Since before his inauguration, President Trump has sought to invigorate his populist appeal by reinforcing mistrust in the mainstream media. By painting the journalistic and media sources of the academic elite as propaganda tools for the Left, he has been able to establish a deep wedge in the American population, separating people into factions that are pro or anti-Trump. Many of the president’s supporters are anti-establishment and anti-elite, viewing the government as filled with ‘deep state’ sabotagers whom are secretly trying to derail the president’s agenda. Once his supporters start to believe in the criminality of their own government, it makes it easier for President Trump to initiate the creation of new national myths that favor his political agenda, which can further cement executive powers more stridently in his hands.
The president teaches his voter base to purge longstanding sources of news, such as The Washington Post and New York Times, deriding them as mouthpieces of his political enemies, never to be trusted. His support base is then guided to the journalistic voyeurism of alternative news sources, much of it resembling a peer-to- peer network of gossip and conspiracy theories which provide readers with daily tales of President Trump’s achievements. The president’s supporters have been led to a safe space where they continuously reinforce Trump’s worldview as their own, building narratives using information found on website forums as proof that all of the president’s enemies are complicit in criminal activity. This may not be the prominent view of the majority of American voters, but it has enough current to keep Americans divided into competing camps whose distrust in each other is being guided by competing facts, and thus competing loyalties.
President Trump has had novel success in building a base (my rough estimate is anywhere between 30-40% of the population but this might be a bit high) that is loyal not to a political philosophy or party but to his personality. The president’s loyalist supporters have vigorous political energy that is being rallied against the old guard (i.e. Trump’s enemies within the FBI and Department of Justice), sometimes pitting their angst against the foundational institution of American government. Their fervor is one dominated by President Trump’s repudiation of establishment elites, encapsulated as an emerging movement that is guided by its repulsion of its own government.
Given all of this, the emergence of a popular revolt might not be too far off from happening. The sentiment for such an occurrence is still very much underground. If President Trump is able to consolidate and grow his supporter base into a conglomerate of factions that see favor in economic nationalism and age-old worker’s revolt, he might be able to fuel his current cult of personality to manifest as a new political movement, one that would gravely change American political culture. By purging non-compliant and maybe even criminal factions in the government, President Trump and his political protégés would be able to consolidate more power. If the president’s authoritarian tendencies prove true, we might see something akin to a one- party state system. For sure an alarmist and possibly far off event from happening, it would not hurt to look at similar events in the history of other countries.
Does America today show parallels to the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976?
Let’s take a look at what was happening in China during the 1960s.
What was the Cultural Revolution?
After the disaster of the Great Leap Forward, where millions of Chinese suffered famine due to the ineffectiveness of Mao Zedong’s centralized economy, Mao’s polices began to come under harsh criticism. The intellectual and bureaucratic classes attempted to push aside Mao’s conservative Communist ideology and bring forward a more moderate approach to economic policies. As Mao saw his influence wane within the newly created Chinese Communist Party, he sought to delegitimize his detractors by challenging the usefulness of the bourgeoisie. In order to build more confidence in his reign, he ignited the energy of the masses, fueling their distrust toward the intellectual elite. He disparaged China’s old guard (the academic elite) and anyone who was thought to represent China’s old dynastic culture. Only those who were loyal to the spirit of Mao’s revolution where entitled with the privileges of state power. In the spirit of a worker’s revolt, the masses immobilized the value of intellectual opinion and criticism of Mao’s government was forbidden.
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution was a mass mobilization effort on behalf of the peasantry and students. In order for Mao to take out the party that was criticizing him he formed coalitions to destroy their influence, with the most substantial effort done by the newly formed Red Guards. Within the formation of the Red Guards, students were encouraged to go against their professors and humiliate them in public. Mao’s attack on the establishment class and academia were a huge part of the substance of the Cultural Revolution.
Mao toppled old customs and dissolved societal norms. It was a revolution initiated from the top onto the bottom. The masses where energized with the zealous approval of their leader, who used them as a weapon against political enemies by propagandizing their disenfranchisement as a result of the old bureaucratic and bourgeoisie classes. An entire class of elites where purged, allowing Mao to fortify his power and forever personifying his image as the prevailing definition of the modern Chinese state.
While I don’t think that Americans are on the verge of a Red Guard style revolt, I do think that President Trump and the Republican Party’s incessant derision of elites and mainstream media outlets has the potential to create an opening for mass mobilization against anyone deemed in line with the old guard (those in past presidential administrations or aligned with the deep state bureaucracy).
When President Trump labels his enemies as criminals it energizes the masses to dispel the spirit of previous administrations, further entrenching a divide in the populace and upending America’s traditional national ethos of democracy; those values which unify us as a Republic and not that of competing political tribes. If enough of the American voting population starts to view their government as criminal, delegitimizing elites and traditional sources of information, it has the potential to alter our democracy into illiberalism, where loyalty to the nation means loyalty to party and competing mobs vie for power to have absolute power over the other. When a population starts to believe that it is their system of government that is the source of their ills in society, they will inevitably call for the protection of a strongman, the dear leader.
“Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”