It has taken some time but there are signs that the cultural elites, members of what has been called America’s “ruling class,” have started to engage in some long overdue self-examination as it relates to their engagement with populist dynamics, especially as represented in the figure of Donald Trump.
David Brooks’ recent column wonders of his fellow elites, “What if We’re the Bad Guys Here?” As a Calvinist, I’m always in favor of asking that question, even on a more personal and individual level, on a daily basis. More often than not the answer is going to come back affirmative, at least in some respects.
But Brooks’ query is significant because it demonstrates the beginnings of a posture of humility and self-criticism all too often absent nowadays for people of any political persuasion or none at all. If there’s one thing that defines our cultural moment it’s how everyone is convinced they’re right. About almost everything.
Brooks walks us through a litany of elite offenses, both real and merely perceived, before concluding,
It’s easy to understand why people in less-educated classes would conclude that they are under economic, political, cultural, and moral assault—and why they’ve rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class. He understood that it’s not the entrepreneurs who seem most threatening to workers; it’s the professional class. Trump understood that there was great demand for a leader who would stick his thumb in our eyes on a daily basis and reject the whole epistemic regime that we rode in on.
The distinction between elites and the masses isn’t just about education, although that’s a good proxy for some of this. It’s also about cultural power and influence, and what those things have been used for. If elites want to be trusted, they could start by being more trustworthy.
It’s high time for cultured despisers of populism to start to think more sympathetically about those “deplorables” in flyover country who cling to their guns and their religion—things elites are often unable to disambiguate.
I distinctly remember sitting in a room five years ago full of the Christian version of the kinds of elites Brooks describes here. The basic takeaway from the conversation was one of incredulity: How could people who calls themselves Christian support Trump?
There was no sense that there might need to be a follow-up to that question, any kind of investigation into motivations for such support. The entire discussion was basically an exercise in throwing hands up in the air and writing off such know-nothings as too far gone. This was a room full of smart people, people who should know better than simply to dismiss others, no matter how misguided they might be.
This is a script that has played out over and over again in elite discourse, whether in lunch meetings, on social media, or in the pages (web or print) of mainstream media. This kind of posture leads to simplistic judgments about the “81%” of evangelicals who supported (and may still yet support) Donald Trump. In no way does this kind of insular chatter lend itself to finding a point of connection with others. Another way of putting it is that elites are not immune to their own echo chambers.
It is beyond time for elites—liberal, progressive, or otherwise—to at least try to understand some of the motivations for supporters of Trump. Doing so doesn’t mean those motivations have to be validated, agreed with, or legitimized (although in some cases, valid grievances might be discovered). But it does require basic sympathy, which might turn out to be the key to real communication and connection. Many people feel as though Donald Trump identifies with them, or at least recognizes their grievances in ways other powerful people do not.
Of course this is only a potential beginning for such conversations, but important things can begin in small ways. Just as elites need to be self-critical, the grievance politics of the populist right needs to be interrogated, too. The difference between a principled populist and a demagogue lies in the ability to critique “the populace” where and when they deserve it. For example, may it be time to question tactics unworthy of a great nation even in redressing legitimate grievances, especially when results have proved to be either transient or wanting?
Elites are supposed to be smart, but they’ve been, by and large, pretty dumb over recent years. You can’t just write off a large swath of people as beyond the pale and expect to win them over to your way of thinking. Real self-critical questions need to be asked, and it’s noteworthy that someone like Brooks has started to ask them in a public way. I’m not particularly optimistic about how the conversation is going to go, however, because you can already see in elite and progressive reaction to Brooks’ piece that his argument is anathema to the purity of the cause of those who are on the “right side” of history. But it’s a potential starting place, and one we shouldn’t let go of, particularly in this moment of deep cultural crisis.