How Establishments Fall
Or, Why Our Leaders Make Believe Everything’s OK When You, Me, and My Pet Hamster Knows Its Not
In ages of decline, it’s not just societies that crumble and fall. It’s the leaders of them that do, too. How? Here’s one of the paradoxical truths about decline. Their established leaders and powers that be often aren’t frenzied, hysterical, and panicky about decline…barricading the gilded doors…boarding up the palace windows…assembling the Royal Guard…paying off the mercenaries…before the wrath of the revolution descends.
They’re usually busy furiously making believe that there is no decline. Instead of leading societies out of decline (which is what they should be doing), they’re working night and day manufacturing (or luxuriously reclining in) what I’ll call Unreality Bubbles.
To illustrate, I’m going to use an example which probably seems trivial to you — but I hope to prove is exactly the opposite: deeply revealing of the troubling tendency of leaders (and the societies they lead) to bury their heads in the sand and la la la ignore decline.
Recently, upon Trump’s rise, I noticed something curious. At exactly the same time, established pundits and intellectuals began using precisely… the same word. In nearly every single column, article, essay — “nativism”. It jarred me: almost as if all the junior pundits and columnists held a meeting one day with the Chief Pundit, who commanded them only to ever say “nativism”.. and never “nationalism”, “extremism”, or (heaven forbid) “fascism”.
But the really odd thing was: “nativism” is a buzzword, an empty fiction, a concept with little meaning.
You probably never heard the word nativism before Trump, right? You’re not alone: neither did political science, economics, or sociology. Unlike concepts such as “nationalism”, “extremism”, or especially, the F-word, “fascism”, it’s not a concept with a rich theory, proven rigor, or established validity in the history of human thought — but an almost nonexistent one. So it’s almost as if collectively, the intelligentsia invented a nonsense word to describe a social reality. They might as well have started using “Blorbyism” or “Zimpoism”.
Of course, a secret conclave of pundits didn’t take place. There’s no conspiracy. But there is a meeting of minds. Amongst the class of professional idea-guardians, intellectual gatekeepers of a society. To use a nonsense word to describe a troubling, jarring social reality.
The interesting question is: why? I’ll get to that. But perhaps you think I overstate my case. Very well.
Let’s consider just how profoundly meaningless “nativism” actually is for a moment. Let me explain why in at least two ways (and probably many more) is shallow, inaccurate, and wrong. And trivially so. It doesn’t require a wrecking ball to bring it down — but the merest tap. And yes, you can skip this section if it bores you.
First, “Nativism” implies that the natives desire resurgence. But the natives in America aren’t whites. And while I’m not a fan of the idea “cultural appropriation”, in this case, the concept is profoundly inaccurate because it takes one people’s identity, and transposes it onto another. It is just as erroneous as calling actual Natives colonials. So Nativism is trivially wrong — upon the very slightest examination by even the narrowest mind.
Second, Nativism ignores history. It implies there is no greater danger there than…natives gaining power. But history tells us: there are stages of escalating violence a society proceeds through when extreme tribal politics rise. Those stages, those great lessons of history, that extremism may end in genocide, war, and ruin, if we are not careful, are contained in the far more accurate and meaningful term “fascism”. are ignored — and denied — by the very concept of “nativism”. “Nativism” supposes we are playing with toy s— but history says that we are playing with flamethrowers.
I could go on, but this isn’t an academic book. The point is this.
“Nativism” does not illuminate reality for us. It blinds us to reality. It doesn’t help us see the social, cultural, political, or economic truth with greater clarity. It does not give us insight, awareness, understanding. It merely pulls the wool over our eyes, and leaves us less aware of the great lessons of history, human nature, society, and decline.
Fascism, by contrast, is a meaningful concept. It has a singularly rich history of research, thought, exploration. Because, of course, it led to one of the world’s greatest tragedies. Thus, it has been validated not just by the academy, but by reality. The greatest minds in history have defined it, delineated it, and explored it — from Hannah Arendt to Viktor Frankl to Erich Fromm and many more. They have proven a great truth: it is a useful concept, that helps us to explain social dynamics, tendencies, and truths.
But “nativism” is just the opposite. It is a concept built during the nationalist movements of the 1850s, and reiterated during the next wave of nationalism in the 1900s. It has no great intellectual history. Can you name a single great mind on “Nativism”? That’s because…there isn’t one. No groundbreaking research, theorizing, modeling, thought, has been done upon the back of it. That is why it is a shallow, meaningless concept — because it has proven to be largely useless.
So why are established, powerful pundits and intellectuals and columnists hell-bent on using a nonsense word…about as accurate as “Blorbyism”…one that’s useless…instead of meaningful, resonant, historically accurate concepts…that aren't?
They are propounding the myth that a society is not in decline. Why? Incentives. It’s pretty simple: the more people that they can get to believe society isn’t in decline, the longer they stay at the top of the social order. Hence, intelligentsias manufacture unrealities in eras of decline because their position at the top of the heap depends on doing so. If they are to validate decline as real, then they undermine the very order in which they are at the top. Who knows what might happen then? People might begin to blame them for having been agents of decline in the first place. Thus, their first and greatest incentive is to push the myth that there is no decline. Whatever the intelligentsia in an age of decline does, it cannot validate, prove, even often discuss, the possibility of decline as real, actual, happening, true.
In ages of decline, failing social orders manufacture Unreality Bubbles. Where things are…great! Awesome!! Fantastic!! You just have to keep the faith, believe, hope, wish. But that is all the false unreality inside Unreality Bubbles is. Wishful thinking, childish daydreaming…desperate fantasism.
What is the intelligentsia really doing by using meaningless, invalid concepts like “Nativism”? It is creating an Unreality Bubble. A place where leaders don’t see reality as it truly is — they are instead led to believe in a manufactured unreality. One in which the social order isn’t declining, the economy isn’t failing — which needs no transformative or vital change…no leadership.
Now that you understand what an Unreality Bubble is, let me discuss just how all-encompassing they are. “Nativism” isn’t the biggest component of our Unreality Bubble. It’s the smallest. Here are more components of our Unreality Bubble. “Recovery”, “full employment”, “growth”, “jobs”, “hard work”, “opportunity”.
What are pundits and intellectuals really doing when proclaim “recovery” in the face of mass stagnation? Or herald “full employment” in the teeth of an entire lost generation of young people? By choosing meaningless concepts over meaningful concepts, they are manufacturing more unreality…and unreality more. Concepts like “nativism” and “recovery” and “full employment” help them to propound the greatest myth of all: that society is not in decline.
All that may help them the intelligentsia sustain its dwindling grip on vanishing power. But it has a poisonous effect on the leaders who believe them.
Leaders who believe the myths of unreality instead of the social, political, and economic truths of reality cannot lead. Especially lead societies out of decline. They have already chosen to believe that society is not in decline. If, for example, I subscribe to the concept that it is just “nativism” that is rising, then I also implicitly believe that “it can’t happen here”…which is exactly what Arendt, Frankl, and Fromm warned us against. If I believe that the economy is “recovering”, even while the average household grows poorer, then how am I to truly help them? If you believe that the economy has reached full employment, while young people are desperate for jobs of consequence, purpose, and prosperity…why should you bother creating them?
And so on. When I believe in manufactured unreality, I’m not wiser, smarter, more enlightened…I’m a little more foolish, narrower, smaller. It’s not just the little stuff of the mind that vanishes — facts, knowledge, certainty. It’s the more powerful stuff of the heart that withers: motivation, attention, passion, imagination, emotion, ethos. The moment that you choose unreality over reality is the instant you stop being capable of being a true leader. Unreality destroys not just the mind of a leader— but the heart and soul of one.
The contradiction between reality and unreality is stark, and great. Yet the problem’s this: the higher leaders rise, the more of their lives they spend in unreality — not reality. They golf, dine, club with the intelligentsia more than they visit the mall, the town square, social media. They read the columns and bookmark the pages and get the emails. But they don’t read the desperate blog posts, hear the outraged voices, experience the real.
And so leaders in ages of decline end up residing in something like Unreality Bubbles. Self-referential bubbles where everyone keeps repeating the false myths of unreality — because they have no reason or need to confront reality — which leaves them with no motivation, desire, or energy to change it. Reality, remember, suggests it is precisely the order which is failing society that must be upended for progress to be made. That’s the job of a true leader — but how many prefer the numbing comforts, the easy delusions, the delicious pleasures, of Unreality Bubbles instead?
The job of a leader in ages of decline is choosing reality over manufactured unreality. Not just in terms of belief. But in terms of what is worth fighting for, living in, and leading out of. They must make an effort to experience reality. To read and learn about and think about reality. To challenge themselves to disbelieve unreality.
Let me put that another way.
The central challenge of leadership in an age of decline is pricking the Unreality Bubble. First, for one’s self. And then, for everyone else. Because the simple fact is this: you’re not going to have much credibility as a leader in an age of decline if you merely keep proclaiming the glories of Unreality to people.
They can’t live in the bubble. They don’t get to spend their lives in private jets, limos, boardrooms. They have to live in reality. Ugly, tempestuous, declining reality. Precisely the one you don’t believe in. The result’s going to be that they don’t believe in you.
Manufactured unreality is the myth the establishment creates to keep itself established. It is the false belief that everything is more or less alright — so that the intelligentsia does not undermine the order at which it is at the very top. But the simple truth is that in ages of decline, fewer and fewer people outside the establishment believe them.
The challenge of being a leader in an age of decline isn’t merely leaning comfortably back in a gilded Unreality Bubble, and surveying your imaginary empire — while the real one crumbles and burns.
It’s pricking the Unreality Bubble. So you can lead people out of it.