From The Catholic Herald print edition, February 26, 2016
When I joined the Catholic Herald in September 2007, the American media were starting to talk up a junior senator from Illinois with a confusingly foreign name. This Barack Obama was going to heal America’s wounds and bring us a post-racial future, or at least that’s what I recall Radio 4 telling me.
Now, in 2016, no one talks of hope and change any more. This year’s US presidential election is dominated by a candidate offering fear and hopelessness, Donald Trump stunning the Republican establishment by running on a platform similar to Pat Buchanan’s in 1992 – and winning hands down.
The key to Trump’s success is not just that he’s an aggressive alpha male at a time when it feels like America needs a strongman; it is that he has also fought a successful class war against the Republican establishment. If you look at the polls, the one concern that agitates Trump supporters more than anything else is welfare, and whether there will be any state entitlements to help them when hard times fall. This prompts them to ask a further question: where are the leaders who will stand up for them?
Trump’s politics aren’t actually that conservative on either social or economic issues. He isn’t especially pro-life and is fairly warm towards socialised medicine. He is almost as critical of Wall Street as the Democrats and he condemns the Iraq War and other foreign adventures. He is, in fact, a European-style nationalist.
Nationalism is not just about tribalism or other irrational feelings of aggression and hostility; a strong nation state entails a more generous social security net, which is why welfare systems developed most extensively in small, homogenous countries like Denmark. By restricting immigration from poor countries, nationalism protects wages for the unskilled, but perhaps more importantly, it helps to provide the social solidarity that so many Americans (and Europeans) feel is vanishing in a churning world.
The root cause of Trumpism was foreseen by political philosopher Christopher Lasch in his 1994 book The Revolt of the Elites, in which he explained how the new ruling class had become radical and international, and was drifting away from the more parochial lumpen middle class. The new elite, unlike the old, despises any notion of patriotism. In contrast, Lasch writes, multiculturalism “suits them to perfection, conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savoured indiscriminately, with no questions asked and no commitments required”.
What Lasch saw in 1994, but which has only now reached its apogee, is how social revolution would be pushed forward by the radical rich and resisted by the masses. As he wrote: “It is not just that the masses have lost interest in revolution; their political instincts are demonstrably more conservative than those of their self-appointed spokesmen and would-be liberators. It is the working and lower middle classes, after all, that favour limits on abortion, cling to the two-parent family as a source of stability in a turbulent world, resist experiments with ‘alternative lifestyles’, and harbour deep reservation about affirmative action and other adventures in large-scale social engineering.”
Classic Marxist theory always held that nationalism was created by the bourgeoisie to keep the proletariat down. But today’s elite eschew nationalism in favour of an internationalism that is both more profitable and also a status symbol. The anger driving Trump’s supporters is that both America’s leading parties represent this new elite.
In Britain we have a similar phenomenon with Ukip, a heavily lower middle-class party that represents hostility to both multiculturalism and the European Union – two interconnected globalist ideas championed by those at the top. When actress Emma Thompson said last week that we should stay in the European Union because Britain is “a tiny little cloud-bolted, rainy corner of sort-of Europe, a cake-filled, misery-laden grey old island”, her comments were as much a class signifier as saying “napkin”, “lavatory” or “drawing room” would have been a century ago. No one wishing to show their membership of the new high-status, ethical, globalised eco-aristocracy would think anything else.
What makes the new elite insufferable, as Lasch saw, was that their identity politics has become a replacement for religion – “or at least for the feeling of self-righteousness that is so commonly confused with religion”.
We’ll see lots more of this in the run-up to the Brexit referendum. Aside from the technical and rational arguments for leaving or remaining, the debate produces a class-based emotional response. On one side, patriotism and parochialism. On the other, internationalism and “oikophobia” – which Roger Scruton defines as “the repudiation of inheritance and home”.
After eight and a half happy years at the Herald, I’m departing for pastures new. The world has become a scarier and more unstable place, but the newspaper, now a magazine, goes from strength to strength, a clear voice in a changing world. I would never have guessed in 2007 that when I left Donald Trump would be close to the White House, Jeremy Corbyn leader of the Labour Party and Leicester City top of the premiership.