In his best speech to date—clearing a low bar—Donald Trump successfully showcased the failures of our political and economic elites, but failed to make a case for economic protectionism. Worse, in a damning indictment of his life’s work to date, Trump skirted the real reason he’s benefiting from today’s nationalist moment.
The economic pain he identified is no chimera. Nor are the culprits. But America’s angry crowd is fueled less by suffering than by disgust at how our leading class does so little with their success and prosperity that rises to the level of personal greatness.
Despite Trump’s clear willingness to keep shouldering the burdens of a campaign for president, in one fashion he hardly differs from the global and national elite he decries. Today, those in charge are those who move money around. Even those who mainly make money or make things still play a secondary role. Bureaucrats, speculators, and fixers dominate the elite, perverting governance and banking alike. Through special credit, special information, and special treatment, the management and manipulation of the political economy defines the crowd at the top of the pyramid.
Certainly rich people can still stand up for the little guy. Class does not determine politics. Today’s administrative elite, however, is not just wealthy. It’s largely limited in its achievements to enjoying wealth accumulated through patronage and money-shuffling. That—rather than its wealth alone—is why the elite is so reviled.
Trump Is Grand, But He’s Not Great
Trump has successfully styled himself as a populist leader because—in so many ways—he acts how his fellow elites do not. He is, specifically, so much more crude than any of them. At a time when partisans regardless of party are increasingly likely to think vulgarity is essential to breaking the grip of established power over the public imagination, Trump’s half-calculated coarseness was sure to resonate with many. But in polite, elite company, his ideas are considered virtually obscene—suitable for disgust, not debate.
Nevertheless, as grand as Trump’s gross nature may be, there’s nothing great in it. For all the winning that colors his public life, greatness does not. Americans hardly need a great president to return to greatness, however much such a figure would help things along. What they do want is a leader with the personal gravitas necessary to shame the ruling elite for their banality and pettiness—for such comfort and self-satisfaction within such lowered horizons.
On their own, the populists can’t make these charges stick. Their commingled fury, resentment, and envy makes it hard, but their own simple lack of greatness makes it impossible. Obviously, without question, there is a heroism or grandeur in the determination of those who meet stark everyday struggles head-on—a virtue that can often characterize a people as a whole. But individual personal greatness among those at society’s pinnacle is something else, and it achieves something else.
It authorizes a kind of scorn toward ignoble elites that’s more noble than ordinary people can muster, however deeply pained or pure at heart. The charisma of scornful greatness isn’t morally perfect, but it can deal decadent elitism a powerful blow that solidarity alone cannot. Smart populists understand a true charismatic can emerge from the humblest of backgrounds. But we hold out hope we can make elitehood great again.
After all, as our vast love of sports should help us admit, the whole point of elites is to broaden the scope of human life by attaining greatness that matters—greatness that ordinary people can’t attain, singly or together, even when they’re doing relatively well.
To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Required
For all their misbegotten policies, the real betrayal is that our elites have fallen short of the mark of the kind of greatness withheld for elites. However quickly, on however huge a scale, managing and manipulating transactions does not arouse in us a recognition of elite greatness. That colossal effort surely has increased net prosperity. Historically few humans worldwide are now mired in extreme poverty.
The fact is we want more, and we need to admit it. Decreasing net human suffering is a very good thing, but it is not everything. Our elites’ lives—so much like ours but so larded with luxury—lack the substance of greatness that could at least ameliorate the crushing anxiety their economic policies have created. Were their stewardship sounder and their ethic sturdier, the sweeping dislocation they’ve weathered in such fine style wouldn’t make us quite so sick with rage.
Power, used well, serves others. Our elites, including those who lucked, blundered, or schemed their way to the top, use their power to serve themselves in sadly common fashion. They seem not to know or care that those below still see a moral analogy between greatness and goodness, and see the elite destroying it.
For us closer to the bottom, there’s a profoundly human despair in feeling our own hollowness and vanity reflect blithely back from those closest to the top. It’s a disappointing but predictable irony that Trump, who’s supposedly all about greatness but has given humanity nothing durably superb, used his speech on restoring America’s wealth to paper over the impoverishment of the culture and the character of its elite.