Donald Trump will often be mocked in the coming months as the anti-elitist, anti-establishment disruptor of politics who wants to lower taxes on the elite and who is not above hiring establishment figures such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for his team. The mockery will mostly be misplaced simply because the terms “elite” and “establishment” are understood too broadly: Trump’s movement was against only certain forms of establishment elitism that have nothing to do with wealth, membership in a party hierarchy or even political experience.
By most measures, of course, Trump himself is part of the establishment. He’s a billionaire who knows most of the country’s celebrities and power brokers socially. He went to Wharton. He lives in a Manhattan penthouse. The people who voted for him aren’t too dumb to notice that. They weren’t fooled by rhetoric that somehow masked the Republican candidate’s true status: He boasted about his wealth, connections and elite education on the campaign trail. And even if he hadn’t, skyscrapers bearing his name stick out of more than one city’s skyline.
Based on my many conversations with Trump supporters, it was precisely his membership in the business elite that attracted them. These people revere business success, and they think it’s OK to cut some corners on the path that leads to it. They would have done so themselves. But when Trump supporters think about the “elite” or the “establishment,” what they really mean is America’s intelligentsia.
I’m familiar with the phenomenon from my time in Russia. There, intellectuals, distrusted but often co-opted by every regime since the 18th-century czars, have formed into a close, incestuous, consciously or unconsciously arrogant caste. Russians who aren’t “one of us” harbor a lot of resentment for this circle that is often interpreted within it as anti-Semitism: The intelligentsia is disproportionately Jewish (I am, too).
As I watched Trump on the stump and talked to the people who favored him, I saw a very similar resentment against the U.S. intelligentsia: the left-wing academia in its ivory towers, policy wonks moving seamlessly between prestigious universities and the government, journalists always happy to quote the so-called experts (also rejected by voters in the U.K.’s Brexit debate). Collectively, they – we – were seen as an entrenched, closed, arrogant group that sees fit to tell people what to say and think. The talk of “safe spaces” on U.S. campuses, the rhetoric of racial and gender equality in a country where both run only skin-deep, the attempts at expunging religion from public life – all of these were seen as dictates from a clique that had a monopoly on intellectualism and thus on information.
This is the same understanding of “elite” and “establishment” that informed Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”: The Trumpists share Rand’s exasperation with teachers, writers and bureaucrats and their fake recipes for social justice, as well as her admiration for the rough but creative doers, the titans of business.
It is hard for someone who is perceived as one of the culprits not to see this resentment as irrational, xenophobic, anti-Semitic. I won’t take this line of defense, though.
I know there are plenty of anti-Semites, xenophobes and racists among Trump supporters. I’ve talked to some of them. But there are probably not enough of them to have ensured his election. And in any case, under the U.S. constitution, even they are entitled to their opinions and allowed to voice them – unlike in many European countries, which enforce stricter hate speech laws.
Trump supporters felt they couldn’t speak freely about certain perceived injustices; for example, one that was often described to me as “black families living on government assistance for generations” – or, if they spoke about them, they’d be dismissed as racists.
They were being told it was right to elect the first woman as president even though they didn’t trust the particular woman. Trump said things that could be perceived as insulting to women and Hispanics – but his voters, including lots of women and Hispanics, chose not to be offended because, like it or not, they don’t believe in the same taboos as most of the media.
That’s where I find common cause with them. Words and thoughts are not crimes. To Trump voters, the media clamor that followed Trump’s remarks was evidence that there’s a monopoly group out there telling them to shut up, to fear a slip of the tongue, to banish politically incorrect thoughts. They were tired of being mocked and described as stupid and backward for their views. So, deprived of most reputable forums where they might have aired these views, they vented their frustrations at the ballot box.
American intellectuals may violently disagree with the average Trump voter on most things. They may have access to facts that prove that voters wrong. But there’s no way they – we – can go on dismissing and ridiculing these people without dooming themselves to irrelevance and provoking further backlash.
Leonard Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.