Well, the penny finally dropped. I’m not sure why it took me this long to realize that the collective tantrum that’s seized America’s mass media, intelligentsia, and privileged classes generally for the last two and a half years, since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, was described right down to the small details back in the 1970s by pioneering grief researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Granted, she was talking about the five psychological stages that people go through when coming to terms with the reality of a terminal illness, but it makes an accurate model for what we may as well call the five stages of Donald Trump.
The first stage, of course, is denial: in Kübler-Ross’ sequence, the stunned refusal to admit that what’s happened has actually happened. The iconic protester shrieking “NO!!!” as Trump took the oath of office makes a good poster child for this stage, but I’m thinking here also of the widespread fixation among Democrats on the popular-vote totals, the insistence that it was all a mere fluke or must have been rigged by the Russians, the public figures who announced that they would never utter the phrase “President Trump,” and so on. All this was a straightforward if pointless attempt to deny the fact that the American people, according to the rules set out by the Constitution, had just elected Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States.
The second stage is anger: in Kübler-Ross’ sequence, blind unreasoning rage kindled by the sudden appearance of a yawning gap between expectations and reality. Here again, the internet promptly provided a poster child for this stage, but no one who had any contact with the mass media or the privileged strata of American society can have missed the torrents of futile rage poured out, not only at Trump himself, but at anything and everything that could conceivably be connected or associated or lumped together with him.
The third stage is bargaining. It’s important not to misunderstand this stage, as the bargains in question aren’t made with whatever has kickstarted the process. In Kübler-Ross’ writings, this is the stage at which terminally ill people repent their sins and make sweeping promises to God or their family or their doctor, in the hope that this will make the unwanted reality go away. The bargaining stage this time around had plenty of manifestations; the two most visible were the Mueller report, on the one hand, and such pledges of collective virtue as the “Green New Deal” and reparations for slavery on the other. In the former case, Democrats acted as though loudly professing faith in Robert Mueller would guarantee that the man’s report would bring down Trump’s presidency; in the latter—well, I don’t think there was even that much logic in it, since a political party that wants to win elections isn’t wise to pledge allegiance to policies supported by a fifth of the electorate at most. The actions of the bargaining phase, as Kübler-Ross points out, don’t have to make sense to anyone else.
The fourth stage is depression, and we’re starting to see the first stirrings of that now. As frantic efforts to twist the Mueller report around to mean what Democrats want it to mean fall apart, Trump’s opponents are starting to take the measure of the uphill struggle that will be needed to defeat an incumbent president with a passionately devoted base and a campaign fund that’s already reached gargantuan size, when the economy is booming, the anti-Trump media has discredited itself in the eyes of many voters and is shedding viewers at an impressive rate, and the Democratic party is split down the middle by bitter internal feuds. Websites on the leftward end of the blogosphere have accordingly started to post a scattering of glum essays on what it will mean if Trump wins a second term in the White House.
Off in the distance, finally, is the fifth stage, which is acceptance. Here again, it’s important not to misunderstand this stage. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like what’s happened. Acceptance means dealing with the fact that it’s not going to go away just because you don’t like it. It’s the process of coming to terms with the fact that the world has changed, and it has a payoff that none of the other stages have: it allows you to do something meaningful about the new reality. If you’re dealing with a terminal illness, it allows you to make the arrangements that will allow you to die with some degree of dignity and ensure that your estate is settled the way you want it. If you’re dealing with a new political reality, it allows you to find your feet again and figure out how to offer the voters what they want, instead of what you want them to want.
We live in the opening stages of just such a new political reality now. Among the best measures of the rise of the new reality is the recent flurry of denunciations of “populism” in the mainstream media. And what, pray tell, is populism? It’s the political stance that says that the majority has the right to have a voice in the making of collective decisions. The opposite of populism, though you won’t hear that mentioned in the denunciations I have in mind, is elitism: the viewpoint that only the self-proclaimed Good People have the right to a voice in decisions. That’s a core feature of the ideology that’s going to bits just now.
We can talk about the emergence of the new political reality in various ways, and I’ve explored some of them in previous posts here. The one I’d like to consider this week derives from the metaphor I’ve just used, the stages of grieving that Kübler-Ross discussed in her books. That is to say, we are talking about a death.
In a post three years ago, in the heat of the 2016 election, I described what was then dying and is now settling into rigor mortis under the label “American liberalism.” That was a flawed label, I now think, because it’s considerably too broad. American liberalism is a fabric that includes many different strands, many of which have been shoved out of sight in recent decades and some of which could well have a great deal to offer in the post-Trump future. The specific political stance I have in mind belongs to that subset of liberalism we can call progressivism—the belief that this complicated thing we call “history” has a one-way motor hardwired into it, so that it moves inevitably in the direction that liberals think it should go. At the same time, there are many flavors of progressivism, and it’s one of these in particular that has dominated political discourse in the US over the last six decades or so.
We can call it privileged progressivism: the belief that history always moves toward better things, and that this necessarily involves giving the already privileged more of what they want.
Let’s take a step back and talk a little about the realities of class and privilege in American society. I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts more than once that the most effective way to sort out where someone fits in the convoluted caste system of today’s America is to note how they get the majority of their income. Does it come from return on investments? Does it come from a monthly salary with benefits? Does it come from an hourly wage, usually with no benefits worth mentioning? Does it come from government welfare payments? In the US today, it’s usually one of those four—and the investment class, the salary class, the wage class, and the welfare class are thus the four great classes of modern American society.
Are there people who don’t fall into those categories? Sure. I’m one of them; I make most of my income from royalties on my books. People in my classlet fit into the holes and corners of the class structure just outlined. If they make the sort of modest but decent income I do, they exist somewhere between the wage and salary classes, with salary class educations but wage class income and benefits; if they make incomes in the upper middle class range and display all the right attitudes and values, they can win acceptance into the salary class; if they strike it rich and end up with serious investment income, they’re in the investment class, and the other people in that class treat them as they would any other nouveau-riche aspirant to gentility. The four main classes provide the framework into which eccentric classlets like mine have to fit.
Ever since the Second World War, furthermore, the salary class has been in the ascendant. Read novels from between the wars, and it’s taken for granted that what sets people apart as members of the privileged classes is the possession of enough investment income that they don’t have to work. I’m thinking here, because it’s a favorite book of mine and I reread it not too long ago, of Somerset Maugham’s novel The Razor’s Edge. In the denouement, the thing that tells you that Larry Darrell is on his way to a destiny most of the other characters can neither follow nor understand is that he has gotten rid of his investments, given the money away, and thus irrevocably removed himself from among the self-proclaimed Good People of his era.
If Maugham were writing today, Darrell’s quest for freedom would have involved quitting a job with a six- or seven-figure salary and an ample benefits package, because that’s what marks you in today’s world as one of the Good People, or in other words a member of the privileged classes. The ascendancy of the salary class is why in 1920, the CEOs of major corporations were the obsequious lackeys of the boards of directors, while now it’s generally the other way around; it’s also why interest rates, the most basic measure of the returns that provide the investment class with their income, have spent so many years at such rock-bottom levels. Members of the salary class borrow more money than they invest, and so benefit from low interest rates; members of the investment class invest more than they borrow, and so the level at which interest rates are set is a fair measure of the balance of power between the two classes.
The ascendancy of the salary class also explains why every proposal enacted to help the two less prosperous classes, to benefit the environment, or to solve some other problem, always benefits the salary class more than it does the purported beneficiaries of the proposal. People living on welfare in today’s America scrape by with a wretched standard of living, but that can’t be said of the legions of salaried bureaucrats who administer those same welfare programs. Similarly, the big push to send unemployed wage class Americans to college, there to get job training for jobs that didn’t happen to exist, turned into a disaster for millions of people who were lured into taking out student loans they will never be able to pay off and cannot discharge by bankruptcy. On the other hand, it was a huge success for the salaried employees of universities and banks, who prospered mightily from the scheme and ended up carrying none of the costs.
This is also why the environmental reforms promoted by well-funded think tanks and corporate media outlets impose costs solely on farmers, coal miners, and other people outside the salary class, while the earth-wrecking behaviors of the salary class—the long commutes in SUVs, the vacations in Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan, the sprawling, amenity-laden, and nearly uninsulated McMansions that use as much electricity as a city block in eastern Europe or an entire town in Indonesia, and the rest of it—get a free pass. Any time you see an environmental protest that focuses on demanding that governments do something, while neglecting the massive carbon footprints of the people involved in the protest, you’re looking at privileged progressivism on the hoof.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this sort of privileged self-interest, though, came recently from R.F. “Beto” O’Rourke, currently a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was asked by someone at a campaign event how he would solve the problem of “food deserts”—that is, areas that have no grocery stores. We’ll set aside for the moment the far from minor issue that under the US constitution, regulating the geographical distribution of grocery stores is not a duty assigned to the federal government, much less the office of the president. The point relevant here is that O’Rourke’s answer was that there ought to be a sustainable organic farm-to-table restaurant in every neighborhood.
Even the reporters choked, because farm-to-table restaurants are a current fad among the well-to-do, and a modest dinner for two at one of these establishments generally costs enough to keep a wage class family of four fed for a week or more. Nobody from the wage class or the welfare class, the two classes that have to deal with food deserts, can afford to eat at a farm-to-table restaurant—for that matter, neither can I—so O’Rourke’s suggestion amounts to saying that the best solution to the problem of inadequate food for the poor is to give salary class people more options for fine dining. Somehow the words “Let them eat organic arugula” come forcibly to mind.
It’s important to realize, though, that the people who benefit from these arrangements by and large don’t see themselves as riding roughshod over the public good or profiting off the sufferings of others, even when that’s basically what they’re doing. That’s what differentiates privileged progressivism from the privileged conservatism of the pre-Trump Republican Party, an ideology that can summed up tolerably well with the words “I’ve got mine, Jack.” Believers in privileged progressivism are convinced that they are the Good People, that their attitudes are really shared by every morally good person and their lifestyles are what every human being really wants. What’s more, they believe that the arc of history bends inevitably toward them: that eventually, as a result of the unstoppable march of progress, every single human being on earth will have the same attitudes they do and lead the same lifestyles they do, because their attitudes and lifestyles are what goodness, truth, right, and justice are all about.
If you want to see that belief system in action, watch the way that people of color who want to become members of the upper ranks of the salary class are expected to systematically discard everything that sets them apart from other members of the salary class. (Note that I’m not talking about athletes, musicians, university professors, or other people in the entertainment sector, who are expected to flaunt their differences from the salary-class norm, so they can be patronized accordingly.) If it’s not a matter of raw biology—for example, skin color—out it goes: attitudes, values, lifestyles, all must conform to the privileged-progressive template. There is no room for anything but the most harmlessly cosmetic of variations.
This isn’t simply a matter of ordinary conformism, tbough of course that’s involved as well. To the privileged progressives, their attitudes and lifestyles are the hallmarks of the glorious future everyone will eventually embrace, whether they want to or not. Every person who embraces these things in advance of that final triumph, discarding their own values and preferences in the process, hastens the coming of the privileged progressive utopia, where people of every continent and gender and ethnic group without exception will all believe exactly the same set of rigidly dogmatic ideologies and embrace exactly the same suffocatingly narrow range of lifestyles.
That, in turn, is why privileged progressivism started coming apart at the seams when Donald Trump broke free of the pack of Republican candidates in the 2016 election campaign. He did that, as my readers will remember, by addressing the concerns of the millions of wage class Americans who were being expected to foot the bill for the attitudes and lifestyles of the salary class, and who had been plunged into destitution and misery by forty years of policies that benefited the salary class at their expense. Like most ideologies of the privileged, privileged progressivism only made sense so long as its proponents could pretend that theirs was the only viewpoint that mattered. Once the viewpoints of the excluded forced themselves onto the public stage by way of Trump’s electoral victory, that was no longer the case.
The new political reality we face in today’s America is one in which it’s no longer possible to pretend that history has a motor driving it in whatever direction will give the salary class whatever it happens to want. That means, in turn, that members of the salary class who want something may just have to bargain for it, and provide members of other classes with some of the things they want, even when this inconveniences the salary class. It also means, as some of my readers may have noticed, that some of the underprivileged groups who’ve been told to wait patiently for crumbs to fall from the table of the salary class are beginning to speak up for themselves and demand that their needs be taken into account now, thank you very much.
It’s indicative of this that the media is belatedly starting to talk about the yawning gaps between what salary class politicians say they believe and the way they live their lives. New York mayor Bill de Blasio is the latest poster child for this phenomenon: the proponent of a grandiose set of green reforms, he also drives ten miles every day in an SUV to work out in a fashionable gym. Could he have some exercise equipment installed in Gracie Mansion and spare the atmosphere a lot of unnecessary carbon? Sure, but until recently the rule that members of the salary class get whatever they want shielded him from criticism. The criticism he’s now fielding shows that the rule in question no longer applies.
That is to say, we are returning to politics as usual. As the shrieks of denial and anger, the chatter of bargaining, and the moans of depression fall silent, what’s beginning to emerge is ordinary politics, in which different sectors of the electorate offer their support to politicians in exchange for the policies they want and need, and politicians who don’t follow through on their promises can expect to have the sectors that supported them turn to someone else next time around. What this shows, in turn, is that the period that came to an end in 2016 was a period of politics as unusual, in which the interests of a single class temporarily eclipsed the needs of everyone else.
Yes, there have been such periods before in American history, and it’s interesting to note that each of them ended in a hotly contested election in which the candidate who won was cordially hated by the establishment and its tame media. If you want a list, dear reader, I encourage you to sit down with a good history of the United States and make one yourself; a basic knowledge of American history is rare enough these days that the experience will probably do you good.
What makes for a period of politics as unusual, finally, is the same theme I’ve been developing here since the last months of 2018: what happens when all of reality is expected to conform to a single, self-interested narrative that privileges the experience of one class, or species, or group of individuals over all others. More than two centuries ago, the poet William Blake gave a cogent name to that habit of thought: “single vision.” In the posts ahead, we’ll gather up the threads of our exploration of single vision, and try to glimpse something of what lies beyond it.