Is Trumpismo proving Bismarck right again?

Proponents of Trumpismo define it as an insurgency, a rebellion against years of betrayal, as populist rage against a failed Establishment, or as voters lashing out at what they perceive as “disenfranchisement.” (They usually really mean alienation, but as the Donald himself would say: Whatever.) On the other side, most respectable Republicans and just about everybody who makes a living claiming to be a steward of conservative  thought  or  policy, regard it  as  a misguided dead end, fueled by equal parts of fear  and  ignorance, and  while  futile in  that it will result  in Democrat  victory in  November, it is  nevertheless,  mortally dangerous because it also  threatens a variety of established interests from politics, to corporate  cronyism to the  conservative  clerisy. Accordingly, Anti-Trump die hards recoil in disgust, and mount their high horses in the  manner of the “severely conservative” 2012 Standard Bearer: “I see way too much demagoguery and populism on both sides of the aisle and I only hope and aspire we’ll see more greatness.”

Are anger and contempt all there is to make of this primary cycle? What if, aside from the bitter  enders in each  camp, there  is something  else happening here, and something so important that the  real tragedy would be missing the opportunity it represents for the nation?

In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (2012), Charles Murray draws a sorry picture of a bifurcating  American society and culture. He describes a diminished social mobility and, what is worse, limited social interaction between a new dominant and an abject class -- two distinctive social/cultural spheres whose mutual impermeability have been hitherto unknown in American history. Marriage, industriousness, education, manners, religiosity, and civic virtue and involvement are a few of the forms of thought and life in which Murray, and others, identify as profound and alarmingly self-perpetuating divergences between these two classes. One group looks  confidently to a globalizing future, secure in their ability to cope and prosper. The other is threatened on all sides by economic insecurity, family dislocation, cultural rot and the breakdown of everything that once represented the good life in America for working people of modest means.

Murray’s shorthand for these two classes at the extremes is “Belmont (after an archetypal upper-middle-class suburb near Boston) and Fishtown (after a neighborhood in Philadelphia that has been white working class since the Revolution).” Today, denizens of Fishtown and their closest neighbors seem to be overwhelmingly represented among the supporters of Donald Trump. It certainly was an archetypical Fishtown group who engaged in the much publicized dialog of the deaf with Ted Cruz in Indiana the day before his defeat there. This encounter pitted a smirking wise guy (an Ohio electrician) and his bros offering no argument but “Make America Great Again” backed by an abundance of insolent incredulity, against a spruce, glib, stuffy Ivy League-educated lawyer who could not land even a single punch in the verbal brawl that ensued. Based on this episode, an observer would seem justified in believing that Fishtown and Belmont have little to say to each other this election year. That certainly appears to be the self-defeating lesson Republican political and cultural elites have drawn from the whole 2016 Republican primary process. And so, in utter  exhaustion, having barely survived the torturous climb up the primaries’ cliff, these elites have  collapsed just below the peak, unable yet, in their bitterness and contemptuous frustration, to glimpse the fertile political fields in the valley below.

Writing of this election season, Walter Russell Mead has noted:

Up until now, at every similar crisis in American history, a wave of religious revival like the colonial-era Great Awakening, … and a series of successor movements has renewed and refreshed this source of national coherence and strength. Without something like this today, it’s not clear that American culture will continue to support the kind of republic that we’ve come to think of as eternal and unchanging.

Although it is downright laughable to imagine Donald Trump as a George Whitefield -- perhaps Henry Ward Beecher may be a little closer to the mark -- he could in fact be playing a very unlikely, albeit purely secular version, of that role. Among those who have absorbed Charles Murray’s thesis, there has been much despair about the likelihood that the Fishtowners and their immediate demographic neighbors could ever rouse themselves from the morass of un and underemployment, seductive governmental assistance, mal-education, and mass culture degeneracy in which they find themselves. Increasing nihilism, self-indulgence, and moral dodginess seemed to loom for what had once been, and must be again, this very bedrock of American society. And then came “Make America Great Again.”

Donald Trump is speaking to what has become vestigial folk memory in Fishtown about what this country is, what it has done and what it is capable of doing again. In his undisciplined, meandering rhetorical style, Trump exhibits no fluency in the language of classical liberalism or the American Creed, because he is not a native speaker. Instead, Trump evokes rough virtues once universally celebrated there -- at least until Fishtown men stopped wearing ties to funerals. Of course these are John Ford’s, William Wellman’s, Frank Capra’s or John Milius’ truths rather than Frederich von Hayek’s, but so what? Trump is offering nothing more nuanced than the Marseillaise scene at Rick’s. It is just as sloppily jejune, but it speaks successfully to people untouched thus far by National Review or The Weekly Standard, and hitherto given up entirely by the political class to TMZ. If Trumpismo can spark their political re-engagement then it creates the opportunity to persuade them to embrace the serious, and potentially painful, policy reforms and personal renewal necessary to begin returning this nation to security and prosperity. Rather than fear their reaction, political leaders can once again enlist their energy and renewed faith in America. Instead of deprecating a chance to rebuild social capital, politicians and opinion leaders worthy of the name ought to be prepared to run to the front of the parade and guide it.

Trumpismo may turn out to be a better political opportunity than a pathetic Republican leadership class deserves.”More greatness,” anyone?