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Performative populism: Donald Trump addresses supporters at  a campaign rally in June (©Ralph Freso/Getty Images)

Western civilisation is threatened by an unprecedented array of external adversaries and dangers, ranging from Islamist terror and Russian or Chinese aggression to the fall-out from failed states. It also faces internal threats — above all the collapse of confidence in Judaeo-Christian values and democratic capitalism. What solutions do liberals and conservatives have to offer in answer to this predicament? Can either the Left or the Right rise to the challenge of the present crisis? Or are both political traditions mired in self-destructive mind-sets that prevent them from grasping the scale of the task, let alone reversing the decline of the West? I shall sketch a diagnosis and propose a cure for these pathologies of Left and Right, but I can only hazard a guess as to whether our political class is ready to take its medicine in time to save the day. The future of Western civilisation will depend on how well the present can mobilise the intellectual resources of the past.

I want to begin with the Right, because the crisis of conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic seems too deep to be explained by the vagaries of individual personalities or parties. The example that most obviously illustrates this comes from America, where the fiasco of the Republican nomination process is fresh in our minds. How could one of the oldest political parties in the world, drawing on the vast pool of talent provided by a great nation of more than 300 million souls, end up with Donald Trump? I will suggest three reasons, which I have discussed at greater length in an article in the April issue of Standpoint.

First, the revolt of the masses, a phenomenon first analysed by Ortega y Gasset in 1930, made it possible for a demagogue to appeal over the heads of the elites to the most plebeian and philistine instincts, the lowest moral denominators. On the American Right, we see the mastery of mediocrity, the apotheosis of the average, the triumph of Trumpery — a word that ever since Shakespeare has denoted something showy but worthless, empty or ridiculous talk, and deception.

Second, the backlash against political correctness — a pathology that has spread from the universities via the social media to permeate every nook and cranny of society — has found its champion in Donald Trump. He is certainly not the sophisticated critic of illiberal liberalism that conservatives should wish for; indeed, he is quite illiberal himself. But he has captured the field by shooting from the hip, indiscriminately targeting feminists, Hispanics, Muslims and just about anybody else who gets in his way. Indeed, Trump may even have given political correctness a new lease of life by reminding people why it originally emerged.

Third, Trump may appeal to the masses by denouncing the liberal elites who have failed America, but he belongs to those elites in a particular way: he is the embodiment of that “culture of narcissism” diagnosed by Christopher Lasch in the 1970s, when Trump’s mindset was formed. In an America where narcissists flourish, a reality TV host is a plausible president. The French Revolution ended by crowning a war hero as emperor. The American mutiny may end by inaugurating a paranoid, narcissistic megalomaniac as commander-in-chief.

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Colin Harkin
August 6th, 2016
10:08 AM
For individuals like me who didn't have a religious background or upbringing, this is truly educational. In my own mind, I've tried to link life / society as I know it to religion without success. I have found the answer in this article. I've also wonder, what do we need to do in the West to overcome the attacks be it current day terrorism or the cold war for the free democratic option to human society to survive? I've believed we must always be willing to fight to defend it, but that's a physical thing. How do we fight the mental thing that makes us weak and vulnerable to today's enemies, but also those of the future? I now see the answer is in a society wide philosophy and belief in what underpins western culture, it's freedom and right to own property as well as to trade with each other. If our leaders aren't capable of doing this, they should be moved on and replaced with people like Winston Churchill who can and the sooner this happens the better for all of us. Is Theresa May one of these people? I sincerely hope so. PS>> I'm surprised at how few comments there are for this article. Why aren't people interested?

Brian Richard Allen
July 9th, 2016
1:07 PM
German workers'socialism or the Soviet's socialists? "Left" and "right?" Or "right" and "Left?" From what tortured perspective, one wonders, does this archaic distinction, without any sign of difference, become visible? Or through what distorting lens? And persist? Except only by degree, a socialist is a socialist and remains so despite he calls himself by any of socialism's many other names. Brian Richard Allen

James Chilton
July 9th, 2016
12:07 PM
Western civilsation has become a rotting hulk, and it's heading for the rocks. After the crash, it will not be possible to reassemble what's been lost from the wreckage. Neither the philosophy of Aristotle nor the works of St Thomas Aquinas can save us now.afux

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