The US has not just elected an economic populist with a policy agenda designed to rescue neglected classes. It’s chosen a royalist who has never for a moment dwelt among ordinary Americans, a man whose monstrous egocentrism amounts to clinical solipsism.
When you knock over a lantern that burns down your house – and that of everyone for miles around – you don’t pause, at least at first, to think about your own complicity. You think about the fact that everything you hold dear has been destroyed.
Both orthodox liberals and orthodox conservatives are, in some respect, responsible for the calamitous election of Donald Trump. I will come shortly to that responsibility. But the most pressing business is to contemplate the magnitude of the wreckage.
America has never before elected as president anyone even remotely similar to Donald Trump. The only presidents with no prior experience of government were military heroes – Eisenhower, Grant, Zachary Taylor. Trump dodged the draft. It has never elected a plutocrat, nor a popular celebrity. Most important of all, it has never elected a candidate who made a virtue of his contempt for democratic norms. Donald Trump encouraged participants in his rallies to physically attack any dissenters in their midst. He led them in chants to “lock up” his rival for the White House. He vowed revenge against anyone, including members of his own party, who had dared to cross him. He made a mockery of debates. And now he is the most powerful man in the world.
We cannot find an analogy to Donald Trump in our own history. We can, however, look elsewhere in the world. The tide of reactionary populism has lapped at Europe and washed ashore in Poland and Hungary. In both counties, parties that rail against “European values,” which is to say secularism, personal liberty, the protection of minorities and even free markets, have come to power by appealing to angry, traditionalist majorities. Both the ruling Fidesz party in Hungary, and Law and Justice in Poland, have used their control of the legislature and executive to pass laws limiting free speech, curtailing the independence of the judiciary and threatening freedom of worship. My respect for American institutions is great enough that I believe Trump would encounter much more resistance to such a project than they have; but I don’t doubt that he shares their instincts.
And then of course there’s Narendra Modi, perhaps the most politically gifted of the nationalist reactionaries now rising to the leadership of major nations. Modi appealed to many of the same base passions Trump has. Yet there is a crucial difference between the Indian and the Western examples. Modi is a champion of free markets who ran against a Congress party still deeply wedded to a social democratic tradition. Trump, as well as Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, exploited popular fury against globalisation. The plain implication is that ordinary citizens in India, and elsewhere in Asia, see globalisation as an instrument to satisfy their aspirations, while those in the West see it as a threat. This is an astonishing reversal from the state of affairs a generation ago.
This brings me to the lantern that we in the West have knocked over. Just as elites in Great Britain were shocked by the Brexit vote because they missed the depth of the public resentment towards “Brussels,” and towards the forces that had shaped a more open and diverse nation, so in the United States both liberals and conservatives failed to understand how deeply alienated the great mass of white working-class voters felt. In a recent article in The New Yorker, George Packer retraced the evolution of both the Democratic and Republican party over the last half century to show how both had come cater to elites—and, in the case of the former, to the minority members who served as their vote bank—to the exclusion of an increasingly brittle working-class. For Americans at or below the middle of the income distribution, the American Dream has been failing for a generation or more. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt recently pointed out in an article intended as a wake-up call to coastal elites, the typical American household now has a net worth 14% lower than in 1984. That is a fact of immense importance, politically as well as economically.
The election has forced a debate about the difference between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” grievance. Americans who see that their children have worse opportunities than they themselves did, who see their communities crumbling into crime and drug and alcohol abuse, have good reason to be angry with “Washington,” to which they look, all too avidly, for solutions. But what about whites who feel that they no longer rule the roost of an increasingly diverse society, and men who recoil before the thought of a female president. Do they have a “right” to their self-righteous fury? Perhaps they don’t; but the failure to address legitimate grievance has allowed the illegitimate ones to fester.
Yet the United States has not just elected an economic populist with a policy agenda designed to rescue neglected classes. It’s chosen a royalist who has never for a moment dwelt among ordinary Americans, not to mention a man whose monstrous egocentrism amounts to clinical solipsism. Trump recognises no claims save his own, recognises no selves save his own self. He has spent a lifetime bamboozling people foolish enough to trust him, whether contractors or bankers or even wives. He is a faithless man who will blithely ignore the well-being of his own supporters, and sell out the interests of the nation in order to advance his own. As Vice-President Joe Biden put it during the Democratic Convention in July, Trump is a man whose favourite expression is “You’re fired!” What more, Biden asked, do we need to know?
I can scarcely predict what Trump will do in the world, because he is an ignorant man who by his own admission never reads newspapers, save the tabloids, much less books. Trump does not have “views,” but he does have reflexes. One is to admire strength—thus his fondness for Putin, whom he has said that he will seek to meet before even taking office. The fact that Putin is a sworn foe of the liberal order the United States seeks to uphold is no matter to Trump. Perhaps the American president will seek to convene a strongman’s club, with Putin and Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. He will find them far more congenial than the democratic leaders of Europe and Asia and South America.
I can already see that this form of bitter, self-lacerating irony will be a mode into which many of us will fall. How else are we to come to terms with a reality so humiliating, and so frightening? And when I write “we” I mean conservatives as well as liberals, Republicans as well as Democrats. Trump has run against both parties, and defeated both parties. He has, perhaps, buried forever the sunny spirit of Ronald Reagan endlessly invoked by Republican leaders. He will force both parties to change, and change drastically.
That, I suppose, is my silver lining. People of good will – and that expression I use unironically – will have to find a language, and a politics, that speaks to legitimate grievance without exploiting what is illegitimate, base, un-democratic. That is the great, painful project that Donald Trump has handed to the elites whom he professes to despise. They must, if they are to be worthy of that now derisory term, find a means of preserving the republic that has been wrested from them.
James Traub is a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. He tweets at @jamestraub1