Did Western Liberalism Give Us Trump?

French novelist Michel Houellebecq


 I seldom agree with Ross Douthat, “reformicon” columnist for the New York Times, but I do respect him. Because Douthat is intelligent and thoughtful, I took seriously his column about books that will help us understand the rise of Donald Trump. I focus here on the novels that he mentions.

Douthat advises us not to turn to those “what if” novels like Upton Sinclair’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and Philip Roth’s Plot against America (2004). Both lay out 1930s scenarios in which fascists capture the presidency. Douthat complains that the novels focus on the wrong things:

The Trump-era reading lists I’ve seen include many worthy titles, but they also tend to focus heavily on the dark forces lurking out there, somewhere outside enlightened circles — in the hills of Appalachia, in the postindustrial heartland, in the souls of racists and chauvinists and crypto-fascists. They are anthropologies of populism, cautionary tales from history, blueprints for blunting revanchism’s appeal. But they do not generally subject Western liberalism itself to rigorous critique.

In Douthat’s mind, Trump’s rise actually reflects a failure of Western liberalism, which can’t acknowledge its “limits, blind spots, blunders and internal contradictions.” Reading Lewis or Roth, in other words, only confirms existing prejudices rather than challenging them. Western liberal elites, Douthat charges, have

burned the candle of solidarity at both ends — welcoming migration that transforms society from below even as the upper class floats up into a post-national utopia, which remains an undiscovered country for the people left behind.

For fiction that challenges such utopian thinking, Douthat recommends Michel Houellebecq’s dystopian novels The Elementary Particles (1998) and Submission (2015):

Submission (2015), Michel Houellebecq’s seemingly dystopian novel` about an exhausted near-future France that ends up choosing between Islamism and fascism (it picks the veil), and then one of Houellebecq’s earlier novels, The Elementary Particles, whose portrait of a loveless, sex-fixated and disposable modern masculinity reveals that its author believes the real dystopia is already here — that the end of history is actually a materially comfortable desert, from which the political and religious extremisms of “Submission” offer a welcome and rehumanizing form of escape.

To my mind, Houellebecq’s vision of a spiritually exhausted France doesn’t capture the vibrancy of Obama’s multicultural America (or, for that matter, of multicultural France). As a white straight male, I love how my world has been opened up by feminists and black, Latino/a, and LBGTQ activists. I’m not interested in making America monochrome again, returning it to the Jim Crow 1950s or (as billionaire and Trump supporter Peter Thiel wants) to the pre-women’s suffrage 1920s.

I do acknowledge, however, that I underestimated the fury of white male backlash in the recent election. Houellebecq provides useful insight into the mindset of certain angry and despairing voters. But as Hillary’s 2.8 million popular vote margin indicates, those voters aren’t yet our country’s center of gravity.

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