When I was studying American history and political science in college — sometime back in the last century — it was commonly said that this country had an unusually narrow ideological spectrum. The classical liberal tradition, born in the 18th-century Enlightenment and enshrined in the Declaration and Constitution, was the only game in town, it was said.
America had no socialism because it had no feudalism, an observation made long ago, I forget by whom. The only attempt at constructing a premodern hierarchical society was in the antebellum South. And it was a fake, with self-made men like Scarlett O’Hara’s Irish father affecting the ways of English cavaliers (Mark Twain blamed Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War by infecting the planter class with delusions of honor and chivalry). In any case, that was all gone with the wind by 1865, and white supremacy carried on with fewer noble pretensions.
On the other end, American socialism peaked with Eugene V. Debs’ presidential campaign in 1912. For many well-known reasons — racial and ethnic division, rapid economic growth, unprecedented social mobility — a mass social democratic party never took off in this country. The Communists had their heyday during the Great Depression, but they were suspected (correctly) of being agents of a foreign power, and FDR enacted enough reforms to save capitalism when it came nearest to failing.
Liberal ideology — classically defined — has been basically unchallenged on this continent for more than 200 years.
But I wonder if that still holds true.
On the right, we now see the rise of exotic and sinister doctrines like the so-called Dark Enlightenment, neo-reaction and alt-right. These are not, as yet, mass movements, and it is impossible to know how many people a bunch of sun-deprived malcontents trolling the internet from their basements truly represent. But they have media outlets like Breitbart that, thanks to new technologies, have as much reach as the old Big Three TV networks. And they now have their man with the president’s ear in Stephen Bannon.
The Trump Whisperer has an admitted fascination with malign figures from Europe’s bloody past, like the French anti-Semite and Nazi collaborator Charles Maurras and the Italian Fascist philosopher Julius Evola, who criticized Mussolini from the right. Bannon has also repeatedly invoked the Frenchman Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, an apocalyptic fantasy of race war (I once snuck a look at the first few pages, and it reads like a concentration camp memoir — by a guard).
And Bannon has gone beyond theory, establishing ties with neo-fascist movements in Europe and their patron in the Kremlin.
Another Trump acolyte, the creepy tech magnate Peter Thiel — born in Germany, by the way — has openly wondered if “liberty” is still compatible with democracy. Of course he would choose liberty — for people like him to colonize man-made islands and reach for immortality by literally drawing the blood of others.
This represents a turn away from the vaunted “American exceptionalism” long trumpeted on the right. Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, even George Wallace, always framed their appeals in 100 percent Americanism and the dream of a “shining city on a hill” free of the corruptions of the Old World. Now we see the importation of noxious foreign doctrines like anti-Semitism, which was always marginal in this country.
The left, in its fringes, also seems more open to once-discredited doctrines. On a recent visit to the Strand, New York’s premier independent bookstore, I saw several new, nicely packaged editions of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. In a recent conversation, a grad student in “critical theory” (what else?) at Columbia asserted to me that Stalin had a point.
On campus, we have seen from the left repeated cases of attempts to suppress unpopular opinion in the name of “tolerance” and “diversity,” apparently without irony. In two recent incidents, at Berkeley and Middlebury, they have crossed into physical violence, not just the “emotional violence” of hearing unwelcome views.
The much-noted polarization and sorting of our population has much to do with the stridency seen on all sides today. Not that mushy moderation is called for either.
But I suspect a bigger factor is the erosion of upward mobility and a broad middle class, those blessings that made America “exceptional” as much as our proclaimed lofty ideals and the wisdom of the republic’s founders. As we tolerate an ever-greater sorting of our people into haves and have-nots, now complete with a corrupt ruling family, we are less and less the nation set apart that we claim to be. If we are going toward an “un-American” social order, the political “superstructure,” as Marxists would say, will follow.
It seems we are seeing a Europeanization of American politics (without those European benefits like national health care) and some sorcerers are conjuring fearsome spirits from other nations’ pasts.