Revolution from Within

Donald Trump and America’s Ruling Oligarchy

Despite recently being declared guilty by a New York jury over faulty business records, Donald Trump seems to be more popular than ever. Democrats, Neoconservatives, and Never Trumpers despise Trump and his MAGA base more than they ever have, and the only explanation they can muster for Trump’s popularity and steadfast support despite all of the allegations, scandals, and now criminal convictions is that his base has been indoctrinated into an authoritarian personality cult.

The Left has no legitimate response to Trump politically. All they can do is prosecute him as a political enemy and seek to destroy his reputation and ability to run, whether by hook or crook. Nor do they possess the conceptual ability to perceive what is actually unfolding in American politics.

This is where Aristotle can help, for he described the rise of a Trump-like figure over two millennia ago. In book five, chapter six of the Politics, Aristotle details how oligarchies undergo revolution:

One [mode of revolution] is when they treat the multitude unjustly. Any leader is then adequate to make revolution, particularly when the leader comes from the oligarchy itself … Sometimes the overthrow of an oligarchy comes about through the well off themselves—those not in the group that holds the offices, when those who do enjoy prerogatives are very few. … Oligarchies [also] undergo change from within in the first place through the rivalry of those seeking popularity. Popular leadership is twofold … [such as] when those in the oligarchy seek popularity with the mass, as at Larissa … where the regime guardians sought popularity with the mass on account of their being elected, and in all oligarchies where those who [are] elect[ed] to offices are not those from whom the officials are drawn, but the offices are filled from those with large assessments or those of certain clubs, and election is by those having heavy arms or by the people. … [Revolution in oligarchies] happens further when some draw the oligarchy into fewer hands, for those who seek equality are compelled to bring in the people to assist them. (1305a37-1305b39)

Aristotle goes on to say that revolutions in oligarchies are encouraged when those in power “extend their wealth in wonton living.” Moral corruption and wasteful spending of the common funds instigates resentment, faction, and eventual collapse.

One of the greatest ironies or oddities of Trump’s popularity is that he wasn’t an outsider to the Washington establishment, selected as the people’s champion to ride in, save the day, and drain the swamp. Trump’s whole life has been spent in the limelight: as a New York real estate mogul, a reality TV show personality, a frequent guest of and financial contributor to the elite political class, and whose name and brand has been attached to a host of highly public entrepreneurial ventures—both successful and notorious. Instead, Trump hailed from America’s political class, and yet it is that same class that has been hell bent on destroying him for the past eight years. How should we understand this?

America’s Ruling Oligarchy

Accepting Aristotle’s assessment as a helpful framework for understanding America’s contemporary political scene begins with realizing that America has become an oligarchy—it is no longer a constitutional republic, democracy, polity, or any other kind of meaningful republican government that draws its legitimacy as a divinely designated institution attuned to the consent and welfare of the people. This realization is probably the genesis of the recent debate over whether the Constitution is dead.

If the U.S. Constitution of 1787 no longer governs us as written, what then is the nature of the oligarchy we live under? Aristotle defined an oligarchy as rule by the wealthy few who govern for their own advantage, not for the good of all. Such political self-aggrandizement in oligarchies is not usually the result of hard work, thrift, or entrepreneurial genius. Instead, the wealth and power of the ruling class is accumulated and maintained by defrauding and expropriating the masses and the land’s natural riches—what’s known as a kleptocracy.

While Aristotle’s definition and discussion of the various regime types and the bewildering varieties they can take (depending upon how political offices are distributed) is a good starting point, what’s needed is a contemporary analysis of the hard facts of America’s current political regime. We could profitably turn to James Burnham and his explication of the administrative and managerial elite as developed under FDR. However, the current iteration of America’s ruling class—while prefigured in the managerial elite—took form after it successfully ousted Richard Nixon via Watergate. More recently, the late Angelo Codevilla has offered a fine contemporary assessment, first in his important 2010 American Spectator article, “America’s Ruling Class,” and then in his book The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It.

Codevilla described America’s ruling class not merely as an aristocracy or an elite—all regimes, even democracies, have elites—but as an exclusive class. American’s have long prided themselves on having a “classless” society, whether real or imagined. While this is certainly an exaggeration, relative to Europe’s rigid class structure or caste systems in other hemispheres, American citizens from the beginning were able to own land and achieve economic mobility and stability far easier than anywhere else in the world. Like all societies as they age, however, an informal class system developed in this country that has since hardened into sclerotic, inflexible, and exclusive social clubs in the upper crust with a dwindling middle class and burgeoning lower, dependent class.

What sets America’s ruling class apart, according to Codevilla? Not hereditary birth, not academic achievement or knowledge, not personal or public virtues, and not even wealth. Instead, the defining characteristic that qualifies one for induction into America’s oligarchy is that you must be credentialed from an aligned institution that has initiated you into the ruling ideology. These institutions, such as the Ivy League universities, have long since been hollowed out and no longer fulfill their original purpose to educate or train. Instead, in the current oligarchic kleptocracy, their only value is as ideological boot camps that churn out new generations of loyal socialites who mouth the right pieties, claim the right social identites, and move within the accepted social enclaves.

What is the ruling class’s ideology? First and foremost that they are better than the average American citizen and they deserve to rule without consent or constraint. In the mass societies of the twentieth-century, this has taken on a technical flavor: we are better trained and educated, America and the world is too complex to run under the old Constitution, and so you must entrust yourself and your children to enlightened administrators who possess the proper techniques to succeed. Yet even still the ruling class functions according to ancient customs of patronage, always rewarding friends and family first and by so creating a network of political machines concerned with power and prestige more than the public good. These beliefs are mixed with scorn and contempt for the American citizen that always blames them for the ruling class’s failures, which in the last half century has blossomed into a full-scale hatred of America’s founding, history, and traditional ways of life (e.g., the New York Times’1619 Project).

Thus, there has been a conscious effort by the ruling class to displace and replace that way of life by crippling the middle class economically to reduce their economic and political independence; by diluting and redefining marriage, fragmenting the family, and desecrating sex; by hollowing out the country’s interior while simultaneously importing alien immigrant populations; by allowing Chinese manufactured and highly lethal drugs into the country to kill and deaden hundreds of thousands; and by promoting an individual, commercial, and urban existence in which you will own nothing and be happy.

The effect is that Americans are severed from their land, inheritance, and historical memory which makes them soft, malleable, and unconcerned about preserving the past and passing on a cultural inheritance to their posterity—perfect subjects for a post-human, digitally-enhanced, AI future. These actions and attitudes are justified among the ruling class according to unspoken social Darwinian assumptions: that unrelenting progress toward a new humanity better suited for a more perfect world demands that the backward, prejudiced, and superstitious ways of ordinary Americans be terraformed and repurposed for the next social-evolutionary phase.

Classical and English Political Science, Not Wokeness

Codevilla’s assessment of the ruling class’s ascent and grasp on power followed a long-standing pattern of class analysis. When the topic of class dynamics is brought up, Americans tend to jump immediately to a Marxist assessment and critique. Yet in this case, this would be a mistake. Understanding the political in terms of class differences goes back to the ancient Greeks and cannot merely be reduced to an economic or material Marxist understanding of a binary class structure determined by labor and exploitation, and whose relationship is essentially dialectical.

More specifically, Codevilla structured his appraisal of the ruling class within the English understanding of Court vs. Country class politics. In the seventeenth century the Court Party was composed of those who were aligned with the Crown, which, prior to the Glorious Revolution (1688), meant support for absolute monarchy. The Court Party’s central power nerve was the executive council and the body of ministers whose job it was to advise the sovereign and implement his decisions. Opposed to this was the Country Party, a network of political resistance groups opposed to an unchecked sovereign. After 1670, the Country Party would eventually become the Whigs, who advocated for parliamentary checks on a constitutionally restrained monarch. The interplay between the center and periphery, between those in favor of absolute monarchy versus those in favor of constitutional reforms, would continue to play out throughout the eighteenth century, impacting American political thought and constitutionalism deeply.

This is not the place to trace the intellectual and political origins of the American founding. A more pressing application is that the Right’s current complaint against America’s ruling oligarchy is not a form of “wokeism,” but is following a more particularly historical and ancient form of class analysis. The abuse of power in traditional oligarchies is due to the fact that they are intrinsically disordered, and their kleptocratic nature means that its victims are the people whom the elites view as dispensable (“clingers,” “deplorables,” etc.). While both the woke Left and the new Right might speak of “power” or “power differentials,” the substance and origin of their respective views could not be more different.

Revolution from Within

Returning to Aristotle, the great philosopher described the abuse in oligarchies as involving at least three elements. First, the people are treated unjustly when morally corrupt oligarchs oppress the people while living lasciviously, recklessly spending down the treasury and borrowing from the future. Second, those elected by the people to represent them are excluded from holding office. Instead, those offices are given to privileged elites either with financial influence or who move within approved social clubs. This ends up creating a faction within the oligarchy, as those holding offices and those excluded begin to fight amongst themselves. Third, in such a situation, the ruling faction in the oligarchy draws their power even closer, consolidating friends and power in an ever-tightening circle. The elite element that is excluded often turns to arms (as in a military coup) or to the people (populism) for support in their attempt to dislodge the ruling faction.

In the case of America, this is what unfolded in 2016 and after. Trump was not from the American heartland, but hailed from the ruling class. The elites (re: representatives) that Americans persistently sent to Washington to implement common sense policies that would help ordinary citizens (e.g., Tea Party representatives) were ignored, filibustered, manipulated, intimidated, and excluded by the established oligarchic element. The distinction between the oligarchic element in power and the excluded representatives does not align with the political parties. As Codevilla explained, the ruling class in Washington is essentially a uniparty composed of both all Democrats and the vast majority of Republicans. Republicans, however, play “a junior role in the ruling class,” the little brother of the ruling Democratic party, yet who aspire to be admitted to the halls of power, attend the cool social events, and in due time collect their pensions.

Trump was ridiculed by Democrats and Republicans alike, even though they eagerly accepted his financial contributions. He was scorned as a stupid and superficial buffoon, such as when he was made fun of by President Obama during the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner—genuine mockery disguised as comedy. By 2015, Trump was able to see the corruption and abuses of the ruling class that had alienated millions of Americans as well as a disgruntled faction in Washington. Trump’s populist turn—his magical ride down the escalator that symbolized his populist alliance with the American people—marked the beginning of the revolution from within. The American oligarchy was fractured and at war with itself.

The subsequent extraordinary events of Trump’s first term—the New York Times’ anonymous letter, the Steele dossier, accusations of Russian collusion, and the Mueller probe, claims of mental instability and invocations of the 25th Amendment, two impeachment trials, the FBI Mar-a-Lago raid, and the non-stop and furious fake media attacks—as well as the continued prosecution of his person and MAGA supporters (including January 6 protestors) long after his presidency ended, is the collateral damage of this political war. Whether it ends with America’s ruling oligarchy entrenched as a tyranny, or the emergence of a new constitutional order, remains to be seen.

Image Credit: Cesare Maccari (1840–1919), Cicero Denounces Catiline (1889).

Print article

Share This

Ben R. Crenshaw

Ben R. Crenshaw is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Declaration of Independence Center at the University of Mississippi. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. You can follow him on Twitter at @benrcrenshaw.

2 thoughts on “Revolution from Within

  1. Crenshaw doesn’t really present an objective view of America and history. His views of Trump’s legal entanglements rests on assumptions rather than any kind of significant reading of the evidence that the grand juries and juries heard and saw.

    Besides, if Trump wasn’t favoring the oligarchy, why did he strike down Obama’s clean air and water restrictions? Those restrictions weren’t serving the oligarchy. And Trump’s tax initiatives increased the wealth of the upper 10% only. Where Trump and some corporate elites challenged each other was over social views such as LGBT rights and racial issues.

    We have a shareholder economy which naturally lends itself to favoring an oligarchy or a plutocracy. A BBC article from around 2014 which called America an Oligarchy referenced a paper from a Princeton professor and a Northwestern professor which showed, using a statistical review of legislation, that the concerns of the wealthy overwhelmingly received more attention than the concerns of others–odd that an Ivory League professor would help conduct such a study based on the above article.

    Noting that we have a shareholder economy where workers are easily sacrificed for profits, I am wondering why Marx’s insights would not be useful here. Perhaps it is because Crenshaw has demonized not only some Republicans, but all Democrats and, in essence, all non-Trump Republicans. But why demonize all Democrats when it is the Democratic Party that leads the very meager charge to putting restrictions on wealthy elites through regulations? And how do the Republicans respond to those efforts?

    I am not a fan of the Democratic Party, but seeing how Trump has remade the Republican Party in his image, and his image is not a flattering one, some of Crenshaws comments seem logically flawed.

  2. There will always be an elite and that is a good thing. The issue at hand is whether we will have a virtuous elite or a nefarious elite. Populism is, by its nature, anti-elitism. I don’t think its a stretch to say that no one is happy with the current crop of elites. They are self-interested, prideful, and decadent.

    The best case scenario is that Christians begin reaching out to the elites as elites. The elites have to recover a sense of honor and virtue, lest they be overthrown. Trump appeals to populist sensibilities, but I don’t believe he will overthrow the system. I think his biggest contribution was the reveal the system as it is. Any overthrow of the elites would never come peacefully, and thus will be the option of last resort. There is still room to correct the elites and have them repent and rule virtuously. That is the end goal. They have to take heed: either they reclaim their virtue or they will be overthrown.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *