Americans are the most generous and admirable of people, and among the worst governed in the First World. Can this be fixed? I don’t know. How did this come about? That is a question I think I can answer.
I arrived in America in 1989, an immigrant from Canada. My America was the country of John Ford’s westerns, a country of people hard on the outside and soft on the inside. Though they lived in a heartless world, Americans were secret romantics, like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, who never abandoned their illusions. Theirs was a country touched by grace, as Dallas and the Ringo Kid were in Stagecoach, one that always gave people a second chance. It was a country of loud exuberance and quiet nobility.
It was a country whose troops provided the margin of victory in two World Wars, whose commitment to ideals of freedom and justice inspired everyone, everywhere. It was a country of unrivalled prosperity, with the greatest educational system in the world. It had owned the twentieth-century and was the desired destination country for every emigrant. It was the country that, as Churchill once said, always did the right thing in the end, though only after it had tried everything else.
But in recent times America no longer seemed able to do the right thing in the end. On cross-country rankings of economic freedom, we had been dropping like a stone. Annual growth rates fell to one or two percent, which IMF managing director Christine Lagarde called the ‘new mediocre.’ Our K-12 schools had proved dismal failures, compared to those of other First World countries. Our bureaucrats had made themselves into a parallel government, an unelected and unaccountable administrative state. We had saddled ourselves with wasteful laws which, given Washington’s gridlock, had proven impossible to repeal. Once united, we today are divided, each group sequestered in its hates.
Conservatives knew that change must come. After the excesses of the first Obama Congress, the Tea Party election of 2010 gave Republicans control of the House. That’s fine, they were told, but you’re stuck with the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) until you win the White House and the Senate. Then, after an embarrassing loss in 2012, the Republicans won the Senate in 2014. Close, but no cigar, they were told. You still need the White House. And so we came to the 2016 presidential election.
Both Republicans and Democrats thought that the election of Donald Trump would change everything. Trump’s supporters hoped it would mean a sharp break from twenty years of foreign policy failures, an end to both George W. Bush’s nation-building and Obama’s fecklessness. We’d not go looking for foreign countries to invade, and we wouldn’t be erasing any of our red lines. We’d be neither a naïf nor a patsy.
Republican voters knew that our K-12 schools and immigration laws were badly in need of reform, and liked Trump’s plans for them. They wanted Trump to cut the administrative state and all its wasteful, job-destroying regulations down to size. Mostly, they knew that we had become a class society where rich parents raised rich kids and poor parents raised poor kids, and that this was a betrayal of the American Dream, the idea that whoever you are and wherever you come from, your children will have it better than you did. They knew that that promise had been broken, that Trump had pledged to fix it, and that is why they elected him president.
Democrats also knew that Trump had promised change, but change was not what they wanted. The administrative state that employed so many of them, directly and indirectly, suited them just fine. So did all the barriers to mobility in our ossified class society. If immobility meant that middle class kids wouldn’t get ahead, it also meant that their kids wouldn’t fall behind. They’d go to the best schools and in time would take their places in an American noblesse. And so we created an American aristocracy composed of the members of the well-credentialised, liberal elite atop the greasy pole, a privileged group that Christopher Lasch and before him Milovan Djilas called the New Class.
They’re to be found on both sides of the fence. Mostly they’re liberals, but they also include people like George W. Bush (son of G.H.W. Bush), John Podhoretz (son of Norman) and Bill Kristol (son of Irving). When Jeb Bush looked like the Republican heir apparent, and Hillary Clinton the Democratic candidate, the class divide between the elite and ordinary Americans recalled the French aristocracies of old.
The New Class isn’t the super wealthy top 0.1 percent of earners, who are surprisingly egalitarian and have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. They’re not the basketball millionaires or the high tech gazillionaires. Instead, they’re the top 10 per cent, the professionals earning more than $200,000 a year, whose toast always falls butter side up and who pass on their advantages to their children. They are skilled in the hyper-technical rules and adept in ever-changing Orwellian Newspeak that are employed to exclude the backward, the eccentric and the politically incorrect. Their beliefs are liberal, their speech is socially approved and they never tell jokes. They live in a world divided between people at the table and people on the table, between sources and targets. You will know them by their mating calls. Reproductive freedom. The world is flat. Demography is Destiny.
People who seek to explain Trump often look for parallels from our past. He’s a new Andrew Jackson, they tell us, or perhaps a plain-speaking Harry Truman. Some on the Right compare him to Ronald Reagan, since everyone on the Right loves Ronald Reagan. But he’s unlike anything we’ve seen before, for the simple reason that he’s up against something we’ve never seen before: a liberalism that’s given up on the American Dream of a mobile and classless society. And that was the paradox of the 2016 election, one in which a revolutionary capitalist defeated the liberal candidate of a counter-revolutionary and aristocratic New Class.
Like all aristocrats, the New Class defends its privileges as the consequence of fixed and unchangeable laws of nature. We’d love to do something for you poor slobs, they tell us, except nothing can be done. If you’ve fallen behind, it’s because we’ve moved to an information economy with premium wages for high-skilled workers, and regrettably you’re dumb and low-skilled. And if you’ve fared poorly, maybe you did it to yourself, with your drug dependency, your laziness, your general loutishness.
But that’s not how we got here. If we’ve become an aristocracy, it’s because of the artificial and unjust rules and institutions that have created a class society, and these include the broken schools and regulatory barriers that liberals support. We’re told that this can’t be changed, but that’s nothing more than a self-serving mythology which recalls the left-wing critique of capitalism associated with Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. They too had been told that nothing could be done, that power relationships were cast in stone. But they weren’t buying it. They told us that transformative change was possible, that a false narrative had legitimised an unjustly privileged class, and that this could be reversed. They never did say how we’d get to the promised land, and their socialist ideals were impenetrably dense and devoid of the most basic understanding of economics. It turned out to be a dead end. What the Frankfurt School did understand, however, was the need to reject that which must never be accepted: false narratives, injustice, aristocracy.
That was good advice. But now things are reversed. The Frankfurt School’s critique of America has gone mainstream and been taken up by the New Class. Yesterday’s revolutionaries have come to power and become today’s counter-revolutionaries. They are Bourbons who seek to pass themselves off as Jacobins. They have bought into a radical leftism, while resisting the call to unseat a patrician class that leftism in the past would have opposed. They tell us that aristocracy is natural, that change is impossible, that they deserve their place at the top of the totem pole. ‘No haters here,’ read their signs, but from every pore they drip venom.
Against this, Trump offered a way out. He said we could fix our schools, reform our immigration laws and drain a regulatory swamp; and in doing so return to an America where our children will have it better than we did. He said that his opponent was corrupt and had given up on the promise of America. That is how to understand the Trump revolution. That was why he won.
Will this last? Every time things have seemed to turn his way, Trump has made an equal and opposite gaffe. Firmness and prudence, energy and tact, were not given to him in equal measure; and the man who wrote The Art of the Deal now finds himself obliged to deal with people who can scarcely hide their contempt for him.
The rebuffs have encouraged some to hope that things might revert to the way we were, with two complacent political parties that ignore the issues that elected Trump. But in each party thoughtful people know that that can’t happen, that we can’t go back. In Britain, this was something a complacent Theresa May discovered, when she nearly lost to the impossible Jeremy Corbyn.
Whatever might happen to Trump, then, the causes he identified will continue to dominate American politics. That is the subject of this book, how he triumphed over a tone-deaf Republican Establishment, how he created a new party that he called the Republican Workers Party. And how I witnessed the death of the old Republican Party and assisted at the new party’s birth.
The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump Victory Drove Everyone Crazy, and Why It Was Just What We Needed by F. H. Buckley is released in September and is available for pre-order.