Donald Trump and the Ghost of Christopher Lasch
Donald Trump is a bad casino act, yes. He is a classic demagogue with a mean streak. He is also the catalyst of yeoman America’s ongoing political pushback to globalism, diversity, and progressive dogma. How could this happen, the nation’s elites are wondering. They still have no idea how their arrogance spawned Trumpism or why someone with so many defects has kept against all odds trending up.
Fifty years of liberal campaigns to make American society inclusive and “fair” with exacting standards have backfired. The rump of middle-class, salt of the earth, white America realizes it’s been abandoned and humiliated. For the ruling class, connection and concern for flyover America—and for that matter the nation—is tentative or less. Donald Trump is a demagogue made to order for the dispossessed.
Trump’s expansive narcissism brings to mind the social critic Christopher Lasch’s 1979 landmark study, The Culture of Narcissism, which described the rise of individual self-involvement and politics as celebrity theater. But his 1995 book, The Revolt of the Elites—published the year after he died of cancer at 61—provides the backstory to the class wars underlying this year’s fractious election.
In The Revolt of the Elites Lasch foresaw the disconnect between the nation’s political classes and the governed, as UCLA law professor Stephen Bainbridge has recently observed. America’s elites have devoted so much energy to building their collective moral system that they expect ideological obedience. When Trumpists say strong families in the 1950s were a positive, the cognoscenti respond: “So what. It was a terrible time for minorities and gays.”
Trump’s armies feel the sting of comfortable, upscale, post-industrial winners who can barely conceal their contempt for those they dismiss as Wal-Mart people. The disdain for yeoman America—which is overwhelmingly white—is visceral, longstanding, and profound.
“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,” Lasch wrote in 1995, not yesterday. “They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing.”
As Lasch anticipated, the nation’s ruling classes style themselves to be citizens of the world, living in “a global bazaar” to be savored indiscriminately, “with no questions asked and no commitments required.” From Pacific Palisades to Cambridge, far from the madding crowd, well-heeled transnational citizens of the world may hold assets in Singapore or the Cayman Islands. Their identities are post-national. Amid the affluence, obsequious Third World helpers work at minimum wage or off the books, doing the scut work and producing an exotic, multicultural vibe as a bonus.
Abandoning the left’s original intent to protect the common man, Lasch observed, progressives chose instead to pursue diversity, secularism, and cultural revolution. Families, schools, and churches were left behind. For thought leaders, family values, mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, white racism, homophobia, and retrograde views of women stood in the way of progress.
For progressive elites, delicate moral confections and debatable ethical positions became acts of faith. “It is no longer necessary to argue with opponents on intellectual grounds or to enter into their point of view,” Lasch pointed out. “It is enough to dismiss them as Eurocentric, racist, sexist, homophobic – in other words, as politically suspect.” When these novel moral systems are challenged, Lasch added, progressives react with “venomous hatred,” the toxic ill feeling that seems abundant in the 2016 election year.
“Diversity – a slogan that is attractive on the face of it – has come to mean the opposite of what it appears to mean,” Lasch remarked. “In practice, diversity turns out to legitimize a new dogmatism, in which rival minorities take shelter behind a set of beliefs impervious to rational discussion.”
The elites who run the nation’s institutions “labor under the delusion that they alone have overcome racial prejudice,” said Lasch. “The rest of the country, in their view, remains incorrigibly racist.” This unhealthy “monomania” on race suggests a mixture of self-righteousness and panic, he observed.
Multicultural obsessions—and above all, ideological purity on all things African-American and ascriptive—mark a multivalent “civil rights” movement now many decades old. Movies, advertisements, lectures, awards, history months, and news stories keep the narrative in motion, shaming anyone who does not openly spurn America’s white, straight middle class that clings to religion, guns, and more.
Since Lasch wrote, liberal elites have solidified their public and private institutional control, wielding political power through the Democratic Party. They expect affirmation, not only compliance. On campus, Black Lives Matter, rape culture, curriculum witch-hunts, and a lengthening list of ideological tests overwhelm the pursuit of knowledge and quality. On and off campus, elites with assets and institutional power have the luxury to be high-minded. It is in their interest not to rock diversity’s boat but to steer it instead.
Said Lasch, the new American elites insist on sanitizing society according to their own moral precepts. On one hand, they want to set rules of enlightened thought and interpersonal relations. At the same time, they unwisely seek to “extend the range of personal choice where most people feel the need for solid moral guidelines.”
For America’s winners, compassion is abstract, as Lasch realized. As often as not, up-market altruism is staged to signal virtue and magnanimity. Emotional causes and feel-good politics keep all-important dopamine and self-esteem levels healthy and high.
Yeoman America is not protected or rich enough to be abstractly high-minded. It gets panhandled at the 7-Eleven. It travels Economy Class Group 3. It doesn’t get the scholarships or set-asides. It lives too close for comfort to seedy section 8 neighborhoods. Loose cultural standards and industrial decline have coarsened many who are prisoners of celebrity culture.
A Trump victory of course is “impossible.” It would require a massive, almost unimaginable white, yeoman flight from the Democratic Party. It is quite likely that we are even now experiencing Peak Trump. But “impossible” now stands in quotes.
Gilbert T. Sewall is co-author of After Hiroshima: The United States since 1945 and editor of The Eighties: A Reader.