The nature of power in the networked age
The United States is living through a kind of Trumpian Genesis: seven days of high-speed political creation.
In the beginning Trump created heaven (for his supporters) and hell (for the mainstream media).
And Washington was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of CNN.
And Trump said, let Obamacare be repealed.
And Trump saw the reports of his inauguration, that they were bad: and Trump divided the press from the administration.
And Trump called the first day a National Day of Patriotic Devotion.
Day Two was dominated by the women’s marches against Trump. On Day 3 Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and froze new hiring by the federal government.
Day Four saw five new executive orders, two of which reversed the Obama administration’s halt to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. Trump also signed a bill requiring that the pipelines use American steel.
On the fifth day Trump ordered the Department of Homeland Security to begin building a wall on the US-Mexican border.
And on the sixth, his press secretary said that the wall would be paid for by a 20 percent tax on imports from Mexico.
Technically, Trump was entitled to a day of rest on Friday. He didn’t take it.
On it goes. Each day brings news of fresh executive orders, interviews, tweets. Each day the media shoot back at Trump. To read some of the press coverage of Trump’s first week, you would think the Apocalypse was imminent. Indeed, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists last week moved its famous Dooomsday Clock forward to two and a half minutes to midnight. Yet in issuing executive orders, Trump is merely following the precedent set by the previous occupant of the White House. The hysterical over-reaction of the media is fresh proof that Trump is a self-publicist of prodigious instinctive talent.
Trump became the president essentially by doing to the Republican Party what Uber did to the taxi companies: he disintermediated it. In essence, he exploited his appeal as a television “ratings machine” to communicate his message to the electorate. Then his campaign strategists used social media to craft targeted online campaigns that moved voters away from Hillary Clinton in the key swing states.
Trump is not wrong to refer to the people who elected him as a movement. But I would prefer to call it a network. This was not a top-down command-and-control operation like the Clinton campaign. It was self-organizing, spontaneous, horizontal. Trump didn’t campaign in the traditional sense. He went viral.
The key question is how far he is now going to be able to disintermediate the federal government, too.
Right now, there is a striking bifurcation between his performance in the role of president, which — as when he played the part of Republican nominee — is still directed at his network, and the actual process of government, which in practice will be carried out by legislators, bureaucrats, and public employees.
I have to confess I enjoy the entertainment for no other reason than that it drives the most tedious people in America to distraction. But the real point is not what Trump says. It is what his administration does.
No one yet knows what precisely that will be. It may be that the net result of the Republican corporate tax reform will be economically disruptive, increasing the deficit and inflation. On the other hand, it may be that the repatriation of corporate capital will generate more revenue than anyone expects.
It may be that all the regulations introduced since the 1980s are all that stands between us and environmental and financial disaster. On the other hand, it may be that most of this regulation was merely a bureaucratic scam and a leaden weight on small and medium-sized businesses.
It may be that a trade war will break out between the United States and China, one that will hurt us almost as much as them. On the other hand, it may be that the Chinese will end up rolling over in the face of Trump’s aggressive negotiating tactics because their economic and political position is much weaker than most people appreciate.
And it may be that challenging the globalized economic order is a fool’s errand that will end up hurting everybody, including ordinary Americans, by raising consumer prices. On the other hand, it may be that globalization had overshot, and it was high time we dialed back the volume of migration, off-shoring of jobs and cross-border investment.
The question we need to ask is not: Can Trump keep enraging the media and thereby signal to his network that he is delivering change? He can do that all day long. That’s not rule by decree; it’s rule by reality TV.
The real question is: Can his administration — using the usual cumbersome channels — enact and implement reforms that will fundamentally improve the lives of ordinary Americans?
The answer to that question will not be found in Trump’s Book of Genesis. But I doubt very much it is in the liberals’ Book of Revelation either.
Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.