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February 27, 2017

Donald Trump and Washington's Power Elite: can they compromise?

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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To understand what is happening between Donald Trump and Washington's power elite, I strongly recommend reading Charles Wright Mills' 1956 classic, The Power Elite.

Donald Trump is the first American president to have successfully crashed the exclusive party of Washington’s power elite.

Trump was never one of them. They didn’t invite him to run for the highest office in the land and once in campaign mode they didn’t offer support, even after he surprised them by winning the Republican nomination.

And then the unthinkable happened. He won the presidency.

Mills (1916-1962) was an internationally renowned American sociologist and professor at Columbia University.  Although his book was written more than 60 years ago, it puts forth strong and still-timely arguments to explain today’s mounting tension between Trump and the Washington establishment.

The Power Elite exposes the tightly interwoven interests of America’s military, corporate and political elites that are designed to keep ordinary citizens powerless and subject to their manipulations.

Mills groups Washington’s entrenched coterie of career politicians, ex-military leaders, lawyers, judges, lobbyists, media moguls, state governors, multinational CEOs and bankers.

But they are much more than that.

They know each other well. Most graduated from the same top American universities. They are close friends, or at least amiable colleagues.

Their sons and daughters marry within the subculture of influence they represent. They provide major financial contributions when one of their “own” runs for political office or seeks an influential appointment such as State Attorney. 

So now what?

Just over a month into the Trump era, Washington’s power elite seems suddenly to have discovered their unconventional President’s popularity!

To their horror, he communicates directly with the rank-and-file public via social media. And his unpolished statements don’t seem to faze those supporters one bit.

Accustomed as they are to controlling or at least strongly influencing, the mainstream mass media, those same Washington power brokers are now expressing shock and outrage that Trump actively dismisses, rebukes and reviles “their” media almost on a daily basis.

In blanket judgments rarely heard so thick and fast from the White House, Trump has repeatedly called the entire Washington press corps “dishonest.” He’s accused both inside and outside media of reporting only negative or “fake” news.

But the American journalism community isn’t taking the abuse tamely. They’ve pushed back by hosting and interviewing anti-Trump guests, by calling pro-Trump media “conservative” or “alt-right,” in distinction to what they believe is true, or impartial reporting.

Although Trump did lose the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by a significant 3,000,000 votes, the more vocal industrial-belt “middle class” loudly claims him as their own and Washington’s power elite emphatically does not.

One thing Trump has made clear to supporters and opponents alike, however, is his daunting to-do list – walls, trade tariffs, travel bans, EPA downgrading, industry rebuilding, and so on – to “make America great again.”

But who knows the real agenda of Washington’s power elite?

Mills argues that as result of the self-serving and self-perpetuating strategies of the powerful Washington establishment, the real losers are ordinary people. With the same “family” of elites in charge of Washington it doesn’t matter who among them, Republican or Democrat, sits in the Oval Office as President. 

In Mills’ prophetic words, as “Commanders of power unequaled in human history, they have succeeded within the American system of organized irresponsibility.”

But along comes Donald Trump from the far outside, politically as distanced and disconnected from all this as the orbit of Pluto.

He has suddenly assumed the most powerful position in the world and came to it without owing any of the Washington elite any favors. No wonder he and America’s old establishment are currently testing each other at every opportunity.

Just four weeks into office, he abruptly took his one-man show on the road again using his favorite live format – the campaign-style rally.

It’s where he writes the script, delivers the script, and feeds the crowds who love to see him in a populist role. As he proclaimed just days ago, in one of the most candid and fundamentally honest statements of his entire political career, “Every day is a campaign!” Needless to say, this style of statesmanship has infuriated the media, big time.

Once again, Trump has promised to “make America great again” by:

1. creating and retaining more jobs

2. increasing security

3. enforcing peace abroad through military might

4. spending more funds at home on inner cities

On the job creation and retention front, he’s already had some measurable success, persuading auto and microchip manufacturers to expand within the U.S. rather than abroad. To encourage more industry buy-in, he proposes to cut corporate and personal taxes and impose steep tariffs on American goods manufactured abroad.

To enhance security at home, he has repeatedly promised to strengthen the border with Mexico (including massive investigations of established but undocumented migrants); denying visas to citizens of perceived high-risk countries; toughening punishment for crimes against law-enforcement personnel; and deporting more illegal immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers.

To enforce peace abroad, he vows to increase spending on military hardware while improving America’s political and economic relationship with Russia.

Observers of the Trump phenomenon are recognizing (to nearly everyone’s surprise) that he seems to have garnered more Republican support in both Congress and Senate after his election.

What do the next few months of the Trump presidency have in store?

Most likely we will see the new administration reach some point of balance with the Washington power elite.

Mills offers the following conclusion, still a surprisingly relevant voice from the past:

“When it is said a ‘balance of power’ exists, it may be meant that no one interest can impose its will or its terms upon others; or that any one interest can create a stalemate; or that in the course of time, first one or then another interest gets itself realized, in a kind of symmetrical taking of turns; or that all policies are the result of compromises, that no one wins all they want to win, but each gets something.”

Let’s hope that both good policies and good compromises prevail.

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