What The Crown Can Teach Donald Trump

I'm nearly through watching Netflix Original's "The Crown." It is deserving of much of the praise lavished on it: beautifully filmed, directed, and acted, even if some of the episodes don't have enough story power to keep from lagging.

But this isn't a review.

If you're unfamiliar with it, the show documents the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (currently the longest-reigning British monarch). Most of the friction in her early reign stems from the clash of tradition and modernity. She and her husband are young and energetic, citizens of the modern world, and yet they inhabit an institution formed and hardened by a millennium of tradition. No, that isn't right. She is the embodiment and custodian of this tradition-hardened institution.

Should she be energetic and free to do as she wishes? After all, she is the Queen, and all her wishes are commands. Instead, she finds the role incredibly stifling. There is a "way things are done." No, she is informed, she cannot choose her own private secretary. There is a time-honored pecking order. Well, that's not exactly true, either. She can choose her own secretary, but she is warned that it would be most "unwise" to do so. She is at something of a loss to navigate the treacherous waters between her own autonomy as the Queen of the Empire and "what is expected."

America is not a monarchy; never has been, and never should be. But America has its unique institutions, and institutions have cultures. They have norms, expectations, ethos, habits, manners, decorum, and a "way of doing things." Institutions are therefore pillars of stability in society. They form a community's skeletal system. The important thing to realize is that, beyond the merest sketch, nobody invents the culture of an institution on the front end. It is not centrally planned out. Rather, institutions form cultural expectations ("the way things are done") through the experience of time. They are therefore not (always) arbitrary whims; they are usually products of... collective wisdom.

Ah, but it is fun to be a radical contrarian! To view all tradition as arbitrary whim and reinvent the institutional wheel according to one's own passions! But the pleasure is fleeting because its result is anarchy: the destruction of common norms and expectations and the disintegration of communal bone structure. Throwing out all the history, tradition, and decorum destabilizes institutions.

Queen Elizabeth understood all this. She made her reign about The Office rather than herself: The Crown, rather than "Elizabeth." I don't think anybody would argue she did not develop her own individuality and personal "stamp" on the institution, but she did it very carefully. She knew (knows) that just because one cannot think of a reason for a certain "way of doing things" doesn't mean there isn't a reason. Tradition is collective wisdom.

Lots of people love the vulgarizing of our political discourse. Seeing President-Elect Donald Trump stand at a podium and call a media outlet a "pile of garbage" and another (much more well-respected), "fake news" is kind of fun, I guess, for those who agree with him. His entire campaign was a radical departure of our institutional norms and expectations, so it isn't really a surprise that actual governance would share that characteristic. It seems that Donald Trump is not going to make this about The Office. It is going to be about Donald Trump. Be careful what you wish for.

I'm just going to humbly offer a warning and leave it here. It has long been the Progressive dream to undermine traditional institutions and culture and our "ways of doing things" (they're all just arbitrary "social constructs," you see). And Donald Trump is a wrecking ball out of their wildest dreams.

If this is the new normal for America, I do not suspect it will end well.

Brian Mattson