On the day of the huge worldwide women’s protests against Trump, the new US president accused the media of underplaying the numbers at his inauguration. There’s a point where ruling-class self-confidence has the potential to become a liability, and this doesn’t bode well for Trump’s future.
Donald Trump and his team are angry at media reports of the numbers who attended the inauguration. Trump yesterday visited the CIA – an agency he has compared with the state in Nazi Germany – to declare his support. Standing in front of a monument dedicated “in honour of those members of the Central Intelligence Agency who gave their lives in the service of their country” he spoke at length about himself. The media had said the numbers in the National Mall were small: in fact, he claimed, there were a million, or a million and a half people. God had intervened, Trump continued, to stop the rain which had begun to fall at the start of the speech.
This extraordinary egotism is a personal character flaw, of course, but not just that. Trump has been wealthy all his life, and privilege produces a certain confidence, which the institutions of our society constantly reinforce. I saw a vivid example of this at the age of nineteen when, as the product of a northern grammar school, I got into Cambridge University. At the start of our first term, all of us new students assembled in the wood-panelled Old Library and were addressed by the Senior Tutor, who advised us to use our time at Cambridge well, because after we left we would be running the country. For many of the people around me this was just the most recent of many times when they had been told that they were interesting and important. That isn’t most people’s experience of the education system.
This self-confidence is generally useful to people who run things. Bankers carried on banking after the financial crash of 2008, and economics academics continued teaching ideas which failed to predict the crash before it happened or explain it afterwards. Tristram Hunt, finding that life as a Labour MP might not in fact lead to the pleasant and easy exercise of power he had anticipated, was not put off applying to be Director of the V&A by the thought that he had never run a museum before.
Perhaps the best example in recent times of the relaxed confidence of the ruling class was the prime ministership of David Cameron. A comparison with Thatcher is instructive. Thatcher grew up outside the ruling class. Her psychology as much as her politics were marked by that – combative, always including an element of resentment for those who had always had it easy. Her approach was based on the recognition that there was a class struggle taking place and that many people opposed her rule. One of her first acts on becoming Prime Minister was to give the police – who gave crucial support to her government, for example during the miners’ strike – a 45 percent pay rise. Cameron’s government, assuming that its rule was assured enough not to need police support, imposed spending cuts on the cops, and Theresa May laid into them at the Police Federation conference.
Yet it was Cameron’s self-confidence which led to his downfall. The bland assumption that nothing can go seriously wrong is often of great help to rulers. But in a time of instability, it can blow up in their faces, as it did with Cameron’s assumption that he would win the EU referendum. The gap between self-confidence and reality becomes especially clear during the heightened instability of revolutions. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky records that as huge protests broke out in Petrograd, Tsar Nicholas II fled hundreds of kilometres to the town of Moghilev. Here the court chronicler, one General Dubensky, noted in his diary that “A quiet life begins here. Everything will remain as before.” Nicholas’s diary shows us someone quite unable to respond adequately to events on a historic scale, even after he had been forced to abdicate and the Bolsheviks had taken power: on 23 November, Nicholas wrote “Another warm day – it went to zero. During the day I sawed wood.” Events in Russia were echoed the next year in Germany, where military defeats led to widespread calls for the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in the autumn of 1918. Having been forced to flee the capital, Wilhelm proposed that he should march back into Berlin at the head of “his army” – at which the military had to explain to him that the army would no longer obey his orders. Within weeks, Germany was a republic, and Wilhelm an exile for the rest of his life in Holland.
What, then, are we to make of Trump’s monomaniacal self-belief, very different from Cameron’s glib confidence but still the product of a lifetime of privilege? First, it doesn’t accord with the situation he faces within the US. In order to rule, he must bring together a coalition of business and political interests, including the Republican leadership. Trump’s attacks on the political class in his inauguration speech suggest this simply isn’t part of his agenda. Second, such bluster doesn’t fit the position the US now occupies in the world. Back in the 1950s, America accounted for over 26 percent of world GDP – by 2008 that proportion had fallen to below 19 percent, with China a close second. The US is the world’s dominant imperialism, but it’s an imperialism in decline. Trump’s foreign policy in fact reflects that reality. With the attempt to impose American power on the Middle East of the Bush years having ended in utter failure, Trump rejects a policy based on US military intervention and global domination through organisations such as NATO. But the retreat from imperial dominance that this involves also fits badly with Trump’s style, that of an egotistical loose cannon – as when he told Mexico it would have to pay for his migration wall, or angered the Chinese government by taking a phone call from the president of Taiwan.
Altogether, then, it seems likely that for Trump ruling-class self-confidence will prove a liability rather than a strength. His approach is likely to undermine his ability to rule effectively within America or build secure alliances outside it. We can also hope that Trump meets protest every step of the way – and we could not have wished for a better start than the worldwide women’s marches yesterday – in which case self-confidence can begin to look like self-delusion, and Trump’s rich-boy self-belief can play a major part in his undoing.