Having finally read this well-known and so-often-recommended book, I'm sorry to say that I was a little disappointed in it. It's not that there is anything wrong with its actual contents--it's a good book, and I recommend it--but that the contents aren't quite what I was expecting. I assumed that the topic named in the title would be the entire subject of the book. But "The Revolt of the Elites" is really the title essay in a collection whose subjects range somewhat afield from that of the one. They are certainly related, describing other components of the general "betrayal of democracy" which is the book's subtitle, but they don't deal specifically with the revolt.
I had a specific reason for wanting a book focused on the title's topic. I have never encountered, either personally or in print, a really committed and zealous progressive who had any understanding of why people vote for Trump. I can't even name one who seemed even to make a serious effort to do so, though surely there are some out there. Usually if the question is raised at all it's rhetorical and framed so that actual understanding is precluded: how can anyone be so stupid/crazy/evil as to vote for this monster?
I had hoped I might be able to suggest this book to any progressive, if I came across one, who would be open to considering the root causes--to use a term favored by progressives in other contexts--of the Trump phenomenon. As Lasch is not a conservative or a Republican and not particularly oriented toward politics, and as this book is now over twenty-five years old, I hoped he might get a hearing where a conservative would not.
Well, it really isn't suited to that particular purpose. But the following passage sums up very well a sort of elemental aspect of the Trump phenomenon: the perfectly accurate sense on the part of middle-class Americans that the most culturally dominant segments of society despise them.
Upper-middle-class liberals, with their inability to grasp the importance of class differences in shaping attitudes toward life, fail to reckon with the class dimension of their obsession with health and moral uplift. They find it hard to understand why their hygienic conception of life fails to command universal enthusiasm. They have mounted a crusade to sanitize American society: to create a "smoke-free environment," to censor everything from pornography to "hate speech," and at the same time, incongruously, to extend the range of personal choice in matters where most people feel the need of solid moral guidelines. When confronted with resistance to these initiatives, they betray the venomous hatred that lies not far beneath the smiling face of upper-middle-class benevolence. Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold. They become petulant, self-righteous, intolerant. In the heat of political controversy, they find it impossible to conceal their contempt for those who stubbornly refuse to see the light--those who "just don't get it," in the self-satisfied jargon of political rectitude.
Simultaneously arrogant and insecure, the new elites, the professional class in in particular, regard the masses with mingled scorn and apprehension. In the United States, "Middle America"--a term that has both geographical and social implications--has come to symbolize everything that stands in the way of progress: "family values," mindless patriotism, religious fundamentalism, racism, homophobia, retrograde views of women. Middle Americans, as they appear to the makers of educated opinion, are hopelessly shabby, unfashionable, and provincial, ill informed about changes in taste or intellectual trends, addicted to trashy novels of romance and adventure [times have changed!--mh], and stupefied by prolonged exposure to television. They are at once absurd and vaguely menacing--not because they wish to overthrow the old order but precisely because their defense of it appears so deeply irrational that it expresses, at the higher reaches of its intensity, in fanatical religiosity, in a repressive sexuality that occasionally erupts into violence against women and gays, and in a patriotism that supports imperialist wars and a national ethic of aggressive masculinity.
"Absurd and vaguely menacing"--exactly. The conceptual framework of much left-liberalism has for some time seen the mass of Americans as savages who need to be continually restrained. And mainstream liberalism has taken a strikingly and unembarrassed authoritarian turn. (Everyone sensed that about Hillary Clinton; it was part of what made her an unattractive candidate.)
Most of this belongs in the "oft was thought but n'er so well expressed" category. But there is one striking difference between what Lasch saw in the early '90s and our current situation. A couple of pages later he remarks that the liberals described here "lack a common political outlook." But that's no longer the case. The upper-middle class and many (or most?) of the very rich are now predominantly on the political left, and much further in that direction than they were in Lasch's time, at least in the ways that do not threaten their own wealth, prestige, and power. And the embrace of Trump by really tacky people only reinforces their sense of the rightness of their own politics, which are at one with their good taste and careful management of their own lives (not that any class of people is ever consistently successful in that effort).
And the remarks about "the hygienic conception of life," the "crusade to sanitize American society": my initial reaction to those was that they were a bit outmoded, not as applicable today as then. But they are. What has happened is that the sanitizing crusade has grown to encompass the political and cultural realms, with puritans attempting to purge not only contemporary society but all of American history, and further back as necessary, of everything they see as a stain, the way food purists want to be certain that absolutely no trace of "chemicals" is present in what they eat and drink.
Affluent women, especially younger ones, seem to be especially susceptible to obsession along these lines. There's a perceptive and intermittently amusing treatment of one manifestation of this in an article at The Tablet: "Master Cleanse: Why social justice feels like self-help to privileged women". And then there are those enterprising "women of color" who charge groups of white women $5000 to challenge them to admit their racism over dinner. You'll notice, if you click on that link, that the URL of the MSN story to which it takes you places it in "health/wellness."
Lasch would have understood.