Like most of us, I suppose, I've been thinking a lot about Donald Trump's rise to being the front runner for the GOP nomination. Watching the primary season has called to mind one of the best books on American politics and culture I've ever read: The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy. If you want to understand what's going on in our politics and the rise of Trump (and, to some extent, Bernie Sanders), it is a book you need to read.
Lasch powerfully and persuasively contends that that the values and attitudes of professional and managerial elites and those of the working classes have dramatically diverged. Although the claim is controverted, many of us on the right (especially social conservatives) agree with the quasi-populist/communitarian notion that democracy works best when all members of society can participate in a world of upward mobility and of achievable status. In such a world, members of society will perceive themselves as belonging to the same team and care about ensuring that that team succeeds. But how can society achieve this sort of mutual interdependence if its members are not part of a community of shared values?
The core problem is thus the revolt of the elites against the values of the wider community: "[T]he new elites, the professional classes in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension." For too many of these elites, the values of "Middle America" - a/k/a "fly-over country" - are mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, and retrograde views of women. "Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure, and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing." (28)
The tension between elite and non-elite attitudes is most pronounced with respect to religious belief. While our society admittedly is increasingly pluralistic, "the democratic reality, even, if you will, the raw demographic reality," as Father Neuhaus has observed, "is that most Americans derive their values and visions from the biblical tradition." Yet, Lasch points out, elite attitudes towards religion are increasingly hostile: "A skeptical, iconoclastic state of mind is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the knowledge classes. ... The elites' attitude to religion ranges from indifference to active hostility." (215)
In the years since Lasch wrote those words, the divide between the elites and non-elites has only grown. And the non-elites have finally had it.
Peggy Noonan captured this point quite eloquently in her column for the WSJ last week. She wrote that:
I keep thinking of how Donald Trump got to be the very likely Republican nominee. There are many answers and reasons, but my thoughts keep revolving around the idea of protection. It is a theme that has been something of a preoccupation in this space over the years, but I think I am seeing it now grow into an overall political dynamic throughout the West.
There are the protected and the unprotected. The protected make public policy. The unprotected live in it. The unprotected are starting to push back, powerfully.
The protected are the accomplished, the secure, the successful—those who have power or access to it. They are protected from much of the roughness of the world. More to the point, they are protected from the world they have created. Again, they make public policy and have for some time.
I want to call them the elite to load the rhetorical dice, but let’s stick with the protected.
They are figures in government, politics and media. They live in nice neighborhoods, safe ones. Their families function, their kids go to good schools, they’ve got some money. All of these things tend to isolate them, or provide buffers. Some of them—in Washington it is important officials in the executive branch or on the Hill; in Brussels, significant figures in the European Union—literally have their own security details.
Because they are protected they feel they can do pretty much anything, impose any reality. They’re insulated from many of the effects of their own decisions.
The protected were thus protected, if you will, from the effects of their decisions on the rest of society:
You see the dynamic in many spheres. In Hollywood, as we still call it, where they make our rough culture, they are careful to protect their own children from its ill effects. In places with failing schools, they choose not to help them through the school liberation movement—charter schools, choice, etc.—because they fear to go up against the most reactionary professional group in America, the teachers unions. They let the public schools flounder. But their children go to the best private schools.
This is a terrible feature of our age—that we are governed by protected people who don’t seem to care that much about their unprotected fellow citizens.
Life thus has been good for the protected:
But the unprotected watched and saw. They realized the protected were not looking out for them, and they inferred that they were not looking out for the country, either.
The unprotected came to think they owed the establishment—another word for the protected—nothing, no particular loyalty, no old allegiance.
Mr. Trump came from that.
And it's a global phenomenon, as the growing populist movements in Europe reflect a counter-revolution by the unprotected against the protected elites.
Ben Domenech captured this insight in a thoughtful column, which argues that:
The post-Cold War left-right politics of the nation have been breaking down in slow motion for two decades. They are now being replaced by a different type of inside-outside politics.
The Trump phenomenon is neither a disease nor a symptom – he is instead the beta-test of a cure that the American people are trying out. It won’t work. But this is where our politics are going: working and middle class Americans are reasserting themselves against a political and cultural establishment that has become completely discredited over time and due to their own actions. ...
In other words, Trump is the unprotected class' beta test for a cure for the revolt of the elites. And its about damned time. Which leads me to hope Domenech is right about his next point:
This is not a temporary adjustment. It is a new reality, as Angelo Codevilla writes today.“America is now ruled by a uniformly educated class of persons that occupies the commanding heights of bureaucracy, of the judiciary, education, the media, and of large corporations, and that wields political power through the Democratic Party. Its control of access to prestige, power, privilege, and wealth exerts a gravitational pull that has made the Republican Party’s elites into its satellites.
“This class’s fatal feature is its belief that ordinary Americans are a lesser intellectual and social breed. Its increasing self-absorption, its growing contempt for whoever won’t bow to it, its dependence for votes on sectors of society whose grievances it stokes, have led it to break the most basic rule of republican life: deeming its opposition illegitimate.”
Democrats and Republicans who still think that this is a phase – a fever they just need to wait out before a return to normalcy – are utterly delusional.
To the establishment, this breakdown looks like chaos. It looks like savagery. It looks like a man with a flamethrowing guitar playing death metal going a hundred miles an hour down Fury Road. But to the American people, it looks like democracy. Something new will replace the old order, and there are a host of smart, young leaders on all sides who must prove they have the capability to figure out how to create or retrofit institutions that can represent and channel this new energy.
I've been very lucky in life. I've made it into the outer fringes of the protected class. But I'm one generation out of the unprotected class and my heart is still with them. I share their values and, perhaps most important, their religious beliefs. The secularism and "progressive" values of the new elites have no appeal for me. So I get why Trump emerged.
The messenger doubtless is deeply flawed. Trump is no Washington, that's for sure. Donald Trump would not have been my first choice as a GOP nominee. He would't have been my 100th choice. But if the counter-revolutionaries decide they want Trump as the nominee, I will not oppose them. And I will hope that the counter-revolution has now become too big for one deeply and profoundly flawed man to derail.
Update: My point exactly:
Update 2: It should go without saying, of course, that there are a lot of GOP types in the protected class. Think of the whole DC crowd--the politicians, the talking heads, the pundits--and the Business Roundtable types, all of whom are deeply entrenched in the protected class. They share the values of Lasch's new elites to much the same extent as do limousine liberals. The vehemence of ht GOP elites' anti-Trump rhetoric reflects their fear not just of Trump but of the counter-revolution from what they regard was "below" and the threat it poses to their busy lifestyles:
Update 3: Here's yet another argument along the same lines, which concludes "I’m sure lots of voters don’t think Trump has what it takes to be a great president. But he is the ideal person to disrupt a political class that deserves a hard smash in the mouth."
Update 4: I think this is basically right: