Clan Donald

It is not possible to spend time in the Scottish highlands without coming across Clan Donald. And for an American, traveling in Scotland in 2019, it is unnerving to think that I have been living in an area dominated by “Clan Donald” since the election of 2016.

Of course, there are clans and then there are clans, just as there are Donalds and then there are Donalds. Still, the more I learned about the Scottish clans, the more I thought there might be some merit is just reflecting a little on how President Trump’s behavior can be seen as the Chief of Clan Donald. [1]

“Each class would be ruled by a powerful chief.” That’s the way the Lochcarron essayDonald 1 begins. My mind went immediately to the geometry embedded in the U. S. Constitution: the separation of powers and the system of checks and balances, for instance. There is none of that in a clan. There is no more of it in the clan than there is in the mob. The head of the clan is the absolute ruler.

If you listen, you hear that attitude in the casual dismissal of a judge’s ruling on the grounds that “he’s an Obama judge.” You hear it in the denial that the House of Representatives has the right to subpoena testimony from “one of my guys.”. The governance of clan is unitary beyond the fantasies of monarchs.

The second element of clan governance is loyalty. In a clan war, my serfs go to war with your serfs. These highlanders who work their land by gift of the clan chief go to war when they are told to go to war and are protected from attack by other clans because that is what the chief owes them. That’s the deal. No one asks whose cause is “just.”

When President Trump praised Paul Manafort as “a stand up guy,” he was relying on “clan loyalty” rather than on law. In the U. S., it was once a commonplace to say “No man is above the law,” but in the clan setting, loyalty is everything and the chief of the clan is the focus of loyalty and also the source of the law. Loyalty is as highly prized in the Trump administration as it was in the Nixon administration and for the same reason.

This commitment to the law is enacted by the pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States. That is what officeholders promise. There is, in fact, an eerie parallel to the clan loyalty in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings in which Pippin pledges his loyalty to Denethor and Merry to Théoden. The contrast shows what is good about clans and what is bad.

Pippin pledges “fealty and service to Denthor. This is Denethor’s response.

And this do I hear, Denethor, son of Ecthelion…and I will not forget it, nor fail to reward that which is given: fealty with love, valor with honor, oath-breaking with vengeance. [2]

There is a sweet side to the clan system also when there are personal relationships of honor and respect involved, as illustrated by Merry’s service to Théoden.

When Théoden accepts Merry’s service, it looks like this.

Merry, filled suddenly with love for the king, knelt on one knee and took his hand and kissed it. “May I lay the sword of Meriadoc of the Shire on your lap, Théoden King?” he cried. “Receive my service if you will.” Théoden responds, “Gladly will I take it. Rise now, Meriadoc, esquire of Rohan…” Take your sword and bear it unto good fortune.”

Those feel entirely opposite each other but both are based on personal loyalty and neither is compatible with the rule of law.

Donald 2The clan system is a system of perpetual war. Nothing prevents a strong clan from going to war against a weaker one and taking the land and its resources. That makes the clan system unstable in the larger setting—one clan attacks another as opportunity is afforded—but it is the basis of stability within the clan. The chief can go to war whenever he wants because he has strong family leaders—insiders and advisors to the clan—to support him and because he can command the wartime service of the serfs.

The rewards of war and then distributed among the supporters to assure continued loyalty. Clan chiefs give out land and castles and perhaps slaves. Modern arbitrary rulers hand out policy victories. The “spoils of war” to be distributed in the U. S have included tax breaks, the violation of environmental protections, policy victories for subordinates such as the religious right. Loyalty is expected and is rewarded. It is only the losers who pay the price in the short run, but all the clans pay the price in the long run. The chief’s castle is inundated by rising oceans just like everyone else’s castle.

The realization that the Trump administration is like a 15th century clan is many ways is not entirely new to me. Before I came to Scotland, I had already noticed that Al Capone played that role in his gang. Loyalty was everything to a gang boss and like Denethor, he repaid “oath-breaking with vengeance.”

Capone was undone by the rule of law. The clan system disintegrated first into the crofts and then into a desperate sharecropping and then it, too, was overtaken by the rule of law. [2] I have every hope that the current “clan of Donald” will meet the same fate in the U. S.

[1] I am indebted to a blog on the site of Lochcarron of Scotland for the information on clans. See—blog, especially the article “Uncovering the Scottish Clan System.”
[2] The rule of law can be predatory and disastrous as it was in Scotland, but it is capable of being rationalized across large areas and large populations, which the clan system is not.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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