Noblesse Oblige and the Broken Contract: How Americans Can Connect With Their Ruling Class

Portrait of the Villers Family by Jean-Bernard Duvivier, 1790, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

In popular parlance, the term democracy is invoked as the end-all-be-all of modern government. It implies rule by popular favor, and the winning politicians’ slogans often include some variation of being a “champion of the people.”

In a post-2020 world, the shadow side of populism reared its head and set fire to the kindling that formed in the social media age—a potential for the already prevalent cancel culture to spark into full-blown “mass formation,” as famously described by Professor Mattias Desmet: an anxiety-ridden population that can readily bend to the whims of coercive elites. The masses, when ungrounded by a clear moral imperative—whether in the form of king, constitution, or religion—are subject to manipulation by political opportunists.

Commentator and former White House staffer Darren Beattie described the issue perfectly in his IM-1776 piece, “The Future of Populism”:

“I mean, populism is a tool, but it’s one tool among many, and it’s certainly not sufficient on its own. You do need a faction of the ruling class behind you in order to be effective in governance. You know, people conflate populism with just lowbrow, mass behavior, and these kinds of things. But it’s clearly necessary to also cultivate an elite, both cultural and intellectual, and capture the institutions that serve to reinforce your ideas once you get political power so you don’t have to find yourself again in this situation where you nominally have government, but functionally you’re kind of impotent.”

Aristocracy without populism is dictatorship. Populism without aristocracy is impotent.

Populism is a powerful tool indeed. It got Donald Trump elected in 2016, but also later facilitated the world’s acquiescence to the initiation of a biomedical security state with COVID-19. But, like an electrical circuit, populism needs an endpoint for the energetic current to flow. And, despite sloganeering for “grassroots local politics” on both sides, power tends to flow in one direction: up.

The French term noblesse oblige speaks to something lost in the American consciousness. Literally, it translates to “nobility obliges,” as in, those of noble rank bear responsibility, not just privilege, to the people they rule. By virtue of our democratic republic, it carries a sense of inherent non-applicability to our system. We thumb our noses at the very idea: “surely we have no ruling class or monarchs, we govern ourselves.”

And yet, American history is highlighted by presidents and officials who wielded noblesse oblige to manifest the will of the people—though whether this will was genuine or fabricated is always a point of contention. From FDR’s sweeping New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression to Reagan’s landslide victory in 1984, there are moments where the people issue a clear mandate, typically to address some sort of prevailing and timely crisis.

Today, there is a deeply seated political nihilism that makes the concept of noblesse oblige a seemingly absurdist proposition. We often think, “why would the elites have any interest in making the lives of the common man any better?” Political optimism in some circles amounts to “realizing” that both parties are against the people, so it’s better to opt out and escape to the countryside. This is bleakness masquerading as willful nonparticipation.

How far gone we are from this ideal is perhaps best illustrated in how establishment Republicans recoil at the new wave of conservative populism ushered in via Trump.

Not far off from a Babylon Bee headline, The Hill recently published an article entitled, “GOP senators rattled by radical conservative populism.” In it, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ala.) told the publication that “our party is becoming known as a group of…extremist, populist over-the-top [people] where no one is taking us seriously anymore.”

Another Republican senator, who requested anonymity in speaking with The Hill, said this “radical populism” (The Hill’s words) is making speaking with their constituents “difficult”:

“There are people who surprise me—I’m surprised they have those views…I don’t want to use this word but it’s not just a ‘red-neck’ thing. It’s people in business, the president of a bank, a doctor.”

It is extremely telling that an anonymous sitting Republican senator is bewildered by the idea that there is a public—beyond just “rednecks”—that hold opinions oriented against their own establishment position.

In an article focused on the book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar, Andrew Roberts of National Review writes about the noblesse oblige of British aristocracy as exemplified by the figure of George Nathaniel Curzon, viceroy of India:

“‘I love India,’ Curzon told his school friends, ‘its people, its history, its government, the absorbing mysteries of its civilization and its life.’ He spoke of ‘the fascination, and if I may say so, the sacredness of India,’ which he had first visited in 1887, and he promised to ‘devote such energies’ as he ‘might possess to its service.’ He contrasted the rapacity of the East India Company in the 18th century with the ‘spirit of duty,’ which, owing to ‘a Christian ideal,’ meant that, in their own time, ‘we think much of the welfare of India and but little of its wealth; that we endeavor to administer the government of the country in the interest of the governed; that our mission there is one of obligation and not of profit.’”

As Roberts notes, the boilerplate Marxist take on figures like Curzon is that they are “merely white supremacists whose aim was to extract whatever raw materials and profits they could from the empire, treating the natives as little better than slaves in the process.” It misses a fundamental dimension to what animated Western aristocracy, no matter how misguided or wrong we may find it to be with present-day moral hindsight: they believed in a grand ideal of human progress. A Twitter user using the pseudonym “Taz” puts it succinctly:

“Noblesse oblige was a real & powerful sentiment to much – although not all – of the aristocratic class. Especially those Victorians & Edwardians who suckled on the teat of King Alfred’s legend. Our modern patricians – celebrities, bankers & influencers – don’t have that.”

Of course, the noblesse oblige of the 19th century isn’t a direct analogue for what we need today. But, it does speak to the caliber of ruling class we need to make American populism viable. The on-going, highly volatile political experiment with Donald Trump betrays the stifled, unconscious need to have an authentic connection with our own ruling class. His voters, which span the spectrum of political thought, passed judgment on our elderly, vapid, sycophantic elected officials.

And yet, Trump is far from the picture of refined nobility to lead America. Ron DeSantis offers more focus and palatability, but so far, lacks the X-factor that imbues a leader with the charisma to connect to their followers. So, where do we see noblesse oblige thriving in a way that is compatible with Western ideals of freedom and progress?

The future of this dynamic is finding room to breathe in Central America, where Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is pioneering a fresh style of governance that balances progress with unflinching national interest. The 41-year-old promoted Bitcoin heavily as one facet in a push to modernize El Salvador’s economy. And most notably, he has turned the tide on the country’s plague of notoriously sensational gang violence with a swift hand.

Bukele makes no attempt to hide his intent to rule with targeted muscularity. His Twitter bio currently reads simply, “Philosopher King.” In the past, it’s been “Dictador de El Salvador.” He’s being tongue-in-cheek, but his robust style of governance and flexibility toward due process shows it’s at least partly sincere, much to the Economist’s horror—but the Salvadoran people’s adulation. In a recent poll, Bukele is regarded as more popular than the Pope in many Central and South American countries.

Despite the turnaround, the magazine’s central thesis is this:

“Yet his war on gangs has three enormous downsides. First, many innocent people have been incarcerated. Second, it has given him an excuse to accumulate immense powers, and he is not finished yet. Finally, he has created a formula that political opportunists in other crime-ridden countries with weak institutions could copy. Call it: how to dismantle a democracy while remaining popular.”

Bukele’s success is apparently inspiring others to take up the same spirit, including Jan Topic, a businessman in Ecuador who is running for president on a similar hard line with clean-cut aesthetics and unabashed strength.

This is just the beginning of the re-emergence of noblesse oblige, and it will undoubtedly dovetail with the long-repressed populism of the postmodern West. Trump gave us a taste that resurfaced ancestral memories of what can happen when the people are truly aligned with the ruling class. Bukele is mapping out in practice what it looks like. How America will fully step into the court of nobility is just around the corner. The people are starving for it.


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