The doddering establishment

The establishment is on life support. And it has dementia.

What lies ahead?
(Image credit: Orlando Florin Rosu / Alamy Stock Photo)

The establishment is on life support. And it has dementia.

For proof, look no further than Foreign Policy's 'The Editor's Roundtable' podcast. It is full of sighs, and consternation at all things Donald Trump. Listening to it carefully is like reading the full medical file of the establishment as it lies in the hospital, talking to itself about whether the latest test results indicate it will live or die of this acute Trumpian ordeal.

The patient sometimes mumbles clearly about the dangers of Trumpism: President Trump's incompetence is endangering an alliance system that took decades to build and largely benefited Americans. But occasionally the patient skips over key details, like the fact that the alliance system that worked so well in the Cold War has dramatically and worryingly expanded in the last 16 years.

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Sometimes the patient just seems to quietly seethe: How is a scoundrel like Stephen Bannon advising a president while I'm stuck here?

I'm more than a little worried that the patient doesn't understand how it got in here and how to get better. A lack of self-awareness among the elite led to Trump's rise — and now I wonder if this lack of self-awareness will prevent the establishment from recovering.

For instance, is it really only the Trumpian populists who are suckers for a juicy story they want to believe? On the most recent episode of the Foreign Policy podcast, Kori Schake of the Hoover Institution spread the fake news story that Trump's White House turned off the recording equipment when the president spoke to Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The willingness to blame Putin for the undermining of the Western order also leads to the patient's condition of self-blindness. Recently the patient fretted that WikiLeaks, a puppet of Putin, is dumping all over François Fillon, France's center-right candidate, whom the establishment hoped would defeat the far-right Marine Le Pen this spring.

It's true that Putin and WikiLeaks may be taking advantage of the fact that Fillon arranged no-show jobs for his wife and children, earning the family more than $1 million. But in the throes of their despair, the establishmentarians do not stop to note that Fillon's scandal was entirely of his own making. And further that this scandal was entirely characteristic of the Western establishment's typical corruption and ill-health. Fillon, like Hillary Clinton, piously insists that he is working to save the institutions and global order that benefit everyone. But even as native middle classes in Europe and America have been undergoing social and economic decomposition for decades, these two couldn't just rely on the system to deliver them prosperity. Instead, they used their access to the levers of power to enrich themselves and their friends directly or through the implied promise of future favor. The establishment asks us to be shocked by Trump's corruption after decades of inuring us to its own.

Trump and other populists just subtract the pretense of universalism and promise to enrich some different clients. Viewed this way, the rise of populism looks less like an inexplicable arrival of cancer than a painful form of shock therapy imposed on an unwilling patient.

Because the establishment was so good at engineering the kind of lifestyle it wanted, it also didn't realize how many topics it had begun to withhold from democratic deliberation at all, notably immigration and political integration. The desire for a tight and controlled immigration policy, in Europe and America, is simply overwhelming, but among the establishment, unfettered migration into any rich Western nation was increasingly treated as a human right. Referendums in the European Union that didn't achieve the establishment's preferred results could be ignored or tried again until the correct result was given. This high-handedness produced predictable results, but you won't find self-accusations among the establishment today. They're too busy deploring the deplorables.

And although the establishment spent months jabbering about fake news stories and the necessity of accepting electoral results, it turns out that they can act like spoiled children, too. For all the pretensions at being the cool-headed types avoiding excess and radicalism, it was less than three weeks after the establishment's toys were taken away that Foreign Policy ran an article that contemplated launching a military coup against Donald Trump.

If the establishment does not identify the causes of its malaise, the prognosis gets grimmer still. This constantly sighing and confused patient may be forced to avail itself of the treatment it recommends as humane for those who have lived beyond their utility to society and who find it hard to cope. The Dutch find it quite merciful.

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