A critical engagement with Jordan Greenhall’s “Situational Assessment 2017”
In Situational Assessment 2017: Trump Edition, Jordan Greenhall wrote a one of the most fascinating and novel analyses of recent events that I’ve seen to date.
I will review and critically extend what I take to be its principal arguments, but I very much recommend reading carefully through the full article yourself. It explodes with ideas, and illustrates a new style of political thought that may in fact be necessary to understand and confront the new political situation.
Combining elements of political theory, systems analysis, and semiotics, Greenhall analyzes the character of what he takes to be a phase transition, or fundamental shift, in the political domain. In his view, the very rules of the national political situation have changed, and if we fail to recognize the new dynamics at work, we cannot effectively engage.
A failure to recognize what is happening is, in fact, precisely the response that he expects from the old guard. And indeed thus far the institutional response by vested interests opposed to the Trump campaign have proven to be astonishingly ineffective at halting his advance. Attempts to marginalize, critique, exclude, attack, and defend using the standard playbook have all failed, and in order to move to a more effective strategy of engagement, we need to understand why.
The Trump Insurgency, as Greenhall calls it, represents a new challenge to prevailing institutions of state, finance, and media, and is, by and large, opposed to status quo structures as such. As he puts it:
In ordinary politics, an elected candidate is expected to integrate with and make relatively small fine-tuning changes to the existing state apparatus and the mass of career bureaucrats that make up most of the actual machinery of government (AKA the “deep state”). Thus, while the Obama Administration might differ quite significantly from the Bush Administration in political theory and intent, the actual impact of theses differences on the real trajectory of the “ship of state” is relatively small.
My assessment is that the Trump Insurgency has identified the Deep State itself as its central antagonist and is engaged in a direct existential conflict with it.
Trump does it seek to engage with or hegemonically dominate the established world order as such, but to bulldoze it, and to replace the internationalist framework with a series of bilateral treaties. Similarly, he does not seek to engage with or effectively utilize the press, but to marginalize and destroy it, organizing its communications around social media and the alternative Internet-based press. And it is quite obvious from several of his cabinet appointments and federal hiring freeze that he would similarly like to bulldoze the federal bureaucracy.
This is a fight that traditional institutions are unprepared for – they are accustomed to takeover bids, not scorched-earth attacks of their foundations and legitimacy. And their bureaucratic responses are of the wrong order. Attacks coming from the Trump Insurgency are fast, agile, and eschew the traditional norms of discourse, bounding fluidly from perspective to perspective, always exploding from one conflagration to another with no concern for coherence or consistency. They cannot be adequately repelled by central committee.
Rather than organizing around a traditional platform, the Trump Insurgency is a confederation of positions that is largely coordinated by their shared targets – establishment elites that are perceived as marginalizing or suppressing people in the name of a ossified vision of globalism and an accompanying set of overbearing pluralistic values that seek to regulate and normalize individual thought with the fervor of an inquisition.
This last analysis of what Greenhall calls the “Blue Church,” following a heavily-read Reddit post, is invaluable to liberals who are unable to understand why so many Americans feel oppressed by the ethics of multiculturalism. This post, titled Why Hollywood is really freaking out over Trump, is incredibly illuminating and also well worth reading.
Its pseudonymous author notjaffo characterizes American pluralism thus:
Blue Team Progressivism is a church, offering you moral superiority and a path to spiritual enlightenment. As a church it’s got a lot going for it. It runs religious programming on television, all day every day. Every modern primetime program is like a left-wing Andy Griffith show, reinforcing lessons of inclusion, tolerance, feminism, and anti-racism.
Watching a 90-pound Sci-Fi heroine beat up a room full of giant evil men is as satisfying to the left as John Wayne westerns were for the right.
The Blue Church controls the HR department, so even if you don’t go to church, you have to act like a loyal churchgoer in every way that matters while you’re on the clock. And off the clock, on any kind of public social media platform.
Jon Stewart and John Oliver are basically TV preachers. Watching them gives the same sense of quiet superiority your grandma gets from watching The 700 Club. The messages are constantly reinforced, providing that lovely dopamine hit, like an angel’s voice whispering, “You’re right, you’re better, you’re winning.”
A crucial point to note is that Trump and the alt-right do not represent a return to the old Christian conservative stance of the Culture Wars, it represents a new political morality that is primarily focused on rejecting what it regards as the oppressive character of the Blue Church:
The Blue Church is panicking because they’ve just witnessed the birth of a new Red Religion. Not the tired old Christian cliches they defeated back in the ’60s, but a new faith based on cultural identity and outright rejection of the Blue Faith.
For the first time in decades, voters explicitly rejected the Blue Church, defying hours of daily cultural programming, years of indoctrination from the schools, and dozens of explicit warnings from HR.
We’ve been trained since childhood to obey the pretty people on TV, but for the first time in decades, that didn’t work.
Donald Trump won because flyover America wants their culture back, and Blue Team has not been rejected like that before.
The younger ones have grown up in an environment where Blue Faith assumptions cannot even be questioned, except anonymously by the bad kids on Twitter.
But now the bad kids are getting bolder, posting funny memes that make you laugh even though John Oliver would not approve, like passing crude dirty pictures under the table in Sunday School.
Meryl Streep is panicking because for the first time voters have rejected HER, and everything her faith has taught her to believe.
There is a new faith rising on the right, not an explicit religious faith like old-school Christianity, but a wicked kind of counterculture movement. We laughed at the hippies in 1968, but by 1978 they were teaching in classrooms and sitting behind school administrator desks.
If you get one takeaway from this post it should be this – these aren’t your grandfather’s conservatives. They are not merely Archie Bunkers and old-style racists. That element probably does exist, but it’s also in solidarity with something new.
In a recent interview in Die Zeit, Judith Butler offered this observation about the culture of Trump and his supporters:
I think they have an enormous rage. Not just against women, not only against racial minorities or against migrants – they are thrilled that that their rage is being liberated by his public and uncensored speech. We on the left, we are apparently the superego. What Trump has managed to do, rhetorically, is to identify not just the left, but liberalism – basic American liberalism and the left – as just a bunch of censors. We are the instruments of repression and he is the vehicle for emancipation. It is a nightmare.
I believe notjaffo tells us exactly why this release from the super-ego of the Blue Church is experienced as emancipation, and we need to listen.
Greenhall greets the probable destruction of the Blue Church as a potential source for good – a dangerous time that carries with it the possibility of releasing us from its hegemonic normative force, releasing us into a plurality of ethical possibilities:
Right now, the Church is killing us. While it is holding many important, necessary values, it is also holding a ton of stuff that is deeply dysfunctional. But by monopolizing the instruments of culture and power, it inhibits us like a well meaning but overbearing parent from being able to form the new innovations in culture, practice and value that are necessary to our age. The collapse of the Blue Church is going to lead to a level of “cultural flux” that will make the 1960’s look like the Eisenhower administration. As the Church falls away, the “children of Blue” will explode out in a Cambrian explosion and reach out to engage in all out culture war with the still nascent Red Religion.
This keeps with his general model, in which he compares the monolithic, enormous, slow, conservative, traditional structures of the past with the heterogeneous, mutli-nucleated, rapid, novel, innovative forces of the future. The Trump Insurgency instantiates this new model more effectively than any major political force of our age.
It is terribly ironic – the technocratic left has been predicting the emergence of a political phenomenon like this since the 90s, and now that it’s here, we find that it encompasses values that are antithetical to those desired or expected by the prophets of the information age.
The rate of acceleration of social change has itself accelerated, and we have reached a weird tipping point, where everything is in flux. The bombshells are dropping hourly, and we race bewildered through a hall of mirrors while everything becomes everything else. And the mercurial Mr. Trump, without a care for hobgoblins of consistency, is right at home, always in action.
Insofar as this is true, the new political order is expressive of novel dynamics that cannot be countered by the old strategies, which are too slow, and too monolithic. You cannot fact-check away claims more rapidly than they’re being made.
The conflict of the 21st Century is about forming a Collective Intelligence that can outwit and out innovate all of its competitors. The central challenge is to innovate a way of collaborating and cohering individuals that maximally deploys their individual perspectives, capabilities, understandings and insights with each-other. Right now, the Insurgency has the edge. It has discovered some key ways to tap into the power of decentralized collective intelligence and this is its principal advantage. While it is definitely not a mature version of a decentralized collective intelligence, it is substantially more so than any collective intelligence with which it is competing and unless and until a more effective decentralized collective intelligence enters the field, this advantage is enough.
What we’re talking about here is dynamical systems thinking, essentially.
It is my extrapolation that we are in a time of chaos, when many effects are at play that are extremely difficult to pin to specific causes. To manage or engage with such a system, you need to reduce complexity to the level at which it is possible to identify the control parameters that govern the system. Until you start to have a theory about what will happen when you pull a particular lever, in other words, it is very difficult to act. That is our challenge right now.
I think this position is, at the very least, an enormously stimulating interpretation that demands careful consideration. Greenhall concludes with three specific strategy recommendations which I largely agree with, but would supplement with a long-term political strategy for forming international liberal solidarity for more politically and economically just forms of globalism. I’ll be getting more into that soon.