There has been a lot of analysis suggesting that the executive-level politics we’re seeing play out right now are about incompetence or irrationality. The psychology of the President himself has been called into question, with bizarre public performances and blatant falsities being propagated, mirroring that of others in the Administration. To those accustomed to the presidency (irrespective of ideology) requiring certain levels of comportment, decency, and accountability, this moment can be dizzying and even terrifying.
To reach the conclusion that this is the product of ineptitude or insanity, however, would also require us to conclude that the past two years of campaigning and governing have been equally accidental or the result of someone being unhinged (not to mention the years spent on television). A far more plausible conclusion is that this actually is being done by design, in the sense that the immediate goal itself is to stimulate chaos to induce fear in some and admiration in others. Indeed, Dr. Allen Frances (who helped write the DSM) cautioned against following this red herring: “Trump represents a political challenge to the American democracy. To attribute this to his psychological quirks is to underestimate the danger.”
This is distinct from supposing that the contrived nature of the turmoil and ineptitude we seem to be experiencing is a kind of diversion or subterfuge meant to keep us from following the real moves being made or to throw us off the trail of potentially damaging storylines. It might be even simpler, in that chaos is the lifeblood of this Administration, the essential quality that animates their personalities and that has made them seemingly impervious to rational discourse, bad publicity, lampooning, or even fact-checking.
If chaos itself is both their method and goal, then the principal mistake they could make would be to seem reflective or repentant at any point. Instead, the premium is on being outrageous, unvarnished, off-the-cuff, impolitic, even shocking. In this view, the value is in appearing “unhinged,” taunting the media and others with ridiculous “alternative facts,” tweeting out misspelled rants at all hours of the day, asserting bald-faced lies, and acting in bizarre ways that give new meaning to the “bully” facet of the bully pulpit.
Taking it one step further, one can see the potential appeal of this modus operandi in some sectors—particularly those in the support base who are tired of politicians being all talk and no action. This contingent is more accustomed to the personality types found on “reality TV,” which is popular for a reason. The President not only garnered support through those channels, but did so by accentuating a persona that is natural in its brashness—and that doesn’t overestimate the refinement of the public.
Still, it leaves one to wonder where all of this may lead. Chaos for its own sake may be the order of the day, but surely there must be a long game at work in all this. Consider the posturing of an Administration whose support hinges on an intention to dismantle bureaucracies and “drain the swamp,” to roll in and restore that which has been lost through years of capitulating to career politicians who have sold out our values, jobs, and security. This has been the mantra for a long time now, as was noted back in 2015:
“And while it may seem like a lurching, chaotic campaign, Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, according to a Washington Post review of the businessman’s speeches, interviews and thousands of tweets and retweets over the past six months. Trump delivers scores of promises, diatribes and insults at breakneck speed. He attacks a regular cast of villains including undocumented immigrants, Muslims, Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, his GOP rivals and the media. He keeps the narrative arc of each controversy alive with an endless stream of statements, an unwillingness to back down even when he has misstated the facts—and a string of attacks against those who criticize him. All the while, his supporters see a truth-talking problem solver unlike the traditional politicians who have let them down.”
That was written over a year ago, in an article titled: “It’s not chaos. It’s Trump’s campaign strategy.” The phrase “disciplined and methodical” stands out, as in sticking to the game plan and being calculated—further suggesting that all of this isn’t happening by accident or due to irrational behavior, but instead represents a form of contrived chaos. As such, Steve Bannon recently stated that the aim is nothing less than the ”deconstruction of the administrative state,” and previously had reportedly said that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down.”
Which brings us back to the question: to what end? The inducement of dizzying chaos may be a brilliant strategy and even a short-term goal in itself, but if it actually succeeds in bringing “everything crashing down,” then what? And who or what is the “everything” in that equation? We might surmise that this could mean “everything that potentially stands in the way of our agenda,” or perhaps simply that which is deemed superfluous or redundant in an attempt to streamline operations and consolidate power.
Following this arc, David Brooks recently characterized his fear about this Administration as “not that it’s incipient fascism, it’s that it’s anarchy.” Brooks is making a common mistake here in his conflation of anarchy with chaos, and moreover with his assessment of the Administration’s possible intentions. One clue is the nod to Lenin as a paragon of “destroying the state,” since what he replaced it with scarcely resembled anything like anarchism, instead moving toward an even more centralized apparatus. An even stronger prompt is Bannon’s description of the aim as implementing “an economic nationalist agenda.”
The contrast returns us to the question of what ensues in the emptiness created should the “chaos first” strategy succeed in crashing the system. History cautions that inducing such a vacuum by itself will more likely lead to authoritarianism, totalitarianism, dictatorship, fascism, or other similarly troubling variants. These repressive outcomes entail the replacement of the preexisting state with deeper forms of autocratic power (even when cloaked in populist rhetoric), often vested in an “inner party” circle or a single person.
Anarchism is actually the opposite of this. While the impetus to break down oppressive structures may be overlapping, it is equally the case that anarchism seeks to foster wider forms of participation in the process. As such, it is constructive in its attempt to “prefigure” this future through action in the present, seeking not primarily to create a vacuum (which could serve as an invitation to tyranny) as much as it strives to cultivate more egalitarian relationships and greater capacities for self-organization in the process.
As the German anarchist Gustav Landauer observed: “The State is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of behavior; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently toward one another…. We are the State and we shall continue to be the State until we have created the institutions that form a real community.” Landauer articulates a more evolutionary perspective that sometimes contrasts with anarchism’s revolutionary spirit, but the shared impetus is constructive.
At this juncture, the current Administration has not articulated a coherent worldview that provides any confidence that its penchant for destruction and chaos is anything other than an attempt to consolidate power. Indeed, the methods utilized (promulgating alternative facts, false populism, bullying and strong-arming, profiteering through governance, and the like) align much more closely with the hallmarks of despotic regimes, and bear no semblance to anarchism beyond a superficial equation with disarray.
Today we find ourselves at the horns of an ostensible conflict between “order” and “chaos,” with the apparatuses of the “deep state” seemingly at loggerheads with this Administration’s desire for “deconstruction.” Where it will lead is hard to say, and we still haven’t factored a third pole into the dynamic: the people, a large number of whom are awakened and mobilized right now. It is entirely possible that this era represents an opportunity for another framework to emerge, one that isn’t defined in either reactionary or stationary terms. Perhaps out of the confusion will ultimately emerge evolution.
Randall Amster, JD, PhD, is Director of the Program on Justice and Peace at Georgetown University. His books include Peace Ecology (Routledge, 2015), Anarchism Today (Praeger, 2012), Lost in Space: The Criminalization, Globalization, and Urban Ecology of Homelessness (LFB, 2008); and the co-edited volume Exploring the Power of Nonviolence: Peace, Politics, and Practice (Syracuse University Press, 2013).