One of Donald Trump’s more uncanny attributes is the ability to expose truths that most of our elites are too timid to acknowledge. It was common during his administration to hear mainstream journalists, staffers for congressional Democrats, or left-leaning political consultants whisper, once the third round of drinks was brought around, that on Russian “collusion” or solar-panel farms or the Kennedy assassination, Trump kind of has a point.
So it is with the classified documents. You know, the ones he took from the White House—boxes and boxes of them—in flagrant violation of the requirements of the National Archives and Records Administration, only to leave them languishing in a Mar-a-Lago bathroom, or on the stage of a ballroom there, like faded costumes from a high-school production of The Pirates of Penzance. Yet through his very misdeeds, Trump has revealed our submission to oppressive bureaucratic-technological systems.
In May, Trump was charged by Jack Smith on 37 counts (three more have been added more recently for good measure) relating to “felony violations of our national-security laws, as well as participating in a conspiracy to obstruct justice,” as the special counsel declared in a Justice Department statement. Those violations were laid out in a 49-page indictment that doesn’t leave much to the imagination. Trump treated the classified documents the way 14-year-olds used to treat Playboy issues, pulling them out whenever he could, showing them to guests he wanted to impress. Then he lied about it, even as it was obvious that the FBI was on his ass and gaining ground.
So now they have him, dead to rights. “He’s toast,” said former Attorney General Bill Barr of his onetime boss. “Happy indictment weekend, my friends,” crowed Rep. Mark Pocan, a progressive from Wisconsin. Donnie had finally done himself in.
From what we know, the documents contained military plans, including one for a strike against Iran, and other national-security information. Taking them was dumb. Lying about it was wrong. But the reaction to those transgressions has been far more revealing than the predictably boneheaded transgressions themselves. Trump’s greatest service to society is to show the rest of us what we hold dear.
By taking the documents, Trump inadvertently revealed the logic underlying the operations of the government, which are best described as an instance of what the French philosopher Jacques Ellul called “technique.” Technique, Ellul wrote in his 1954 work, The Technological Society, “clarifies, arranges, and rationalizes. … It is efficient and brings efficiency to everything.”
Technique is all around you right now: Robocallers and workplace Slack channels full of Barbenheimer memes and credit-card points that you would like to convert into Delta miles but for some reason can’t. Then you call Delta, and wait on the phone for an hour while scrolling through memes on Slack. Maybe you will make your own meme, except you’re too tired. Welcome to what Lewis Mumford (an earthier, more approachable American counterpart to Ellul) called the Mega-Machine.
Ellul wasn’t against progress, or even technology. But he feared that we were progressing into posthuman obsolescence. “In the future, man will apparently be confined to the role of a recording device,” he wrote. Technique’s creator would become technique’s handmaiden.
Technique turned the world into which Trump was born into the world that Trump came to dominate. That dominance came not through a mastery of political technique, but media technique, the subject of Ellul’s other famous book, Propaganda, published in 1962.
Trump’s removal of documents may be regarded as a botched revolt against political technique, which the former president didn’t bother to master during his four years in the White House. Smith, the special counsel, is obviously intent on making him pay for that negligence. He could well succeed. Still, it must be said—and here comes the barkeep with a fresh round of martinis—Trump kind of has a point.
We grossly overclassify documents—about 50 million of them per year. Experts say that 9 out of 10 don’t deserve that designation. So why do we do it? Because technique has taken over. We have become the rubber stamp, as opposed to the neurons and digits doing the stamping. The motivation, the rationale, that once belonged to us now belongs to technique. It decides.
As with any machine, there is an inner circle that truly understands and can even modify its operations—what Trump has crudely and imprecisely called “the deep state.” His mistake was in looking for a conspiracy when it was all out in the open, parading down Pennsylvania Avenue.
“There is a limited elite that understands the secrets of their own techniques, but not necessarily of all techniques,” Ellul wrote. “These men are close to the seat of modern governmental power. The state is no longer founded on the ‘average citizen,’ but on the ability and knowledge of this elite. The average man is altogether unable to penetrate technical secrets or governmental organization and consequently can exert no influence at all on the state.”
In case you aren’t persuaded, take a look at a prewar photograph of Northern Virginia’s skyline. You will see modest settlements surrounded by forests, with evidence of human civilization dissolving into a horizon of bluish hills. Now look at the same skyline today. Those gleaming, glass towers belong to the most powerful defense contractors on Earth. They have become so brazen about their influence on the federal government that they have literally set up shop next to the Pentagon.
Trump’s offense was ultimately not so much against American soldiers and spies, but Boeing and Raytheon. “Unaccountable spending, secret military plans, collusion with private industry, and the refusal to keep a record of how all this gets decided at the highest levels are all manifestations of a slow and silent coup,” writes the Columbia historian Matthew Connelly. This was the reality Trump was acting against—however blindly, however indiscreetly. “The dirty secret of civil-military relations—that our elected civilian leadership is not in fact in charge of the military—is becoming an open secret,” as Connelly puts it.
This is why Trump’s supporters love him. Most of them aren’t members of what the midcentury sociologist C. Wright Mills called “the power elite.” Many of them have been ground down by the various manifestations of technique. And so they celebrate any lashing out at that technique, anything that is spontaneous and rash, vigorous in its disregard for the rules. They sometimes compare Trump to Jesus Christ, but a comparison to the Nordic god of mischief Loki would be far more accurate.
Am I saying that stealing classified material and potentially compromising national security is a good way to critique our metastasizing surveillance state?
Of course not.
But remember what I said up above: Trump exposes uncomfortable realities, sometimes unwittingly. You can think, as I do, that what he did constitutes a criminal offense and still believe, as I also do, that his offense pointed to a problem that is more ours than his. You might say that Trump kind of has a point.