Donald Trump and Noblesse Oblige in Politics
For an outsider striving to make sense of American politics watching the choreographed conventions in Cleveland and Philadelphia, the best short introduction to the subject is Angelo M. Codevilla’s The Ruling Class: How They Corrupted America and What We Can Do About It (2010). Since its publication I have recommended this monograph, that might easily be read at one sitting, to my students interested in getting a hold of contemporary American politics, and an insight as to why Americans are so greatly discontented with the direction in which their country is headed.
A “ruling class” is a self-perpetuating entity made up of people separated from the rest, as Codevilla reminds his readers, by shared values of privileges and entitlements that give them a sense of superiority to decide for others how their lives should be managed. Tocqueville, the French aristocrat who wrote the most celebrated book on American democracy, would not be surprised in reading Codevilla for he foresaw and forewarned that no free republic could be insulated indefinitely against the corrupting tendencies of fallen human nature.
According to Codevilla, “Differences between Bushes, Clintons, and Obamas are of degree, not kind.” And since the 2008 election no Republican leader in the Congress challenged the assumptions of the Democrats and defeated their policies has meant, therefore, that “the Ruling Class has a party: the Democrats.”
The disdain with which the “ruling class” looks upon the rest is somewhat tolerable as long as that disdain is well disguised by hypocrisy. But eventually the disguise crumbles given the certitude and arrogance that characterize the self-regard of the “ruling class.” We might be witnessing something of this as Americans head into their November election.
The nomination of Hillary Clinton by the Democratic Party as its standard bearer for the 2016 election displays the utter disdain the “ruling class” holds for the American people. Here is a nominee who barely escaped indictment by the FBI for gross negligence in how she mishandled classified information while serving as secretary of state, apart from her long and dismaying history of questionable judgments and conduct in public life and in her role as first lady.
If Americans, or at least a majority of them, have not completely lost their own self-regard as a free people then the November election should turn out to be a referendum on the “ruling class”, and a massive repudiation of Hillary Clinton’s sense of entitlement to be the first woman elected President of the United States. It is not unlikely that such an outcome in the November election is in the making given how the most improbable candidate in recent American politics, Donald Trump, won handily the Republican nomination as an outsider.
Whatever the outcome in November, the most fascinating story in American politics at least since the end of the Cold War is the emergence of Trump as the standard bearer of the GOP in the 2016 presidential election. His candidacy was derided by just about everyone commenting on American politics when Trump announced in June 2015 he would seek the Republican nomination. But that Trump eventually defied all odds in winning the nomination had as much to do with his own larger than life persona as a business tycoon from New York City, as it had to do with the “Trump phenomenon” or the rising tide of support he received from common Americans who had become thoroughly disgusted with how their republic has been abused by the “ruling class.”
One of the key assumptions of the American “ruling class” is, as Codevilla writes, “that its members are the best and brightest, while the rest of Americans are retrograde, racist, and dysfunctional unless properly constrained.” A people long abused by such disdain will have their revenge, and Hillary as a representative of the “ruling class” is woefully lacking in charm and warmth that might have been compensated by her political career if it was not as riddled by questions of impropriety and misconduct.
But Trump has been subject to fierce criticisms by many members of his own party, despite his winning the Republican nomination. To his critics he is an untrustworthy representative of those “conservative” values –- limited government, low taxes, free trade, globalism, open borders, internationalism in terms of defending freedom abroad and nation-building –- that seemingly came to define Republicans in the post-Reagan era. But to his supporters, especially common working-class Americans in fly-over country, Trump’s robust call for “America first” as the core-driving principle of his views on trade, immigration, security, and jobs is what made for the “Trump phenomenon.”
There is another side to the “Trump phenomenon” –- the seemingly unbreakable bond that Trump has forged with his supporters across America –- that has been insufficiently noted or, perhaps, is more clearly visible when American politics is observed from the outside. I mean by this a sense of noblesse oblige that is perceptible in understanding the support, or even affection, of working class Americans for Trump as a business tycoon and an outsider in politics seeking to be their president.
It was said of Franklin Roosevelt that his politics could best be described not in terms of ideology, but as one driven by a sense of noblesse oblige. This idea is rarely considered and will likely be dismissed as sentimentalism, when politics is viewed more or less under prevalent circumstances as cynical exploitation of the weak and the uninformed for personal or class interests.
The idea of noblesse oblige is that with immense wealth and its privileges come a sense of responsibility towards society and people, of returning in some gratitude what a person of such wealth owes them in public life.
During the past hundred years and more since the turn of the last century there have been three individuals elected to reside in the White House who were born into wealth, the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, and John Kennedy. They entered politics driven in part by the sense that they owed their country service in terms of leadership given their good fortune. Their wealth gave them advantage in politics their opponents did not possess, most important of which was that they were not personally beholden to any special interest to gain and maintain office.
But also what stood out in their politics, despite the different circumstances when they sought the highest office, was the manner in which they identified themselves with the interests of the working class. They spoke for the less advantaged, for the poor, the unemployed, the sick and the hungry, and in defending them they became politically unbeatable by opponents who were seen lacking in those qualities of human warmth, decency, courage, and generosity that made the Roosevelts and Kennedy so irresistibly charming to average Americans in their time.
Trump is seen by his supporters as the first blue-collar billionaire. They see him as their champion and defender of their country’s interests without being beholden to any special interest group. His political slogan “Make America Great Again” resonates with the average hard working patriotic Americans, and it is not sentimental or corny to them as it sounds to the sophisticates in the media and in the academia or those who emulate the “ruling class.”
The whimsicality of Trump’s behavior in public, which grates upon those who see him as a boor or a bully, ironically endears him to that largest segment of the American public that gets ridiculed or punished by political correctness regulated and imposed by the “ruling class.” How much of Trump’s whimsicality is an act or a character trait might be endlessly debated between his supporters and his opponents, while wealth insulates him among those who count as voters as wealth insulated the Roosevelts and Kennedy.
Then there are the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, and the record of their public and private lives. Americans have watched Clintons in public life for the past three decades, and many will recall how they have grimaced hearing or reading some of the sordid stories involving them while they acquired wealth in elected office.
Americans are generally aware of self-aggrandizement of the Clintons, of Bill’s exploitation of women and Hillary’s cover up of her husband’s sex crimes, of the lies Clintons tell and the sort of casualness Hillary displays whether answering questions about Benghazi or how she would put coal miners out of work.
Clintons are the embodiment of the consummate political insider in Washington deeply distrusted by a majority of Americans. They are members and beneficiaries of the “ruling class” that, as Codevilla reminds his readers, “has undertaken wars it has not won, presided over a declining economy and a ballooning debt, made life more expensive, raised taxes, and talked down to the American people. Hence, in recent years, Americans’ conviction that the Ruling Class is as hostile as it is incompetent has solidified.”
In contrast Trump is not only an outsider, he is a business tycoon who has nothing personal to gain except stand at the receiving end of relentless abuse from the surrogates of the “ruling class” for the threat he poses to their interests. So why has Trump walked on to the political stage to subject himself to their slings and arrows of outrage, smear, and insults?
For cynics, Trump is one of them cynically exploiting the political discontent of Americans for his own profit. But for middle America that Trump is responding to the distress call of his country as a patriot is an act they can relate to, since they have done the same in their capacity as patriots whenever their country was in distress.
If this simple notion that noblesse oblige has motivated Trump to seek the presidency and help fix America’s problems spreads among common Americans, he will be unbeatable in November as were once the Roosevelts and Kennedy in their time.
Salim Mansur teaches in Western University, London, Ontario and is author of the award winning book Delectable Lie: a liberal repudiation of multiculturalism.