From Washington to Rome, so-called “populist” politicians are hacking away at a genuinely broken status quo. But their alternatives are either uninspired or terrifying.
Imagine a trio of tech-savvy and entrepreneurial souls on the prowl for the next killer app. They’re staying up late in their dorm, or perhaps they’re celebrating at a nightclub after finishing their MBA program. They want to make money. They want to change the world. They want to create something that gets snatched up by the titans of e-industry for billions of dollars. They want to retire in their twenties.
They want to disrupt.
Disrupters identify an industry that can be transformed by new technologies to make it more efficient or consumer-friendly. Amazon has transformed retail. Uber has wreaked havoc on taxi companies. Airbnb has challenged the hotel industry.
These transformations often get grouped together under the category of “innovation,” as in “making new.” Whether the new is better or not is, of course, a matter of opinion.
In some sense, these innovations are nothing new, just more of the same “creative destruction” of capitalism that Joseph Schumpeter defined in 1942. But these disrupters often seem more bent on tearing something down than creating something new. In the old days, innovators might end up upending existing practices — the car dispensing with the horse, the internet killing the airmail letter — but they were focused more on their technological advance. Today’s disrupters seem to start with the teardown, not with the blueprint of their vision.
So, has this spirit of disruption spread into politics? Last year, former Obama administration adviser Pippa Malmgren made a splash by calling Donald Trump “the Uber of politics.” It was one of those insights that seems intuitively right. Here’s a guy who has built a reputation as a disrupter — in the construction industry, in reality television, in sexual politics and now in the world of politics. He goes after the status quo with a hatchet.
But the analogy doesn’t quite work, not for Trump at least. He has a disruptive personality. But for the most part he doesn’t have a portfolio of Plan Bs to substitute for the status quo. There’s nothing creative about Trump’s destruction. Still, the disruption model does pertain to other populist politics. After all, the current political system is ripe, perhaps even overripe, for disruption. So, buckle your seatbelt and brace yourself for a bumpy political ride.
Why Trump Isn’t Exactly Uber
Disruptive businesses aren’t revolutionary. They change practices. They don’t change the system.
Uber, for instance, has offered a different way for people to get from A to B. It hasn’t, however, destroyed the taxi system. It hasn’t eliminated public transportation. It’s become just another choice on the menu. Driverless cars, by contrast, would be a fundamental change in system. A transporter that moved people from one place to another via some Star Trek-like technology would be revolutionary. Uber is more like those dollar vans that ferry people around New York City to places underserved by the subway and bus lines.
Trump is no revolutionary either. He’s more than fine with capitalism, with Wall Street, with the glaring economic inequalities of US society. He’s also fine with politics as usual, though he’d like to hijack the Republican Party and remake it in his own image. He’s not interested in draining the swamp, only in swapping out old cronies with his cronies.
Even his foreign policy isn’t transformative, despite his aversion to everything that Barack Obama accomplished. He’s against particular trade deals, but not free trade in general. He doesn’t like liberal internationalism, but has no problem with his own brand of illiberal internationalism — that is, a multilateralism of oligarchs.
But here’s where they differ. Uber is all about Plan B. In fact, Uber is Plan B. Donald Trump has no Plan B. He tears up the Iran nuclear agreement and has no alternative. Oh, Mike Pompeo laid out a 12-point plan this week at the Heritage Foundation. But in the absence of European, Russian and, most importantly, Iranian support, Pompeo was offering only a thin cover for his regime-change preferences. There’s been no Plan B for the Paris Climate Agreement, for a new deal with Cuba, for nuclear arms control reductions.
With a number of other Trump policies in the global arena, there’s no Plan B because Plan A turns out to be what Trump wanted all along: more military spending, continued war in Afghanistan, widespread drone attacks and Special Forces deployments. In other words, there’s been no disruption at all in the status quo for the national security state. Libertarians and anti-interventionists who pulled the lever for Trump were duped. Trump is perfectly happy to maintain the essential game plan of US hegemony: armed exceptionalism.
Crippling loopholes in our laws have enabled MS-13 gang members and other criminals to infiltrate our communities – and Democrats in Congress REFUSE to close these loopholes, including the disgraceful practice known as Catch-and-Release. Democrats must abandon their resistance… pic.twitter.com/VkMCIzwt8v
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 23, 2018
Yes, Trump is playing the disrupter in certain respects. For instance, the president has a Plan B for immigration. His wall, his Muslim travel ban, his separation of children from their parents — this is an alternative of sorts to what was, with a partial wall along the border with Mexico and a spike in deportations under Obama, a status quo hostile to the undocumented. Trump is pushing a more disruptive policy in order to achieve his ultimate goal of a whiter America.
When it comes to government in general — outside the national security realm — Trump also an alternative in mind. He’s installed heads of agencies who oppose the very missions they’re supposed to carry out, whether Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency or Betsy DeVos at education. His Plan B: an idiocracy.
But perhaps the most important transformation Trump has carried out is epistemological. He has altered the American perception of reality by lying so grandiosely, so repeatedly, and so unashamedly that his supporters now operate in a parallel universe according to different rules, laws and facts. His Plan B: a looking-glass world. In general, then, Trump is a disrupter at the level of style, not substance. Scratch him and he turns out to be just a conventional white guy with a potty mouth, a distorted sense of reality and delusions of grandeur. To call him the “Uber of politics” is, frankly, too much of a compliment.
The current political paradigm is certainly ripe for disruption. Democracy, like so many bricks-and-mortar enterprises, no longer delivers the goods. The two party system — call them Democrats and Republicans, or Social Democrats and Christian Democrats — doesn’t effectively address the urgent issues of the day, from economic inequality to climate change. For some decades now, interest-group politics has become sclerotic, as people have grown disgusted with a mere rotation of elites and influence peddlers.
The True Disrupters
According to an October 2017 Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, 71% of Americans believe that American politics has reached a dangerously low point. Worldwide, support for non-democratic alternatives has risen, particularly among young people, according to research conducted by political scientist Yascha Mounk.
So, let’s now substitute that trio of entrepreneurs gunning for a killer app with their political counterparts. These true disrupters see an enormous opportunity — not just to destroy the status quo, but also to implement their version of Plan B. Consider the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, the brainchild of comedian Beppe Grillo. Its most galvanizing action came with V-Day, in 2007. “V” stands for vaffanculo, Italian for up yours. Two million people showed up to give the finger to establishment politics. That’s a very Trumpian gesture (and, after November 2016, a very anti-Trumpian gesture as well).
Today, the “post-ideological” M5S has teamed up with the very ideological Lega (Northern League), a far-right party that derives much of its support from its anti-immigrant platform. The 2018 elections were, effectively, a big V-Day. The situation is so dire, Italian voters said with their ballots, that we’ll vote for the party that started as a joke to save us from an economy that has become a joke. M5S got 33% of the vote, Lega 18%.
In some ways, M5S and Lega remain very Trumpian in their appeal to disgruntled white people, particularly men. They have also gone down the same epistemological wormhole as Trump. As Vito Laterza explains for Al-Jazeera: “Both parties are supported by ecosystems of fake news, pushing anything from anti-Semitic and racist propaganda about George Soros to claims about the Obama administration plotting to smuggle migrants from Libya to Italy, or anti-vaccine conspiracies. The Five Star Movement has been particularly good at presenting sanitized messages in mainstream media while allowing their social media followers to spread hate, racism, and fake news.”
But they’re not just about undermining the status quo. Lega’s Plan B sounds like Trump’s. In contrast, FSM has cobbled together its alternative from across the political spectrum. Alexander Stille writes in The New York Review of Books:
They have been harshly critical of the EU; they have criticized the left for what they consider its lax policies toward illegal immigration, but stop well short of the right’s full-throated call to deport 600,000 illegal immigrants. They are against the privatization of various public services, such as water, and oppose waste incineration, nuclear energy, and high-speed trains. But then, they support protections for local industry and a guaranteed minimum income, which may have been a winning argument for many voters in this latest election.
The two parties recently proposed Giuseppe Conte as prime minister, a lawyer and political neophyte. Perhaps an unusual choice for such anti-establishment parties, Conte nevertheless embraces the post-ideological label. “I think 20th-century ideological schemes are no longer adequate,” he says. “It’s more important to evaluate a political force based on how they are positioned on fundamental rights and freedom.”
Arguably Italy needs some serious disruption. Its economy has been stagnant, and the unemployment rate for young people is one of the highest in Europe. The country faces two migration crises. Refugees and economic migrants continue to stream in from the south across the Mediterranean (though the rate slowed last year). And young people in particular are flowing out of the country, nearly 50,000 in 2016 alone.
Who can blame Italians for wanting the kind of change that the established parties of the center left and right haven’t been able to provide? Italians want a new way to get from A to B.
The True Dystopia
Italy is not alone. Disruptive movements led the Brexit initiative in the UK, have come to power in Austria and now lead many of the countries of Eastern Europe. These movements also have their Plan Bs. Euroskeptics want to exit or at least weaken the EU. Illiberal democrats want to consolidate power in their own hands and squeeze pluralism out of their political systems. Islamophobes and racists want to forge more homogenous, Christian societies.
So far, however, these parties and movements are all operating within the system. They are disrupters, not revolutionaries. Like Uber, they primarily know what they don’t like. Like Uber, they are fueled by discontent with the current dispensation. Like Uber, they provide what they consider a technical fix.
The true dystopia dawns when these disrupters begin to achieve systemic change, when all their Plan Bs add up to a fundamental transformation of the status quo: the collapse of the EU, mass expulsion of immigrants, the declaration of an extended state of emergency that justifies the suspension of the rule of law.
The status quo is unjust. The planet is becoming ever more divided and overheated. Unless progressives come up with a more convincing Plan B, the disrupters of the far right will establish something even more unjust and unsustainable. One such progressive Plan B, the Poor People’s Campaign, plans disruptions all summer long. Let’s hope that this campaign adds up to considerably more than just another Uber of politics.
*[This article was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.