An American President In London
The real reason why the British establishment can't handle Trump.
In the U.S. we’ve always prided ourselves on being a society without classes. Yes, we always had rich and poor, and back in the day we even had slaves and masters – and, yes, after that was over we had monstrous racism, plus no small amount of prejudice directed by natives toward newly arrived immigrant groups, not to mention tension among many of those groups. But however unpleasant those tensions, they were generally mild compared to the kind of tribal hatreds that could found almost everywhere else in the world. Moreover, these problems tended to fade rapidly, so that the grandchildren of people who had warred viciously with one another back in the Old Country could sit side by side in American classrooms without ever giving a thought to their respective family backgrounds.
Furthermore, America has always been overwhelmingly middle class, and has always been characterized by a remarkable degree of social mobility. The poor could become weathy. Foreigners could become Americans. Some of the most accomplished and esteemed Americans, indeed, first came to its shores as children of the wretched and tempest-tost. The genius of America was that you could re-create yourself, invent yourself. The classic American hero was always the self-made man – the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger protagonist. Nothing has ever been less American than condescending to a fellow who put in a hard day’s work, kept his nose clean, and took care of his family.
That universal American respect for the responsible solid citizen, however, has disappeared. Its demise was brought about by the rise of a politically lockstep American cultural elite – an elite made up of business, media, and high-culture types in New York, Internet magnates in Silicon Valley, show-business notables in Los Angeles, the great and powerful in Washington, and academics at universities across the country, all of whom share a deep and unprecedented contempt for millions of their fellow Americans. If we can’t let go of Hillary’s word “deplorables,” it’s because it perfectly sums up the profoundly un-American attitude toward ordinary working Americans that defines and unifies our cultural elite.
President Obama articulated that view in April 2008 when he said of middle Americans: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” This was and is, of course, a calumny. In no other country are law-abiding, hard-working immigrants more readily welcomed and quickly assimilated than in the U.S. As for religion, Obama was of course talking here about Christians; he would never have sneeringly described devout Muslims as “clinging to religion.” And trade? What’s wrong with democratic citizens having opinions about commercial policies that have kept their own incomes from growing for a generation?
Americans didn’t use to put down other Americans in this way. It’s the kind of thing that happens in societies with more robust class systems. Which brings me, once again, to Britain, about which I’ve been scratching my head a lot in recent weeks. How, I’ve asked repeatedly, can so many Brits, even after the exposure of Muslim child-rape gangs (and the long-term official cover-ups thereof) in one city after another, continue to pretend that immigration from the Islamic world is overwhelmingly benign? How, while remaining so blasé about these horrific atrocities and what they portend about the future of an increasingly Islamized Britain, can those same Brits treat Tommy Robinson and his supporters not as national heroes but as human rubbish, and accept with equanimity the ruthlessness with which their own government has thrown Robinson into prison, banned his foreign allies from entering the country, and thrown the very future of free speech in Britain into doubt, at least where Islam is concerned? And how, having sat quietly at home while all these alarming developments were taking place, can so many Brits have decided last week that it was now finally time to fill the streets and raise their voices in enraged protest, for no other reason than that the president of the United States was visiting their country?
Brits and Americans have much in common. But there are differences. An English acquaintance of mine, an academic philosopher whom I shall call Mimi, reminds me that the major British philosophical tradition is empiricism – centered on logic, reason, practical thinking and the scientific method, and allergic to the kind of heavy-duty theory and windy metaphysical speculation that have often preoccupied continental philosophers. Yes, Americans are pragmatic, too. But we’re also religious. We’re intensely aware of the presence of good and evil in our own hearts and in other people’s hearts. Flannery O’Connor called the American South “Christ-haunted.” Many Brits (including most of those who run today’s Church of England) could hardly imagine what that might mean. It’s in the nature of the British people to think of themselves and others as being basically decent and sensible. Because their own state church is so refined, urbane, and rooted in peaceable compromise and moderation (full disclosure: I’m an Anglican myself), they have a great deal of trouble facing up to the reality of just how dark, irrational, extreme, and violent certain religions can be.
Unlike the U.S., moreover, Britain has a long history of extreme class differences – and, accordingly, of class pride, class snobbery, and class prejudice. Although the barriers of class in Britain have traditionally been regarded as all but insurmountable, there has tended, at the same time, to be a considerable degree of respect across those barriers. Nowadays, however, according to Mimi, a great many members of Britain’s educated and prosperous middle class and of what I would call its cultural elite display what she calls “a visceral contempt for the working class.” She even uses the word “demonization.” She says she’s never seen anything like it. This disdain by the British equivalents of Hillary Clinton for the British equivalents of Hillary’s “deplorables” is, she adds, very much at the root of the widespread hostility toward Tommy Robinson and his movement.
Where did this disdain come from? Mimi proposes that it’s a product, somewhat ironically, of the fact that class barriers are more porous than they used to be: many academics, journalists, commentators, “intellectuals,” and the like grew up in relatively modest circumstances (notice the accents on the BBC, for instance), and thus feel entitled to look down on the folks in the council flats in a way that the real-life Downton Abbey crowd never did. For these arrivistes, people like Tommy Robinson who mouth off about Islam are relying on “anecdotal evidence” rather than deferring to the obviously superior knowledge and wisdom of their betters. When the hoi polloi get worked up about grooming gangs, you see, they’re simply proving how “small-minded, ill-travelled, ill-educated, uneducable, feeling-driven” they are. “I am sick to death of hearing educated people sneer at those who are not so lucky,” says Mimi.
But there’s an added twist to all this. Like their counterparts in the U.S., these British elites and haute bourgeois characters who have no trouble belittling even the most admirable of their working-class countrymen approach even the most reprehensible of immigrants and foreigners with an exquisite sensitivity and fawning respect. (The quintessential example of the American version of this phenomenon is, of course, Nancy Pelosi’s idiotically outraged response to Trump’s thoroughly apposite description of MS-13 thugs as “animals”: “there is,” declared the suddenly pious Pelosi, “a spark of divinity among every person on earth.”) As Mimi puts it: in the eyes of the British cultural elite, “all minorities” are “better than our unthinking working class ‘scum.‘” This certainly explains the otherwise baffling lack of British-establishment rage over the grooming gangs: virtually all of the victims were working-class girls, the spawn of yobs, and hence not worth getting overly upset about; virtually all of the perpetrators, by contrast, were Muslims, and therefore, to the virtue-signaling crème de la crème, not so much malefactors as victims.
Apropos of the massive demonstrations that greeted Trump in the U.K., it has been widely noted that there were no such protests when Obama visited Britain. (Nor do such displays occur when the Queen and P.M. meet with heads of state who subordinate women and execute gays.) It didn’t matter to Britain’s beau monde that Obama, who had removed a head of Churchill from the Oval Office and whose grandfather had been a rebel against British imperial rule in Kenya, obviously hated the U.K. Hell, they hate it themselves: they hate their history of Empire, and they hate pretty much anything about their culture that might remotely qualify as postcolonialist. As Mimi observes, they think they “invented equality” and “discovered racism.” Even when Obama warned them, obnoxiously, not to vote for Brexit lest he move them to the rear of America’s trade queue, like a driver ordering Rosa Parks to the back of the bus, they continued to smile upon him: the color of his skin, if nothing else, made any other reaction impossible.
By contrast, Trump, even though he has made clear his immense affection for our cousins across the pond, pushes the buttons of the great and the good even more than George W. Bush did. His blunt talk about the Brexit debacle, the NATO budget, and other fraught issues, above all immigration, reminds them of their own working-class rabble-rousers, whose truth-telling they see, quite simply, as impolite, while their own systematic whitewashing of Islam, they would tell you, is a matter less of fact vs. fiction than of sheer good manners. When, at his Chequers press conference with Theresa May, Trump stated the plain fact that immigration “has been very bad for Europe” (which May countered with the predictable, pathetic claim that it “has been good for the UK”), the BBC and Sky News talking heads acted as if Trump had not only made the most absurd claim of all time, but had been – gasp – rude. For all too many denizens of the scepter’d isle, alas, the Muslim gang rape of thousands upon thousands of proletarian girls may be unpalatable, but talking about it candidly in public is nothing less than a shocking violation of civilized norms.