protect us from the likes of President Trump.

Let’s make institutions super.

First, why bash Trump?

Donald J. Trump is an example par excellence of the very thing that America’s Founding Fathers feared: the irrational megalomaniac. They knew their own examples: Roman emperors like Nero and Caligula, nearer examples like England’s Oliver Cromwell and France’s Louis XIV. Each was an excessive personality, big men doing big things, and each dominated systems that relied heavily on their personalities to function. Mr Trump has no such system waiting for him and that’s a good thing.

And now, the geopolitical wayback

Remember that all states began as very simple systems: tribes. Tribes are just a step above a family; they include extended cousins and the like, all linked by kin and language. Tribes are always dominated by big personalities; such anthropological Big Men (though they are, on occasion, women) are valued because they are uniquely impressive individuals.

Each tribe has its own culture to decide what is impressive: wisdom, strength, age, etc. are all popular choices. Yet each tribe is dominated by a Big Man, or a series of Big Men, who arbitrate disputes and govern the tribe.

Tribes eventually settled, learned to farm and gather resources well, and became villages, which one day became city states. But the old Big Man-centered structure remained underneath: kings were just hereditary Big Men.

Of course, there’s a problem with a personality-anchored system: what if that personality is awful? Or becomes so? Augustus Caesar, wise as a young man, lose some of his grip toward the end; Henry VIII may well have became even more awful via syphilis. When the Big Man orders heads to roll because a stroke has given him a splitting headache, what does that do to the state?

For Games of Thrones fans, this principle is strikingly clear.

Which is precisely what modern democracies strive to overcome

This is precisely what led to the separation of powers present in so many systems: no one personality should run amok. This seems all well and good in principle, except even the separation of powers has come under attack.

Some 72 countries last year saw a slide in overall freedom, as defined by Freedom House. That is a large jump, especially considering there is no major ideological alternative to democracy. Much of this slide is because geopolitical Big Men are busy using their big personalities to dominate their nation states.

What is worse is that their citizens are letting them.

From Venezuela to Egypt to Turkey to Russia, nations have demanded their states streamline their services via strongmen. Rather than demand more more checks on their Big Men, citizens want fewer, in the hope that this will deliver security and prosperity.

This is a primal impulse. It goes back to our tribal roots, when we could visit the elder or chief and have our lives organized by them. That’s one reason we keep circling back to it, especially in times of crisis.

And a crisis we are in. As Generational Theory illustrates, we are entering the final phases of the Fourth Turning. It’ll end somewhere around 2020 to 2025, just as my generation shifts heavily into its 30s and as the baby boomers who have globally accelerated the crisis begin to retire or die off. In the meantime, we’re in panic mode.

It isn’t so much that things are terrible; they aren’t. It’s that things feel terrible, which they certainly do. Trump versus Clinton is not about to start a civil war, but some days it can feel like it. That insecurity is enough to drive us to seek big leaders to solve our seemingly big problems.

Moreover, we have a pretty good idea of our ideal leader

Another reason is that there is a very old and relatively decent political theory that justifies it: that of the philosopher king. First proposed by Plato, such a leader is wise and all-powerful. They are a Jedi Knight, King Solomon and Marcus Aurelius wrapped into one. They are trustworthy even when they make decisions that don’t benefit you.

Such folks do emerge onto the geopolitical scene from time to time. They are not selfless nor pure of sin, but they take to their leadership positions with an eye to a greater good.

And when they rule, they bring nations forward in leaps and bounds. But you cannot plan for them. They are as rare; genius so often is.

We would all prefer some all-knowing problem solver leading our nations. We soul search during our elections trying to find such a person. Yet since they are rare, we don’t often get them. We get politicians instead, who are driven by ambition rather than service.

We are also easily tricked into believing an ordinary politician is a philosopher king.

Cases in point: Venezuela and North Korea

Both states are in crisis: Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, can do little but find increasingly feckless ways to cling to power while North Korea’s Kim Jong-un’s entire state machine is designed to keep him in charge. Neither can grow the economy much; both are the results of the same weakness: a leader who pretended to be a philosopher king and a citizenry that went along with them.

Remember that North Korea could well have ended up with a Soviet-style Politburo that actually did shove aside leaders who strayed too close to World War III. Instead, North Korean elites wrongly allowed the Kim dynasty to take root, hollow out the Communist Party and turn it into little more than a cult that lives to worship the Kims. That’s not to say that North Korea would have been a rich country had it balanced out the Kims; it’s just to say it would resemble China a great deal more, which on the whole would be a better thing.

Meanwhile, Venezuela still has a weakened but functional democracy, hammered by years of Hugo Chávez’ cult of personality. Chávez’ policies were, of course, ludicrous: like all Big Men who sit on oil, his entire geopolitical strategy was based on energy. When the bottom fell out of oil beginning in 2013, so too did Chávez’ machine. Chávez didn’t live to see it; he was dead of cancer in 2013, leaving his cult’s shadow to bestow leadership upon the hapless Maduro.

In Venezuela, the citizenry at large has a greater share of responsibility for what happened than North Korea: they did, after all, elect Chávez multiple times, in spite of his obvious butchering of state institutions. They wanted a simple, wise leader who would lead them to prosperity. They did not plan on him dying, nor understand that Chávez was a one-trick pony.

But Venezuela also illustrates the importance of institutions

As Chávez’ policies failed, Venezuela’s weakened but hardly destroyed civic institutions roared back to life. Opposition parties won elections and took to the streets; they face an uphill battle, but at least they can fight one. Venezuela’s media has suddenly awoken from years of Chávez-induced complacency. All of this would be much worse if Chávez had managed to shut down the opposition completely and replace the media with a propaganda machine.

In times of crisis, citizens can and do allow would-be big leaders to gut these institutions. That can seem reasonable at the time. Like everything in the world, during a crisis it can feel like these institutions don’’t work. The attacks on the EU, the media, established political parties, etc. are all symptomatic of that drive.

It can also be a time to clean house: The Republican Party is surely full of rot that must be sorted come November 9. But that is not the same as saying America is better off under only the Democratic Party. Nor should we shut down Fox News merely because it’s been unhelpful. Reform is far more powerful than banning when it comes to institutions.

As the crisis wears on, the nation states that will survive best will be those who give their leaders the least power

Vladimir Putin may be a geopolitical master, but he is building a Russia that is too dependent on him to survive. This bodes poorly for the country’s future.

Egypt may need a pharaoh right now, but Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s drive to make security the sole purpose of the state will absolutely invite another revolution and perhaps even civil war.

Expectant American Democrats must not be too gleeful in the weakening of the Republican Party. Instead, they must hope for someone to save it or replace it.

The Philippines should be most wary. It stands on the edge. Rodrigo Duterte is the Big Man without any of the wisdom, but that may not matter in this day and age, when leaders gain power simply by being interesting. Should Duterte weaken the Filipino military and opposition parties, his six-year term could suddenly extend itself into a fatal cracking of Filipino security.

As the decade now enters its second half, citizens everywhere must resist the temptation to give power to their big leaders. They must attack and reform their own institutions, of course, but they mustn’t abolish them. Otherwise, they risk letting a mad king slip onto the throne.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, November 2, 2016.