Hundreds, if not thousands, of pundits the world over have written about the various themes that have come to life in this wild election year. But I daresay only a handful of thinkers can rightfully claim they examined these themes and warned about a coming revolt years ago. I am one of the few, a social anthropologist studying power and influence, first in Central and Eastern Europe before and after communism and, more recently, in the United States. I began addressing anti-establishment rage with Shadow Elite in 2009 and then further in 2014’s Unaccountable: How the Establishment Corrupted Our Freedom, Finances, and Politics and Created an Outsider Class, now out in paperback.
The rhetoric this year has been disturbing to me, not just as a person who values civility in discourse, but also as a scholar. Complex topics I have studied for decades—elite power and influence, corruption, political rigging—have now been hijacked by a demagogue. There is thus a big risk of burying a sober and much-needed discussion of these important, complicated issues. I hope to address them here: For no matter what happens on Election Day, these narrative threads will continue to weave their way through our lives, and we must understand how they emerged and what buoys them.
Let’s begin with the defining feature of the 2016 revolt: outsiderism. Increasingly, people identify themselves as outsiders, and look to leaders who claim to do the same. Digital technology, of course, enables these outsiders to mass together in ways never before possible. Wholesale alienation was in evidence long before 2016.
Two years ago, I wrote this in Unaccountable:
How is it that ordinary people have an instinctual grasp of the real nature of corruption and the inequality that often results, while many experts are still wedded to the idea that corruption happens somewhere out there? Witness the Occupy protests that began on Wall Street in 2011 and the Tea Party movement that helped grind the U.S. government to a halt in the fall of 2013. They may otherwise have little in common, but they share a resounding refrain: that the system is gamed by the powerful.
When I wrote those words, Donald Trump was just a middling, blustering reality television star and self-aggrandizing real estate mogul. Senator Bernie Sanders was a distant third on the list of famous Vermonters, well behind Ben and Jerry, of ice cream fortune. More than two years later, I’ve heard these revolutionary figures and a parade of their supporters agree wholeheartedly that the system is rigged.
Since 2014, I have watched with distress, though not much surprise, as the arguments I made sprang to full flower in massive anti-establishment movements in the United States and Europe. My lack of surprise is because I come at this issue from a perspective and history few others have. I am an American who began her career as a young scholar overseas in the waning years of communism. On both sides of the Atlantic I have since been studying elites who wield power and influence, how they operate in new and insidious ways, and the seismic changes that spawned them. The result is that ordinary people now have little meaningful voice in making and shaping the policies that affect their lives and livelihoods. I have sought to redefine corruption as actions that violate the public trust, even if they are not technically illegal. Most, if not all, of this “new corruption,” as I call it, is fully legal, even if most of us would consider it unethical.
Over the past two years, the populist, anti-elite movements erupting around the world showed that regular people were starting to grasp at a primal level the contours of the new corruption, because indeed they were living with it. Now this is a stone-cold reality. The public knows full well that this new corruption is flourishing, though the culprits that are usually mentioned—money in politics, greedy banks, or the simple revolving door—tell a story that’s dangerously incomplete. Many elites, by contrast, have been blind-sided. The media, too, have been caught off guard by insurgencies from both right and left. So have most pundits and scholars. This one was not.
That is because, to quote from Unaccountable:
…..more and more we feel like we’re excluded from a system we used to know how to negotiate but no longer quite do. Figuring things out is not as straightforward as in the past. We‘re subject to new ways of influencing and organizing influence that are not as obvious as they were just twenty-five—or even five—years ago... [W]e sense a division between outsiders and insiders and that the insiders are working on their own behalf, even as they purport to have us, the public, in mind. The rest of us are left on the outside, knocking to get in.
This rigged system exists, not in the voting booth (as Donald Trump keeps proclaiming), but in policy making arenas. The sense that something huge is amiss has driven millions of Americans to seek leaders they perceive as outside of the system—the most successful being Trump, Bernie Sanders, and a motley collection of third party candidates. In fact, as I argue, the new corruption of Hillary Clinton and many, many elite players of all stripes has paved the way for the likes of Trump and Sanders. Clinton’s byzantine family foundation is not merely a right-wing talking point. Serious concerns about the conflicts of interest embedded there should give pause to citizens of any political persuasion. And her use of a private email system while secretary of State exemplifies a classic characteristic of this Unaccountable era—boundary-pushing elites subverting the standard bureaucracy in self-interested ways that make transparency difficult, if not impossible. It is unfortunate that Trump has so sullied the discourse that these very real issues cannot be discussed dispassionately; rather, people, even family members, are coming to blows on social media. Sometimes this election season, we’re talking about actual blows.
Trump, it is important to note, is not one of the elites I study who shape policy. He is actually useful in making the distinction about who I am talking about. Trump is a wealthy celebrity who until now has not involved himself in any major way in Washington-style policy manipulation. (That in no way absolves him from his many other alleged abuses: of the tax code, of sound and fair business practices, of standards of civility, and of women.)
Trump is what happens when elites in the establishment game the system to their advantage, widening income inequalities, and crippling trust in civic institutions. These developments have left regular people disillusioned and looking for a savior in a demagogue like him.
Sanders, of course, never exhibited the alarming authoritarianism that Trump does, but his followers are equally anti-establishment and anti-elite. To Sanders’s supporters, Clinton represents the unholy alliance between Democrats and Wall Street, and the corruption of a political system awash in mystery money from corporations and even foreign governments. These followers have solid points to make, if not always pragmatic plans for fixing the enormous challenges they lay out.
We Americans are not the only people experiencing an epidemic of outsiderism. Such disaffection from the establishment and resulting populist movements are by no means limited to the United States. I have witnessed them first-hand in Europe, where I spent the year from September 2015 through August 2016 conducting research and teaching in several cities across the continent, in part as a Fulbright scholar (my analysis here is entirely my own, not that of the Fulbright program.) In Germany, I saw the continued rise of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD), founded only in 2013. The AfD scored strongly, earning votes in the double digits in three German states during elections in spring 2016 and, in September 2016, even beating the party of Chancellor Angela Merkel in her home state. I watched German news coverage of France, where terror attacks have been feeding xenophobic support for Marine Le Pen and her far right-wing National Front party. I viewed coverage of presidential elections in Austria, where, for the first time since World War II, neither establishment party (Social Democrats and Austrian People’s) saw their candidate appear in the top spot. Instead, there will be a run-off in December between the Green Party candidate and a right-wing ultra-nationalist (some would say fascist) one, again between far right and the left. In June, from Ukraine, I watched coverage of how voters in the United Kingdom shocked elites there and around the world by voting to Brexit the European Union.
Whether from the right or the left, these candidates and movements have one hugely salient attribute in common: They are profoundly and aggressively anti-elite, anti-establishment, and anti-system. They seek to abolish the system without any real or viable plan for replacing it.
In the next Trumpism 101 post, I’ll look in-depth at examples and implications of political rigging.
Much as Trump might assert, rigging, as I mentioned and cannot mention enough, does not include the voting process. Far from it: voter abuses in the United States have nearly always meant the disenfranchisement of persons of color and other vulnerable groups ― people who already have suffered more than enough abuse this election year.