American cosmopolitans seem persuaded that, although President Donald Trump’s election has stalled their dominance, their main political opponent is not intellectually serious. Rather, only bigoted, troglodytic — “deplorable.” On this theory, Trumpism, with the strands of conservatism abetting it, is not an idea, but the moribund gasping of those on the wrong side of history.
Maybe, maybe not. But at least Trump’s rise is a revolt against central tenets of social liberalism. Right-wing populism is a kind of nausea at the content, and also the arrogance, of our elite, liberal culture. And much of this nausea, I think, is basically justified.
Let’s start with campus politics. The student left has become incapable of fathoming dissent. The disinvited campus speakers — Christine Lagarde, Madeline Albright, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ray Kelly, etc. — many of whom are liberals, are known to all. Their heresies include support for “imperialism,” “capitalism,” “the patriarchy.” Outspoken political conservatives, especially in the Ivies and at small liberal arts colleges, are endangered. Maybe even extinct.
And for all this conviction, the student left lacks courage. Demands for safe spaces, for speech codes, for a “home” instead of a marketplace of ideas, do not simply demonstrate contempt for disagreement. They are childish. They show that those asking do not want to discuss or debate. That is, they do not wish to learn from others. They merely wish to rule; and not only their campuses, but also a country of millions of people for whom they have contempt. Devout Christians and lower-class whites are often subjected to the last form of bigotry respected by educated people — and this on campuses equating “diversity” with “excellence.” This cocktail of conviction, cowardice and condescension is bound to poison American public life.
Most of those right-of-center, I imagine, are even more dumbfounded by what have become common liberal beliefs on immigration. It is unclear whether many liberal elites believe any restrictions at all on immigration are justified. Nor do they believe that those here illegally are to be penalized — witness Barack Obama’s grant of immunity to adults here illegally without a criminal record.
This last point relates to the infuriating refusal of many liberals to speak about immigration laws as they do about other laws. Calling adults who illegally cross our borders “undocumented immigrants” — as if their status were the result of a bureaucratic error — is euphemistic. Illegal immigrants broke laws in coming here. Like everyone who breaks the law of a just society, they ought to be punished for it.
Now, there are often good reasons to immigrate illegally. Leniency and mercy are justified in such cases. But such generosity ought to be codified in the law, through the usual means. In the immigration case, many liberals would be happy if the law just weren’t enforced. Many have endorsed “sanctuary cities,” whose officials do not cooperate with federal immigration officers, as if not sharing information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement were like resisting the Fugitive Slave Act.
More generally, many liberals talk as if accepting millions of immigrants is a simple and obviously moral thing for a country to do. It’s certainly not the former, and maybe not the latter. A free country requires national unity and trust. Unity is, first, civic unity, and assimilation means trading one civic and national identity, culture and language for another. That takes time and resources. Accustoming newcomers to current citizens, who by right ought to be the first concern of our leaders, is also difficult. Everyone (including you, Yalie) trusts her family and friends more than she does strangers. The same principle naturally extends to one’s countrymen. But many liberal politicians speak as if those wishing to restrict immigration are just bigoted nativists. They seem less concerned with the opinions, sensibilities and culture of their own countrymen, to whom they have patriotic obligations, than they do with those of foreigners.
It is now conventional wisdom that the populism on the Western right is a reaction, in part, to elites who seem to have and want to have more in common with other countries’ elites than they do with their own countries’ common folk. This populism manifests in ugly ways: the election of boors and bigots, restrictions on trade and suspicion of vulnerable groups. Which is a shame, because much of what liberal elites want — free trade, a robust, international language of human rights, democratic pluralism — is important. It would be better for such policies if advocates bridled their contempt for the teeming masses that the policies ought to be intended to help. In the meantime, political nausea is the correct reaction. When elites view their countrymen as subjects, not citizens, elites merit neither power nor respect.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .