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The Powerlessness of the Powerful

Living in post - truth, seeking alternatives, examining Nicolae Ceausescu and Donald Trump

At critical moments, the powerful become powerless. It becomes clear that the emperor does indeed have no cloths. The crowd hesitates, and turns against the leader. One moment they are exclaiming support, and the next, they turn on him. The combination of fear and interest that supports dictatorship melts away. Supporters join “the resistance,” in an instant.

This was most dramatically revealed in the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu on December 21, 1989. As this video documents.

A mass rally in support of the leader morphed into a demonstration against the regime, apparently in a flash, though this was not as spontaneous as it appeared at first. In private, not in open view, around kitchen tables, opposition to the dictator was shared in the everyday life of ordinary people, and factional struggles within the ruling party loom large behind the event. This is especially likely given the rapid and well orchestrated trial of the dictator and his wife, choreographed by his high ranking subordinates, as revealed here.

Yet, the transformation happened and the public support of the regime very rapidly morphed into wide demands for radical change. Less rapidly, and less violently, the same thing happened throughout the former Soviet bloc in 1989, and later during the Spring of 2011, through much of the Arab world. Dictatorships were toppled and attempts to constitute democracy in one form or another, with more or less success, followed. The power of autocrats was great, until it wasn’t.

Now things have turned around. The world is upside down. Transitions from democracy to dictatorship are developing globally. In the new democracies of 1989, along with more established democracies, dictators, and dictator wannabes, Putin, Orban, Kaczynski, Duterte, Sisi, Le Pen, Wilders, Salvini, et al are gaining power, as democrats are in retreat. And Donald Trump is at the head of the pack: day by day, not only undermining the norms of democracy at home, but supporting the retreat from democracy around the world. From the purported leader of the free world, the commander in chief has become the leader of the “un-free” world.

But there are limits to these changes, becoming ever more evident in the United States. I suspect Trump’s time is running out. I fear that this is not the case, and I am not at all confident about my suspicion. Yet, ‘it” may now be happening, the fall of the madness in the White House, in the Republican dominated Congress and in the Republican Party. The limits of his autocracy are showing, reminding me of the demise of past autocrats.

The anonymous op.ed. in The New York Times purporting to be a note from the resistance inside the White House, along with the rich, detailed revelations of the chaos of “Trump in the White House” in Bob Woodward’s Fear, reveal broadly “the insanity in the White House,” as Jeffrey C. Isaac named it here. As a sociologist of media and the public sphere, I think the looming natural disaster in the Carolinas could be a turning point. While Trump’s ridiculous and insulting remarks leading up to the impending disaster involves more of the same from him, I think that this will be seen similarly and negatively across the political spectrum.

Against the facts, Trump has long boasted about the superb performance of his administration in response to hurricane disasters in Texas, Florida, the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Now he is adding insult to injury, boasting of his great success in Puerto Rico and claiming that the scientific reports on the death toll of nearly three thousand is fake news fabricated by Democrats who seek to undermine him. Trump is turning deep and broad personal losses into his own political psychodrama. I am thinking that this may break through the mass psychology of his fanatical, blind support.

The denial of graphically clear human suffering, reported by Fox News and CNN alike, I suspect, may be more than even his ardent supporters will be able to tolerate. The hurricane coverage may resemble more a media event in the sense of Dayan and Katz, reaching a broad audience, sharing a common experience. I think, therefore, it may bring broad attention to the present crisis in American democracy.

Couple this with the unfolding reports of his aides and collaborators cooperating with the Mueller investigation, including Paul Manafort today, and it becomes clear that the pressure on Trump is increasing. When and if, the elections in November confirm his broad unpopularity, he and his enablers may just decide to fly the coop. Certainly not under the extreme pressure that the Ceausescus faced, with the extreme consequences, but perhaps like Richard Nixon’s helicopter ride off the White House lawn.

Trump’s most ardent fans still seem to be under his spell, as revealed in this recording of his most recent rally in Billings, Montana.

But note that one person’s honest critical reaction, the so called “man in the plaid shirt” went viral, suggesting how open digital gestures of opposition, in surprising places and situations, can reveal the powerlessness of the powerful today.

This reminds me of the depiction of the green grocer in Vaclav Havel’s “The Power of the Powerless,” one of the great essays of the Twentieth Century. Havel valorizes the power of simple truthful gestures to challenge totalitarian force. His key passage concerned the private and public consequences of a greengrocer not putting up the sign “workers of the world unite,” in his shop window along with the fruits and vegetables. Havel described the cascading effects for the grocer and his friends and relatives, if he refused to take part in the official lies of the ruling ideology as it appeared in everyday life. Havel explained that simple gestures of showing fealty to the regime were a key to its functioning, and not showing such gestures undermined it. He posited that the regime’s fate, its survival or collapse, depended upon visible gestures, not on convictions or beliefs. On a broad canvas, this is what happened in the rally for and then against Ceausescu. The crowd included some who were determined to show their support, especially the apparatchiks in the front rows, but others were bused in, who were just filling a work obligation. When many chose to turn from a chant cheering the leader, to a chant jeering the leader, the regime collapsed.

I am intrigued by the relationship between the greengrocer and the man with the plaid shirt. Note important similarities, but also important differences. They both make simple gestures with deep meaning, and if the gestures are shared and made broadly visible, they have consequences. Greengrocer gestures if not repressed are powerful. This Havel named “the power of the powerless,” achieved through “living in truth.” The plaid shirt man gestures, on the other hand, do not have such immediate consequences. They must be mediated, and even then, since he lives under a post truth regime, living in truth is not enough. His challenge is not breaking through the zone of the official lie, but through to a broad public that has little concern with the truth. Such gestures are not enough. They may even be self-defeating, as they are part of the daily fair of late night satire, from Stephen Colbert to Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah, reinforcing the media divide of the American public, what I have been calling the bifurcate public sphere .

On this gray, but dry, Friday afternoon in New York, I am thinking that a hurricane may break through, as I watch with dismay at the power of Florence and mourn Maria’s victims .

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, the Michael E. Gellert Professor of Sociology at The New School for Social Research, is the Publisher and founder of Public Seminar.

A final note: from now on, the Gray Friday posts, will be published bi-weekly.

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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