Trump, Brexit, and the collapse of a world order
The election of Donald Trump punctuates the end of an era—and I don’t mean just the Clinton era. We are living through a time of global historical change: the demise of an international order.
Somehow our leading politicians, pundits, and pollsters, who spend their days analyzing the tides of public opinion, never detected the tsunami. Even on the day when votes were being cast the cognoscenti still were confidently predicting a solid Clinton victory. About 60 million people cast their ballots for Trump, but apparently the talking heads of the television networks didn’t know those people, or dismissed their views as inconsequential. They felt sure, in their own minds, that Trump was a fringe candidate; so it followed that he could not command that sort of popular support. But he did.
To avoid misunderstandings, let me make it clear that I was not one of those 60 million Trump voters. I could not bring myself to support a man who seemed so manifestly unfit to be our commander-in-chief. (I do, however, rejoice in the defeat of Hillary Clinton, who views people like me as “deplorable” and would undoubtedly have wielded the power of government against us.) I am not gloating; I have grave reservations about a Trump presidency. A friend who backed Trump from the outset predicted that Trump would hit the Establishment in Washington like “a human wrecking ball.” He relished that prospect, as did many other Trump voters. So do I. But wrecking balls make a mess.
This was certainly an anti-Establishment vote. Trump defeated the Republican Establishment in the primaries; then he defeated the entire Establishment— the leaders of both major political parties, the mass media, the Ivy League, Wall Street, and Hollywood—in yesterday’s vote. The Establishment did not, and could not, foresee that result, because… Well, because the Establishment is established, and Trump
is was not, and people in power are prone to the assumption that they will always be in power.
Pollsters missed the trend, just as they had missed the trend in the Brexit vote. Why? Many people assume that pollsters simply take the responses to their questions and extrapolate the results. But in fact the most sophisticated surveys make certain assumptions about how well their samples have approximated the entire population, and adjust the numbers accordingly. So their results are only as good as their assumptions, and this year their assumptions were proven wrong.
But why were so many intelligent and influential people blinded by the same unwarranted assumptions? Because, I suggest, our elites have lost touch with ordinary people. In his important book Coming Apart, Charles Murray showed how the wealthy and privileged tend to isolate themselves from the poor and the middle class. In past generations rich families might have employed servants, and if they were sensitive at all, they learned a bit about the daily struggles of the servants’ families. But today’s rich—living in leafy gated communities, commuting to work in secure high-rise fortresses—rarely encounter the people who are struggling. The stock market is rising, so they think that the economy is healthy, not noticing that for middle-class households, living standards have been steadily falling. Their children are being educated at prestigious schools, and taking their own places in the elite; so they do not understand the anxiety of parents who worry how their children can support a family.
Did you notice how often, in their analysis of the election returns, pundits observed that Clinton was winning among college-educated voters? There was a barely veiled assumption there: that intelligent and informed voters would reject Trump. But there is another way to interpret those votes. College-educated voters are much more likely to enjoy (or aspire to) membership in the elite, and the elite sought to preserve the status quo. Notice, too, that membership in the elite spans party lines. Both Democrats and Republicans overwhelmingly supported the bailout of investment banks, at the expense of the taxpayers, and leaders of both parties rejected Trump’s populist appeal.
But there have always been pockets of resistance to the rule of this bipartisan elite: the “deplorables” who oppose social engineering, the small-business owners who resent crony capitalism, the blue-collar workers who saw their paychecks shrinking, the debts rising, their neighborhoods deteriorating. As the Establishment drifted ever further out of touch, those pockets of resistance grew, and Trump managed to cobble together an unlikely coalition. Those 60 million Trump voters may not agree on many of the day’s hot issues, but they do agree on the need for a change at the top.
The Trump election, like the Brexit vote, showed the common people in a rebellious mood, fed up with the ruling class. “After Brexit and this election, everything is now possible,” observed Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to the US. He followed with a remarkable statement: “A world is collapsing before our eyes.”
Yes, a world is collapsing, for M. Araud and his peers. After Brexit and Trump, who will be next to fall? Will Le Pen harness the same anti-establishment forces in France? Will the German people punish Angela Merkel for opening the doors to immigrants? Will other countries drop out of the European Union? To that last question, at least, I feel sure the answer is Yes. The EU is the very model of an elite institution: set up and sustained by the power-brokers of Europe, never seeking a popular mandate. The shape of the EU will change dramatically if and when the individual nations allow their people to vote on the question.
Every society has a ruling elite: a relatively small number of people who hold the levers of power. But as political theorists like Gaetano Mosca argued a century ago, the power of the elite is never unrestricted. Common people always have some means—what Mosca called “juridical defense” to be employed when the elite overstep their authority. To put it differently, a small number of people rule because the great mass of people consent to their rule. When that consent is withdrawn, the elite eventually lose their control. The collapse of the Soviet Union—a case in which non-violent resistance overcame brutal totalitarian power—was a dramatic illustration of that rule. In a democratic state the “juridical defense” is more straightforward: the popular vote.
Yesterday we witnessed a tectonic shift in American politics. The voters repudiated the people who, for the past generation or more, have presumed to instruct the public on how to think and how to vote. The Trump election marks the end—or rather, the beginning of the end—of an era of rule by a technocratic elite.
But if one elite is falling from power, what sort of group will rise up to replace it? There are many different strains of thought within the Trump coalition, some of them disturbing or even dangerous. This is not a time for smug celebration. It is a time when we should dedicate themselves all the more determinedly to the task of preserving and promoting a Christian understanding of political and social life.
President-elect Trump has made some attractive promises to the pro-life movement. He must be held to those promises. But he has made no such promises regarding the defense of family life, and in fact his campaign rhetoric (to say nothing of his personal history) suggested a complete lack of interest in defending the family: the basic building-block of any healthy society. Many Christian voters saw Trump as the only available port in a political storm, but the election result cannot rationally be interpreted as a vindication of Christian principles. Russell Moore, the perceptive Southern Baptist leader, warned in today’s Washington Post: “The cultural decline we have warned against is now part of every ideological coalition in the country.
A Hillary Clinton administration would have been a disaster for the causes of life and family and faith. We do not yet know what to expect from a Trump administration. But the time is ripe for change—not just in America but throughout the Western world. Ross Douthat of the New York Times likens the Trump victory to the ascent of Napoleon to power. But Napoleon came to power only after the cataclysmic turmoil of the French Revolution. For us the turmoil is just beginning.
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!