If you don't know what I'm talking about, I'll tell you: On his trip to the Middle East in May, President Trump, along with the Saudi king and the president of Egypt, laid his hands on a glowing white orb for two minutes. (Which strikes me as a long time to touch an orb.)
The image was reminiscent of J.R.R. Tolkien and 1970s low-budget Canadian sci-fi. It looked like they were calling forth powerful eldritch energies from the chthonic depths or perhaps the forbidden zone.
Ever since then, when things have gotten weird, I've credited the Orb. For instance, when the Guardian reported that sex between Japanese snow monkeys and Sika deer may now constitute a new "behavioral tradition," I tweeted, "the Orb has game, you can't deny it." When
But I know in my heart that it's not the Orb's fault things have gotten so weird, for the simple reason that rampant weirdness predates the Orb-touching by years.
I have a partial theory as to why, and it doesn't begin with Trump. It begins with a failure of elites and the institutions they run.
Three-fourths of Americans cannot identify all three branches of the federal government, according to an Annenberg Center poll taken earlier this year. One in 3 Americans can't name a single branch of government. More than a third of Americans can't name any of their rights under the 1st Amendment. A host of surveys finds that Americans, particularly younger Americans, are increasingly ambivalent or even hostile to free speech, and even democracy.
Even as knowledge of, and commitment to, our system of government has been eroding, partisan loyalty has radically intensified. Some studies find partisan identification is now at least as predictive of behavior and attitudes as race or gender. As we lose our old meaningful attachments, we find new ones in shallow tribalism.
These trends have been in the pipeline for a long time, and while one can point a curmudgeonly finger of blame at the people, particularly these kids today, the real blame falls to elites of all stripes — political, journalistic, economic and educational. Every generation has a responsibility to instruct the next on what is important. As an empirical matter, they — we — failed.
The failure runs deeper, though. Throughout American history, institutions outside of the government — Alexis De Tocqueville called them "associations" — have played a vital role in binding people together and giving them a sense of meaning and rootedness. Our politics, both national and local, were always downstream of these institutions.
That intricate ecosystem has been supplanted by virtual communities, which serve not so much to educate and civilize but to reinforce pre-established beliefs. Elites who once guided think tanks, universities, even rotary clubs to temper and channel anger have been replaced by leaders who are more like followers, chasing the online mobs wherever they want to go. And all eyes are on Washington to solve our problems. Our politics, in other words, are upstream now.
The norms we've come to rely on no longer match the landscape. Like Japanese snow monkeys, we're creating new "behavioral traditions."
In this, Trump is less an aberration than a leader for his time. In his rhetorical contempt for free speech, his ignorance of basic constitutional facts, his addiction to drama and ratings, his personalization of every political question and conflict, and his uncanny ability to bring out the same qualities in his biggest detractors, he breathes new life into H.L. Mencken's definition of democracy as "the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard."