Why Trump? Blame The Gap Between Elites and the People

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Supporters yell as Donald Trump enters a rally at the Sumter Civic Center in Sumter, South Carolina, on February 17. The author argues that the “cultural” gap between the elites and the “people” has always existed. But the size of the gulf today may have made populist demagogues like Trump dangerously more attractive. Randall Hill/Reuters

This article first appeared on the American Enterprise Institute site.

From Alabama to Denmark and Nevada to the Netherlands, and from Arizona to Sweden and Germany, Hungary and Poland, voters are flocking to right/left populist, nationalist, isolationist and nativist demagogues, parties and movements.

The trend sweeping Europe and the United States is broader and deeper than politics. The attraction of these suddenly popular phenomena appear to stem in a larger measure from an enormous gap between the beliefs of the “post-modern” and largely post-Christian Western elites (political, media, cultural, academic), on the one hand, and their countries’ hoi polloi on the other.

This chasm is not merely ideological. It is ethical, linguistic— almost anthropological.

For the elites, nothing, or almost nothing, is “written in stone.” Everything is fluid, situational, pragmatically determined. As the founder of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre put it, “existence precedes essence.”

With “God dead,” as Nietzsche famously proclaimed, ethical absolutes are no more. Values are a matter of personal choice—and one is just as good as another. Nothing and no one is better or worse. Just “different.” There is no “truth” but multiple “truths.”

And, following another postulate of post-modernism articulated by Nietzsche, “there are no facts, only interpretations.” Hence the on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand approach of elite media that gives equal credence to, say, democratically elected governments and unelected dictatorships.

Similarly, there are neither “just” defensive wars nor “unjust” wars of aggression. All are “conflicts” and “violence.” Hence, any “peace” (aka, “political solution”), no matter how strained, short-lived, or outright fraudulent, is preferable to the battle for the victory of good over evil.

Borders and national sovereignty are atavisms. Hence such quintessentially elite bureaucratic projects as the EU, the Schengen “Europe without borders” and the single European currency. The military is just as obsolete both as an instrument of geopolitics and a means of defending one’s values or those of one’s allies or clients. Ideologies, and the hatreds they inspire, should not exist and, in any case, can be resolved by a “dialogue.”

On the other side of the chasm are millions who crave certainties. They believe that there is an absolute hierarchy of values. That there is “right” and “wrong.” Their moral credos or “essence” shape and guide their “existence,” not the other way around. To them, God is not dead. In President Obama’s words, they cling to their guns and their religion.

They believe that there is truth and that some facts are irrefutable and not open to interpretations. One such fact is that some hatreds are inexpiable, that conflicts they lead to are unappeasable and cannot be resolved by negotiations or concessions but only by a victory of the one side over the other. And in such cases, they believe one should strike first. They also believe that borders are sovereign and that militaries exist to be used to defend principles and territories.

They seem to feel that political correctness is rendering their countries incapable of conducting conversations on matters they consider vital. It took a series of simultaneous attacks by Islamic militants in Paris last year for the French president to identify their credo as islamisme radical.

But President Obama could not bring himself to define the terrorists in these terms. He called them “a bunch of zealots” and he refused to acknowledge the religious and racial hatred as he described the killing of the shoppers in a Jewish deli as “randomly shoot[ing] a bunch of folks.”

The deep weariness of such euphemisms and obfuscations may account for the almost reflexive, near-cathartic enthusiasm (no matter how misguided) for those who are “telling it like it is”—something that a plurality of Donald Trump’s primary voters cite as the key to their support.

This is not to argue for or against each of these Weltanschauungs. The “cultural” difference between the elites and the “people” has always existed. But the size of the gulf today may have rendered populist demagogues on both the right and left dangerously more attractive.

Let us hope that the Western establishment sees the danger and starts adjusting its vocabulary and values to the point where it can talk to its people in ways that the latter will find credible, respectful and understandable.

Leon Aron is a resident scholar and the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Russian domestic and foreign policy, U.S.-Russia relations, and the economic, social and cultural aspects of Russia’s post-Soviet evolution.

Since 2015, Aron has been serving on the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees the operations of several international broadcasting outlets, including Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. From 1990 to 2004, Aron had been a permanent discussant on Voice of America’s radio and television show Looking from America (Gliadya iz Ameriki), which was broadcast to Russia every week. Aron has also taught at Georgetown University and was the recipient of the U.S. Institute of Peace’s Peace Fellowship.

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