The Prophet Of The Trump Era

Review of Martin Gurri's "The Revolt of the Public," the book that called both an uprising and a reaction

I entered Martin Gurri’s world on August 1, 2015. Though I hadn’t read The Revolt of the Public, at the time a little-known book by the former CIA analyst of open news sources, I hit a disorienting moment of a type he’d described in his opening chapter. There are times, he wrote, “when tomorrow no longer resembles yesterday… the compass cracks, by which we navigate existence. We are lost at sea.”

Gurri’s book is about how popular uprisings are triggered by collapses of faith in traditional hierarchies of power. I felt such a collapse that day in Waterloo, Iowa, covering the Republican presidential primary. The first debate was five days away and the man expected to occupy center stage, Donald Trump, held a seemingly inexplicable six-point lead.

Two weeks before, on July 18th, Trump lashed out against former Republican nominee John McCain. Even McCain’s critics considered his physical and mental scars from years as a Vietnam war prisoner to be unassailable proofs of patriotic gravitas, but the service-evading Trump was having none of it. “I don’t like losers,” he said, adding, “He’s only a war hero because he was captured.” It was the universal belief among colleagues in campaign journalism that this was an unsurvivable gaffe, a “Dean scream” moment. We expected him to apologize and wash out. Instead, he called McCain a “dummy” and kept a firm grasp on the lead.

A different candidate, New Jersey governor Chris Christie, was in Waterloo. Two years before, Time all but dubbed Christie the favorite for 2016 with a silhouette cover portrait, over the nastily shallow (but publicity-generating) double-entendre headline, THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM. Christie was every Washington consultant’s idea of a “crossover” superstar. I’d describe the concept in Rolling Stone as someone “mean enough for the right-wing, but also knows a gay person or once read a French novel.”

Christie parked himself in the middle of Waterloo’s annual “Irish fest” street fair, waiting for an Iowan to ask for a souvenir campaign handshake. He had his hand out and thumb stuck upwards, like an Iguanodon. Nobody came. Kids ran around him like he was a shrubbery. Two young women, giggling about something that clearly had nothing to do with him, walked his way, separated just long enough to avoid hitting him, then linked up again a few yards down. He eventually posed and even talked football with a few passersby, but the rubbernecking that usually attends the arrival of any “famous politician” was conspicuously absent.

Later, I sat in the park discussing Trump’s stubborn grasp on the lead with another reporter, an Iowan. “It’s amazing,” he said, shaking his head. “We’re beating the shit out of the guy, and he just won’t die.” He compared it to a nightmare, where you stab an attacking monster over and over, and nothing happens.

Elections in the pre-Trump era had been stale rituals. As recently as 2013, Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post called them “remarkably scripted and controlled.” Donors, party chiefs, and pundits could concoct contenders through sheer alchemy, mesmerizing the public with incantations like “electability.” But in Iowa that summer, one “electable” Republican candidate after another — from Jeb Bush to Scott Walker to Marco Rubio — flopped in public appearances, savaged as phonies on social media. Walker, the betting favorite among reporters, saw his campaign deflated when his online strategist, Liz Muir, started tweeting her real feelings about Iowa (including the classic, “#agsubsidies #ethanol #brainless”).

I’d spent weeks crisscrossing the state in search of even one piece of evidence that conventional wisdom still had predictive power in Republican politics, finding none. Now, here was Christie, reduced from being lionized in a Time cover story as a favorite, the “guy who loves his mother and gets it done,” to being nobody at all, a clown standing alone in a park. The realization that no one was in control of the campaign show anymore was jarring even to me, a critic of the old gatekeeping ritual.

In the introduction to The Revolt of the Public, Arnold Kling speaks of a different “Gurri moment”: when Dan Rather’s 2004 expose about George W. Bush’s military service was blown up by an amateur blogging under the name “Bucklehead.” In the past, a media titan like CBS could only be second-guessed by another major institutional power. In “Rathergate,” both the network and one of its most iconic celebrities were humiliated by a single individual, a preview of the coming disorientation.

The thesis of The Revolt of the Public is that traditional centralized powers are losing — have lost — authority, in large part because of the demystifying effect of the Internet. The information explosion undermined the elite monopoly on truth, exposing long-concealed flaws. Many analysts had noted the disruptive power of the Internet, but what made Gurri unique is that he also predicted with depressingly humorous accuracy how traditional hierarchies would respond to this challenge: in a delusional, ham-fisted, authoritarian manner that would only confirm the worst suspicions of the public, accelerating the inevitable throw-the-bums-out campaigns. This assessment of the motive for rising public intransigence was not exactly welcomed, but either way, as Kling wrote, “Martin Gurri saw it coming.”

Gurri also noted that public revolts would likely arrive unattached to coherent plans, pushing society into interminable cycles of zero-sum clashes between myopic authorities and their increasingly furious subjects. He called this a “paralysis of distrust,” where outsiders can “neutralize but not replace the center” and “networks can protest and overthrow, but never govern.” With a nod to Yeats, Gurri summed up: “The center cannot hold, and the border has no clue what to do about it.”

The Revolt of the Public became a cult classic in the Trump years for a variety of reasons, resonating with audiences spanning the political spectrum, from left to right to in between, everywhere except the traditional media consensus. It describes a basic problem of authority in the digital age and for that reason will continue to have relevance into the future. But its most striking feature is how completely it nailed the coming Trump era.

Published in 2014, The Revolt of the Public may be alone among the countless books about the Trump years to correctly peg its core destabilizing problem. While conventional pundits blame everyone from Russians to white nationalists to “fake news” for all that currently ails us, Gurri focused on the inherent problem of authority in the digital age. If you follow his thinking, the specific forms that recent revolts have taken — Brexit, Trump, etc. — have been far less important than what he describes as the “nihilist impulse” behind them, “the wish to smash down whatever stands.” In America, this impulse found Trump, not the other way around. It also could have (and has, in other countries) come from the left instead of the right. The relentless focus on Trump as the center of all evil on earth has mostly served to deflect from a broader narrative about distrust of institutional authority that far pre-dates Trump.

Through a series of case studies ranging from Egypt to Tunisia to Italy to the campaign of Barack Obama, Gurri lays out how snowballing disgust with the blundering arrogance of ruling parties was everywhere leading to upheavals. In the Italian general elections of February 2013, a new party called the “Five Star” movement won 25% of the vote. Inspired by a comedian-blogger named Beppe Grillo, named after the Jiminy Cricket character in Pinocchio, the party, Gurri wrote, “lacked a coherent program. The single unifying principle was a deep loathing of the Italian political establishment.”

Gurri saw such outbursts everywhere, even in the election of Barack Obama, since “the U.S. presidential elections of 2008 [were] an early instance of the public on the move against the established order.” The political scientists and pundits who puzzle over the fact that a great many people voted for both Obama and Trump, shouldn’t. Both men positioned themselves as outsiders, both were aided by a lack of a track record and a deliberately vague platform, making both effective vehicles for expressing popular discontent.

Even Obama’s much-criticized background as a “community organizer,” Gurri notes, was actually a plus with many voters, as it placed him in the realm of somebody protesting against something, allowing him to run, as Trump later would, as society’s “chief accuser.” That Obama became a quasi-reactionary steward of the forces he ran against is also addressed by Gurri, but the book stresses that he first rode into power amid a massive urge to negate the system.

Gurri predicted throughout that entrenched authorities would be unable to distinguish between legitimate criticism and illegitimate rebellion. Once they lost control “over the story told about their performance,” they’d denounce clearly factual evidence of public discontent as lies. Gurri would later talk about centralized authority being “institutionally unable to grasp that it has lost its monopoly over political reality.” This in turn would stimulate even more “distrust and loss of legitimacy.”

This is exactly what happened with Trump. His dominance in primary polls was simply disbelieved by politicians and elite press outlets, who were all — not some, but all — certain that he could never win, not even the nomination.

They believed as a matter of religious tenet that this belching phantasm of a candidate had to falter because, as the New York Times put it, “elite support” was “necessary” for victory. There was no such thing as a candidate winning the presidency without elite permission: it was a logical impossibility.

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For the TK interview with Gurri, click here.