Revolt of the Disdained: Sovereignty or Submission
The 2016 presidential election hinged on the return of overlooked or marginalized middle-class and working-class Democrats and independents – many of whom had earlier supported Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan – to reinvigorate traditional patriotism and help form a new “populist-conservative fusion in rural and industrial areas” within the Republican party. Donald Trump’s political fortunes rest to a considerable degree on his ability to secure broad public support while maintaining the loyalty of his original coalition of the disdained.
The unexpected outcome of the 2016 presidential election initially sent journalists, pollsters, and political strategists – many in shock – to fall back on stock answers rather than take a hard look at the data. As Salena Zito and Brad Todd put it: “The postmortems from the 2016 campaign painted a simple picture of the coalition that elected Donald Trump – it was economically distressed, uneducated, and angry.” Yet this conclusion diminishes the range of Trump’s appeal, shortchanges his ability to communicate with traditional Democratic audiences, and depreciates the media savvy of both the messenger and his audience. Instead, Zito and Todd explained the outcome in terms of a resurgence of populism and nationalism.
“Trump homed in on themes that would animate his seventeen-month campaign: infrastructure spending, immigration reform and a wall on the southern border, protection of Medicare and Social Security benefits, a proactive and ruthless approach to the Islamic State terrorists, an unyielding support for the Second Amendment gun rights, and a pledge to use the White House’s bully pulpit to shame American corporations into on-shoring future manufacturing jobs.”
If one grievance stands out among voters in the working-class strongholds that swung the election to Donald Trump, it is the loss of voice and a perceived lack of respect for their way of life. It is an age-old complaint – one that has accompanied earlier outbreaks of populist fervor dating back to the late nineteenth century – but it may have been sufficient to turn the election.
Donald Trump’s election in November 2016 was followed by perhaps the most remarkably contentious presidential term in American history – certainly at least since the American Civil War. Its milestones include a remarkable rally and surge in the stock market, allegations of Russian influence on the campaign, the indictment and imprisonment of various aides, the media frenzy over the congressional hearings on the appointment of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives in 2019, the impeachment hearings and trial in the House, the President’s exoneration in the Senate, the economic lockdown that accompanied the spread of COVID-19, the dropping of charges against Gen. Michael Flynn, the widespread protests and riots that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policemen, and a climate of resistance at all levels of government.
As the presidential and congressional elections of 2020 approach, the ability of the American political experiment to reconcile deepening differences and withstand systemic challenges is being put to the acid test once again. What follows is the original conclusion to an analysis of the presidential election of 2016, the afterword written following the 2018 congressional election, a reflection on the animosity of much of the political elite to the Trump Administration, and a summary of what is at stake as another election approaches.
The original conclusion (June 2018)
The deck is clearly stacked in favor of the existing power elite. Even if President Trump succeeds in establishing an effective administration on his own terms and is able to keep his commitments, another question remains. What can the Republicans do for an encore? Charisma, like lightning, cannot be bottled, marketed, or genetically reproduced. As always, the great institutional challenge is to broaden its base of support while securing a line of succession. If one or both houses of Congress revert to control by the Democratic Party, will President Trump or his successor be able to push his agenda, given its unpopularity with the bipartisan political establishment?
The high-energy, high-wire Trump presidency may be an impossible act to follow. Failure to pass the trapeze bar to a steady hand in a timely way risks a very different alignment of political fortunes. “Whatever happens,” as Conrad Black concludes his book,
“Donald Trump will be one of the most vividly remembered presidents and characters of American history. Difficult though it may be to believe at times, the office of the presidency, in that astonishing, ineluctable, and fateful American way, may have sought the necessary man again.”
Afterword: the 2018 midterms (November 2018)
The midterm elections of November 2018 changed the electoral landscape sufficiently to indicate that both major parties face mounting challenges in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential and congressional elections.
Following a shift of approximately 40 seats in the House of Representatives that led to a Democratic Party takeover of the leadership positions, President Trump confronts a divided Congress. Strong resistance to his policies and investigations directed at his Administration may be expected across a broad front within the House. Sean Trende discounts talk of an electoral “wave”, however, and suggests that the Democrats’ surge in the House may be due in part to “the Democrats’ enormous fundraising advantage.” The Republican majority in the Senate was somewhat strengthened, which may better enable the president to appoint more conservative jurists.
As for the 2020 national elections, third party or independent challenges in the presidential and perhaps a few congressional contests may contribute to a greater fragmentation – if not a realignment – of the two-party system. The president’s prospects for reelection and restoration of a Republican majority in the House will hinge considerably on enlarging his coalition while fending off rivals within the party, a strategic grasp of the opportunities to reshape the national conversation, and retaining the confidence of his original supporters.
As to the character of the Trump coalition, Frank Buckley differs from Zito and Todd in describing it as The Republican Workers Party (2018), which coalesced in 2016 by offering the electorate a conservative reiteration of an earlier tradition of liberal nationalism. Internationally, it has counteracted the longstanding bipartisan dominance of liberal internationalism by promoting a renewed emphasis on national sovereignty as opposed to global governance. Yet it does not countenance anything less than a robust and “mutually beneficial cooperation among different nations. . . . Trump is not a globalist who denies the value in nationalism, but an internationalist whose vision of global harmony is rooted in independent nations, each pursuing its own interests.”
Domestically, this American nationalism – which Buckley compares with Benjamin Disraeli’s and Randolph and Winston Churchill’s – champions “the common good against corrupt special interests” and seeks “to promote the well-being of all fellow citizens, and not simply a favored few.” As Ernest Gellner noted in Conditions of Liberty (1995), it is embodied in the loyalties that bind fellow citizens within a larger community or civil society without tyrannizing over their lives, liberty, property, or consciences. Again, Buckley:
“Nationalism is more than a duty to look after fellow citizens. It’s also one of the particularistic emotions that bind us to others, like love of family and friends, creating the sense of solidarity or community that is one of the most basic of human goods. Simone Weil called this ‘the need for roots,’ and it’s especially needed in today’s America… In our loneliness, in the animosities that divide us, there has never been a greater need for fraternity.”
The public has reacted electorally to this loss of roots in often unanticipated ways as, for instance, when politicians seek to replace what politics has helped displace. Philosophically, Michael Oakeshott’s remarkable analysis of “Rationalism in Politics” (1947) attributed the uprooting of social and moral conventions to the intellectual arrogance of those who have “no sense of the cumulation of experience, only of the readiness of experience when it has been converted into a formula: the past is significant for [them] only as an encumbrance.” What has come to pass for “a higher morality,” according to Oakeshott, “is merely morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behavior.”
“Moral ideals are a sediment: they have significance only so long as they are suspended in a religious or social tradition, so long as they belong to a religious or a social life. The predicament of our time is that the Rationalists have been at work so long on their project of drawing off the liquid in which our moral ideals were suspended (and pouring it away as worthless) that we are left only with the dry and gritty residue which chokes us as we try to take it down. First, we do our best to destroy parental authority (because of its alleged abuse), then we sentimentally deplore the scarcity of ‘good homes’, and we end by creating substitutes which complete the work of destruction.”
By contrast, Samuel P. Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order focused more on the specific role played by political elites while also acknowledging the bloodless abstraction of their goals and ideals.
“Significant elements of American elites are favorably disposed to America becoming a cosmopolitan society. Other elites wish it to assume an imperial role. The overwhelming bulk of the American people are committed to a national alternative and to preserving and strengthening the American identity that has existed for centuries.”
In the inaugural issue of American Affairs following the 2016 election, the political philosopher Joshua Mitchell observed: “If there is to be American greatness, it will emerge around the two sorts of sovereignty that hold her together: liberal sovereignty and sovereignty based on covenantal nationalism.”
“Liberal greatness means that we look at others as neighbors and fellow citizens. That we need to have strong borders, that we need to slow down immigration so that 95 million workforce-age fellow citizens can find jobs, and that we only admit foreigners who aspire to become American citizens, is not inconsistent with liberal sovereignty.”
Mitchell’s chief focus in “A Renewed Republican Party” is with three expressions of what he calls “[t]he national covenantal aspiration to greatness” which “must take both inward and outward forms.” The first addresses the legacy of slavery, which has been further aggravated by a form of identity politics that for half a century or more has sought to bind minorities to the hegemony of the Left while undermining traditional institutions.
“The inward form . . . involves healing the still-festering wound of slavery and its aftereffects, through our churches and synagogues and through our face-to-face dealings in everyday life. The state can supplement those efforts, but it cannot substitute for them. There is no path to the Promised Land except through the agony of the desert.”
Second, greatness in its outer form requires “orienting domestic policy toward the middle-class” in order to recover “the strength and wisdom of a middle-class commercial republic.” A “cosmopolitan mindset” has emerged through the de-linking of democratic man from traditional institutions that once helped bind him into communities and families.
“Tocqueville’s ideas about voluntary associations, about family, about religion, and about federalism, point to the need to bring the soul down to earth, to connect it to others. The embodied soul formed through these institutions is hardly irrational, as the cosmopolitan would insist; the embodied soul, on the contrary, is the healthy soul, whose interests are formed in and through relations with others.”
The institutional breakdown resulting from what Oakeshott calls “Rationalism in Politics” has been characterized in recent years by increasingly vicious culture wars that have especially resulted from the promotion of globalism and identity politics.
Third, beyond our borders, greatness will require the reconfiguration of our country among the world of nations. Like it or not, our national covenantal understanding is that we are “a shining city on a hill, and a beacon in the darkness”, to paraphrase John Winthrop’s 1630 encomium to his fellow passengers aboard the Arabella. We cannot renounce that charge; we can only understand and apply it well or ill. As Mitchell notes in conclusion:
“The three together suggest the need for a mix, increasingly lost in our conversations about what has gone wrong with America, involving individual responsibility, neighborly involvement in our local communities, and ennobling national projects that only presidential initiative can facilitate. No one can help but observe that the world is changing before our eyes. Donald Trump has played a large-than-life part in this. Yet amidst all of the changes – and amidst the hopes that he can make our country “great again” – the burden nevertheless rests on citizens, who must either build a world together or withdraw into themselves and wish in vain that the state will carry the load.”
This is a worthy challenge for a country G. K. Chesterton once described as “the only nation in the world founded on a creed.”
The revolt of the elites (June 2020)
Donald Trump’s political fortunes have always rested in part on the ability or inability of his opponents to define and delegitimize his election. The immediacy and intensity of the attacks that accompanied his election reflect a longstanding “revolt of the elites” against anyone that offends their sense of propriety or threatens their sense of entitlement. These unrelenting attacks – like those against Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Robert Bork, and Clarence Thomas earlier – have only intensified through a protracted campaign to bring down his presidency. More than his predecessors, this president has been both willing to play by the rules adopted by his opponents and able at times to strategically outflank them.
As I write these paragraphs early in June 2020, much of the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct is being brought before the bar of public opinion even as the battle intensifies on every imaginable front. Each side at times framed as treasonable certain aspects of the Trump team’s transition into office or the full array of tools available to holdovers from the previous Administration to bring recalcitrant witnesses to heel. A major tipping point along the path to revolution, as Crane Brinton describes it, is the “transfer of allegiance of the intellectuals.” It happened with the War for Independence, the War Between the States, and the New Deal. It may be happening again. It is useful to recall that there were two Russian revolutions in 1917. The purpose of the first was to bring down an incompetent czarist regime. The second was opportunistic. Its purpose was to steal the prize from the new leaders and unleash the machinery of the state to undertake a total reconstruction of Russia. We would be wise to pay close attention to what today’s versions of the Bolsheviks plan to do once they are able to bend fellow travelers to their will.
The economist Thomas Sowell has devoted his long career to unearthing the critical role played by creative minorities and the obstructive role played by self-serving professional change agents. He decries the hypocrisy of those “social justice warriors” who pursue expensive and disruptive programs at little cost to themselves or their convenience. Oftentimes, in an unconscious illustration of what Edward Said called “orientalism,” they romanticize the exotic in order to condemn their own society, like Montaigne’s cannibals and Rousseau’s idea of authenticity.
“The disdain of these new elites for ‘Joe Sixpack’ all too easily shades off into a sense of a need to deprive such lesser people of misused autonomy and ‘correcting’ a system that allows the desires of ordinary people to prevail in the marketplace and in the social and political life of the country. Frontal assaults on basic American values would be suicidal, but that does not prevent piecemeal attacks or using other countries with very different values and different systems of government as models to be emulated.”
Roger Scruton called this attitude “oikophobia” (rejection of heritage and home) and criticized a “culture of repudiation.” Similarly, Sowell sums up today’s challenge to the future of constitutionally-limited government.
“What is far more important – and more dangerous – is that there is little sense of the institutions and traditions which produce the enormous social and economic good fortune of Americans – and therefore little or no sense of the dangers from letting those institutions and traditions erode or be pushed aside for the sake of some political goal of the moment. Much of the world today and down through centuries of human history has suffered the terrible consequences of unbridled government power, the prime evil that the writers of the American Constitution sought to guard against. Judges who ‘interpret’ constitutional safeguards out of existence for the sake of some ideological crusade, presidents who over-reach their authority for personal or political reasons, and a Congress whose powers are extended into matters that the Constitution never empowered them to legislate about are all part of the quiet repeal of the American revolution.”
The stakes (December 2019)
The Progressive movement began more than a century ago as a bipartisan reaction against the abuses of machine politics. But today’s partisans of endless and ever-changing reform agendas have brought a combination of community organizing with local machine techniques to Washington and threaten to make “the long march through the institutions” go global.
The post-Civil War civil service reform once promised good government for all. Yet as the German sociologist Max Weber observed in 1907:
“Everywhere the house is ready-made for a new servitude. It only waits for the tempo of technical economic ‘progress’ to slow down and for rent to triumph over profit… (T)he increasing complexity of the economy, the partial governmentalization of economic activities, the territorial expansion of the population – these processes create ever-new work for the clerks, an ever-new specialization of functions, and expert vocational training and administration. All this means caste. Those American workers who were against the ‘Civil Service Reform’ knew what they were about. They wished to be governed by parvenus of doubtful morals rather than a certified caste of mandarins. But their protest was in vain.”
At the outset the Progressives and other “heroes of insurgency” touted their ability to lead America into the future while bypassing and jettisoning constitutional limitations in the process. The courts, the federal bureaucracy, and the public education systems have together served as their chief “change agents.” So, it is ironic that Max Weber, their contemporary, seems to have perfectly captured our political situation today, a hundred years hence. Have we been treading water for the past century? Or perhaps been sleepwalking? Have we come full circle?
The Constitution was written in the name of “We the People.” But who are the people today? Are citizenship and self-government a privilege to be purchased from power brokers in return for votes? Or is it a stewardship principle to be cherished and defended as a birthright? For Thomas Sowell and Friedrich Hayek, it is a Constitution of Liberty: “Viewed positively, what the American revolution did was to give the common man a voice, a veto, elbow room, and a refuge from the rampaging presumptions of his ‘betters.’”
Good stewardship requires rebuilding the infrastructure – physical, cultural, and moral – of our republic and chiseling the barnacles of special interest privileges – imposed at public expense – from the ship of state. Endless change in the pursuit of ideological utopias keeps people unsettled and dependent on the instruments of this revolution. It is a condition that, in the end, can only create an authoritarian “servile state.” The social, political, and cultural revolution to undercut and supplant the American tradition of constitutionally limited government began long ago. It consumes everything in its path. It cannot be stopped without being concertedly resisted. This is not a task for one man or one party only. The question for voters is to find those who can either do the job or get out of the way of those who can.
More than half a century ago Bertolt Brecht – an aging cultural revolutionary in East Germany – penned a lament that was published after his death. It is entitled “The Solution.” May it not become our epitaph:
“After the uprising of the 17th June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
(The original article was entitled “Revolt of the Disdained: America’s 2016 Presidential Election,” The Western Australian Jurist 9 (2018): https://walta.net.au/wajurist/vol9/revolt-of-the-disdained-americas-2016-presidential-election/. It was updated in December 2019 and published as a series of four articles without footnotes at Townhall Finance in January 2020, during the impeachment hearings. This article is a revision and expansion of that article: https://finance.townhall.com/columnists/stevenalansamson/2020/01/27/revolt-of-the-disdained-sovereignty-or-servitude-n2560167.)
 Salena Zito and Brad Todd, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics (Crown Forum 2018) 19.
The populist movement consisted of farmers alliances, Grangers, and Greenback supporters who expressed opposition to monopolies and trusts, a demand for free and fair elections, an eight-hour workday, and adoption of the initial and referendum system. The movement was patriotic, supportive of the Constitution, positive in tone, and exhibited much of the spirit of Christian revivalism. Later Progressives are said to have “stolen their clothes.” See Norman Pollock, ed., The Populist Mind (Bobbs Merrill, 1967).
Conrad Black, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other (Regnery, 2018), 213.
Sean Trende, “So, Was It a Wave?” RealClear Politics https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2018/11/16/so_was_it_a_wave_138677.html#2.
F.H. Buckley, The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed (Encounter Books, 2018) 63-73. For a discussion of the influence of Biblical Christianity on the rise of the nation-state concept in the West, see Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 1997) 5, 185ff.
The American Freedom Alliance held an international conference on Global Governance vs. National Sovereignty in June 2012. See https://www.conservativedailynews.com/2012/06/global-governance-vs-national-sovereignty/.
See Ernest Gellner, Conditions of Liberty: Civil Society and Its Rivals (Penguin, 1996).
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots (Harper Colophon, 1971).
Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays (Liberty Press, 1991) 6. Oakeshott’s Rationalism most resembles the purpose-driven Telocracy (as opposed to “the substantively neutral legal order” of Nomocracy) as described in Michael Oakeshott, Lectures in the History of Political Thought (imprint-academic.com, 2006) 469-97.
In a similar vein, Richard Landes surveys utopian and millennial movements throughout history that embody despotic rationalism. Landes identifies four attributes that are characteristic of the leadership, what he calls “prime dividers,” of ancient and modern agrarian civilizations: 1) Privilege Legalized: “Aristocrats have special status before the law they legislate, they judge, they execute”; 2) Manual Labor Stigmatized: “Labor defines commoners”; “the liberal arts are precisely for those who are ‘liberated’ (by slaves) from banausic concerns”; 3) Technologies of Knowledge and Weaponry Monopolized: “Elites try to maintain as much control over information as possible”; e.g., the clerisy in the Middle Ages; and 4) Honor and the Elite: “[R]ecourse to force [by elites] allows them to establish their dominion in a quotidian sense by their possession of honor.” Richard Landes, Heaven on Earth: The Varieties of the Millennial Experience (Oxford University Press, 2011) 216-17.
Ibid. 41. An illustration of the destruction may be found in Nancy Pearcey, “Justice Kennedy’s Hubris,” American Thinker, 2 December 2018. https://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2018/12/justice_kennedys_hubris.html.
Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (Simon & Schuster, 2004) 366.
Joshua Mitchell, “A Renewed Republican Party,” American Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 2017) 27. https://americanaffairsjournal.org/2017/02/a-renewed-republican-party/.
Ibid. 15. See also Shelby Steele, “Why the Left Is Consumed with Hate,” Wall Street Journal, September 23, 2018. https://outline.com/TXW6L8.
See, by contrast, James McPherson, “Emmanuel Macron and the Barren Elite of a Changing Continent,” Washington Examiner, May 14, 2017. https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/emmanuel-macron-and-the-barren-elite-of-a-changing-continent.
Mitchell 8-9. The author calls the 2016 electoral outcome “a revolt in the name of national sovereignty, not populism.”
Ibid. 28. Gov. Winthrop’s sermon cited Matt. 5:14 from the Sermon on the Mount.
See Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: Norton, 1995).
See Saul D. Alinsky, Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage, 1972). As a community organizer Alinsky inspired both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
The dropping of charges against Gen. Michael Flynn may prove to be a turning point in the court of public opinion. See, e.g., Sidney Powell, “How to Fix Justice,” Hillsdale College, March 11, 2020. The larger struggle is between antithetical worldviews and what James Hitchcock called “competing ethical systems.” To illustrate, see John Zmirak, “Intersectionalism: A Weaponized Parody of Christianity,” Acad. Quest. (2019): 508-514.
Crane Brinton, The Anatomy of Revolution, revised and expanded edition (New York: Vintage, 1965 ) 251.
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 2014). A case in point is the growing popularity of the idea of socialism among college students and intellectuals.
Thomas Sowell, The Quest for Cosmic Justice (New York: Touchstone, 1999) 188.
Roger Scruton, A Political Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2006) 23-25; Roger Scruton, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2002) 68-83.
H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, ed. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (New York: Oxford,1958) 71.
Sowell 146. See Friedrich A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).