The central question Americans ought to consider on this Inauguration Day as The Old Order returns is whether what they are seeing in their country is happening because it is strong or because it is weak.
On its face, a capital city packed with a military presence — an occupation hailed by the media, as the swamp protects itself — may seem like a show of force, a reiteration of law and order above all else. As Chris Bedford writes this morning, all that needed to happen for Tom Cotton’s idea to become reality was for the seat of the powerful to be attacked instead of the neighborhoods in Kenosha. Had the federal government and the Department of Justice been willing to do what Donald Trump wanted them to do this summer, perhaps people would’ve learned earlier that rioting does not pay. But that’s not what they learned, and for good reason.
Wiser observers will understand that a capital city in need of such an overwhelming military presence — if only for the mental and emotional stability of the so-called leaders who inhabit it — also indicates a vast maw of weakness. The frail leadership of the United States is the great unremarked phenomenon of this moment. In this moment of crisis, we have what appears to be the most elderly class of political elites in the history of the nation. The octogenarian and septuagenarian set of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, Jim Clyburn, Chuck Schumer, Mitch McConnell, Dick Durbin are white knuckling it to the end of their careers — attempting to make their mark before leaving the stage and passing things on to people who share none of their memories of the time before.
This brittle leadership class in our politics inhabits the same America as a much younger leadership class of corporatist tech oligarch, unmoored from any deep understanding of what made the nation the envy of the world. They believe they have inherited the godhead of the universe, with the ability and the duty to reshape the globe as they see fit. Where the aged elected officials dither, they have the ability to act to make the world a better place. They have, and they will. And they will do it by controlling to the greatest degree possible what people see, what they know, how they think, and ultimately, how they vote.
One class is frail, old, and out of touch in a rapidly changing world. The other is out of touch, too — lacking any of the humility necessary for leadership — but is absolutely convinced of its abiding power and wisdom. After all, if you can come up with so many products consumers want, wouldn’t it stand to reason they will also enjoy your total control over their lives?
The crumbling facade of America’s elites has been a bipartisan problem for two decades. Four years ago, Donald Trump thrived on being the only politician to say this explicitly, even to the extent of his inauguration speech and much to the disgust of the ruling class. But the reaction to this pandemic has only degraded trust in this class further. It is unlikely to reverse course upon the ascendancy of its first Silent Generation president, particularly when his policies will serve to reinforce the belief that our political leadership is not an advocate for the people, but a puppet on the strings of those who run the country.
This is what many people will think. And they will be right.
In such a moment, we should in no way expect a return to a sedate class of political leadership, but instead a continued rise in the appeal of new populist leaders in our politics and culture who have the ability to stand and say: There are no strings on me.