A Trump in a China shop?–47fh ,b12-3
America’s astonishing antifragility
Apr 17, 2017 | By Andy Smarick
“Unexpected bull poised to enter china shop.” But commentators spent virtually all of their energy expounding on the first half of that metaphor. Our campaign ethologists incessantly analyzed the behavior of this curious new political animal. What conditions created the bull, who’s feeding it, why is it acting this way?
This isn’t totally surprising. Such analysis of presidential contenders is the grist of campaign mills. What was unusual is how matter-of-factly the analysts cast America’s institutions as a china shop.
We were continuously advised of the porcelain-level delicacy of our system of government. Were Trump to burst in, he’d raze the building and pulverize its contents. Dire warnings were issued by progressive columnists like Jonathan Chait (“extraordinary threat to American democracy”) and Paul Krugman (“a corrupt nation ruled by strongmen”) and conservatives like Michael Gerson (“genuine threat to the American form of self-government”). The Washington Post editorial board called Trump, on different occasions, “a unique threat to American democracy,” “a danger to the republic,” and the “candidate of the apocalypse.”
But then came the smoking gun. A February Politico Magazine article seemed to reveal that there was, in fact, a method to the madness. The similarity of these disquieting episodes wasn’t mere coincidence. Perhaps we were seeing an intentional effort to upend our system.
The article compiled—and editorialized about—some of the favorite books of Trump’s top strategist, Steve Bannon. The books listed “help to explain the commotion” of the early Trump administration. We were told that one book, The Fourth Turning, informed Bannon’s view that America is in a period “of cataclysmic change in which the old order is destroyed and replaced.” In total, the books purportedly reflected Bannon’s view that Western civilization is “on a downward trajectory and that only a shock to the system can reverse its decline.”
Highlighted on this menacing list was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s 2012 bestseller Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, which according to Politico “reads like a user’s guide to the Trump insurgency.” It was described as a “broadside against big government” that advocates the takedown of arrogant elites who’ve been in charge. A year ago on Facebook, Taleb wrote, “People are not voting for Trump (or Sanders). People are just voting, finally, to destroy the establishment.”
The bull isn’t just brawn, vim, and intuition. It is studied and shrewd. It knows exactly what it’s doing.
And this—America’s astonishing antifragility—would seem to be the real story of our nation’s response to the Trump administration so far. The president may be a bull, but American institutions are proving to be anything but a china shop. They are not only surviving every threat thrown their way, they may be growing stronger thanks to the tests.
And so while commentators galore have been sounding the alarm in response to President Trump’s ostensible offensive against our institutions, a torrent of white blood cells have been rushing to the site of every single attack. Whether you’re enjoying the new administration’s activities or absolutely apoplectic, we should collectively be awed by the immune response.
But when we assess the strength of institutions, Antifragile tells us to look “beyond resilience or robustness.” It’s not merely what a body can take or what it can dish out; antifragility is also about “post-traumatic growth.” “Some things benefit from shocks,” Taleb writes. “They thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors.”
Obviously, it will take more than a few months to know for sure whether our major American institutions have been meaningfully and lastingly toughened by the Trump phenomenon. But the early signs are that two of the most important institutions—the media and Congress—may be headed in that direction.
For eons, the media have been criticized (often with good reason) for political bias. But frustration grew in recent years as “reporting” expanded to include editorial-style analysis and tendentious “fact-checking,” which was often indistinguishable from editorializing. Criticism peaked as the press, for a year, utterly failed to grasp Trump’s appeal to tens of millions of voters. The appraisal was damning and mostly deserved: The media are partial and out-of-touch, and their obsession with tweets and clicks have made them excitable and unserious.
Trump’s subsequent fake-news and enemy-of-the-people attacks might’ve been a body blow to a profession that looked like a shadow of its former self. Indeed, in December, a prominent journalism professor predicted that “winter is coming” for the American press, and in January the Atlantic ran an article, “What Trump Could Mean for Journalism,” that chronicled how populist strongmen in Venezuela, Turkey, Russia, and elsewhere had successfully muzzled the press.
Such alarms now look astonishingly overwrought. Instead, Trump’s ascendance has led to at least a measure of self-reflection. The New York Times public editor has questioned the paper’s use of unnamed sources and the evolution of its editing process. A columnist for the Washington Post argued that the press must “return to the fundamentals” of reporting, “put our heads down and do our jobs,” and “triple-source.” He ended with a remarkably antifragile sentiment. Trump “represents a fundamental challenge to journalism in the 21st century. That’s not a bad thing.”
More important, there have been some nontrivial changes since the election. The editor in chief of Reuters penned a principled, level-headed message to his staff about how to cover Trump, which included “recommitting ourselves to reporting fairly and honestly.” A number of reporters have acknowledged bubble-induced blind spots. The leadership of the Times felt compelled to publish a nonapology-apology about its misunderstanding of Trump’s appeal and a promise to rededicate itself to “report America and the world honestly.” CNN, wanting to be an organization that does more than just “[talk] about breaking news,” hired two Pulitzer Prize winners. The Washington Post is adding 60 journalists to its newsroom.
There might be even more light on the horizon. Politico‘s senior media writer believes the Trump era could make the press great again, calling the moment a “journalistic spring,” a chance for a revival. The Times executive editor agrees, recently telling an audience, “The next two years will be a historic moment in the life of news organizations.” The point is simple: Apprehension about the media’s future may be overblown; it could be stronger post-Trump.
In recent years, Congress has too often taken a back seat to the executive branch—it’s done too little to stop the unfettered growth of the administrative state and has too often been complicit in that growth, preferring to eschew responsibility and blame faceless bureaucrats for unpopular regulations. It’s been unable, or unwilling, to get a handle on the federal budget process. Trump’s alpha-dog aggression could have caused a discombobulated, skittish legislative branch to perpetually expose its belly. And that would have immediate and long-term institutional consequences.
. The intelligence committees are examining deeply Trump’s specious wiretap allegations and endeavoring to shed light on any untoward ties to Russia. Congressional leaders and budget committee members are pushing back against elements of the administration’s spending proposal. House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell—not administration officials—tried to direct the Obamacare repeal effort, and their work was toppled by animated, empowered members who were uncowed by the president’s threats to exact a political price for their lack of cooperation. And all of this is taking place in the broader context of Congress’s nascent attempts in recent years to reassert itself.
For a year, Sen. Mike Lee has been pushing what he calls the “Article One Project” to re-empower Congress vis-à-vis the other branches. Congress has reanimated the dormant Congressional Review Act, through which it can overturn a wide array of agency regulations, thereby checking the administrative state. A bit more than a year ago Congress passed the sweeping, bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act to call a halt to the executive branch’s meddling in schools. Earlier this year, the House expanded its oversight ability, empowering committee staff to subpoena and depose government officials.
If his approach to governing proves sound, he will have made American policy great again. But if his approach is indeed a threat, he may still help to make America’s institutions greater than ever before.
source–andy smarick, am. enterprise inst., nyt, wash post, reuters, mike lee, jonathan chait, michael gerson, david frum, atlantic, politico,