I can’t let this July 4th weekend pass without touching on Ross Douthat’s remarkable column on the theme of populism vs. globalism — remarkable mainly for where it was published, the New York Times itself, that ancient home of the aristocratic worldview that makes Ezra Klein look like Father Coughlin by comparison. Let’s face it: all the Vox’s and Buzzfeed’s are just young imitators desperate to copy the style — and connections — of Davos’ Mouth of Sauron himself, Douthat’s colleague Tom Friedman. I doubt Douthat’s column (or any force on the planet, for that matter) could cause Klein or Friedman or Jeff Zucker or Andrew Hamilton to have a moment’s introspection, let alone even a shred of humility, which is a shame. Elites before them have had similar attitudes, and with rather untoward results for themselves.
Douthat details the self-congratulatory attitude of the elite class that he himself calls home, or as he puts it: “It [the word “cosmopolitan”] gives the elite side of the debate (the side that does most of the describing) too much credit for being truly cosmopolitan.” That is, the globalists are not actually open-minded citizens of the world; they just belong to their own tribe, one no less insular and closed-minded than that of the flyover-country nationalists that they so despise.
I’ve been hammering on this point since even before the rise of the various populist movements: the Trumpkins, the Brexiteers, the Five Star crowd of Italy, the True Finns, the Sweden Democrats, the National Front. The globalist media likes to paint all of these as “far-right” fascist parties, but really, Brexit actually had more support with Labour rank-and-file voters than Tories — Jeremy Corbyn lost a vote of no-confidence from his fellow Labour MPs because he famously paid the Remain side mere lip service, arguing until the moment of his ascendancy to party leadership for Leave. This isn’t like the debates over the environment; this isn’t left vs. right. This is about the people wanting nothing less than to stick it to the Man.
And these movements rise because voters know damn well how our leadership class is in equal measures selfish, incompetent, and myopic. They vote for Donald Trump because there is literally nobody else who lets them vent their spleen at these globalists, these neoliberals, these Boomerists, and thus we get to the true danger of failed aristocracy: the horror of what replaces them. Failed monarch Louis XVI is only remembered, after all, as the king who was replaced by the Terror. It turns out he couldn’t just studiously ignore his way out of the rage of the Third Estate after all, a lesson that our current world-city class would do well to learn.
But they won’t, will they? Take any example you want. Politicians, corporate honchos, university heads, hospital CEOs, NGO chairs, bureaucratic chiefs — they all come from the same tribe of people and are interchangable. David Petraus went from four-star general to CIA chief to boutique banker. Jon Corzine went from Goldman Sachs head to Senator to NJ Governor to, yes, that’s right, boutique banker. Larry Summers went from Harvard academic to World Bank mucky-muck to high-ranking bureaucrat under Bill Clinton to Harvard president to — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — boutique banker. The same tiny tribe has their hands on every lever, and the only ones who think they’re doing a good job at it are each other.
And none of them rise from nowhere anymore, do they? Sure, the Clintons did, many decades ago, but the next generation is more like Chelsea, right? They all have had the right hookups since basically birth, didn’t they? Even tech, supposedly the last field where a commoner can pull himself up by his bootstraps a la Jeff Bezos, is increasingly dominated by Zuckerbergs with their Ivy League credentials and connections, as we all know from that movie. I’d more expect the next explosive app or device to come from a collaboration of Jack Dorsey, Larry Page, and Larry Summers’ boutique bank, than from a couple spunky college dropouts from San Jose.
Wanna write for Vox? You better be Ivy League. Wanna run a site like Vox? You not only better be Ivy League. You, or your parents, better be good friends with the people who matter. Otherwise, off with ye!
Shut out. Voiceless. In debt. Most likely living in a town the new economy has passed by. Laughed at by the Davos set. Is it any wonder regular plebians across the industrialized world vote for the populist option, no matter how crazy or horrifying? Even if they privately think Trump is a clown or Brexit is terrifying or Marine Le Pen is racist as all get out: how else can they send a message?, they’ll ask you plaintively.
And how do elites respond to populist, democratic results? By looking at themselves? Oh, my goodness, that is a quaint notion. No, they respond by questioning the need for democracy itself!
Populist revolts throughout history end terribly, as opposed to the American Revolution which was ably shepherded by our aristocracy of that era. Pick any example you want — the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, the rise of National Socialism in the early 1930s, any Communist uprising in East Asia, the fall of the Iranian Shah. All exerted a horrible cost on the commoners they were supposed to serve, as would the presidency of a Donald Trump.
And yet, all were triggered by evil times, and a leadership that was incompetent, uncaring, malevolent, or all three. The people don’t rise up in rebellion just to pass the time (well, outside of soccer venues anyway). The people rise up because they have no choice. This is why the blame for the Terror is more correctly placed on Louis XVI than Robespierre. It was the incompetent Czar that subjected the Russians to Bolshevik tyranny more than the Bolsheviks themselves. After all, there are always people ready to take over with false promises, violence and atrocities. They only can if a decayed or absent leadership class allows them to.
I’m no anarchist. I know there will always be a leadership class in some form, and there should be. There always has been an elite class in America from the signing of the Declaration on. In fact, it was excellent leadership that steered America from a fledgling backwater fighting for its life to the superpower it is today, though crises and wars great and small. And, other than brief interludes such as the Warren Harding administration (a rot which did not really affect leadership outside of Washington), we have never been afflicted with an elite class so insular, so in awe of itself, so walled-off, so short-sighted, so enormously greedy, so monumentally selfish as the one we have today.
Tom Friedman will blame Trump on showmanship, on flyover country ignorance, on nativism, on democracy itself; yet he will never, ever blame the one force he should — Tom Friedman.