The American people are tired of the “elite,” and in order to demonstrate their revolt against elitist governance, they have elected to the presidency a billionaire real estate mogul who lives in Manhattan and flies to resorts all over the world in his private jet with his supermodel wife at his side.
Not in the history of American politics has a president, or even candidate, differed so sharply from his supporters as Donald Trump. Millions of ordinary Americans, most concentrated in rural areas, increasingly resentful of the “elites” in the media, the government and academia, have anointed a man with a golden elevator in his Penthouse as the leader of their populist movement.
If Donald Trump is not an “elite,” then the term is entirely meaningless, as it signifies nothing. Despite the perversion of the word, it has become impossible to read or watch coverage of the 2016 horror show without finding it everywhere. Its operative definition seems to transform, according to who is uttering it, to the point of incoherence. Newt Gingrich, for example, will often decry the “elites,” failing to note the irony that he is a former Speaker of the House, a multimillionaire and a conservative campus speaker who collects five-to-six figures in fees for his appearances.
Then, there is the popular expression “coastal elites” — an all-encompassing term for any educated professional who lives in a major city in California or along the Eastern seaboard. Many of the “coastal elites” are just ordinary people conducting undramatic lives, with no outsize influence or authority in their city or country, but by bizarre virtue of pedigree and geography, they fall into the same category as Wall Street executives and the president of the United States.
There is hardly a week that passes when I do not receive an email from an angry reader full of accusations that, because I write for Salon and teach at the university level, I am part of the dangerous and detached “elite.” In my time between paying my mortgage, grading papers and having dinner with my wife, I plot to undermine all that is sacred in the “real America.”
The juxtaposition of the “real America” with “elitist America” exposes the actual meaning of all the endless denunciations of the elite. It is not anti-elitism. It is anti-intellectualism.
As Richard Hofstadter documented and described in his historical classic, “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life,” many Americans reflexively distrust anyone who demonstrates expertise or excellence in analytical intelligence. It is not that Americans are not smart, Hofstadter explains, but that they often view the intellect as functional, namely in its capacity for commercial success. Donald Trump regularly struggles to form a coherent sentence, but many Americans believe him a genius, because he is a billionaire. They believe he is not “an elite,” despite his close connection with every major political figure, including the Clinton family he has accused of irredeemable corruption, because he presents himself with a performance of everyman vernacular. Supporters of George W. Bush could hardly deny that the son of a President was an “elite,” but he was not an “elitist,” they insisted. Just look at the way he talks and how well he wears a cowboy hat. The middle class “coastal elites” who lack wealth and political influence conduct themselves according to an aspiration of intelligence, and that, according to this logic, makes them enemies of democracy.
I remember having drinks with a right-wing friend in a small town bar, and as part of his demented condemnation of Barack Obama, he said, “He has never been part of this.” When I pressed him to define “this,” he waved his arm around, making it clear that he was referring to an average Saturday night in middle America. Obama was part of “this,” especially when he lived and worked in the South Side of Chicago, but he maintains elegance in his public persona, and speaks in a style that many observers correctly call “professorial.” An elite is not a financial tycoon, or even a political powerhouse, but someone who articulates a mind of intellectual sophistication. Gore Vidal understood the bizarre bastardization of populism in American culture when he defined an elitist as “someone who can read the New York Times without moving his lips.”
In the “real America,” people don’t read the New York Times at all. One who rejects the pursuit of knowledge will not place much emphasis on intellectual rigor when voting for president. Many liberals are dealing with post-traumatic stress over the realization that America has elected as president a man who speaks at a middle school level, has no understanding of the NATO alliance, and consistently seems confused over how a bill becomes a law. The reality is that these disqualifying flaws, for many of Trump’s supporters, are virtues. The failure to pass an eighth-grade civics exam is not cause for concern. It is proof that the billionaire candidate is one of the people. He isn’t one of the elites with his nose buried in a book.
Given that 28 percent of Americans do not read a single book in any given year, and only 29 percent read a newspaper (print or online), anti-elitism is not advocacy of Lincoln’s oft-quoted vision of government “by, of, and for the people,” it is the defense of intellectual mediocrity.
It has become painful to participate in political discourse, because rather than arguing over different interpretations of historical fact and statistical data, the disputes revolve around the denial of truth. Climate change is not real, even though almost one hundred percent of credentialed scientists accept its existence, because the experts are part of the anti-American elite. Undocumented immigrants comprise a mere 3.5 percent of the American population, but reality is meaningless when the “real America” is angry over the invasion of Mexicans “bringing drugs” and “taking our jobs.” “Elites,” armed with evidence, argued that Hillary Clinton was not “crooked,” but the “real America” knew without proof that she was Lucifer’s mistress seeking to transform America into the pit of hell.
President Obama is uniquely skilled in making emotional appeals without manipulation, and one of the tasks of the Democratic Party is to find another politician who can refer to factual evidence without causing many Americans to close their eyes and drool. The truth, as Trump illustrates, will lose to lies if the lies have more exciting packaging.
The implications of intellectual mediocrity extend far beyond presidential politics, but also helps to unmask a truly “politically incorrect” reality underneath all of the mawkish, teary-eyed tributes to the “frustrations of the white working class.”
In July, FiveThirtyEight examined the “real America,” and determined that when conservative politicians and pundits refer to that segment of the country, “They often mean white people without college degrees — the so-called ‘white working class.’ They usually mean practicing Christians. Their examples usually refer to people in the South or the Midwest — not East Coast elites or West Coast hippies.”
The “real America” amounts to twenty percent of the population. It is hardly representative, and one cannot help but wonder what “real” means. Is Chicago not real? Is New York fake? To condemn “big cities” as endless “cocktail parties” where effete elites struggle to change their tires and laugh at people who “work with their hands,” is to betray a provincialism that would make Mayberry look like Rio De Janeiro. People work in every imaginable job in major metropolitan areas, from janitor to stock trader, and they also vote overwhelmingly Democratic.
“The white working class” of the “real America” feels besieged by the elites, because they are “forgotten” and “left behind.” It is amusing how, in Republican politics and mainstream media coverage, the global economic conspiracy theory never once applied to black or Latino poverty, but now that whites claim financial hardship, it is the fault of every elite institution in the world.
When discussing the economy, President Obama will often resort to the elitist tactic of citing facts and figures to advance an argument that his policies have generated economic recovery. The stock market has doubled since he first took office, but more importantly, unemployment has dramatically decreased, wages have risen, and the United States has enjoyed its longest period of job growth on record.
The problem, according to a study from Georgetown University, is that 95 percent of post-recession jobs have gone to applicants with at least some college education. No society can ignore such severe stratification according to educational attainment. Policy prescriptions are necessary, and those should include tuition-free public universities, improvements to public schools, job assistance and training programs, and providing health care and child care subsidies to help ease the burden of people caught between employers. In other words, these are the exact policies Hillary Clinton promised to enact if she became president. Donald Trump, in defiance of automation, has pledged to “bring the jobs back.” The contrast allows one of the great ironies of American life to emerge. The so-called “liberal elitists” are the only ones attempting to limit the damage and control of the real elite — the top one percent of income earners.
A vote for the candidate who offers nostalgic illusions over the candidate who seeks to acclimate you to the real world is a symptom of intellectual mediocrity.
My grandfather worked in a quarry his entire life. He was a blue collar member of the working class, but he constantly emphasized the importance of education. He did not champion a populist settlement for underachievement with the cover of “anti-elitism.” He also never derided the educated. While he did not reflexively defer to him, as he was a highly intelligent man, he did admire him. In a recent essay for Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams writes that the working class finds enjoyment in the mockery of professionals. Doctors are “quacks,” and attorneys are “shysters.” My grandfather was familiar with the anti-professional attitude. He believed it was a sign of insecurity. Psychological compensation and hatred for the “elite” aside, when people get sick they go to the doctor. If they need legal counsel, they go to a lawyer. Up until now, if they needed a president, they went to someone with knowledge of public policy and administration.
The world is rapidly changing, and with those changes, education, or at least trade school training, becomes essential. Alleging that everyone who adjusts to modernity is “elitist” will only traffic in more personal and political disappointments. Many rural Americans already comprehend the prerequisites of success. In “Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America,” authors Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas explain that many parents, teachers and ministers in low-income counties encourage children to leave, especially if they have the opportunity to enroll in college. They realize that, for their children to achieve financial stability, they must have an education.
During the Republican presidential primary, Donald Trump declared, “I love the poorly educated.” They love him back, and now he is our president. It seems inevitable that disappointment and despair will darken the lives of the poorly educated when the jobs never return, as college graduates, maybe even those within their families, continue to earn salaries. Will “elitism” still look so undesirable then?