One theory of the 2016 election is that the white working class rebelled not just against economic disappointments but also against condescension, demanding not just material amelioration but, even more, recognition of its dignity. It is, however, difficult for people to believe in their own dignity when they believe that their choices are powerless to alter their lives’ trajectories. Eventually, they will detect the condescension in the government’s message that their fortunes are determined not by things done by them but by things done to them.
Such people are susceptible to charismatic presidential leadership, with its promise that executive power without limits can deliver them from unhappiness by delivering to them public goods. In contrast, there was dignity in the Joad family (of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath”). When the Dust Bowl smothered Oklahoma, the Joads were not enervated, they moved west in search of work.
What formerly was called conservatism resisted the permeation of society by politics, and particularly by the sort of unconstrained executive power that has been wielded by the 44th president. The man who will be the 45th forthrightly and comprehensively repudiates the traditional conservative agenda and, in reversing it, embraces his predecessor’s executive swagger.