Searching for Meaning in the Political Bubble: Donald Trump and Maurice Cowling

Written by Luke Neill

Much has been written about the daily routine of Donald Trump. In particular, after the recent release of various White House documents regarding his lists of meetings and appointments, this has revolved largely around the several hours of ‘executive time’ that Trump has each day. What is ‘executive time’? If you believe Michael Wolff, author of the bestselling Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, this time is spent in bed with three televisions, cable news, and cheeseburgers but, more importantly, he is on Twitter.

Technology allows Trump to broadcast every thought he has to his 55 million followers. The 55 million then spread his thoughts to several billion more. This may seem obvious, but it is important to remember the disturbing fact that the thoughts of one man on his bed with a cheeseburger can instantaneously change the face of global politics. Even more disturbing, is that one cannot help but see each of Trump’s tweets as spontaneous exports of a mind totally infatuated with his own personal conflicts and the settling of vendettas. Michael Wolff’s book, and many other news sources, show that the inner workings of the White House are in turmoil. The overwhelming majority of the tweets that Trump produces as a result seem to involve thoroughly personal disputes, a constant wrestle for control over his inter-personal rivalries. Michael Wolff has been criticised for exaggeration and fabrication of certain claims. But for many, this does not matter. What Wolff writes just reaffirms what we have already witnessed for ourselves and what has been confirmed by more direct sources: that the current White House is governed by pride, self-interest, deception, vendettas and coercion. If the inner workings of the White House are no more than this, how, then, do we reconcile with the fact that far from representing the will of the people, Trump is working solely in his own self-interest?

Maurice Cowling, the eminent British political historian, would have the answer. Writing in the second half of the twentieth-century, Cowling was of the view that politics was a closed-off bubble in which social forces have no influence. Ideology and the recognition of social forces in politics was simply the spinning of rhetoric to disguise self-interest and lust for personal power. By extension, he thought that political history should be studied solely through the intrigues and personal motivations that lead people to pursue offices and policies. This was part of a fundamental assumption that the only people who can truly understand politics are the politicians themselves. We can never possibly conceive the multiplicity of factors that comprise the workings of government, and therefore we cannot label politics as anything more than the incontrovertible domain of the political class. In its simplest form, Cowling’s political history was a study of those who ‘mattered’.

Maurice Cowling is an extremely controversial historian. By dispelling the idea of politics as any sort of ideological clash, Cowling proved anathema to the wave of post-war historians who subscribed to the Marxist view of history as a perpetual class struggle between oppressed and oppressing groups. The rise of other ways of writing history, such as ‘history-from-below’ or microhistory, also placed great emphasis on the place of the individual in history, and how a ‘bottom-up’ approach is the best way of examining political and cultural change. Many of Cowling’s contemporaries refused to endorse his approach. A. J. P. Taylor called him a ‘very dangerous man’, and his books were quietly banished from Oxford reading lists in the 1970s.

But the most interesting thing about Cowling is less his approach, but more his appeal. In the 21st century Cowling has made somewhat of a comeback – which says a great deal about the kinds of attitudes we have towards politics in the modern age. He presents a very pessimistic diagnosis of human nature: that politicians are driven entirely by their own ambition and that its ideology is simply its rhetorical mask. This chimes well with our current political climate. Despite Cowling’s deeply anti-liberal outlook and the controversy that he created through his many other polemics, we must nevertheless recognise his thoughts on politics (or ‘high politics’ as it came to be known) as a result of not only the expansive research that he did to reach those conclusions, but also the natural state of distrust that we find for politicians which was relevant both in Cowling’s time and ours. By entertaining Cowling’s view of this ‘political bubble’, whether we want to agree with it or not, then Trump, and Trump’s Twitter, is its clearest manifestation.


Image: Cover of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury (2018),  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images )

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