Nevertheless, as grand as Trump’s gross nature may be, there’s nothing great in it. For all the winning that colors his public life, greatness does not. Americans hardly need a great president to return to greatness, however much such a figure would help things along. What they do want is a leader with the personal gravitas necessary to shame the ruling elite for their banality and pettiness—for such comfort and self-satisfaction within such lowered horizons.
On their own, the populists can’t make these charges stick. Their commingled fury, resentment, and envy makes it hard, but their own simple lack of greatness makes it impossible. Obviously, without question, there is a heroism or grandeur in the determination of those who meet stark everyday struggles head-on—a virtue that can often characterize a people as a whole. But individual personal greatness among those at society’s pinnacle is something else, and it achieves something else.
It authorizes a kind of scorn toward ignoble elites that’s more noble than ordinary people can muster, however deeply pained or pure at heart. The charisma of scornful greatness isn’t morally perfect, but it can deal decadent elitism a powerful blow that solidarity alone cannot. Smart populists understand a true charismatic can emerge from the humblest of backgrounds. But we hold out hope we can make elitehood great again.