My friend Thingy objected to applying the word “charisma” to Trump, saying:

“I want to use another word for him other than charisma, because it doesn’t seem the right one for me. I always thought charisma was a positive trait, someone people turn to and smile.”

She’s not alone.  Several people to whom I’ve told my theory disagree that Trump has charisma.

So, first, I should define what I mean by “charisma”. I’m using Max Weber’s definition:

“[A] certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader […] How the quality in question would be ultimately judged from an ethical, aesthetic, or other such point of view is naturally indifferent for the purpose of definition.”

Interestingly, Weber defined charisma as something that originated more with the followers rather than the leader. As the Wikipedia article puts it:

“In contrast to the current popular use of the term charismatic leader, Weber saw charismatic authority not so much as character traits of the charismatic leader but as a relationship between the leader and his followers. The validity of charism is founded on its “recognition” by the leader’s followers.”

That’s my first reason for arguing that Trump has charisma: he’s able to inspire devotion from his followers independent of any specific thing he says or does, but simply by being him.

Now it’s true that Trump’s appeal is definitely not even close to universal.  Many people find the mere sight of him repulsive.  That argues against the idea that he has charisma. At the very least, shouldn’t people not be repulsed by him if he’s so charismatic?

I’ll admit: part of the reason I say he’s charismatic is that otherwise, it’s hard to see what enabled him to beat not only Clinton, but also all the other Republican primary contenders.

His policies were (and are) vague and change depending on the day, he had no political experience, he had a bad temper, and he had scandals like the Trump University case hanging over him.  And all that was before the Access Hollywood tape.

He wasn’t even the most extreme conservative in the primary–that was Senator Ted Cruz. So it’s not even possible to argue that his ideological purity was what got him through.

You might argue, as Thingy does, that Trump’s appeal to racist and ethno-nationalist elements was what propelled him to victory, rather than charisma.

This is very plausible. After all, we know that racist and nationalist groups did endorse Trump. So maybe that was the key to his success.

My counter-argument is that Trump isn’t the first politician to appeal to such sentiments. In the 1990s, Patrick J. Buchanan famously ran on a nationalist platform that attracted the support of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other such groups. Buchanan had a strong-ish primary showing, but never got close to the Republican nomination; let alone the Presidency.

(Ironic historical trivia note: Buchanan ran for and ultimately got the nomination of the Reform Party in 2000. During the Reform party primary, Buchanan was labelled a “Hitler lover” by one of his rival Reform party candidates…. Donald Trump.)

Buchanan was a veteran political operative who had previously worked for Richard Nixon.  And his nationalist message in the 1990s was very similar to Trump’s message in 2016. The major differences were that Buchanan’s policies were more detailed, and his speeches were much better-written than Trump’s.

Yet Buchanan never had the kind of electoral success that Trump did. Why not?

One possible explanation is luck.  Maybe Buchanan had stronger primary opponents; or maybe the increase in sheer number of primary opponents worked in Trump’s favor.

Let’s say that hypothesis is correct and that Trump just got lucky and drew a better hand than Buchanan did in the primaries.  It was still a one-on-one contest in the general election.

“Well, that’s easy to explain,” you say. “Trump lost the popular vote! He only won the election due to a convoluted set of rules about apportionment of Congressional seats being equal to the number of Electors. He won on a technicality.”

True, but even so, it’s kind of amazing that he could even get close enough to be able to win the Electoral College.  This is why I resort the charisma theory–because it’s the only thing that explains how he was able to win both the general election and the primaries. Plus, charisma has a strong historical track record that makes it very compelling as an explanation for an election outcome.

All that said, there are other terms that you could use besides “charisma”. “Showmanship” is one that some people have suggested to me.  “The gift of the Blarney”, as they say in The Music Man, is what I always think of.

Actually, The Music Man isn’t a bad analogue for Trump.  It’s about a con man who gets money by convincing people the youth are being corrupted, and they need to pay him to organize a band to keep them from going bad.

The concept of someone whipping people into a frenzy and profiting off of it is nothing new–this being perhaps the most remarkable example:

This is the thing about Trump (Donald, I mean; not the guy on Trackdown.): He so clearly fits this specific stock-character mold that I think at some level, it became part of his appeal.  People like to see a larger-than-life character like that, even when they sort of know he’s lying to them.

Trump may have started out as a property developer, but his real skill lies in entertainment and promotion.  He learned some things from his time as a TV star, and he knows how to put on an entertaining show for his audiences.

Call it charisma, call it showmanship–call it a cult of personality.  Ultimately, Trump’s one notable talent is his ability to make the crowd look at him.

I have yet to read the book Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by  Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.  It sounds promising, though–full of interviews from campaign insiders giving first-hand accounts of what went wrong.

But the common thread coming out of reviews of the book, interviews with the authors like this one, and of Clinton campaign autopsies generally, is really ringing false to me. Or, maybe not exactly false, but at least woefully incomplete.

There are two main theories that have emerged as explanations for why Clinton lost. They are:

  1. The controversy surrounding her email server
  2. Her inability to connect with people

Both of these are valid explanations.  But I have not seen anyone analyze how these two things are related; and moreover, why the mainstream political press did not realize it until after the election.

This requires further investigation.  We will start by tackling point 2 first, since it is related to my favorite subject: the importance of charisma.

I firmly believe in the theory that charisma wins elections.  And Hillary Clinton has been my go-to example of someone who does not have charisma for years now. (Note: lack of charisma is often described as “could not connect” or “was not likeable”.)

So, to that extent, I agree that Clinton lost because the voters could not connect with her the way they could with a charismatic billionaire television star who lives in a golden tower.

The problem is, everyone has known for years that Clinton doesn’t have charisma.  It is not like this is some big revelation. This doesn’t mean the press is wrong to say that is the reason she lost… it is just that until election night, the press was right there with her, convinced she would win.

When the conventional wisdom was that Clinton would win, the mainstream political press dismissed concerns about her likeability.  When Clinton suddenly lost, they picked up on this as the obvious explanation for why she did.

And maybe it is.  But if that is the case, why didn’t the press seize on it sooner?  This isn’t the first time we ever had an election–they should have some idea of what is likely to happen based on past elections.  The charisma theory holds up pretty well over the past 50+ years of Presidential elections, so you would think there would have been more talk about it beforehand.

Part of it is the old “hindsight is 2020” problem.  And another part of it is groupthink: Once a few experts started saying Clinton would win, a lot of other people assumed the experts would know, and started following them. (I myself was guilty of this–I ignored Trump’s obvious charisma advantage because so many of the major forecasters were favoring Clinton.)

There’s an even bigger problem with political journalism here, but I want to wait to examine that.  For now, we can just say that it seems probable that Clinton could not connect with voters in 2016, since that had long been a problem for her.

Now to address the theory that it was not Clinton’s anti-charisma that cost her, but rather her email server–or more specifically, the FBI’s investigation of her email server. Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight has some convincing data indicating that it was FBI director Comey’s letter to Congress that swung the election to Trump.

Intuition seems to favor the “lack of charisma/could not connect” explanation; the hard data indicates that Comey’s letter was decisive.

Here is the significant thing, though: both explanations can be correct.

In truth, the letter was pretty mild.  It cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton and enabled Trump to ramp up the number of sinister insinuations he made about her, but that’s about it.  Compared with the Access Hollywood tape which featured Trump literally admitting to a crime, it was small potatoes.

Yet the press hyped the Comey letter as though it were comparable. Why?

The answer is… charisma.  Remember, charisma is the ability to make people want to like you, irrespective of anything you do.

Trump has charisma.  That is why so many voters wanted to like him, and were willing to overlook so much to vote for him.

In contrast, Clinton does not have charisma and as a result many voters were glad to seize on any excuse to vote against her, even a trumped-up (pun not intended) one.

If the email thing had happened to Obama, he could have weathered it.  It probably would not have even been front-page news.

By the same token, if it had not happened to Clinton, there would have been some other heavily-hyped scandal the press would have touted.  Scandals make for good stories, and plenty of people wanted to read about the alleged crimes of Hillary Clinton. People were looking for an excuse to dislike Clinton.

Another key factor to remember is that charisma works on the press, too.  They try to be neutral, but they are just human beings–their personal feelings about a candidate are going to affect their coverage. So,if they are covering somebody who is uncharismatic, they are going to include that in their narrative, even if only subconsciously.

This is leading me to that bigger problem that I mentioned earlier, and it has to do with how the press covers everything.  The problem is that they need to have a simple answer for everything. They cannot say, “we do not understand what happened”.  They have to come up with some explanation, and it has to be something simple that they can explain quickly.

This does not just apply in politics, but to pretty much all mainstream press analysis of anything.  I remember, as my liberal friends and I watched the election results in mounting horror, I kept thinking inexplicably about Super Bowl XXV.

If you are unfamiliar with football history, it went like this: the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and their record-setting offense lost by a single point to the New York Giants and their strong defense.  On the last play of the game, the Bills missed a field goal that would have given them the victory.

The “narrative” coming out of that game was that the Giants’ defense stifled the mighty Bills offense. (Then-Giants defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s game plan is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame) But if the Bills had made the field goal, it would have been different–even though the Giants defensive performance would have been exactly the same.

The perception of both the Giants’ defense and the Bills’ offense was decided by the performance of neither unit, but by the Bills’ kicking game.

This does not mean that defense does not win championships, any more than the fact that Clinton winning the popular vote means charisma does not win elections.  We have enough examples of both throughout history that it is fair to say it constitutes a pattern.

But the sporting press largely did not acknowledge that prior to the game, just as the political press didn’t acknowledge charisma’s strong track record prior to the election.

In each case, it took a specific event (a missed field goal/the Comey letter) before the press were able to recognize the larger pattern.  (Defense wins championships/charisma wins elections.)

In other words, if a Clinton scandal did not exist, the press would have found it necessary to invent one.

The press does not analyze things as closely as they want you to think they do.  They generally report on what happened and then seize on anything that seems convenient to explain why it happened.

(Another area where this is especially transparent is business and financial journalism.  Most journalists have no idea what made the markets go up or down, unless there’s some major world-shattering event that makes it obvious. Most of the time they just make some guess that investors are optimistic or pessimistic based on same random bit of data that seems plausible.)

In general, the press wants their viewers to think they know what is going on.  This makes sense, because the purpose of the press is to convey information.  However, if you do not have all the information readily available, it is hard to know what is going on. This leaves journalists with two options: They can either admit they do not know what is going on, or they can spin some narrative that sounds plausible.

Option 1 is unattractive for a couple of reasons.  First, it is always hard to admit you don’t know something people expect you to know.  And second, suppose some rival press outfit does know what is going on.  Then they might gain an edge in credibility and thus increase their audience.

Option 2 looks a lot better.  If you do that, people come away thinking they learned something.

To most people, Option 2 sounds a lot like lying.  But it’s not the same thing–most journalists aren’t deliberately making up lies; they’re just saying stuff that seems like it’s probably true.  And most of the time, it is true.  If it looks like a duck, and acts like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.

But sometimes it is not a duck.  Sometimes, it is a black swan. And when that happens, the press can look pretty stupid.

Trump and his campaign were so weird that it distracted the press from the fundamentals of politics.  Trump’s charisma advantage got overlooked or minimized because everything else about him was in total opposition to the normal laws of politics.

This is the ultimate problem with the political press: once a narrative gets established they tend to disregard all information that contradicts that narrative, unless it becomes impossible.

But even once a narrative has been conclusively disproved, the press still has a hard time putting the pieces together and explaining why the narrative was wrong. Notice how, in the interview linked at the top of this post, Allen keeps coming back to the “email scandal” as the deciding factor. He is not completely wrong, since the emails led to the FBI investigation, but he has trouble putting it all in context.

The correct interpretation is that Clinton lost because her lack of charisma made many voters predisposed to dislike her, and the sensational coverage of the allegations about her email server–and the FBI’s investigation into it–turned enough swing voters against her.

This is a fairly straightforward explanation: Clinton’s lack of charisma was an ongoing problem throughout her career, and the email investigation was the catalyst that ignited the anti-Clinton sentiment that was created by her lack of charisma.

I think many journalists are reluctant to put it in these terms however, since according to this interpretation, they were accessories to the loss because of how they covered the email investigation.

On CNN this morning they were talking about the fact that Trump has been golfing far more than previous Presidents.  What makes this especially ironic is that before he ran for office, he tweeted all sorts of insults at then-President Obama for how much time he spent golfing. And before that, Democrats criticized George W. Bush for this:

(Bush quit golfing shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003.)

As I’ve discussed in the past, I don’t actually mind that Presidents (or other executives) play golf.  Their jobs mostly involve giving people orders, and as long as they have working communications equipment, that can be done from a golf course.

The problem with Trump’s golfing is that he plays at courses he owns, which means his company charges his government support staff for the use of equipment and facilities while they are there to provide security and other support to Trump.

This is a massive conflict of interest, but seemingly no one in government can be bothered to make Trump stop doing it and go play on a course he doesn’t own instead.  The press should focus more on that and less on the raw amount of time that Trump spends golfing.

What I expected to happen in the 2016 election was that Clinton would win, but Trump would do better than most people expected, and it would scare the political establishment into making some concessions to the nationalist movement that had propelled Trump to the nomination.

My assumption was that it would be similar to what happened in the 1990s when Ross Perot ran a highly successful campaign based on reducing the budget deficit.  He didn’t win, but his support was sufficient to convince both parties they needed to balance the budget. (At least for a while.)

I figured that the Republicans and Democrats would realize they had to do something to appease the fury Trump had awakened.

Looking back, I think this might have been a better outcome for the nationalist faction than the Trump victory has been.

Via the Associated Press:

“Over the past 48 hours, the outsider politician who pledged to upend Washington has:

— Abandoned his vow to label China a currency manipulator.

— Rethought his hands-off assessment of the Syrian conflict — and ordered a missile attack.

— Turned his warm approach toward Vladimir Putin decidedly chilly and declared U.S.-Russia relations “may be at an all-time low.”

— Decided NATO isn’t actually obsolete, as he had claimed.

— Realized the U.S. Export-Import Bank is worth keeping around.”

In the aftermath of Bannon’s fall from… well, not “grace” exactly, but you know what I mean–Trump has abandoned many of the nationalist ideas he campaigned on.

I’ve often thought that even if I supported nationalist policies, Trump is one of the last people I would want advancing the cause. As I wrote back in October:

Trump himself, the de facto nationalist candidate, has even less interest in the merits of globalism vs. nationalism.  His decision to promote nationalist policies is purely pragmatic.  He adopted it when he discovered it would enable him to win the Republican nomination. I think that the only reason he won’t abandon it now is because, for a host of reasons, only ardent nationalists will support him at this point. If he drops nationalism, he is left with nothing.

Well, things have changed since then.  Now, instead of nothing, Trump’s potential reward for abandoning nationalism is the adulation of the Washington establishment, the political press, and most of the government.

Also, it means he gets to put the most powerful military on earth to work destroying stuff on his command.

Given this, combined with everything we know about Trump’s personality, it’s easy to see why Trump now refuses to, as the expression goes, “dance with the one that brought him”.

It’s not a coincidence that Bannon got removed from the NSC and two days later, Trump orders missile strikes that Bannon and his “alt-right”/”America First” crowd oppose.

My question is: did Trump simply become outraged because he saw the pictures coming out of Syria, and decided he didn’t care what Bannon said?  Or is this the result of Trump’s long-term dissatisfaction at the series of apparent failures spearheaded by Bannon?

Or is it that Trump is now listening more to his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner than he is to Bannon? (Possibly as a result of said Bannon-led failures?)

There are a number of different explanations, all of which suggest that Trump is pretty impulsive and won’t hesitate to radically change his mind in short order.

But of course, that goes both ways.  If Bannon can get thrown in the doghouse this easily, he can get pulled back out just as quickly. And that’s the main takeaway for me: Trump acts quickly–some would say decisively, others would say recklessly.  Even his apparent friendly relations with Russia couldn’t quell his desire to take action in Syria. It must have really been important to him, because it meant reversing one of his core campaign positions, and losing a lot of his most zealous supporters.

I remember an episode of The McLaughlin Group from years ago, in which John McLaughlin asked Pat Buchanan “Who won the week?”  Buchanan hesitated, and McLaughlin pressed him harder: “Come on, Pat! Someone’s got to win the week!”

Buchanan finally answered that nobody had won the week–“It was a draw,” he explained. McLaughlin let it go after that, though he didn’t seem happy about it.

McLaughlin was a pioneer in this entertaining-but-superficial style of political reporting. But as is so often the case, those who followed the trail have mimicked all of his flaws while picking up none of his entertaining virtues.

And so the political press covers everything with a fast-paced and myopic focus on which groups happen to be winning or losing at the moment.  In general, the extent of one side’s win or loss is over-hyped, giving an impression of a more permanent victory or defeat than is warranted.

For instance, remember a month ago when President Trump was winning in the headlines because the press liked his address to Congress? That seems like ancient history now, because all the headlines are about the defeat Trump suffered when his health care bill couldn’t pass the House.

It’s sort of like coverage of a sporting event, except that unlike sports analysts, political pundits tend to assume that whichever team happens to be winning at the moment will continue to do so forever, even if the lead is extremely small.

The real problem with this is not just that leads to absurdly hyperbolic analysis, or even “we have always been at war with Eastasia“-style retconning in the way journalists re-phrase narratives to make them appear consistent.

No, the real problem is that the serious stories in politics are slow-moving and gradual phenomena, and are imperceptible over the course of a week or even a year.  You have to be able to see the big picture, not just which party is winning or losing on a given day, in order to understand them.

I was right there with you, watching that disaster unfold on the Rachel Maddow show last night. Not to brag, but I had a sneaking suspicion it wasn’t going to live up to the hype even before the show started:

In general, if something is truly-earth shattering news, they will tell you about it right away, not tease it out with a countdown clock. That’s why election night coverage isn’t: “You’ll be shocked when you see who won the Presidency! Details at 11.”

David Cay Johnston, the journalist who says he received the tax forms in the mail, allowed that it was possible that Trump himself might have leaked them. However, the fact that Trump has tweeted angrily about it afterwards has led people to think that he probably didn’t leak them after all:

People, in my opinion, are way too gullible.  The wording of Trump’s tweet is highly suspicious. For one thing, he phrases it in the form of a question–he doesn’t say it didn’t happen; he just asks if people believe it.

Now, I admit: I myself am a bit skeptical of Johnston’s story. He says he got a package in the mail that contained these tax returns.  Apparently, he doesn’t know who sent it to him or how they obtained it.  Which would raise questions as to its veracity, except that the White House almost immediately verified it last night!

Either Johnston is an idiot who didn’t think it was worth looking into why he got the President’s tax returns in the mail–very unlikely, since he’s a Pulitzer-winning journalist–or he’s lying to protect a source.

So, Trump (a) knew immediately that it really was his 2005 1040 form and (b) questioned Johnston’s story as to how he got it. This strongly suggests that Trump knows perfectly well how Johnston got it–which in turn suggests that some agent acting on orders from Trump gave it to him.

As Johnston himself admitted, the tax forms are actually favorable to Trump. They prove he did pay taxes for at least that one year, and show little evidence of nefarious dealings.

The end result is that Rachel Maddow got humiliated. (I’m sorry; I usually like Maddow’s work a lot, but she really screwed up here.) More importantly, though, Trump can now use this episode as an excuse to brush off all further questions about his taxes. Journalists won’t ask about it because they don’t want to screw up like Maddow did.

And what’s worse is that if anyone does somehow get hold of more of his taxes, people will be less inclined to pay attention to it. “It’s another publicity stunt,” they’ll say.

It’s true: I’ve always found the whole Trump-won’t-release-his-taxes story to be a bit overhyped. Yes, it was bad and a violation of historical precedent that he didn’t release them. But, on the list of “things that are bad and violate historical precedent” that Trump has done, it’s far from the worst.

And then there’s fact that there can’t be anything that damning in them.  They are taxes. They go to the Federal government. Logically, Trump is not going to put down anything illegal that he might be doing in his taxes.

As a thought experiment, let’s say the absolute worst conspiracy theories about Trump are true, and he’s actually colluding with the Russian government.  He’s not going to put that in his taxes.  There is no box that asks “Are you a spy for Russia?” on tax forms.

Furthermore, any circumstantial evidence that would suggest illegal activity by Trump, he would also not put in his taxes. If someone is already willing to commit crimes, he’s not going to hesitate to commit tax fraud to cover them up.

I’m not saying Trump has done any of this, but even if he has, there won’t be hard evidence of it in his taxes. At best, there might be circumstantial evidence, which Trump can dismiss with a simple “FAKE NEWS. Sad!” tweet.

  • Purely as a piece of rhetoric, I liked his Inaugural Address more.  For one thing, it was shorter. In general, the fewer words you use to make your point, the better.
  • That said, the pundit class that this speech was clearly designed to impress obviously prefers long speeches that cover too many topics to have any punch to them.
  • I suspect Bannon wrote most of it.  It sounds like him.
  • I have never liked the “Free Trade / Fair Trade” line, which Democrats have often used in the past and which Trump used here. “Fair Trade” in this context is a meaningless phrase that can be used to justify virtually any tariff or other protectionist measure, whether warranted or not.
  • Of course, I’m sure it will play great with the “Reagan Democrats” (or now, I guess, “Trump Democrats”) who are the linchpin of his coalition.
  • It was woefully short on specifics, but no one expects that out of these anymore.  They are just glorified performances of political theater, and have been as long as I can remember. (And Trump excels at theater.)
  • I am not sure why the Press is so surprised by the style of the speech.  I guess they were expecting him to do his usual rambling and improvisational monologue.  I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting more or less what we got.
  • Moreover, this is not the first time Trump has done something like this. He gave “normal” speeches both at the convention and in his victory speech on election night. Trump has never had an issue acting like a normal politician for brief periods of time–it’s just that he’s never sustained it. And there’s mounting evidence to suggest he doesn’t need to.

electoralcollege2016-svg

 

There is no lack of explanations for what happened in 2016.  All the major groups have their version of it.  The centrist-Democrat political establishment one goes something like this:

“The Democrats failed to understand the economic anxiety voters in the Midwestern states felt as a result of globalization.  Donald Trump tapped in to these fears and won by turning out the midwestern white vote.”

That seems pretty reasonable.  But the more liberal, socialist-leaning elements of the Democratic party have a slightly different explanation:

“The people in the midwest were turned off by the flawed ‘establishment’ candidate Hillary Clinton, who they viewed as untrustworthy and unlikely to bring economic reforms that they wanted.  This depressed voter turnout, allowing Trump to capitalize on latent racism.”

This is pretty much the same thing, only it puts a little more blame on the Democrats and offers an implied prescription for the direction of the Party.

The Republicans, of course, have their own view as well.  It can be summarized as follows:

“The working men and women rose up to vote out the politically correct big government agenda of the Democrats, and supported a successful businessman who will put their interests first and bring back jobs and opportunity, and who is not afraid to say what he thinks.”

All of these explanations are fairly similar.  In an increasingly rare event in politics, all sides are in agreement on the basic facts; that Trump won, that Clinton lost, and that the Midwestern states were the reason why. They are all describing the same event, and so arrive at a set of explanations that satisfactorily summarize the same results in a way that suits their respective worldviews.

Each explanation seems plausible. Which one to use depends on the target audience, but any one of them could work in a typical piece of political analysis.

But chances are, you don’t want typical political analysis.  If you did, you would be reading CNN or Fox News or Huffington Post or Breitbart or some other site.  You’re here because you want more than a summary. You want to understand 2016 in a larger historical context, and to know about the economic, cultural and philosophical forces underpinning the shocking electoral result.

In other words, you want to know what really happened.

(more…)

star_wars_phantom_menace_posterBefore we begin, let me first note that Cass Sunstein has written a very good article on this subject already, which you might want to check out before reading this post. Sunstein touches on a number of the same points as I do, and his article definitely influenced mine.  (Although, to be quite clear, I believed most of this before I ever read Sunstein.)

George Lucas repeatedly said one of the themes he wanted to explore in the prequels was how Republics become Dictatorships.  He drew parallels with the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Augustus, the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte to Emperor of France, and the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazi Germany.

Each of these historical episodes resembles the others, in that each involves the demise of a Republic and the concentration of State power in one individual. In the French and German cases, these republics had existed for only a short time, before which the government had been aristocratic. The Roman Republic, on the other hand, had existed for centuries.

In each case, power was given over to one person in response to some crisis.  The existing governmental structure that allowed for multiple people to have input was deemed inadequate to the task of responding to the problem.

And of course, in each case, the person chosen to wield the power had used clever, cunning and morally dubious means to reach the position he was in.

The Star Wars prequels depict this same pattern playing out in a cosmic fantasy setting.  In this respect, they are a bit like George Orwell’s Animal Farm–a political allegory masked in a fairy-tale setting.

In Episode I, the political thread of the story establishes that the Galactic Republic is unable to cope with an illegal blockade imposed by the Trade Federation on the planet Naboo. When Queen Amidala goes to Coruscant for help, Senator Palpatine tells her:

“The Republic is not what it once was. The Senate is full of greedy, squabbling delegates. There is no interest in the common good. There is no civility, only politics.”

This is one point that many people don’t appreciate about the prequels: the Republic really is weak. They are not capable of protecting their own citizens’ interests.  In this respect, the reasons for Palpatine’s rise are more understandable–the current government really was incapable of fulfilling its purpose.

Of course, Palpatine is the Augustus/Napoleon/Hitler figure in Lucas’s story, and so it’s also possible that (a) he is exaggerating the Republic’s weakness for his own gain and (b) the weakness is a result of some internal sabotage with which he himself is connected. Since he, as his alter-ego Darth Sidious, is originally responsible for the Federation blockade, it’s suggested that he might also be responsible for other problems in the Senate.

amidala
Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid)

Nevertheless, the following Senate scene makes it clear that the current government can’t solve Amidala’s problem, and so she follows Palpatine’s suggestion to call for a vote of no confidence to remove the Chancellor.

Palpatine is then able to assume the rank of Chancellor. In Episode II, Palpatine is able to manipulate Jar Jar Binks into voting him emergency powers for a coming war. Of course, Palpatine himself (as Sidious) has again played both sides and created the entire situation that makes war necessary.

Finally, in Episode III, the war has dragged on and allowed Palpatine to remain in office and accrue more power.  The Jedi, finally becoming aware of his treachery, attempt to take action to preserve the institutions of the Republic, but fail. Palpatine then uses this moment of crisis to turn popular sentiment against the Jedi and establish the Galactic Empire, taking advantage of the now extremely militarized society he has created.

There’s a very ironic moment in the scene where Mace Windu is fighting Palpatine. Windu has him at sword point when Anakin, having been swayed to Palpatine’s side, arrives and says, “he must stand trial”.

This causes Windu to hesitate, because he knows Anakin is right.  Windu is there to save the Republic and its legal order, but cannot do so without himself violating the rule of law.  Paradoxically, Windu cannot fulfill his duty to the Republic without violating it.

Of course, Palpatine and Anakin take advantage of Windu’s momentary hesitation to kill him.

This speaks to another point that is often overlooked: the collapse of the Jedi Order is interwoven with that of the Republic.  Like the Republic, the story suggests there is rot at the core of the whole institution–witness how they violate their own traditions by training Anakin when he is “too old”, or Obi-Wan’s tolerance of Anakin’s marriage to Padmé, despite the Jedi Code demanding celibacy.

The underlying theme of the prequels is not merely that the Republic fell as a result of evil people like Palpatine, but also because of mistakes or corruption on the part of well-meaning people attempting to protect it.  Padmé, Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Mace Windu–all make errors or lapses in judgment that contribute to the collapse.

Indeed, perhaps the most significant error all of them make is continuing to tolerate Anakin’s consistent rule-breaking.  Neither his wife nor the Jedi ever punish Anakin for his repeated wrongdoing.  Their misplaced forgiveness simply encourages Anakin to keep getting away with larger and larger crimes.

As a depiction of the process by which Republics become Dictatorships, the prequels are fairly successful: cunning and ambitious people take advantage of weak and crumbling institutions and take advantage or crises to seize power.

What significance does this have for the present-day United States? It is commonplace to compare the rise of Donald Trump to that of other dictators, and his language and methods are unmistakably authoritarian.

More significant even than Trump himself is the decline of U.S. institutions. I have written before about the century-long weakening of the U.S. Congress vs. the Executive branch. Beyond that, there is a general loss of faith in the Press and in Religious tradition.

Just as Palpatine’s plan would not have worked if he had not been able to take advantage of the crumbling Old Republic, the United States would not be vulnerable to authoritarianism if its institutions remained strong.

Why, then, don’t other people (besides me and Sunstein) look to the prequels as a relevant tale that captures the current zeitgeist?

I think to an extent it is because as works of drama, they are poor–Episode II in particular, which depicted the crucial political turning point, is something of a mess in regards to dramatic essentials like character and plot. While I’ve previously argued that Episode I is the best of all six original Star Wars films, even its compelling political plot was bogged down by pointless comic relief and a weak first act.

Another problem is that, as interesting as the political allegory is, it is scarcely related to the lighthearted, swashbuckling atmosphere of the first three films, Episodes IV, V and VI. The more complex motifs of the prequel trilogy flummoxed audiences.  (To extend the earlier analogy: it is as if one tried to market Animal Farm as a prequel to Charlotte’s Web.)

Finally, the spirit of the first three films–and the more recent, Disney-made knock-off–is much more optimistic and reassuring.  The light side, these films say, will ultimately triumph over the dark, and all will end happily.500x680_movie10postersstar_wars_episode_i_the_phantom_menace-us_teaser

The tone of the prequels, in contrast, is much grimmer.  Not only is Evil triumphant at the end of the trilogy, but there is a suggestion that the forces of Good enabled it, and by their own failings, rendered it possible. It’s a troubling notion–that perhaps goodness itself contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

The reason for the unpopularity of the prequels may be linked to more than their flaws as pieces of narrative fiction–it may lie in their disturbing portrayal of human nature itself, and in our reactions to our own vulnerabilities.

I might even paraphrase another writer of dramatic works on politics and human nature, and say, “the fault is not in our Star Wars, but in ourselves.”