Surrenders to the Iron Law of Oligarchy
- Many observers, especially among his fans,
suspect that the seemingly untamable Trump has
already been housebroken by the Washington,
“globalist” establishment. If true, the downfall
of Trump’s National Security Adviser Michael
Flynn less than a month into the new presidency
may have been a warning sign. And the turning
point would have been the removal of Steven K.
Bannon from the National Security Council on
then, the presidency’s early policies had a
recognizably populist-nationalist orientation.
During his administration’s first weeks, Trump’s
biggest supporters frequently tweeted the
hashtag #winning and exulted that he was
decisively doing exactly what, on the campaign
trail, he said he would do.
flurry of executive orders and other unilateral
actions bearing Bannon’s fingerprints, Trump
withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership,
declared a sweeping travel ban, instituted
harsher deportation policies, and more.
These policies seemed to fit Trump’s reputation
as the “tribune
of poor white people,”
as he has been called; above all, Trump’s base
calls for protectionism and immigration
restrictions. Trump seemed to be delivering on
the populist promise of his inauguration speech
(thought to be written by Bannon), in which he
“Today’s ceremony, however, has very special
meaning. Because today we are not merely
transferring power from one administration to
another, or from one party to another – but we
are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and
giving it back to you, the American People.
too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital
has reaped the rewards of government while the
people have borne the cost. Washington
flourished – but the people did not share in its
wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs
left, and the factories closed.
establishment protected itself, but not the
citizens of our country. Their victories have
not been your victories; their triumphs have not
been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in
our nation’s capital, there was little to
celebrate for struggling families all across our
all changes – starting right here, and right
now, because this moment is your moment: it
belongs to you.
belongs to everyone gathered here today and
everyone watching all across America. This is
your day. This is your celebration. And this,
the United States of America, is your country.
truly matters is not which party controls our
government, but whether our government is
controlled by the people. January 20th 2017,
will be remembered as the day the people became
the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten
men and women of our country will be forgotten
Everyone is listening to you
populist insurgency stormed social media and the
voting booths, American democracy, it seemed,
had been wrenched from the hands of the
Washington elite and restored to “the people,”
or at least a large, discontented subset of “the
people.” And this happened in spite of the
establishment, the mainstream media, Hollywood,
and “polite opinion” throwing everything it had
the past month, the administration’s axis seems
to have shifted. This shift was especially
abrupt in Trump’s Syria policy.
before Bannon’s fall from grace, US Ambassador
to the UN Nikki Haley declared that forcing
Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from power was
no longer top priority. This too was pursuant of
Trump’s populist promises.
nationalist fans are sick of the globalist wars
that America never seems to win. They are hardly
against war per se. They are perfectly fine with
bombing radical Islamists, even if it means mass
innocent casualties. But they have had enough of
expending American blood and treasure to
overthrow secular Arab dictators to the benefit
of Islamists; so, it seemed, was Trump. They
also saw no nationalist advantage in the
globalists’ renewed Cold War against Assad’s
ally Russian president Vladimir Putin, another
enemy of Islamists.
Syrian pivot also seemed to fulfill the hopes
and dreams of some antiwar libertarians who had
pragmatically supported Trump. For them,
acquiescing to the unwelcome planks of Trump’s
platform was a price worth paying for
overthrowing the establishment policies of
regime change in the Middle East and hostility
toward nuclear Russia. While populism wasn’t an
unalloyed friend of liberty, these libertarians
thought, at least it could be harnessed to sweep
away the war-engineering elites. And since war
is the health of the state, that could redirect
history’s momentum in favor of liberty.
then it all evaporated. Shortly after Bannon’s
ouster from the NSC, in response to an alleged,
unverified chemical attack on civilians, Trump
bombed one of Assad’s airbases (something even
globalist Obama had balked at doing when offered
the exact same excuse), and regime change in
Syria was top priority once again. The
establishment media swooned over Trump’s
newfound willingness to be “presidential.”
then, Trump has reneged on one campaign promise
after another. He dropped any principled repeal
of Obamacare. He threw cold water on
expectations for prompt fulfillment of his
signature promise: the construction of a Mexico
border wall. And he announced an imminent
withdrawal from NAFTA, only to walk that
announcement back the very next day.
make no claim as to whether any of these policy
reversals are good or bad. I only point out that
they run counter to the populist promises he had
given to his core constituents.
white people, “the forgotten men and women of
our country,” have been forgotten once again.
Their “tribune” seems to be turning out to be
just another agent of the power elite.
yanked his chain? Was there a palace coup? Was
the CIA involved? Has Trump been threatened? Or,
after constant obstruction, has he simply
concluded that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em?
Law of Oligarchy
Regardless of how it came about, it seems clear
that whatever prospect there was for a truly
populist Trump presidency is gone with the wind.
Was it inevitable that this would happen, one
way or another?
person who might have thought so was German
sociologist Robert Michels, who posited the
“iron law of oligarchy” in his 1911 work
Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the
Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy.
argued that political organizations, no matter
how democratically structured, rarely remain
truly populist, but inexorably succumb to
a political system based on popular sovereignty,
Michels pointed out that, “the sovereign masses
are altogether incapable of undertaking the most
necessary resolutions.” This is true for simple,
unavoidable technical reasons: “such a gigantic
number of persons belonging to a unitary
organization cannot do any practical work upon a
system of direct discussion.”
practical limitation necessitates delegation of
decision-making to officeholders. These
delegates may at first be considered servants of
the offices are filled by election. The
officials, executive organs of the general will,
play a merely subordinate part, are always
dependent upon the collectivity, and can be
deprived of their office at any moment. The mass
of the party is omnipotent.”
these delegates will inevitably become
specialists in the exercise and consolidation of
power, which they gradually wrest away from the
technical specialization that inevitably results
from all extensive organization renders
necessary what is called expert leadership.
Consequently the power of determination comes to
be considered one of the specific attributes of
leadership, and is gradually withdrawn from the
masses to be concentrated in the hands of the
leaders alone. Thus the leaders, who were at
first no more than the executive organs of the
collective will, soon emancipate themselves from
the mass and become independent of its control.
Organization implies the tendency to oligarchy.
In every organization, whether it be a political
party, a professional union, or any other
association of the kind, the aristocratic
tendency manifests itself very clearly.”
the Deep State
elected, populist “tribunes” like Trump are
ultimately no match for entrenched technocrats
nestled in permanent bureaucracy. Especially
invincible are technocrats who specialize in
political force and intrigue, i.e., the National
Security State (military, NSA, CIA, FBI, etc.).
And these elite functionaries don’t serve “the
people” or any large subpopulation. They only
serve their own careers, and by extension,
big-money special interest groups that make it
worth their while: especially big business and
foreign lobbies. The nexus of all these powers
is what is known as the Deep State.
Trump’s more sophisticated champions were aware
of these dynamics, but held out hope
nonetheless. They thought that Trump would be an
exception, because his large personal fortune
would grant him immunity from elite influence.
That factor did contribute to the independent,
untamable spirit of his campaign. But as I
during the Republican primaries:
“…while Trump might be able to seize the
presidency in spite of establishment opposition,
he will never be able to wield it without
matter how popular, rich, and bombastic, a
populist president simply cannot rule without
access to the levers of power. And that access
is under the unshakable control of the Deep
State. If Trump wants to play president, he has
to play ball.
these grounds, I advised his fans over a year
ago, “…don’t hold out hope that Trump will make
good on his isolationist rhetoric…” and
anticipated, “a complete rapprochement between
the populist rebel and the Republican
establishment.” I also warned that, far from
truly threatening the establishment and the
warfare state, Trump’s populist insurgency would
only invigorate them:
“Such phony establishment “deaths” at the hands
of “grassroots” outsiders followed by “rebirths”
(rebranding) are an excellent way for moribund
oligarchies to renew themselves without actually
meaningfully changing. Each “populist”
reincarnation of the power elite is draped with
a freshly-laundered mantle of popular
legitimacy, bestowing on it greater license to
do as it pleases. And nothing pleases the State
more than war.”
Politics, even populist politics, is the
oligarchy’s game. And the house always wins.
Dan Sanchez is Managing Editor of FEE.org. His
writings are collected at
This article was first published by
views expressed in this article are solely those
of the author and do not necessarily reflect the
opinions of Information Clearing House.