Last week, there was an interesting profile of another anti-establishment type, Steve Bannon, who is seen as one of the intellectuals behind the Trump regime. This passage, highlighted by Rod Dreher, shows what a revolutionary air there is about him. It brought to mind Christopher Lasch’s prophetic 1994 work The Revolt of the Elites, which I think is essential to understand what is happening now. Lasch, who died before his great work was published, saw how the western overclass was diverging from the rest of the population and that this would have serious implications for democracy. He predicted that identity politics would grow because it served a similar function as religion once did:
The same benefits misleadingly associated with religion – security, spiritual comfort, dogmatic relief from doubt – are thought to flow from a therapeutic politics of identity. In effect, identity politics has come to serve as a substitute for religion. Or at least for the feeling of self-righteousness that is so commonly confused with religion.
These developments shed further light on the decline of democratic debate. ‘Diversity’, a slogan that looks attractive on the face of it, has come to mean the opposite of what it appears to mean. In practice, diversity turns out to legitimise a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion.
Most of all what Lasch saw almost a quarter of a century ago was how much social revolution would be pushed forward by the elite and resisted by the non-elite. 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.’
A rising tide may or may not rise all boats, but a storm will destroy the weaker ones. It is no surprise, then, that the most serious opposition to Trump’s nationalism has come from northern Californian tech companies, among them Facebook and Airbnb, and that universally the ‘corporations’ line up against ‘the people’.
The social revolution of the past few decades is something of a new Reformation, bringing with it a conflict over values, but what Lasch’s world means is that the aristocracy practises a different faith to the rest of the population. Historically where this has been the case, such as Ireland under the crown, it has not been not been without turbulence. Most of it all it was felt – quite reasonably – that the rulers were not loyal to the ruled, would not have their best interests at heart, looked down at them and lacked legitimacy.