In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” a small boy calls attention to the fact that the Emperor is naked—that the clothes sold him by an unscrupulous merchant who appealed to his vanity were, in fact, nothing. None of the people who watched the Emperor as he paraded by said anything, as they didn’t want to admit they were too ignorant to see his fine suit of clothes.
It took a small boy to call out the truth: that the Emperor was indeed naked. Today, it is Donald J. Trump who has called our attention to the corruption, stagnation, and cronyism of political systems populated with elites who think they live beyond the boundaries of criticism. For doing so, he has been vilified. But disruption is natural to life. It is everywhere, and for that we should be thankful.
Joseph Schumpeter popularized the concept of creative destruction—that progress requires destroying old technologies. It has always been so. Cars replaced horse-drawn carriages. The telegraph ended the Pony Express. Trains made obsolete the Erie Canal. Machine guns and tanks changed the way war was conducted on land, as submarines did on the seas. Wireless phones are eliminating the need for landline phones. Amazon has changed the way we shop, and Netflix the way we are entertained. 401ks have replaced defined benefit retirement plans. Charter schools, facing pressure from unions and the politicians who rely on them, have competed against and made better traditional public schools. Norman Borlaug, in using plant pathology and genetics, dramatically increased crop supplies around the world. Without disruption, we would be poorer.
Political disruption has now come to the West. It can be seen in Italy, Greece, Austria and Germany. It was behind the Brexit vote in England. But political disruption is trickier and bears watching. A political system that preserved global peace for seventy-four years and whose economic advances lifted billions from poverty should be treasured. But bad people spouting promises of ever-better lives are a risk to freedom-loving people. Success in the West has led to apathy. Today, we have become less democratic, less free. Universities will not abide the ‘politically incorrect’. We are segregated by our identities.
Timothy Egan wrote in a recent New York Times that “progressive pragmatists remain open to enlightened people of wealth.” The arrogant assumption being that wealthy people who disagree with him are unenlightened. There is, among Egan’s “enlightened”, a sense that father knows best, that government should assume all obligations for the welfare of its people. (Think of “The Life of Julia.”) Its corollary, though, is a diminution in personal responsibility and a gradual abatement in personal independence. The void created by the absence of individual responsibility risks being filled by those who seek power; not the philosophers who Plato argued are best suited to rule, but the power seekers Barry Goldwater warned against—those who claim to do good, but who demand the right to “enforce their own version of heaven on earth”. And enforced conformity leads to despotism, as writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell showed in their dystopian novels, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
That is the risk the West faces. Over the past couple of decades, western democracies have evolved to a point where a governing elite of a small number of elected and non-elected patronizing bureaucrats have determined that they know best what it is the people want and need. There have been many unintended consequences:
We have mounting global debt and interest rates that encourage borrowing and discourage saving. We have economies that conform to the ‘new normal’ of slow economic growth, and a fatalistic belief that the United States and Europe will be overtaken by China’s managed economic miracle and expanding military might. The United Nations has become a place that favors the authoritarianism of Islamists over a democratic Israel. Hypocrisy and political correctness have inundated our colleges and universities, fountains from which students should be drinking deeply of art, music, and the classics. Identity politics has meant we value form over substance and ignore the world of ideas. We endorse feel good treaties like the Paris Treaty, with no means of enforcement, and we willfully spend millions of dollars to bring delegates to meetings with little or no effect. We disallow defensive missile shields in Europe, for fear of upsetting the nation they are supposed to guard against.
It was into this environment that Mr. Trump appeared, elected by people who may not have clearly articulated the risks faced, but conscious that the path trod was leaving them isolated, and was neither free nor good for economic and personal growth.
We are better, though, than what we have been made to believe. Peace can be preserved without losing our freedom to speak as we choose. The economy is not subject to the limitations of a ‘new normal’. The United Nations owes its founders a moral commitment, as does the EU and the U.S. Bad people will always try to undo what freedom has accomplished. But it is the ‘do-gooders’ on the Left that Senator Goldwater warned against that is the greater danger—not the mythical and improbable reappearance of Huns on the Right, as the media would have us believe.
Like Hans Christian Anderson’s little boy, Mr. Trump has called out the politically arrogant and the pompous. He has angered those who for so long have fed off the ‘fatted calf’ that the government has become. He has upset the status quo in law, media, academia, business, and finance—those who have learned to navigate the system to their advantage. Mr. Trump has been the “Great Disruptor”. He may not be the man to lead us forward; but through his unruly ways he has awakened the forces of democracy and liberty among the forgotten middle classes. For that, we owe him our gratitude.