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November 21st, 2017

Insight

Trump and the crisis of the meritocracy: Is the era of stable American government over?

Glenn Reynolds

By Glenn Reynolds

Published Feb. 27, 2017

Trump and the crisis of the meritocracy: Is the era of stable American government over?
Donald Trump has been president for a month now, and it's been months more since he was elected. But the division over him, and his presidency, hasn't settled down. If anything, it's gotten worse. But why?

I don't think it's Trump's policies, which seem to be more popular than he is. And though many of his pronouncements are portrayed as extreme, his statements on, say, immigration seem eerily like what former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton were saying not all that long ago. So why all the anger over Trump?

As I've pondered this, I've gone back to Tyler Cowen's statement: "Occasionally the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status."

I think that a lot of the elite hatred for Trump, and for his supporters, stems from just such a sentiment. For decades now, the educated meritocrats who ran America - the "Best and the Brightest," in David Halberstam's not-actually-complimentary term - have enjoyed tremendous status, regardless of election results.

An election's turn might see some moving to the private sector - say as K street lobbyists or high-priced lawyers or consultants - while a different batch of meritocrats take their positions in government. But even so, their status remained unchallenged: They were always the insiders, the elite, the winners, regardless of which team came out ahead in the elections.

But as Nicholas Ebserstadt notes, that changed in November. To the privileged and well-educated Americans living in their "bicoastal bastions," things seemed to be going quite well, even as the rest of the country fell farther and farther behind. But, writes Eberstadt: "It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then - and broke down very badly.

"The warning lights have been flashing, and the klaxons sounding, for more than a decade and a half. But our pundits and prognosticators and professors and policymakers, ensconced as they generally are deep within the bubble, were for the most part too distant from the distress of the general population to see or hear it."

Well, now they've heard it, and they've also heard that a lot of Americans resent the meritocrats' insulation from what's happening elsewhere, especially as America's unfortunate record over the past couple of decades, whether in economics, in politics, or in foreign policy, doesn't suggest that the "meritocracy" is overflowing with, you know, actual merit.

In the United States, the result has been Trump. In Britain, the result was Brexit. In both cases, the allegedly elite - who are supposed to be cool, considered, and above the vulgar passions of the masses - went more or less crazy. From conspiracy theories (it was the Russians!) to bizarre escape fantasies (A Brexit vote redo! A military coup to oust Trump!) the cognitive elite suddenly didn't seem especially elite, or for that matter particularly cognitive.

In fact, while America was losing wars abroad and jobs at home, elites seemed focused on things that were, well, faintly ridiculous. As Richard Fernandez tweeted: "The elites lost their mojo by becoming absurd. It happened on the road between cultural appropriation and transgender bathrooms." It was fatal: "People believe from instinct. The Roman gods became ridiculous when the Roman emperors did. PC is the equivalent of Caligula's horse."

The rage of our privileged class is thus about loss of status. But that doesn't mean that it isn't dangerous. Nations have blown up over less: As Fernandez observes, "Suicidal factionalism has torn apart famous nations before, Rome's Crisis of the Third Century being the most famous example. . . . If Trump is overthrown by the Deep State in a year, he's unlikely to be the last. If neither faction will suffer itself to be governed by the other, whoever succeeds Trump can expect his term to be short. America could have its ownperiod of the 26 presidents. That will be good news for the Barbarians, waiting at the edge of the Baltics, in the South China Sea, and on Europe's borders, ready to move in. Rome's Third Century crisis did not end well. The new normal was not a return to the Golden Age, but the end of it."

Strong nations can fail when their leadership class, or a part of it, succumbs to pettiness, and places its narrow factional interests above those of the nation. Americans have often assumed that we are immune to such things. Perhaps earlier Americas, with a more disciplined, more patriotic ruling class, were. But today's America is not.

Beware.

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Glenn Harlan Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor, is the author of The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself and is a columnist at USA TODAY.

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