Following on several of the posts today, but to step back a bit from the campaign issues a bit, The Guardian has run a long read, long form report on the roots of Trumpism, or perhaps more accurately, what is being called the alt-right. Here’s a taste, but as a student of socio-cultural identity and its powerful effects, I highly recommend you click across and read the whole thing.
Conservatives tend to portray their cause as the child of a revolt against the liberal status quo that began in the aftermath of the second world war, gained momentum in the 1950s when a cohort of intellectuals supplied the right with its philosophical underpinning, attained political consciousness in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and won vindication with Ronald Reagan’s election to the White House. Ideas have consequences, they proclaimed. Just look at us.
But there is another way of interpreting the history of the American right, one that puts less emphasis on the power of ideas and more on power itself – a history of white voters fighting to defend their place in the social hierarchy, politicians appealing to the prejudices of their constituents so they can satisfy the wishes of their donors, and the industry that has turned conservatism into a billion-dollar business.
This is the explanation preferred by leftwing critics, who typically regard the Republican party as a coalition fuelled by white nationalism and funded by billionaires. But this line of attack also has a long history on the right, where a dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades. Now the unlikely figure of Donald Trump has brought in a wave of reinforcements – over 13 million in the primaries alone. Their target is the managerial elite, and their history begins in the run-up to the second world war, when a forgotten founder of modern American conservatism became a public sensation with a book that announced the dawning of a civilisation ruled by experts.
The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening in the World was the most unlikely bestseller of 1941. The author, James Burnham, was a philosophy professor at New York University who until the previous year had been one of Leon Trotsky’s most trusted counsellors in the US. Time called Burnham’s work a grim outline of “the totalitarian world soon to come” that was “as morbidly fascinating as a textbook vivisection”…
… But Burnham quickly moved on to new territory. His true subject, he concluded, was power, and to understand power he needed a theory of politics. Marx had been his guiding influence in The Managerial Revolution; now he turned to Machiavelli, constructing the genealogy of a political theory that began with the author of The Prince and continued into the present.
For a Machiavellian, Burnham wrote, politics was an unending war for dominance: democracy was a myth, and all ideologies were thinly veiled rationalisations for self-interest. The great mass of humanity, in Burnham’s dark vision, would never have any control over their own lives. They could only hope that clashes between rival elites might weaken the power of the ruling class and open up small spaces of freedom.
Burnham’s newfound zeal for defending freedom led him, in 1955, to a conservative magazine called National Review, and to the magazine’s charismatic young founder, William F Buckley Jr. Buckley’s goal was to turn a scattered collection of reactionaries into the seeds of a movement. His journal set out to make the right intellectually respectable, stripping it of the associations with kooks and cranks that allowed liberals to depict it as a politics for cave-dwellers who had not reconciled themselves to modernity. Burnham was there at the start, one of five senior editors on the masthead of the first issue.