None of us on the staff of The American Interest predicted the world-historical event that took place yesterday. But we have spent the last year rigorously assessing the phenomena that made it possible. If there has been a theme to our coverage, it is this: The American managerial class leaned too far over its skis with its cosmopolitan project. Eager to reap the rewards (and there are many) from technoglobalization, people in power on both sides collectively neglected the interests and preferences of broad swathes of the country. The political establishment, utterly convinced in the rightness of neoliberal internationalism and the sanctity of the status quo, never found a way to responsibly co-opt the sentiments of Americans who did not buy into cosmopolitan vision. A vacuum was created, and Donald Trump has now filled it.
We will continue to discuss the fallout from this stunning elite failure in the days and weeks ahead. In the meantime, here are five essays from this year that help put yesterday’s events in historical and sociological context:
1. Andrew Jackson, Revenant, by Walter Russell Mead, describes Donald Trump as the continuation of a distinctive American political tradition dating back to Old Hickory:
Whatever happens to the Trump candidacy, it now seems clear that Jacksonian America is rousing itself to fight for its identity, its culture and its primacy in a country that it believes it should own. Its cultural values have been traduced, its economic interests disregarded, and its future as the center of gravity of American political life is under attack. Overseas, it sees traditional rivals like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran making headway against a President that it distrusts; more troubling still, in ISIS and jihadi terror it sees the rapid spread of a movement aiming at the mass murder of Americans. Jacksonian America has lost all confidence in the will or the ability of the political establishment to fight the threats it sees abroad and at home. It wants what it has always wanted: to take its future into its own hands.
2. Immigration and the Political Explosion of 2016, by Nicholas Gallagher, looks back at other instances in American history where an explosive mix of mass immigration and structural economic change has wrought dramatic political upheavals:
Twice previously in U.S. history, concerns over mass immigration have combined with a growing sense of social and economic crisis to wreak havoc on the political status quo. Popular reactions against the Irish immigration (c. 1830-1860) and the so-called “Great Wave” from Southern and Eastern Europe (1880-1924) became potent political movements when a segment of the American public connected the immigration issue to deeper questions about the economy, community, and national identity. These movements destroyed or took over old parties, changed the national agenda, and altered the course of our history. Now, as concern over the breakdown of the Blue Model intersects with anger about mass immigration, we are experiencing a third such crisis in American politics.
3. When and Why Nationalism Beats Globalism, by Jonathan Haidt, discusses the social psychology of elite cosmopolitanism and the ways that it can inadvertently activate nationalist and even authoritarian passions:
Rather than focusing on the nationalists as the people who need to be explained by experts, I’ll begin the story with the globalists. I’ll show how globalization and rising prosperity have changed the values and behavior of the urban elite, leading them to talk and act in ways that unwittingly activate authoritarian tendencies in a subset of the nationalists. I’ll show why immigration has been so central in nearly all right-wing populist movements. It’s not just the spark, it’s the explosive material, and those who dismiss anti-immigrant sentiment as mere racism have missed several important aspects of moral psychology related to the general human need to live in a stable and coherent moral order. Once moral psychology is brought into the story and added on to the economic and authoritarianism explanations, it becomes possible to offer some advice for reducing the intensity of the recent wave of conflicts.
4. How Samuel Huntington Predicted Our Political Moment, by Jason Willick, uses Samuel Huntington’s 2004 book Who Are We as a lens for explaining the nationalist-cosmopolitan divide, and how it played out in each party since the end of the Cold War:
According to Huntington, postwar globalization had given rise to a new class of “global citizens” at the highest echelons of American academia, industry, and (bipartisan) politics—a “de-nationalized” elite whose “attitudes and behavior contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification of the rest of the American public.” The jet-setting cosmopolitans tended to be far more supportive of free trade, open immigration, and activist foreign policy than most Americans. Huntington described this wide and allegedly growing gap as a major source of the decline in trust in democratic institutions since the 1960s.
5. Declassé: Nothing New Under the Sun, by Harold James, looks to 19th century European history to explain the social forces that come into play when a native working class’ social position is threatened by economic change:
Alas, the term déclassé fills books of European social history that, evidently, no one remembers or reads anymore. Yes, all this has happened before and, as social phenomena go, déclassement sits at the very foundation of the social theories and political ideologies that are the subject of basic political science and history courses. Karl Polanyi’s famous The Great Transformation, for example, has as a central focus the 19th century story of how many artisans lost their occupations as a result of the spread of factories. This process occurred through periods in which most modern historians believe inequality was rising and real wages were declining, but also in periods in which real wages were rising. The most conspicuous losers in the first half of the 19th century were the armies of workers who were spread out over the countryside in small villages and towns toiling on textiles with old-fashioned equipment such as hand-looms. They were put out of business by the application of water and then mechanical energy to weaving or spinning—some of them, led by Ned Ludd, gave rise to a certain well-known English vocabulary term. On the whole they eventually formed the basis of radical protest movements all over Europe—from Chartism in Britain to the revolutionaries of 1848 on the Continent.