Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Trump: The Vessel For American Anger

A Trump wave is on the way

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
As plebes make The Donald increasingly acceptable, expect elite Trump supporters to come out of the closet.

In America, Donald Trump — who many of the experts thought had no chance — is dominating the polls. In Britain, meanwhile, much of the public seems to be mobilizing in favor of exiting the troubled European Union — a British Exit, or Brexit.

Writing in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill puts this down to a class revolt on both sides of the Atlantic. And he’s right as far as he goes, but I think there’s more than just a class revolt. I think there’s also a developing preference cascade. O’Neill writes: “In both Middle America and Middle England, among both rednecks and chavs, voters who have had more than they can stomach of being patronised, nudged, nagged and basically treated as diseased bodies to be corrected rather than lively minds to be engaged are now putting their hope into a different kind of politics. And the entitled Third Way brigade, schooled to rule, believing themselves possessed of a technocratic expertise that trumps the little people’s vulgar political convictions, are not happy. Not one bit.”

Well, that’s certainly true. Both America and Britain have developed a ruling class that is increasingly insular and removed from — and contemptuous of — the people it deigns to rule. The ruled are now returning the contempt.

But while there’s a class component here, it’s not as strong as some might suggest. Trump does well among college and post-college educated voters, too, and the Brexit is suddenly developing support from the sort of political class leaders who used to be pro-Europe. The difference is that the upper-class types have been less willing to show it.

In both cases, it may be that the lower classes are expressing their views more openly because they have less to lose. Express the “wrong” opinions in British or American politics or academia and it’s the (figurative) gulag for you; if you work at a fast-food place, the consequences are generally less steep. But when enough ordinary voters express an opinion, the elites may feel safer, too.

In his terrific book, Private Truths, Public Lies:The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification, Timur Kuran writes about the phenomenon he calls “preference falsification”: People tend to hide unpopular views to avoid ostracism or punishment; they stop hiding them when they feel safe.

This can produce rapid change: In totalitarian societies like the old Soviet Union, the police and propaganda organizations do their best to enforce preference falsification. Such regimes have little legitimacy, but they spend a lot of effort making sure that citizens don't realize the extent to which their fellow-citizens dislike the regime. If the secret police and the censors are doing their job, 99% of the populace can hate the regime and be ready to revolt against it — but no revolt will occur because no one realizes that everyone else feels the same way.

This works until something breaks the spell and the discontented realize that their feelings are widely shared, at which point the collapse of the regime may seem very sudden to outside observers — or even to the citizens themselves. Kuran calls this sudden change a “preference cascade,” and I wonder if that’s not what’s happening here.

Novelist Bret Easton Ellis, for example, recently tweeted: "Just back from a dinner in West Hollywood: shocked the majority of the table was voting for Trump but they would never admit it publicly.” What he describes is preference falsification — but if people stop hiding, it will become a cascade. And Ellis himself has started that process with this tweet. Meanwhile, confronted with PC nonsense, college students have started chanting ”Trump! Trump! (Law professor Ann Althouse has been predicting this cascade for weeks.)

Likewise, in Britain, both London Mayor Boris Johnson and mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith have come out against staying in the EU. On this news, author Jim Bennett emailed me: “Are we seeing a preference cascade for Brexit? Although many are already for it, of course, mostly they have been either old-line Tories or working-class marginal malcontents. Boris and Zac are part of the rich, well-connected, cosmopolitan London set which has always been presumed to be Europhiles. Watch this phenomenon.”

It used to be, of course, that the lower and middle classes were stuffy and constrained by social convention while the freethinkers at universities and in the ruling class got to experiment with unconventional ideas. If their experimenting got enough success, then it might eventually filter down to ordinary people. (The sexual revolution worked this way, more or less).

But now it’s our ruling class that is hidebound by political correctness, and it takes movement by the masses to give it permission to express a controversial view. That’s a major change, and it’s one that the ruling class isn’t likely to appreciate much. But having subjected itself to the chains of “acceptable” opinion, what can it do?

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 a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.