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Wet, Hot, Aristocratic Summer

Donald Trump, Meghan Markle, and America’s enduring obsession with the British royals

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Royalist mania transcends traditional political divisions in the United States. Liberals, who decry entrenched privilege at home, seem strangely OK with a British aristocracy that conveys titles and estates through bloodlines. Fox News talking heads, who denounce coastal “elites” and the Ivy League, nonetheless carried breathless live coverage of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding in May. A 2015 YouGov poll found that Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, held more favorable opinions of the British queen, Prince William, Prince Harry, and the Duchess of Cambridge than of their own politicians. Even the most popular American politician, Barack Obama, had a favorability that fell below their net rating by a considerable 34 points.

Donald Trump, with his penchant for Versailles-style gilded furniture and his predilection for stamping the family crest on his properties, seems to have a particularly bad case of this national affliction. In April 2017, The Times of London reported that White House staffers had demanded the full Cinderella treatment for his planned state visit: a gold-plated carriage ride to meet the queen at Buckingham Palace. (In order to avoid protests, as well as a giant balloon depicting him as a diapered child, the president will mostly avoid London and instead meet with the prime minister in the countryside, before heading to Windsor Castle for tea with the queen.)

Very little seems to unite Americans these days—except, apparently, their enjoyment in fawning over the rulers the Founding Fathers waged war to overthrow. Once, the United States claimed egalitarianism as a central ideal. What happened?

It’s not difficult to see how nostalgia for a system that finds dignity in stasis could take hold. American social mobility, depending on which economist you favor, has either been in steady decline for decades or has at the very least failed to keep up with widening inequality. Today, those born without privilege face daunting barriers to wealth and advancement. And even in the privileged upper class, the scale of competition—plummeting acceptance rates at elite universities, for example—makes it hard to live up to the assumption, hammered into American children from an early age, that they are “special.” Sleep deprivation, which affected 11 percent of Americans in the 1940s, is now a “public health epidemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The percentage of people who “worry a lot,” Pew Research analysis shows, has been rising for all income levels since 2003. And prescriptions for both stimulant medications, to keep up in an increasingly chaotic and distracting world, and sedatives, to unwind when it overwhelms, have jumped accordingly.

“This permanent struggle—between the instincts inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them—harasses and wearies men’s minds,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the United States in the early 1800s. Americans may believe in equality and meritocracy, but if their obsession with the royal family is any guide, they yearn for a time when fulfillment wasn’t quite so much work.

The Western world has long seen upticks in nostalgia and reactionism when people are frustrated, fatigued, or frightened. The 1873 financial crisis and resulting depression, for example, shifted politics across Europe and North America: In Vienna, as the Princeton scholar Carl Schorske has written, nationalists with “aristocratic pretensions” seized political control, and intellectuals enthused over the medieval romanticism of Richard Wagner’s operas; in the United States, 1890s populists attacked the banking industry, globalism, and immigrants—and glorified yeoman farmers, pioneers, and the American Revolution. A similar back-to-basics movement flourished in the interwar period, with reactionaries in France, Italy, and Germany scorning bourgeois liberalism in favor of rigid gender roles, healthy diets, open air, and calisthenic routines. (Hitler, inspired in part by the earlier backlash in Vienna, the city of his youth, is only the most famous example.*)

The reactionary sentiment of the past decade seems less like an uptick than a storm surge. The Tea Party, anti-vaxxers, food localism, “paleo” diets, urban astrology, even hipster DIY fermentation (pickles, sauerkraut, and kvass, the alcoholic bread drink first brewed by Slavic peasants in the Middle Ages)—all trends with distinct anti-modern bents—shot up in the years following the financial crisis and the Great Recession, when economic stability, let alone advancement, seemed unattainable to many Americans. (This was also when Donald Trump began venturing seriously into politics.)

April 23: Prince Louis of Cambridge born

100,000 bets placed guessing his name (Arthur was the leading contender, at 2:1)

May 19: Royal wedding

Broadcast on 15 U.S. channels (29.2 million viewers)

July 13: Trump’s first official visit to England

80,000 people joined Facebook event to protest his arrival

Sources: The New York Times; Nielsen; Facebook

In 2011, when employment had recovered but wages were still dropping, both Fox News and ABC News aired live coverage of Kate Middleton and Prince William’s April wedding at four o’clock in the morning on a Friday. Earlier that year, audiences had fallen hard for the ancien-régime agitprop of Downton Abbey, which premiered in January. It was unclear which fans responded to more favorably: a dowager countess mowing down meritocrats with one-liners or a romance that involved an earl’s daughter belittling the bourgeoisie as foreplay. A few months later, HBO’s Game of Thrones upped the ante with an ultraviolent drama of “houses” rather than individuals. “It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on,” patriarch Tywin Lannister said while skinning a stag (a scene that could give Jordan Peterson—the Canadian psychologist and university professor who preaches masculinity from his YouTube channel—a grand mal seizure of joy). That August, The New York Times Magazine published a 5,500-word article on “Decision Fatigue”—the theory that willpower can be depleted by having too many choices in everyday life. Soon, Washingtonian, Harper’s Bazaar, and Bustle all began running stories praising “work uniforms” for the creative class: outfits repeated by choice to free overworked minds for other decisions. Individualism: tiring stuff.

While these examples may seem frivolous, meritocracy fatigue is anything but. At the least, it suggests liberals have something in common with the right-wingers they deplore, and that Trumpism, for its part, is only a symptom of a much broader issue. After all, what did Trump’s supporters vote for in 2016 if not simplicity, a world in which modern problems—inequality, globalization, a changing workplace, and diversifying society—not only had solutions but easy ones, like a literal wall? “Make America Great Again” explicitly invokes a mythical golden age, in which Americans—white, male Americans—didn’t have to deal with the complexity of modern life, their position in the global economy guaranteed as a kind of birthright rather than a matter of market trends.

This premodern craving for a world in which everyone and everything has a place surfaces time and again, in the royal nuptials, in feudal fiction, even in the gilded carriage denied Trump. But however comforting, it’s also a deeply impoverished vision of what life is supposed to be—a pale, passive, unromantic view of humans as chess pieces rather than adventurers in a painful but rich human experience.

The Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, writing in 1929, called equality before the law “a psychological state of feeling lord and master of oneself and equal to anybody else.” (He saw dangers in egalitarianism but gave the original idea its due.) This was and remains a radical concept, beautiful and fierce: that whatever a person’s material conditions, they were sovereign over their own life. The challenge now is to find ways to resist royalist escapism and instead to recommit to the radical majesty of the egalitarian project, re-enchanting the everyday.

*Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Hitler was born in Vienna. In fact, he was born in Braunau am Inn, Austria, before moving to Vienna at age 18.