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What a philosopher and the Thirty Years War tell us about Donald Trump

Michel Foucault, who died more than 30 years ago, has something to tell us about Donald Trump. The French philosopher once delivered a famous lecture which sought to explain why the people of Europe had done away with the warrior kings of the past and embraced a whole new way of running things. The US now has a president whose advisers announce that he has “a mandate to blow up norms of good governance”.

The extraordinary events of the past few weeks also brought to mind something I heard in private while working as a financial reporter. The CEO of a major multinational happily declared: “No one ever accused this company of being a democracy.”

The corporate sphere and the state have unique characteristics, of course, but Trump is bringing the preoccupations of one into the other. On his first full day in office, the White House CEO invited the CEOs of major US corporations to discuss the future governance of America. They of course come from a world where establishing good corporate governance has sometimes felt like pulling teeth. It will be intriguing to discover what good governance means for Trump.

Immigration rhetoric

We have an early clue. Trump’s executive order closing the border to citizens of seven, mainly Muslim states was quickly set aside by the courts. And like a CEO annoyed by an underling, Trump ranted on Twitter against judges. Was he not the “Leader of the Free World”? Was he not, as president of the first democracy of the modern era, carrying out the will of the people?

This vignette brings to mind Foucault’s view of governance, and that extraordinary dismantling of the concept of divine right for Europe’s monarchies.

The new form of governance that emerged was based on central administration, guided notionally by rational processes. Foucault recalled Machiavelli’s The Prince, where right choices sustain faith in the ruler’s absolute authority. Poor decisions might destroy it. In the Enlightenment, the start of the modern era, such faith transferred to the state.

What happened between Machiavelli in the 16th century and the Enlightenment in the 18th, of course, was the Thirty-Years’ War of 1618-1648. Protestants and Catholics slaughtered each other over articles of faith that disguised the territorial ambitions of kings and princes. It sapped the legitimacy of monarchies, setting the stage for the unenlightened French Revolution. Democratic at first, it reverted to pre-modern barbarism, which ended only when Napoleon conquered much of Europe and declared himself Emperor.

But before that, modernism – what scholars like Foucault called the turn towards rationalism and scientific method in the Enlightenment era – had ushered in a truly enlightened revolution, the American one. The US Constitution adopted broad enfranchisement, which broadened further over the decades that followed, and created three co-equal branches of government to constrain a president from ruling by divine right.

Hacked off

Reading Foucault’s lecture a few years ago, I reflected on a big news story of that time: The News of the World, a British newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and directed by his son James, had hacked into the mobile phone messages of celebrities. Their protests did little to halt the practice.

But then its journalists hacked the mobile phone of a child who had vanished and was feared dead. Deleting voicemails, they led the family and police to conclude the girl was still alive – a runaway, not a victim.

After a popular outcry, the Murdochs closed the newspaper. They appeared before a parliamentary committee, on what the elder declared, ungrammatically, the “most humble day of my life”.

At that moment, I saw Rupert Murdoch as a Foucault-like version of Machiavelli’s prince, at great risk of forfeiting his “divine right” through the clumsy slaughter of his legitimacy. But Murdoch did not disintegrate. Indeed, he has retained and grown his empire. Now we learn that this corporate emperor was observing events as Trump gave an interview with Michael Gove for one of Murdoch’s titles, The Times.

Trump knows that many successful CEOs are indeed imperious. Murdoch built a small Australian newspaper into a global news and entertainment giant. The lack of external constraint – coupled with ambition, ideas and personal self-control – can create superior outcomes. But the evidence is mixed. Think of accounting scandals at Enron under CEO Jeffrey Skilling, or at Bernie Ebbers’ WorldCom.

And public governance is different from corporate governance. Consider this: markets constrain imperious CEOs when board structures and guidelines cannot – shareholders can sell and walk away. But the market in nationalities is very narrow, as the migrants controversy has underlined.

Trump has so far acted like the CEO of pre-modern corporate governance. He has sought to assert the “unfettered power” which the 1992 UK Cadbury Code sought to constrain at British companies. How it works in the boardroom echoes the checks and balances in the US Constitution.

Trump’s executive orders suggest a wilful, self-absorbed and self-justifying mentality of governance. It has clear echoes of the world of princes and the divine right of kings which the Thirty Years’ War destroyed and to which Foucault drew our attention. But the protests we have seen suggest many are not willing to return to governance that accepts anything like divine right.

There are large parts of US society – Trump’s supporters and doubtful but loyal Republicans – who think differently. Perhaps the “strong man”, with answers to all ills, still has an allure in our unfathomably complex world.

But if Trump pursues this path, he will find that dissatisfaction with both the rationalism of modernism and the intricacies of postmodernism isn’t strong enough to revert to pre-modern governance. Trump’s election may be a big moment in history; just not that big. We can hope so, at least. To put it another way, democracy rules: our ancestors’ rejection of the war-mongerers of 400 years ago is a legacy that will not be easily overturned.

The ConversationDonald Nordberg does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

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