The Meaning of Cities   /   Summer 2017   /    The Meaning Of Cities

Cosmopolitanism vs. Provincialism

How the Politics of Place Hurts America

Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein

Franklin Delano Roosevelt (right) speaks at the 1943 dedication of the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC; Abbie Rowe/PhotoQuest/Getty Images.

The “politically correct” designation that attaches to cosmopolitanism has morphed into a slur against urban snobbery.

There are two classes of Americans…one, holding it highly unpatriotic to find any evil in our own Government, or any good in a foreign one; the other, able to see excellence everywhere, except at home. The former illustrate the bigotry of patriotism, the latter, the heartlessness of cosmopolitanism.
—from The National Era newspaper (1848)1

Does liberal urban cosmopolitanism account for the rise of Donald Trump? In one of his pre-election commentaries, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said yes and no. From his perspective, the populist revolts in the United States and Great Britain suddenly forced Americans to look to the mother country for insights into what many saw as Trump’s dangerous mixture of nativism and anti-globalism, along with crude appeals to the white working class. On one side of the Atlantic was “Make America Great Again,” Trump’s nostalgic evocation of the post–World War II boom that convincingly established American military and economic dominance. On the other side of the Atlantic, Shakespeare’s famous line, “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,” arguably summed up a comparable desire to recover cultural exceptionalism and British imperial power, while justifying a love of country. The enemies of these two populist movements were easy to spot. They were the Democratic establishment of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama on one side of the Atlantic, and the European Union on the other. But at the same time, patriotic populists had something in their sights that they perceived as far more ominous: a debilitating drift toward multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism.2

Douthat concluded that there were no genuine cosmopolitan beneficiaries of corporate globalism. People who regard themselves as citizens of the world today are, he claimed, less celebrants of difference than lovers of meritocratic sameness. They boast Oxbridge or Ivy League credentials, speak the same professional language, exhibit similar cultural tastes, and live in a safe urban-global bubble made possible because of innovations in travel and communication. These virtual paper-pushers of the computer age constitute a “hereditary caste” or “tribe,” making them a pale reflection of the true cosmopolitan globe trekker. Whether real or fake, they were a visible target of Brexit backers and Trump’s vocal supporters.3

No one disputes that Trump tapped into simmering class anger. Even Vice President Joe Biden picked up on the inflammatory rhetoric Trump was aiming at Washington insiders and urban elitists. Biden acknowledged that the Democratic Party placed too much emphasis on “pedigree,” by which he meant intellectual pedigree, class pedigree.4

In the aftermath of the election, longtime Trump supporter and CNN commentator Jeffery Lord repeated what has now become the conventional wisdom among Republicans. Appearing on Bill Maher’s Real Time, he praised Trump’s combative verbal style, saying that the businessman’s victory rested on his ability to “dish it right back” at the liberal media, in support of all who feel that elites “look down on them.” For Lord, Trump scored big as the defender of Clinton’s “basket of deplorables.”5

Such people finally had a champion, who would dismiss political correctness in an abrupt way that struck them as “raw honesty.” Put another way, Trump’s vulgar style made him “common” and provincial. It brought him down from his Manhattan penthouse and made him one with the unwashed masses. Trump’s uncensored mouth (and Twitter account) set his conduct apart from the civility expected among political elites. He was not a member of the Washington insiders’ club. He didn’t play by anyone else’s rules. Wasn’t that the vintage American expression of freedom? To his devoted fans, it was. Whenever the wealthy New Yorker donned his red Bubba cap and went on the attack against the cultural elite, he became the candidate of the common man, equally accessible to the rural outsider and the ordinary working stiff.6

It did not take much for the reality television star and real-life real estate tycoon to revive the Republicans’ war against political correctness. Liberal snobbery was itself equated with cosmopolitanism. The “in crowd” were Hollywood hipsters, the educated elite (with their monopoly on secular morality), liberal journalists, full-time Washingtonians, and bleeding-heart Democrats in general. While liberal elites embraced cultural tolerance for outsiders, they had little sympathy for rural and working-class white Americans whose religion and traditional beliefs they characterized as primitive, uncouth, and thoroughly retrograde. Little wonder that such Americans had come to see themselves as “strangers” in their “own country.”7

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