Samuel Freeman, in the latest number of “The New York Review of Books”, gives an adequate but hardly inspired presentation of the Frankfurt School, that group of German intellectuals which advocated a cultural Marxism that became very popular in this country during the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, but which seems less and less relevant to contemporary concerns. Why could we have believed that Madison Avenue was the arch-enemy of all that was holy, when all it was out to do was sell deodorant? “Madmen” was very good at parodying the supposed insights of advertising men into the American psyche, which was more interested in moving to the suburbs and putting their kids into college than in whether Doris Day played a virgin just once too often. Freeman, however, insists on making what has become almost an obligatory reference these days in “The New York Review of Books” to the Trump election. He says that the Frankfurt School got the hang of the kind of authoritarian leader Trump is: an enemy of reason tied up with demagoguery and capitalism both at once. But that is to take just the wrong reading of Trump, who is neither an ideologue nor the prisoner of capitalism but is out there on his own, hardly even aware of the radical right forces he has empowered to do their own bidding rather than his.
Rather, Trump is to be understood as an exemplar of the Jack Cade Rebellion that William Shakespeare portrays in Henry VI, Part II. where one of Cade’s followers says “First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”. This is not just a statement of what has to be done to spread lawlessness; it is a statement of social nihilism, and is consistent with Cade’s own remark, “Away with him, away with him! he speaks Latin.” The idea of being knowledgeable is itself being held up for derision. These two know-nothing tags are what one might expect to hear at a Trump Rally in place of “Lock her up” if his followers had read Shakespeare. The thing about Cade Rebellions is that they quickly run out of steam because they have no ideology nor a social program nor a charismatic leader, all of which Communism and Fascism, the systems decried by the Frankfurt School before they turned their eyes on the superficiality of post War America, affluent but spiritually dead. Rather, Trumpites have only a set of slogans and a lot of pent up anger. Trump said he was the standard bearer for a movement, but it had none of the apparatus of a movement. There were no training sessions, or planned demonstrations, or phone lists, as was the case with the Civil Rights Movement, only rallies and enough voters not sufficiently motivated to turn out to vote for Hillary in a few key states. Trump’s election was a fluke, nothing more.
So it may not take an impeachment nor the Twenty Fifth Amendment to undo the damage. It may be enough that the Trump supported Ryan initiative to repeal and replace Obamacare fails and so takes the wind out of the sails of any other legislation, such as tax changes or financier friendly infrastructure construction. The current fight over health legislation is so important because it was a major campaign promise and is the first major piece of legislation out of the box. Ryan is probably right in saying that his plan is the closest the Congress can come to repeal and replace. There clearly is no Plan B. Trump and Ryan have decided to risk a lot on one throw of the dice. And the voters will decide in 2018 whether, the Administration having achieved none of its legislative goals, those goals were worth pursuing in the first place and that it is wiser to pursue politics as usual, which means turning the American government over to the Democratic Party pros who can manage the system well enough to get something done, the Republican Party pros having demonstrated by that time that they are only fit to be an opposition party, full of vim and vinegar, but without any coherent programmatic agenda.
Trump himself holds the key to whether he will simply be a failed President rather than a disgraced one. He has to be presidential enough not to force his enemies to use the weapons at their disposal to get rid of him. The question is whether he or his staff are capable of controlling his utterances well enough so that he does not declare himself manifestly unfit for office, as if he hasn’t already done so. We shall see.