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Of Brexit, Trump, and Upheaval

books and culture

Of Brexit, Trump, and Upheaval

Two mainstream British journalists grapple with populism on both sides of the Atlantic. June 29, 2017
Politics and law

The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, by David Goodhart (Hurst & Co, 278 pp., $24.95)

The Retreat of Western Liberalismby Edward Luce (Atlantic Monthly Press, 234 pp., $24)

Two new books on Anglo-American populism, by David Goodhart and Edward Luce, have the virtue of summarizing recent writings on the tension between what sociologists have long described as locals and cosmopolitans. In The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, Goodhart describes the locals as the “somewheres” and the cosmopolitans as the “anywheres.” The locals, of the sort who voted for Brexit, have a strong attachment to the United Kingdom as a political community; the anti-Brexit “anywheres” identify with the European Union and the emerging global economy. In the words of tottering Tory prime minister Theresa May, “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Not surprisingly for two Brits writing on the rise of populism, Goodhart and Luce are stronger on Brexit than on Donald Trump. Both are or have been writers for the Financial Times, the English-language daily that has long been enamored of the European Union. But to their credit, they recognize that the Davoisie has little to offer semi-skilled workers battered by globalization and low-wage competition from immigrants. Luce, author of The Retreat of Western Liberalism, is right to argue that without economic growth, the glue that holds increasingly disparate societies together dissipates. He has little to say, however, about the stunningly slow growth rates under President Obama. He can’t contain his disdain for the bumptious Trump, who loved promoting himself by flacking for the World Wrestling Federation. Fair enough, but given Trump’s manifest failings, how was it that this supposed boob, alone among the 19 major candidates from both parties running for president, was the only one who grasped the strength of both the anti-globalization and anti-illegal immigration sentiments? The bombastic Bernie Sanders, who has been giving the same speeches for the last 40 years, grasped a sprig of these sentiments, but couldn’t transcend his long-rutted routine.

Luce seems not to understand what was obvious to those who didn’t depend on America’s television networks and the New York Times for their information: Hillary Clinton’s home-based Internet-server scandal involved likely criminal conduct by the former secretary of state. Nor does he have a line to spare for the Clinton Foundation, which, when it looked as if Clinton would become president, ran the biggest shakedown operation in history. Needless to say, shortly after she was defeated, the donors, once willing to pay Bill or Hillary a quarter of a million dollars and more for a short speech, skedaddled.

Neither book mentions the Tea Party—the softer, saner, constitutionalist version of what would become Trumpism. In my own book The Revolt Against the Masses, I explain how the Tea Party was taken down in part by the liberal media elites who imputed racist motivations to the movement, with as much evidence as would later be put forth to prove collusion between Trump and Putin. In The Revolt Against the Masses, I tried to explain how the end of the alliance between working-class liberalism and both the Democrats in the U.S. and the Labour Party in the U.K. began from a shift in sentiments. From the late 1960s on, guilt over colonialism in England and self-reproach over slavery, or what was called “internal colonialism,” in America drove center-Left politics. Crucial to this realignment was a concomitant focus on the good taste associated with upper-middle-class styles in eating, dressing, and housing. Trump, whatever his failings, identified with the interests and lifestyle of the global economy’s left-behinds.

David Goodhart is a man of considerable courage. Long before publishing The Road to Somewhere, he was labeled a racist and a reprobate for insisting that a diverse population, refracted by immigration on an unprecedented scale for England, was bound to call into question the solidarity necessary to sustain a generous, if not always competent, welfare state. Had it occurred a week earlier, the Grenfell Tower inferno—the tall residential building had no sprinklers—might well have put Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, an anti-American and anti-NATO admirer of Hugo Chavez, in power, and made the climate of reception for these two books quite different. It’s just such contingencies that make the sweeping generalizations that characterize Luce’s book so untenable. Luce repeatedly refers to the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, insisting that the white-supremacist group was a byproduct of American populism. This is entirely wrong. The KKK, founded in 1866, long preceded the rise of American populism, and when it revived in the 1920s, populism had collapsed. (Luce isn’t much better on current events. He devotes a section to what he sees as Trump’s inevitable war with China but makes no mention of North Korea.)

Neither author seems to grasp that it was a broad-based public reaction to Obama’s foppish follies that paved the way for a new populism, this one led by a cheeseburger-eating billionaire. Every time Obama responded to terrorist incidents on American soil by warning about the danger of Islamophobia, he helped pave the way for the rise of Trump.

Luce devotes a few valuable pages to the incompetent EU elites, who insisted on open borders within Europe without first having secured the continent’s external borders. But if you can read only one of these books, I suggest Goodhart, who writes with less arrogance and more precision. His book’s slower pace and sharper focus on what brings about support for the Brexiteers, whom he depicts as sometimes-admirable people, makes for a better read.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

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