Distrust of intellectuals and elites

It is unlikely that Miller, who grew up in a liberal family in California, is an anti-Semite. Perhaps his early attraction to right-wing extremism was a form of rebellion, too, albeit a rebellion that soon put him in the company of toxic allies.

As a student at Duke University, he became friends with Richard Spencer, who would later become a promoter of ″peaceful ethnic cleansing″ to preserve white civilisation, whatever that may be.

Ian Buruma (photo: Merlijn Doomernik)
″Cosmopolitan bias″: this accusation reflects ″a shared grievance against Muslims and the liberal urban elites who are often accused of coddling them,″ writes Ian Buruma in his essay. It is an attitude that unites many of Trump′s followers, as well as right-wing populists in other countries, including Israel

One thing that unites many of Trump′s followers, as well as right-wing populists in other countries, including Israel, is a shared grievance against Muslims and the liberal urban elites who are often accused of coddling them. When Miller speaks of cosmopolitan bias that is probably what he means.

But distrust of Muslims is only part of the story. Social elites, liberal intellectuals and critical journalists are the enemy of those who crave power but feel looked down upon by people who appear to be more sophisticated.

This is not always a matter of social class. President George W. Bush, for example, despised American reporters who spoke French. This, too, is not a new phenomenon. The upper classes in many societies often like to distinguish themselves from the common herd by adopting the language and manners of foreigners whose cultures were thought to be superior.

European aristocrats in the eighteenth century spoke French. Modern English nationalism started as a revolt against this kind of foppery in the name of John Bull, roast beef and Old England.

Not all populist rebellions are inherently racist or fascist. Democracy, too, was a product of resistance to aristocratic rule. But it is hard to believe that Trump, or his ideologues, like Miller or Bannon, are interested in expanding democratic rights, even though they pretend to speak for the common – or as they like to say – ″real″ people.

Bannon, for one, is proudly anti-liberal. He is said to have described himself as a Leninist who seeks to destroy the state.

Still, let us give Miller the benefit of the doubt. When he uses cosmopolitanism as a curse, he has no idea of the term′s antecedents. The history of fascist, Nazi and Stalinist anti-Semitism is unknown to him.

The past does not really exist. He is simply an ignorant critic of what he sees as the liberal establishment. But ignorance can be as dangerous as malice, especially when it is backed by great power.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate 2017

Ian Buruma is a British-Dutch author and journalist. He has received numerous awards, including the Erasmus Prize in 2008. In September 2017 he will become editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books.

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