Friday, March 12, 2021

The Revolt Of The Public: Trouble Seeing Things That Erupt From Below

taibbi  |  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.