President-elect Donald Trump says that his victory was grounded in a “movement”. Is it a movement? If so, what’s it about? Like a lot of folks, I have spent considerable time since election day and read and heard tens of thousands of words by various analysts investigating this and related aspects of the Trump phenomena.
The best answers I have found are in revisiting a book I read and reviewed over six years ago, The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite, by Lee Harris. I had previously come into contact with Harris when I commented on an essay he had written in Policy Review entitled “The Tea Party vs. the Intellectuals”. He contacted me and offered a copy of the book and I accepted. The book is in many ways an expansion of his theme in the essay, but it is also a broadening of the description of the cultural conflict and the history of American thought that has brought us to this point. I highly recommend it.
The conflict, of course, has all the elements of a populist revolt, of which, as he points out, there have been several in our history. But he adds, “Today’s popular revolt is different from earlier populist revolts because it is a rebellion against a new kind of elite. It is an elite that is a product of the modern system of education-based meritocracy that has come to dominate not only the U. S. but all the advanced nations of the world”. And this cognitive elite, he says, can exclude ordinary people from deciding who gets to be a member, even though they might have access through merit, and to that extent it is self-selecting and self-perpetuating, anathema to the populists.
Another element that is different is that, in the past, the anti-elitism of American populism positioned it in conflict with the American conservative tradition; in fact, one could say that the term “populist conservative” historically has been an oxymoron. But no longer, for they have now largely merged their key cultural issues and work closely on the political stage. And as Harris notes in extended discussion, what most agitates the populist conservative is a conviction that America is losing it historical uniqueness, well-known to them as “American exceptionalism”, as that term has come to define America’s status as “chosen by divine providence to play a uniquely benevolent role in the general history of mankind”.
So to sum up his analysis in overly general terms, what we have on one side of the cultural divide are those who believe they are entitled to govern by virtue of their superior knowledge and expertise and on the other side we have those who resent being governed by anyone at all and are fully convinced that they are best equipped to control their own lives. Current economic anxieties are certainly part of the mix for the latter group, but it is far more motivated by a sense of cultural alienation with the cognitive elites, and it is this spirit which won the day for Trump.
Does this revolt make a movement? Can Trump lead it to a major turn for America? No one knows, but it will be a bumpy ride.