Donald Trump’s political success dramatizes the nature of today’s politics.  On  one side we have denationalized ruling elites with absolute faith in their own outlook and very little concern for Americans as Americans.  On the other we have an increasingly incoherent and corrupted populace that nonetheless retains for the most part the basic political virtue of siding with America, meaning the actual American people organized politically.

Our rulers, who view “America” as an instrument and imperfect prototype for their vision of world order, have the support of all that is respectable.  They do what they can to promote a sort of industrial organization of the world that suppresses centers of power with no place in such an order—family, religion, inherited culture, local government and community.  The mass media and major political parties line the people up behind the project and find ways of dealing with points of resistance, whether by stepping up propaganda, creating diversions, or fine-tuning and repackaging policies.

The academy and what’s still sometimes called the world of high culture claim to offer an independent critical perspective.  But career is everything in such circles, certainly among those who rise to prominence, and success comes when one aligns with organized wealth and power.  Also, there is no longer a substantive independent moral reality to which respectable thinkers can look for guidance, and simple willfulness gets them nowhere, so they follow the prevailing currents while pretending to lead them, and mostly direct their critical perspective against those at odds with the tendency of “history”—meaning that of the dominant powers.

The churches, guided by their pastors, have assimilated to the world.  In the absence of robustly independent traditions of life and thought that they habitually put first, they, too, go with the flow and align themselves with wealth and power.  Pope Francis, for example, talks about a poor Church for the poor, but the effect is to call for greater transnational administrative control of social life.  He is happy to hobnob with global movers and shakers, who in turn are happy to receive him as a junior partner in support of the world order of transnational bureaucracy and crony capitalism they are creating.  The effect is a would-be powerful Church for the powerful.

So the people have no institutions, established leadership, or body of thought to appeal to.  That is how issues like immigration and racial preferences have been kept out of public discussion.  Well-placed people don’t want to talk about these issues, and don’t want them talked about, so how would they come up and who would articulate them?  And that is why the people have become populists, and why they have embraced Donald Trump.

Trump’s character as a splashy deal-making billionaire with a position in pop culture, a genius for publicity, and an indifference to whatever is polite has enabled him to raise issues effectively.  However, it provides no reason to think he will be more successful than previous populist leaders in making lasting improvements.

Populism is a vote of no confidence by ordinary people in people who run things.  It is a predictable reaction, in a country that allows a popular voice in government, to distant elites who promote major social and economic changes but have little sympathy for the interests and outlook of large numbers of people who are deeply affected and often deeply injured by those changes.  It was natural for it to arise toward the end of the 19th century, with the globalization and mechanization of agriculture and the associated shift in power from producers to railroads and banks.  And it is natural for it to arise now, with the ever more intense globalization and technological transformation of social life generally.

The lack of trust in established leadership that defines populism also makes it difficult for populists to settle on goals and strategy and make durable progress.  At the heart of populism is a desire for the people to run public affairs more directly, handing over special complications and difficulties to someone independent who can be trusted to straighten them out.  That approach lines up with a great deal in republican and American tradition, so it has natural appeal in our country.  It works best when problems are few and simple, people and polity are fundamentally sound, and at least a few principled and effective leaders are available.  None of that is likely to be the case, however, when a populist movement is able to gain power.  If principled leaders were available, and people and polity were sound enough for them to act effectively in dealing with a few simple problems, why would a general movement of rebellion and rejection take hold?

The populist sense that established powers and parties are deeply at odds with the people is justified today for a basic reason: Respectable thought rejects attachment to any particular people, and thus respectable opinion attempts to deny the existence of peoples as peoples.  Those who rule America believe the American people should not exist, but rather merge into a global aggregate of workers and consumers who act effectually only as raw material for markets and bureaucracies.  That belief is hardly arbitrary, since present-day trends and policies promote the result by disrupting local and customary social order.  Marriage and family have lost definition.  Children are brought up by peer groups, social media, pop culture, and professional custodians.  Education is either vocational or propagandistic, and it is often disconnected from tradition and reality.  Employment is precarious, and employers increasingly totalitarian.  And the electronic media pervade the whole of life, replacing stable face-to-face relationships with networks of shifting connections and images.

Also, we have a self-indulgent and decreasingly coherent and functional people, largely because it was the fine-grained local social order, now crumbling, that gave the people positions of dignity and responsibility.  It is natural for such a people to give themselves over to a ruling class that promises, through its efficiency, expertise, and commitment to equality, to get them the things they want and protect them from one another and from the difficulties of life.  Who today would reject such promises if he believed them?  And to disbelieve all such promises now counts as political cynicism, since no other purpose for public life seems imaginable.

Some sort of cynicism seems called for, and the need for basic changes in American society is increasingly obvious.  But what changes, and how do we bring them about?

A ruling class that doesn’t like its own people naturally calls forth opposition.  In America that opposition includes religious believers, workers who have lost out to foreign or immigrant competition, Middle Americans who have noticed that established powers are not on their side, men who are tired of insults and nagging, parents who are worried about the brainwashing of their children, and ordinary people who don’t like cranks who insist on demonizing normal habits, attitudes, and arrangements.

In theory, the opposition should also include most of the new order’s prize beneficiaries—women, blacks, young people—for whom the disintegration of local social connections and normal paths of life has been far from helpful.  In fact, however, it doesn’t: Appeals to fear and resentment and promises of protection and support without personal obligation have been too effective.

In order to turn the opposition that does exist into something more continuous and productive than sporadic and easily deflected populist uprisings, an overall vision of something better, together with particular issues to serve as rallying points, must be identified and expressed.  Well-developed networks of thinkers and actors to articulate the issues and provide candidates for leadership are also necessary.

Those requirements present difficulties.  The usual alternative to progressivism in America has been a combination of patriotism, constitutionalism, generic but mainly Protestant Christianity, and appeal to virtues associated with individualism, the nuclear family, economic self-sufficiency, and local community.  Such principles promote local and informal institutions that provide alternatives to the technically rational organization of social life at which progressives aim.  However, those institutions rely on sexual complementarity, and on somewhat coherent national, ethnic, and religious traditions.  None of those things can now be relied on; and to the extent that they remain, it’s fundamental social policy to root them out wherever they may be found.

Beyond that, sustained efforts to redirect the current order require stable and respected leadership, but enduring populist tendencies have made it difficult in America for leaders to arise whose status is not based simply on wealth or (more recently) organizational position or pure celebrity.  That difficulty has only intensified.  How can a movement of opposition get organized when there are plenty of careers and other bribes to distract those who possess talent, dissatisfied people have weak connections and endless diversions, and the extreme ease of communication that makes organization in one sense very easy makes every particular connection easy to replace when mood or attention shifts slightly?

Conditions are very much against the advent of a successful insurgency.

On the other hand, the very success of progressivism exacerbates its weaknesses.  Insanity leads to failure, and open borders, transgenderism, and the attempt forcibly to turn Arab countries into liberal democracies are visibly insane.  And a ruling class that bases its right to rule on freedom and equality is going to have difficulties as inequality continues to grow, controls over life and thought become ever more burdensome and annoying, and appeals to the “people’s will” as the basis of government become increasingly less believable.

Populist rebellions are therefore likely to continue as government and other authorities lose popular trust and support.  Mass immigration seems certain to be an enduring issue, since it is obviously opposed to the interests of ordinary people, while it is also central to our rulers’ vision of a rationally managed borderless world.  And political correctness is both integral to the progressive project of social reconstruction and completely at odds with natural ways of life and thought.

So there will be a demand for those who can articulate the basis and goals of what will become more and more a continuing movement or opposition.  People do not want open borders, but why are they bad?  Does it matter where immigrants come from?  Are national distinctions—distinctions among peoples—racist and therefore evil?  And what exactly is wrong with transgenderism?  More to the point, what is the meaning and function of sexual distinctions?

Such issues—the relations between the sexes and the human function of particular culture—are absolutely basic to social life, but there is no way to deal with them in respectable public discussion.  In that respect it is an advantage that populism is not respectable.  It engenders a public that is much more likely to accept an open discussion of issues that must be discussed, one that is more interested in an articulation of what is wrong with current tendencies that points to ways of improving things than in a preservation of established pieties.

Thought and discussion matter.  Material factors like technology are important, but societies with very different orientations—Athens and Sparta, Rome and Jerusalem—have existed at similar levels of material civilization.  What matters most is what people think is worth having, and that depends on what they think the world is like.  The basic concepts that guide cooperation and determine how people sort through experience are therefore enormously powerful.  Today’s progressive orthodoxy makes anything other than current tendencies seem unthinkable.  Breaking that hold on the public would be revolutionary.

A movement of opposition that starts as populism and tries to develop as something more would not lack arguments.  Black legends about the horrors of the past and Whiggish accounts of social progress leading to the glorious present are easily debunked.  More broadly, nature and common sense would be on the side of the insurgents.  The insistence on science and technology as the model for all rationality forces us into the technocratic utopianism that now dominates public life.  Rejecting that tendency in the name of normal human ways of thinking and acting would begin to restore us to reality, opening the door to an acceptance of human nature, the particularity of social life, and the good life as standards for social order and therefore government.

Such a movement would not lack for natural allies.  The misled churches depend on the faithful and retain ultimate commitments that are radically at odds with the current order.  Those commitments are likely to revive as the way of life and understandings offered by mainstream society become ever more inhuman and nonfunctional.  Other likely institutional allies would include independent schools, homeschooling networks, and small businesses whose operators look at the way they do business as part of the way they lead their lives.  Such allies would speak for many more people than those who currently identify directly with them.

Once discontent finds its voice and articulates its situation, much more will of course have to be done.  Damage to fine-grained social order—to religion, moral habits, family and community life—cannot be undone overnight or directly.  But the ability publicly to identify and discuss the issues, and the realization that something must be done about them, would transform public life and introduce possibilities that now seem out of the question.  And the coming waves of populist insurgency, which by their nature will stand in radical opposition to present-day public thought, open the door to that transformation.