When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. — Santayana, Reason in Common Sense
The Praetorian Guard in the later Roman Empire was originally a military unit directly under Caesar’s control that could be thrown into battle to shore up a weakened line; later it became primarily Caesar’s personal guard.
Later yet, it became a mechanism through which political opponents could remove a Caesar, until finally, it required the approval of the Praetorian Guard to become Caesar. Finally, they so controlled the office that the Praetorians literally auctioned off the office to whoever paid the biggest bribe.
Of course, while history doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes. In the Ottoman Empire, an elite military guard to the Sultan, the Janissaries, became so powerful that they too felt entitled to execute a sultan who didn’t obey their commands.
In Imperial China, for more than 400 years, the road to permanent employment was scoring well on a written exam on Confucian thought. This started off as a good idea. Confucius’s thought was the foundation of governance in China, and most of it was good recommendations that would look familiar to most conservatives today. But as passing that exam became a gateway not just to government service, but to wealth and nearly absolute power, it became harder and harder to pass the exam unless you came from a well-connected family and attended very expensive private schools to prep for the exam. These educated and entitled elites were known as mandarins. The mandarinate was characterized by extreme bureaucracy and Byzantine regulation that generally required payments to mandarins to navigate.
So, pretty much since the inauguration, I’ve been writing about the way Trump is being reported on in the legacy press. In fact, eight hours after the inauguration, I was writing “Stop Making Me Defend Trump.” (And just to be clear and provide a little fan service for the people who think criticizing Trump makes one #NeverTrump and a communist, I do still think he’s a cad, and a boor, and a braggart.)
But minutes after Trump was inaugurated, the drumbeat of “impeachment” started — before he’d even had time to sign the lease and pick up the keys to the White House.
There was something suspicious about that drumbeat. A lot of it was predicated on RUSSIA RUSSIA RUSSIA and of course it’s now become quite clear that that was essentially a disinformation and maskirovka campaign started in Obama’s administration and carried on by members of both the FBI and CIA — and others, like Fusion GPS and Hillary Clinton’s lawyers.
There were several obvious points about it. First, as admitted in a book about Clinton’s campaign, the RUSSIA narrative started to be pushed hours after it was clear Clinton lost. Second, Clinton loyalists like Comey, Strzok, and Page were quite willing to use dirty tricks and — it appears — flat-out commit felonies to provide an “insurance policy” against Trump being elected, and in extremis, ensure he was ejected from office.
The #NeverTrump Republicans, then, joined the fray, thundering that Trump was “unpresidential!” Now, that struck me as odd — I remember Lyndon Johnson showing his gall bladder scar, taking meetings on the crapper, and lifting his beagles by their ears. And Jimmy Carter talking about “national malaise” and making a point that he was wearing sweaters in the White House because we were being cut off by OPEC strikes me as a helluva lot less presidential than Trump trolling on Twitter.
The funny thing was, though, that they weren’t complaining that Trump was doing the wrong things — they were complaining that he didn’t act like the Approved Candidates. A fair number of them, like Tom Nichols — since Irwin Corey died, the World’s Foremost Authority and expert in all things — and Jennifer Rubin and Bill Kristol and Joe Walsh are all now pushing for Anyone But Trump no matter what the other candidates’ policies might be!
Well, here’s a tip: if you don’t like Trump so much that you’ll vote for the Green New Deal, you’re not concerned about conservative policies at all.
“Men by their constitutions are naturally divided into two parties: 1. Those who fear and distrust the people, and wish to draw all powers from them into the hands of the higher classes. 2. Those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe, although not the most wise depositary of the public interests. In every country these two parties exist, and in every one where they are free to think, speak, and write, they will declare themselves. Call them, therefore, Liberals and Serviles, Jacobins and Ultras, Whigs and Tories, Republicans and Federalists, Aristocrats and Democrats, or by whatever name you please, they are the same parties still and pursue the same object. The last one of Aristocrats and Democrats is the true one expressing the essence of all.”
— Thomas Jefferson (Letter to Henry Lee, 1824)
The objections to Trump come down to the American mandarinate, the people who graduated from Harvard and Yale and who went on to join the Foreign Service or a federal agency, live in D.C., and get invited to the Important Parties, have decided he’s Not One Of Us, he’s what the Brits would call “decidedly non-U.“
It’s not really principled unless your principles are “we Aristocrats, we mandarins deserve to run things no matter what those smelly voters think.”
With the collapse of RUSSIA RUSSIA RUSSIA, the mandarinate suffered a serious setback, to which they’ve responded with the Famous Ukrainian Phone Call. If you read the “whistleblower’s” complaints — or the leaked excerpts — that the mandarins deign to let us, the unwashed, uncredentialed, read, however, you discover that their complaints are being gilded with talk about the “quid pro quo,” but they really come down to Trump following his own foreign policy, instead of what the mandarins think is right. (I’ll write more about the quid pro quo another time, but I’ll note that no one, not even the “whistleblowers,” maintain that Trump ever actually said there was a price for U.S. aid, and that he said the opposite in so many words.)
Unfortunately for the mandarins, merely getting the disapproval of the bureaucracy isn’t sufficient to remove a president from office. There has to be a mechanism, and that comes down to assassination, getting the cabinet to declare him disabled, or impeachment.
While there seems to be a substantial minority in favor of assassination, especially in Hollywood, the president has dedicated and professional guards. The 25th Amendment has a significant problem that the cabinet and vice president are members of Trump’s party, and a claim that Trump is disabled would be hard for anyone outside of the District to credit.
That left impeachment, and the role of the legacy press. Sharyl Attkisson keeps a running list of major mistakes the press has made reporting on Trump, going back to things like the report that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr had been removed (it hadn’t, Zeke Miller just didn’t look carefully). Not to mention bad reporting that was so egregious it actually got people fired.
The press is supposed to report freely and so defend democracy. But the press increasingly — and transparently — is pushing falsehoods about Trump.
It doesn’t matter if there’s a grand conspiracy. Slime molds don’t have meetings to decide which way to ooze. The truth is that the political press sees themselves as part of the mandarinate, and are motivated to preserve the mandarins’ privileges — like setting foreign policy, the election be damned.
The United States is coming to a decision point: are we actually in charge? Or are we willing to let a class of mandarins, and a Praetorian press, have the final say?