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 20th 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 today America no longer seems able to do the right thing in the end. On cross-country rankings of economic freedom, we have been dropping like a stone. Our schools are mediocre compared to those of other First World countries. Our bureaucrats have made themselves into a parallel government, an unelected and unaccountable administrative state. We have saddled ourselves with wasteful laws which, given Washington’s gridlock, have proven impossible to repeal. Once united, we are now divided, each group sequestered in its hates.
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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 20 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 bully nor a patsy.
Republican voters knew that our 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 were and wherever you came from your children would 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.
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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.
The New Class isn’t the super wealthy top 0.1% of earners, who are surprisingly egalitarian and have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. Instead, they’re the top 10%, professionals earning more than $200,000 a year, who pass on their advantages to their children. They are skilled in its hyper-technical rules and adept in the ever-changing Orwellian Newspeak that is employed to exclude the backward, the eccentric and the politically incorrect. 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. The world is flat. Demography is Destiny. All are welcome here.
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 Leftism that’s given up on the American Dream of a mobile and classless society, and that defends economic immobility and aristocracy.
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Like all aristocrats, the New Class is counter-revolutionary and 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 economy with premium wages for high-skilled workers, and regrettably you’re low-skilled. And if you’ve fared poorly, maybe you did it to yourself, with your drug dependency, your laziness.
But that’s not the real story. If we’ve become an aristocracy, it’s because of the artificial and unjust rules and institutions that keep people from rising, such as the broken schools and regulatory barriers that the New Class supports. They tell us that these can’t be changed, but that’s nothing more than a self-serving mythology. We had thought that magical thinking had been expelled by Max Weber’s disenchantment – Entzauberung –but it’s still with us.
The narrative of a necessary and natural aristocracy was precisely what Trump rejected, when he said we could make America great again. We could restore the American Dream and in doing so America would thrive as never before. We could fix our schools, reform our immigration laws and drain a regulatory swamp, and return America to the country where we can believe that our children will have it better than we did.
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That was the 2016 election. And now? Things never turn out exactly as we had hoped or feared. Yet since the election, change has been coming. We’ve added 3.6 million new jobs; and the stock market, which Paul Krugman said would never recover, has soared to never-before-seen heights. Consumer confidence is at the highest level since 2000.
Trump has made good on his promise to replace Justice Scalia with a Supreme Court replacement in his mould, and is filling up Federal Court vacancies with judicial conservatives. He has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord and green-lighted the Keystone pipeline. We’ve stopped adding wasteful new regulations and have begun the slow process of undoing the costly ones that have weakened our economy.
Will this last? Trump’s legislative agenda is stalled, and every time things have seemed to turn his way he’s made an equal and opposite gaffe. He’s encouraged federal judges to question his motives and find his executive orders illegal. The man who wrote The Art of the Deal now finds himself obliged to deal with people who can scarcely hide their dislike of him.
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That has encouraged some to hope that things might revert to the way we were, with two complacent political parties which 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.
As I describe in my book, Trump has triumphed over a tone-deaf Republican Establishment, killed off the old party and created a new one called the Republican Workers Party. No mean feat. So whatever happens to him, the causes he identified will continue to dominate American politics and his effect on that will be indelible.
F.H.Buckley was a speechwriter and transition advisor to Donald Trump. This is adapted from his new book ‘The Republican Workers Party: How the Trump victory drove everyone crazy, and why it was just what we needed’ (Encounter)