The Self-Flattering Myth Of The 'Elites' Who Just Don't Get Trump

The “elites” don’t get Trump.

Only the “elites” are bothered by Trump’s antics.

If you don’t like Trump, you’re “elite.”

The term “elite” used to be one of approbation: it used to be good to be elite. It was something we all aspired to be. But in the last couple of years, pundits have conflated two different terms with two different meanings: “elites” and “elitists.”

Elites are people who are at the top of their field. People with high IQs are intellectually elite. Professional athletes are athletically elite. Rich people are financially elite. Elite is not a statement about morality. It is a statement about where you fall on the bell curve in any particular field.

Then there are elitists. Elitists are people who believe that they know better than you. They are people who want to control your life. An elitist is a person who believes that the supposed underclass’ opinions are valueless, and that only they have the requisite stuff to evaluate situations correctly.

But thanks to populists, the two terms have now been conflated. That’s deliberate. It’s an attempt to link elitist thinking with “elites” — to suggest that there is a vast divide between people at the top of their fields and everybody else. Thus we hear that the “Washington DC elites” — people who are rich and live in Washington DC — are definitionally elitists, which is asinine. We hear that if you live “in the beltway,” you must go to chi-chi cocktail parties and smoke expensive cigars while nodding along to the musings of Anderson Cooper on CNN. The goal here is to create a stereotype: the elitist elites, who must be torn down from their pedestals and trampled before the hard-working masses. The conflation between elites and elitists is actually a Marxist trope, brought back to life through right-wing populism.

On the other side from the “elites” are the hard-working, solid-living folks workin’ the local line. They’re the people who put the steel in your buildings and put the cement in your driveway. They’re the truckers and the farmers. They’re the salt of the earth. They’re the Joads. They all live, of course, in Pennsylvania and Ohio and Wisconsin. There are no rich people in these states; there are no teachers or accountants. All the people who live in the Rust Belt — the magical Trump supporters from swing districts whose minds we must all explore to understand Real America™ — are not elites. They don’t care about James Comey or Russia collusion or budget fights or the American Health Care Act. They care about the opioid crisis and puttin’ dinner on that there table. They’re not worried about yer fancy political fat cat talk. They just want action! They’re The People™. And The People™ don’t care about your petty Washington concerns.

Now, all of this is rather derogatory toward people who actually live in the Rust Belt. It turns out that the people who live in the Rust Belt are just like the people who live in the rest of the country: they follow politics, they watch the news (more often Fox than CNN), and they care about the stories of the day. It’s hard to argue that the Rust Belt voter doesn’t watch the news — it’s absolutely clear that Trump voters in swing districts hated Hillary Clinton, at least in part, because of the perception that she was corrupt and that she compromised national security with her email server. The people in the Rust Belt don’t have elitist values — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t elite. Many of them are. Many of the richest people I know live outside the coasts. Many of the smartest people I know live outside the coasts.

And here are just a few facts: the average income of the Trump voter was higher than that of the Clinton voter. Being out of work predicted support for Clinton, not support for Trump. Yes, the average Clinton voter went to college — but that reflects elitism, not necessarily being elite, since college comes along with a particular leftist and secularist set of values.

The oddest part about the conflation between “elites” and “elitist” is that it’s all done to benefit President Trump, a financial elite and self-proclaimed intellectual elite — and it’s largely done by elites who earn millions of dollars promoting their blue collar bona fides. Those who earn private jets but blast “elites” might want to think about their odd choice of language, rather than promulgating idiotic stereotypes about the voting populace.

But they don’t, and that’s the point: if you own a private jet but you want to appear a person of the people, the best way to do so is to pander, to virtue signal — to point to the elites around you and say, “They’re all terrible, but since I’m saying so, I’m clearly not one of them!” It’s a cheap tactic in emotional manipulation.

Here’s where conservatives should put their real energy: into fighting elitism, not elites.

Not all elites are elitists, and not all elitists are elite.

Trump isn’t elitist, which is what people like about him. He doesn’t talk down to people, and he doesn’t assume that people in New York City know better than people in Ohio. That’s why he’s popular in the Rust Belt. And that’s the battle that ought to be fought here: the battle against elitism. That’s a battle that intellectual and financial elites in the conservative movement fight every day. It was William F. Buckley, an elite if ever there was one, who said he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard. That means Trump fans — if they actually care about conservatism — ought to cut the class warfare rhetoric about “elites” who aren’t elitists, and instead fight alongside them in favor of a smaller government with limited powers.

Unless, of course, this is all a ruse so that a small group of elite elitists can discredit everyone who disagrees with them on the basis of hackneyed populist demagoguery.

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