America’s First Elites
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In spring of 1970, social commentator Peter Schrag produced a piece for Harper’s entitled “The Decline of the WASP,” which was really about the decline of America’s Anglo-Saxon establishment. Schrag described it as “a particular class of people and institutions that we identified with our vision of the country. The people were white and Protestant; the institutions were English; American culture was WASP.” He recalled a time when the “critics, the novelists, the poets, the social theorists, the men who articulated and analyzed American ideas, who governed our institutions, who embodied what we were or hoped to be—nearly all of them were WASPs.”
All that, Schrag averred, was in progressive deterioration. He explained, “It is not that WASPs lack power and representation—or numbers—but that the once-unquestioned assumptions on which that power was based have begun to lose their hold.” In case any readers missed the point, he explained further, “Gary Cooper has been replaced by Dustin Hoffman.”
One reader who responded to the piece was journalist Stewart Alsop, then a high-profile weekly columnist for Newsweek (a perch he had taken over from Walter Lippmann a couple years before). Alsop pronounced Schrag’s thesis “valid, and important, politically and in other ways.”
Alsop harbored more than a passing interest in this social development. He was himself a member in good standing of that old Anglo-Saxon elite. Eleanor Roosevelt was his mother’s first cousin; his mother’s mother was Teddy Roosevelt’s sister. On his father’s side, the Alsops stretched back to the 17th century New England shipping trade, in which the family had made tons of money. One forebear, Joseph Wright Alsop II (1804-1878), had been one of the richest men in America of his time, with extensive holdings in shipping, railroads, and finance. Stewart Alsop’s brother, also a prominent journalist, was Joseph Wright Alsop V.
Although that Alsop wealth had long since dissipated by 1970, the social standing it had conferred on the family so many decades before remained an Alsop birthright. Such was the nature of that tight old WASP clique. But even the birthright, as Stewart Alsop well knew, was fading fast. “The old Wasp elite…,” he wrote, “is dying and it may be dead.”
Today we look back on that old elite, if we look back on it at all, as a relic of the distant past. But this development—the old elite’s slow loss of self-confidence after World War II and then its obliteration as a cultural force—represents a profound transformation in America’s social history. What emerged was a new country with a new elite.
In place of the old-school folkways and legends and values of the Anglo-Saxons, we have what is known as a meritocratic system dominated by a class of strivers who have managed to scope out the new system and rise to the top. It was captured in a recent Atlantic article by Matthew Stewart, an avowed member of the new elite but a critic of it. “The meritocratic class,” he writes, “has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children. We are not innocent bystanders to the growing concentration of wealth in our time. We are the principal accomplices in a process that is slowly strangling the economy, destabilizing American politics, and eroding democracy.”
Further, as far back as 1995, social commentator Christopher Lasch, in a book entitled The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (published posthumously), excoriated what he called America’s “new aristocracy of brains.” He wrote: “There has always been a privileged class, even in America, but it has never been so dangerously isolated from its surroundings.” He foresaw an emerging chasm between the country’s new upper class and its great mass of citizens. “The new elites,” he wrote, “are in revolt against ‘Middle America,’ as they imagine it: a nation technologically backward, politically reactionary, repressive in its sexual morality, middlebrow in its tastes, smug and complacent, dull and dowdy.”
Lasch’s characterization of the elite’s low regard for the masses calls to mind Hillary Clinton’s put-down of Donald Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. Her famous “deplorables” insult reflected the cultural chasm foretold by Lasch. This mutual animus between the elites and the people they purport to govern is an ominous development in America and thus merits an exploration. Our starting point will be that old WASP establishment that dominated America for nearly three centuries before expiring with hardly a cri de coeur. It should be noted that this article represents no call for any kind of restoration. History moves forward with a crushing force and doesn’t pause for nostalgia. But to understand where we are, we must understand where we came from. And the old WASP establishment represents a large part of where we came from.
Its emergence was a natural part of the American story. This ruling class served from the beginning as custodian of the nation’s affairs, and the nation in turn looked to it instinctively for governance. The country and its elite, after all, shared the same provenance. As E. Digby Baltzell pointed out in his 1964 book, The Protestant Establishment: Aristocracy and Caste in America, this system “worked quite well, and was taken for granted” until the 20th century, “largely because the WASP upper class was still representative” of the country at large. And when new people rose into the elite from lower socio-economic stations, they were almost always “of old-stock origins anyway.” Even when non-WASPs made it into the establishment, adds Baltzell, they “were assimilated the more easily because they constituted such a small minority.”
This easy accommodation between the old Eastern elite and heartland America was reflected in two powerful journalistic institutions with self-consciously Anglo-Saxon sensibilities—the New York Herald Tribune and the Saturday Evening Post, both prominent in American society from the late 19th century to the 1960s. Together they reflected the mind and heart of the country they served. The Herald Tribune’s connection was with the predominantly Anglo-Saxon establishment of the Northeast, which owed its national influence to its dominance of U.S. financial centers and corporate boardrooms, prestigious academic institutions and major publications, big law firms and the foreign policy apparatus. The Herald Tribune spoke to these people, represented their view of America, and reflected their leadership ethos.
The Saturday Evening Post’s connection to the old stock was through the predominantly Anglo-Saxon localities of the heartland, whose leaders ran their communities much as the national elite ran the country. They dominated the banks, civic organizations, school boards, county courthouses, and businesses. And they constituted the core readership of the Post, for decades the nation’s most influential and widely circulated magazine. Its old-fashioned editorials and Norman Rockwell covers depicting middle-class scenes were regarded by many as symbolic not just of the magazine and of their own families but of the nation itself.
This cultural symbiosis between the elites of the Northeast and the heartland masses made for a relatively high degree of civic amity within the polity and relatively little class animosity. The acceptance of the elite by the masses generated self-confidence at the top, and this in turn generated an accommodative and soft-edged leadership. Stewart Alsop, in writing about the elite’s decline, referred to it as having been made up of “self-confident and more or less disinterested people.”
On another occasion he referred to it as “self-respecting and respect-commanding.” It was significant that the elite didn’t have to strive or grasp for wealth or societal position; in large measure, it was the elite because it already had those things.
But it would be a mistake to view the old elite as soft or easygoing on matters related to the national identity or the country’s political and foreign policy aims. This was brilliantly captured by writer and thinker Benjamin Schwarz in a provocative 1995 essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The Diversity Myth.” Schwarz punctures what the magazine called the “hortatory version of our history, in which America has long been a land of ethnic tolerance and multicultural harmony.”
No, says Schwarz: until probably the 1960s, the “unity” of the United States derived not from its “warm welcoming of and accommodation to nationalist, ethnic, and linguistic differences but from the ability and willingness of an Anglo elite to stamp its image on other peoples coming to this country.” This was the legacy of “a cultural and ethnic predominance that would not tolerate conflict or confusion regarding the national identity.”
Consider the stark expression of Stewart Alsop’s great-uncle, Theodore Roosevelt, who offered words of both welcome and warning as waves of immigrants entered the United States from Eastern and Southern Europe. “We have no room,” declared Roosevelt, “for any people who do not act and vote simply as Americans.” Newcomers who had become “completely Americanized,” he added, “stand on exactly the same plane as the descendants of any Puritan, Cavalier, or Knickerbocker…. But where immigrants, or the sons of immigrants, do not heartily and in good faith throw in their lot with us, but cling to the speech, the customs, the ways of life, and the habits of thought of the Old World which they have left, they thereby harm both themselves and us.” America would not tolerate, said Roosevelt, newcomers inclined to “confuse the issues with which we are struggling by introducing among us Old-World quarrels and prejudices.”
This was a distillation of the concept of the melting pot—which, as Schwarz correctly notes, “amounted to the repression, not the celebration, of ethnic diversity.” He adds that, given the immigrants’ value as working-class stalwarts at the dawn of industrial America, no effort to curtail the immigrant wave could succeed politically (until the 1920s). But these groups weren’t allowed to vitiate Anglo-American dominance. “Americanization, then,” writes Schwarz, “although it did not cleanse America of its ethnic minorities, cleansed its minorities of their ethnicity.”
This is not entirely correct, as Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan demonstrated in their famous 1963 book Beyond the Melting Pot, which argued that the ethnic consciousness of various New York City groups persisted through the generations despite the country’s Anglo-Saxon dominance. But Schwarz’s central point was that, despite this consciousness, citizens of whatever provenance were expected to absorb the fundamental folkways and mores of the prevailing class and the dominant population group. Peter Schrag elaborated when he wrote that during the WASP ascendancy it was assumed that the country “did not need to be reinvented. It was all given, like a genetic code, waiting to unfold. We all wanted to learn the style, the proper accent, agreed on its validity, and while our interpretations and our heroes varied, they were all cut from the same stock.”
It has been fashionable among left-leaning thinkers in recent decades to see ethnic harmony in the early emergence in the New World of non-Anglo-Saxon peoples, including Dutch, Welsh, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish immigrants. But their story actually bolsters the Schwarz thesis, as these Northern European strains blended readily into the substantial English majority. The 17th century non-English Roosevelts, for example, and other continental immigrants of the time could scarcely have retained their particular identities for long, since the families with which they merged tended to be English. Franklin Roosevelt’s global outlook was far less a product of his Dutch heritage than his family’s absorption, over the decades, into the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy. And the larger non-English but English-speaking elements had no trouble regarding themselves as part of the prevailing culture. Edgar Allan Poe, who possessed Scottish and Scotch-Irish ancestors as well as English, felt that “the self-same Saxon current animates the British and the American heart.”
Such attitudes led eventually to a strong sentiment of Anglophilia within America’s WASP elite, reflected in such educational institutions as Groton School, which produced such elitists as FDR, Sumner Welles, Dean Acheson, Averell Harriman, and numerous Bundys, Morgans, Whitneys, Dillons, and lesser Roosevelts. As Stewart Alsop (Groton ’32) once wrote, at Groton, “a boy was stuffed to the gills with English history and literature while American history and literature were passed over as though they scarcely existed.”
This powerful sense of heritage drove American cultural and political expression for most of the country’s history, giving it a strong sense of continuity. The nation’s past was intertwined with its present, which would be similarly connected to its future. But, as Schwarz argues, the “hegemony that has unified America has been at bottom not so much cultural and linguistic as physical.” America didn’t just evolve, he writes, “it was made by those who claimed it fiercely and rendered it in their image.” Schwarz has a bit of fun with foreign policy mandarins such as Zbigniew Brzezinski (since deceased), who derived their anti-Russian animus from what Brzezinski considered Russia’s congenital expansiveness and “imperial impulse” to dominate or absorb bordering states. Brzezinski and others like him, writes Schwarz, could better understand such an “impulse” if they pondered the history of their own nation, which was “formed by conquest and force, not by conciliation and compromise.”
One need only read, for example, the debates and newspaper commentary surrounding America’s expansionist thrust at the time of the Mexican-American War, as I did in researching a biography of James K. Polk, to understand the power of the Anglo-Saxon identity in driving America to conquer Mexican lands. Of particularly are those parts of Mexico that were sparsely populated, thus easing the way for Anglo-Saxon settlement and hence the spread of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Schwarz quotes a Kentuckian who declared, on the eve of the war, that Americans were “as greedy after plunder as ever old Romans were, Mexico glitters in our Eyes—the word is all we wait for.”
Nor can we ignore the bloody Anglo-Saxon wars of conquest and obliteration against Native American tribes whose devotion to their lands stood in the way of the spread of the Anglo-Saxon sodality. Whatever moral conclusions one may wish to draw from that suppression, it certainly belies any suggestion that ethnic amity and tolerance undergirded the making of America. Further, as Schwarz suggests, the United States would not exist today in its present form “if a more reasonable course had been pursued.”
Indeed, the point can be crystallized by a look at the different approaches of the British and the Spanish in North America. The British ventured to the New World largely as families to create communities, commerce, and wealth born of toil. Bent on perpetuating the folkways and mores of the Old Country, the menfolk brought their own women and generally refused to mix with the Native Americans. The Spanish of Mexico, by contrast, came as conquerors and plunderers. They mixed freely with indigenous women—beginning with Hernan Cortes, who, upon arriving, promptly took as his mistress the lovely and intellectually vibrant Princess Malintzin. The result was that, within a few generations, ethnicity became a particularly vexing issue in the lands of New Spain. Eventually, a new class system based on blood lines emerged, with the increasingly numerous mixed-blood mestizos harboring political and social resentment born of mistreatment and prejudice from both Indians and Spaniards. One result was that the kind of civic solidarity seen in Anglo-Saxon America couldn’t take root in Mexico.
Thus do we see that America’s Anglo-Saxon elite both reflected and perpetuated Anglo-Saxon sensibilities on the Continent for some 300 years. And it did so as its proportion of the country’s population declined steadily throughout that period. Given that, Schwarz suggests that the American elite’s ability to “dominate American cultural and political life for three centuries—…in fact define what it meant to be an American—is a remarkable achievement.” It was an achievement of cultural identity and pride.
It couldn’t last forever. The question was—and remains—why. Alsop speculated that a significant factor was the decline of Great Britain as a global power, which undermined a significant element of the elite’s sense of identity. He surmised that the “erosion of authority” that transformed American society in a host of ways in the 1960s (and later the 1970s) may have been a factor as well. But probably the largest contributor was demographics. America was becoming less and less an Anglo-Saxon country, and less and less did it look to its old elite for guidance and governance. New impulses, attitudes, and agendas—precisely what Theodore Roosevelt had warned against—were making their way into the American consciousness with more diverse waves of immigration, and these had a profound effect upon the nation.
Thus did the old elite soon come under attack from those who saw it as an impediment to American social and cultural progress. And it seems beyond dispute that, as the demographic mix of the nation changed, the old Anglo-Saxon establishment became increasingly insular and out of touch with the nation, perhaps even a bit disoriented. Digby Baltzell drew a distinction in his book between an aristocracy, which allows new members to enter its ranks, and a “caste system,” which seeks to maintain power and influence through exclusion. Arguing that the Anglo-Saxon elite had embraced a caste consciousness since the immigration wave that began in the 1890s, he wrote that “an authoritative leadership structure will evolve in this country only when and if a new and representative upper class and establishment are created.” Such an establishment, he added, would “discriminate on the basis of the distinguished accomplishments of individuals rather than classifying men categorically on the basis of their ethnic or racial origins.” In other words, he wanted a new meritocratic elite.
And now we have one. In his Atlantic essay, Matthew Stewart posits that the top 0.1 percent of Americans have been the big winners in the country’s growing economic inequality of recent decades. This is the nation’s financial autocracy, consisting of just 160,000 or so households. The losers have been the lower 90 percent. That leaves the 9.9 percent in between as “the new American aristocracy.” Writes Stewart: “We have left the 90 percent in the dust—and we’ve been quietly tossing down roadblocks behind us to make sure that they never catch up.” Stewart notes that in 1963 a person at the middle of the country’s wealth distribution would have to multiply his wealth by six times to get into the 9.9 percent. By 2016 it was 12 times. To get to the middle of the 9.9 percent, the poor schmuck would have to multiply his wealth by a factor of 25.
This isn’t unprecedented, of course. The famous Gilded Age of the late 19th century saw the emergence of a huge wealth gap similar to our own. It was generated in large measure by a similar phenomenon: the amassing of great wealth by those who managed to harness new technologies (in that instance, industrial technologies) to create powerful life-changing products that spawned huge revenues and huge profit margins.
But, as Stewart writes, money isn’t the entire picture in our own time. “Family, friends, social networks, personal health, culture, education, and even location are all ways of being rich, too,” he writes. “These nonfinancial forms of wealth, as it turns out, aren’t simply perks of membership in our aristocracy. They define us.”
As Stewart notes, the 9.9 percent enjoy huge advantages in educational opportunity, in access to the healthcare “cartel,” and in the ability to exploit the flow of money through commerce. He points out that $1 of every $12 in GDP now goes to the financial sector; in the 1950s, it was only $1 of every $40. “The financial system we now have…,” he writes, “has been engineered, over decades, by powerful bankers, for their own benefit and for that of their posterity.” The federal government favors the 9.9 percent further with lavish tax preferences that totaled some $900 million in 2013, with 51 percent going to the top quintile of earners and 39 percent to the top decile.
In addition, real estate inflation has generated a striking increase in economic segregation, further separating the 9.9 percent from society’s less favored folks.
The result of all this, as Stewart sees it, is growing political resentment, as reflected in the 2016 election returns. In the Trump vote, Stewart saw “a large number of 90 percenters who stand for pretty much everything the 9.9 percent are not.” The economic cleavage was unmistakable. The counties carried by Hillary Clinton represented fully 64 percent of GDP, while Trump counties accounted for only 36 percent. One study found that Clinton counties had a median home value of $250,000; for Trump counties the figure was $154,000. Clinton counties saw their real estate values shoot up by 27 percent from January 2000 to October 2016 (adjusted for inflation); for Trump counties it was 6 percent. Similar cleavages could be seen in educational levels, with the country’s 50 most educated counties surging to Clinton and the 50 least educated moving markedly to Trump.
Stewart presents here a laudable social and economic analysis as far as it goes, but his focus on factors of economic and social well-being exclude less tangible but extremely powerful definitional questions facing the country, such as the impact of mass immigration and the hollowing out of the industrial base. “The raging polarization of American political life is not the consequence of bad manners or a lack of mutual understanding,” he writes. “It is just the loud aftermath of escalating inequality.” He invokes an earlier time of inequality in America, the 1920s, and asks where the 90 percenters were during the “acts of plunder” of that era, corresponding to our own time of plunder. An “appreciable number,” he suggests, could be found at Ku Klux Klan rallies, and many railed against “mooching hordes of immigrants” as a source of their problems.
So here we have it. Stewart is channeling Barack Obama’s famous (some say infamous) expression of 2008 about working class voters in distressed industrial towns with plummeting job opportunities. “They get bitter,” said the future president, “they cling to guns and religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” His rival for the Democratic nomination that year, Hillary Clinton, promptly labeled Obama an “elitist.” It must take one to know one, as Hillary doubled down on that sentiment eight years later with her “basket of deplorables” expression, directed at essentially the same people.
What we see here is the hoary old liberal notion that as long as the unwashed are fed and clothed adequately, they won’t go astray with faulty thinking about the country’s definition or identity. Those delicate matters, after all, belong to the elites, who will tell us what to think about them and what not to think. Matthew Stewart seems to be saying that the sooner the 9.9 percent addresses the resentment of the 90 percent through redistributionist initiatives under governmental auspices, the sooner the country can get on with the task of redefining itself. “As long as inequality rules,” he writes, “reason will be absent from our politics.”
This misses a huge segment of what’s going on in America today. Christopher Lasch got closer to the heart of it in The Revolt of the Elites. To Lasch the problem doesn’t reside simply in the distribution of wealth or income, although these are not insignificant. It goes much deeper, far into the civic consciousness of the elite and the nation at large. The destructive nature of the new elite, by his reckoning, touches on profound questions of who we are, where we are going as a nation and society, and how we reconcile our present with our past and our future.
Like Stewart, Lasch sees major civic problems festering in America under the new elite. He views many of them, though not all, as economic in nature. And he believes that the new elites, in pursuing their positions of economic and social privilege, have ignored the fate of those below. “Elites, who define the issues, have lost touch with the people,” he writes.
But he goes further, painting a picture of an elite that harbors little sentiment of noblesse oblige toward the common people; that has little regard for democratic ideals; that favors globalism over patriotism; that accepts assaults on free speech in the academy; that sneeringly assaults the national heritage and the foundations of Western thought; that promotes a politics of diversity and a preoccupation with “self-esteem” (tied to identity politics) to the detriment of civic harmony; that fosters civic rancor through its open borders advocacy; and that employs powerful weapon-words such as “racist,” “sexist,” and “xenophobic” to stifle debate on matters it wants handled out of established halls of discourse.
In short, Lasch portrays an elite that has cut itself off from its own nation and civilization. He invokes Jose Ortega y Gasset’s famous book from the 1930s, The Revolt of the Masses, written in the era of the Bolshevik Revolution and the rise of European fascism. Ortega saw the Western crisis of that time as a product of the “political domination of the masses…the spoiled child of human history.” Now the spoiled child, says Lasch, is the new elite.
“Today,” he writes, “it is the elites, however—those who control the international flow of money and information, preside over philanthropic foundations and institutions of higher learning, manage the instruments of cultural production and thus set the terms of public debate—that have lost faith in the values, or what remains of them, of the West.” Indeed, he adds that for many of these people the very term “Western civilization” now “calls to mind an organized system of domination designed to enforce conformity to bourgeois values and to keep the victims of patriarchal oppression—women, children, homosexuals, people of color—in a permanent state of subjection.”
Some 22 years after those words were published, President Trump delivered his noted Warsaw speech in which he extolled Poland’s indomitable spirit, seen repeatedly throughout a history of extensive existential adversity. In doing so, the president referred to “the West” 10 times and used the phrase “our civilization” five times—suggesting, it seemed, that that hallowed Polish spirit emerged in part from the country’s sense of heritage, including its civilizational identity.
This proved incendiary to two writers for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart and James Fallows, who declared that such terms betokened a kind of white nationalism or tribalism. Beinart saw “racial and religious paranoia” in the speech while Fallows viewed it as “shocking.” Fallows even excoriated Trump for using the word “will” in describing the Poles’ resolve to defend their borders and values over the centuries; he said the president should never have used a word etched in the consciousness of Europeans (or at least his own) due to Leni Riefenstahl’s famous Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. He seemed to be saying that the word’s use was prima facie evidence of fascistic tendencies. (Fallows generously omitted the word “triumph” from his proscription list.)
This may seem like silly stuff, but it is precisely what Lasch was talking about—the resolve of the new elite to, among other things, rip the American polity away from the moorings of its heritage. A meritocracy, he explains, has to maintain the fiction that its power and privileges rest exclusively on its own brilliant efforts. “Hence,” he adds, “it has little sense of ancestral gratitude or of an obligation to live up to responsibilities inherited from the past.” That continuity of past, present, and future that was so much a part of the Anglo-Saxon consciousness is now under mortal threat.
Indeed, the new elite is engaged in a continuous assault on the Western heritage and, to a large extent, the American heritage. In his last book, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard posited the thesis that America has embraced over its history four elements of identity—race, ethnicity, culture, and creed. Racial thinking played a significant part in how Americans viewed themselves through the Indian wars, the struggle for black emancipation and civic equality, and the issue of Asian immigration. “For all practical purposes,” writes Huntington, “America was a white society until the mid-twentieth century.” But it no longer is, and race today doesn’t represent a significant pillar of U.S. identity. Race consciousness now resides at the far fringes of U.S. politics, at least with whites.
Ethnicity emerged as a significant political issue with the new wave of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe from around 1890 to the beginning of the 1920s. Concerned about assimilation, Congress in 1924 curtailed both the numbers of immigrants and the ethnicity of those allowed in. But that policy had a paradoxical effect, writes Huntington. It “contributed to the virtual elimination of ethnicity as a defining component of American identity” as descendants of those ethnic arrivals moved inexorably into the mainstream of American society, particularly during World War II. America soon saw itself as a “truly multiethnic society.”
But America has retained, says Huntington, “a mainstream Anglo-Protestant culture in which most of its people, whatever their subcultures, have shared. For almost four centuries this culture of the founding settlers has been the central and the lasting component of American identity.” Back in 1789 John Jay identified the central components of this culture as a common ancestry, language, religion, principles of government, manners and customs, and war experience. The element of common ancestry no longer exists, of course, but the others remain intact, though they have been modified and diluted over the decades. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. once wrote that “the language of the new nation, its laws, its institutions, its political ideas, its literature, its customs, its precepts, its prayers, primarily derived from Britain.”
This cultural core of America also gave birth to the American creed (the fourth element of identity)—the country’s commitment to “the political principles of liberty, equality, democracy, individualism, human rights, the rule of law, and private property,” as Huntington described the creed. He added that this creedal definition allows Americans—perhaps unfortunately—to hold that theirs is an “exceptional” nation built on “universal” principles applicable to all human societies.
And thus do we get to the crux of today’s epic struggle between America’s new elites and its mainstream populace. The elites want to wipe away all aspects of the cultural core except the creed, leaving America to stand upon, and project itself from, that small patch of the American identity. As globalists, the elites have developed a contempt for American nationalism, including any robust view of the national identity. And they take delight in the idea that America is exceptional precisely because its essence is universal, applicable to all mankind.
But a question remains whether a creed alone can sustain a nation. “Can a nation be defined only by a political ideology?” asked Huntington. “Several considerations suggest the answer is no. A creed alone does not a nation make.”
Besides, it’s clear that millions of Americans, including those of multiple ethnic backgrounds, don’t get excited by the concept of a strictly creed-based national identity. They harbor a reverence for the country’s governmental creed, to be sure, but they feel that their country’s definition goes far beyond that, to include elements of the core Anglo-American culture that Jay and Schlesinger and Huntington identified. And for many the creedal preoccupation, with its American exceptionalism and universalism, has generated a troubling promiscuousness in foreign policy that has spawned in turn too many wars.
Lasch captured this cultural and political chasm when he noted that most members of the elite think globally, not nationally, and that there was “a question whether they think of themselves as Americans at all.” Patriotism leaves them cold, while multiculturalism excites them—“conjuring up the agreeable image of a global bazaar in which exotic cuisines, exotic styles of dress, exotic music, exotic tribal customs can be savored indiscriminately with no questions asked and no commitments required.”
No commitments required. That seems to sum up the new elite’s regard toward the rest of society, a far cry from the sense of duty and obligation toward the American people and the country’s traditional definition that were embraced through centuries by the old WASP elite. Now we have an elite that separates itself from the nation at large, that seeks to transform it through open borders enforced by political correctness, that even seeks to proscribe such innocent vehicles of expression as the words “civilization” and the “West.”
Anyone who doesn’t see a direct line between this and Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory isn’t paying attention. Matthew Stewart has paid attention, and he sees the direct line. But, alas, he sees it through the prism of the 9.9 percenters, his own class, because he can’t get beyond his preoccupation with economic distribution. And, for all his disclaiming, he reveals in a single sentence that he views the 90 percent pretty much as the rest of the 9.9 percenters do. “With his utter lack of policy knowledge and belligerent commitment to maintaining his ignorance,” writes Stewart, “Trump is the perfect representative for a population whose idea of good governance is just to scramble the eggheads.”
Yes, Trump has an utter lack of policy knowledge and parades his belligerent commitment to maintaining his ignorance. He is also a boor, a cad, a phony, a misfit, and a disgusting human being. But somehow along the way he perceived through instinct what Christopher Lasch discerned through prodigious inquiry. The elites were taking America in a direction that America didn’t want to pursue—or at least close to half of Americans didn’t. This is not sustainable.
In taking on the elite, Trump brought to the fore issues and issue prescriptions that the elite preferred to keep out of the tumult of stump politics, to be handled in the more controlled environment of Congress, the mysterious federal labyrinth, and the courts. He has transformed the immigration debate, brought forward new trade concepts, assaulted the foreign policy establishment, questioned the prevailing global order, taken on the regulatory bureaucracy, and embraced judicial conservatism. All this represents a direct assault on the new elite, which didn’t see it coming and still can’t comprehend it.
Trump’s political fate, and perhaps his legal fate, remain speculative. But one element of his legacy is secure. He has opened up a new fault line in American politics—the elites of the coasts versus the heartland masses. This fault line crystallizes profound questions of the American future. What is the American definition? What is its identity? What will be its connection to its past? What will be its demographic makeup? What kind of country will it be in 10 or 20 years? And what kind of elite will it turn to for guidance and governance in coming decades?
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.