Pop­ulist rhetoric has a long, suc­cess­ful his­tory in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. But this pres­i­dent also wages war on ‘the en­tire idea of ex­per­tise.’

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Cath­leen Decker cath­leen.decker@la­ Twit­ter: @cath­leen­decker

When Pres­i­dent Trump cam­paigned this spring at the Her­mitage, the home of An­drew Jack­son, one part of his pre­de­ces­sor’s ap­proach got a special en­dorse­ment.

“It was dur­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion that Jack­son first con­fronted and de­fied an ar­ro­gant elite. Does that sound fa­mil­iar?” Trump asked to laughs from his au­di­ence.

When Trump ally and Na­tional Ri­fle Assn. leader Wayne LaPierre teed off six weeks later on Amer­ica’s great­est do­mes­tic threats, he cited not home­grown ter­ror­ists but what he termed “the three most dan­ger­ous voices in Amer­ica: aca­demic elites, po­lit­i­cal elites and me­dia elites.”

The rhetoric against elites came from two men who would seem to be card-car­ry­ing mem­bers of the club: LaPierre made more than $5 mil­lion in 2015, the most re­cent year for which his com­pen­sa­tion was pub­licly re­leased. Trump lived be­fore his in­au­gu­ra­tion in a gold-plated home in the sky above New York’s Fifth Av­enue, a bil­lion­aire’s lux­u­ri­ous do­main.

Yet for Trump and his al­lies, a war on elites has been cen­tral to the cam­paign that put him in the pres­i­dency and has main­tained the loy­alty of his core vot­ers. Trump has taken par­tic­u­lar aim at en­ti­ties that could counter his power, which has helped stoke the ar­dor of his po­lit­i­cal back­ers.

Among his tar­gets so far: the gov­ern­ment’s in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, the me­dia, for­eign al­lies, the Jus­tice Depart­ment, es­tab­lish­ment politi­cians, sci­en­tists and the Con­gres­sional Bud­get Of­fice. The last has played a large role in rais­ing ques­tions about Repub­li­can pro­pos­als to re­peal and re­place Oba­macare, lead­ing to a fu­ri­ous White House as­sault on its com­pe­tence.

Trump has re­fused to ac­cept the judg­ment of in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion. He has al­leged, with­out proof and con­trary to both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can of­fi­cials in key states, that mil­lions of il­le­gal vot­ers cast bal­lots last year. He has blamed vac­cines for autism, de­spite the sci­en­tific de­bunk­ing of that no­tion.

Ex­co­ri­at­ing elites “is clas­sic pop­ulist lan­guage,” said Yale Univer­sity his­to­rian Bev­erly Gage. “Trump has taken it to a whole new level by not only at­tack­ing clue­less elites but the en­tire idea of ex­per­tise.”

To vot­ers lis­ten­ing for them, Trump’s anti-elitism sig­nals have blared. As telling as his po­lit­i­cal and pol­icy pos­tures is his lan­guage — who else but Trump would an­grily call his pre­de­ces­sor’s sig­na­ture pro­gram “a big fat ugly lie” — and a per­pet­ual sense of vic­tim­iza­tion.

“He’s a bil­lion­aire, and there­fore a mem­ber of a cer­tain type of elites,” Gage said. “But he’s also the guy from Queens re­belling against the know-itall smarty pantses from Man­hat­tan.”

Trump has used both spe­cific in­sults and the specter of pow­er­ful and mys­te­ri­ous ex­ter­nal forces — he of­ten de­scribes them as an un­de­fined “they” — ar­rayed against com­mon Amer­i­cans, with him as chief de­fender.

“We have ac­com­plished so much, and we are be­ing given credit for so lit­tle,” he said re­cently. “The good news is the peo­ple get it, even if the me­dia doesn’t.”

Such us-against-them po­si­tion­ing has been com­mon dur­ing pop­ulist eras in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics for gen­er­a­tions. That the man fu­el­ing it arose from elite so­cial sta­tus is not un­com­mon ei­ther.

The Colo­nial lead­ers who bucked Bri­tish con­trol were the elite of their day, wealth­ier and more ed­u­cated than those they led into the Rev­o­lu­tion. But they were able to per­suade fol­low­ers that they shared sen­ti­ments more pow­er­ful than so­cial stand­ing.

Now, as then, who and what rep­re­sents the dis­taste­ful elite is al­most en­tirely in the eye of the be­holder.

“It is a world­view, it re­ally isn’t de­pen­dent on ed­u­ca­tion sta­tus or in­come,” said Jef­frey L. Bell, au­thor of the 1992 book “Pop­ulism and Elitism,” who de­scribes him­self as a pop­ulist de­spite his ed­u­ca­tion at an elite univer­sity, Columbia. What has mat­tered, he said, is an ob­jec­tion to power be­ing cen­tral­ized in gov­ern­ment or among dis­tant lead­ers.

In early Amer­i­can his­tory, pop­ulist sen­ti­ments led farm­ers to rebel against more ur­ban coastal elites. The only coast with po­lit­i­cal power at the time was in the East; the West Coast has since be­come another sym­bol of elitism, par­tic­u­larly when the gaze is fixed on Cal­i­for­nia and Hol­ly­wood.

Help­fully for Trump, the states he needed to turn his way in Novem­ber al­ready pos­sessed strong veins of pop­ulism, mak­ing their vot­ers more re­cep­tive than those in other states to Trump’s mes­sage. Among the key states were Iowa and Wis­con­sin.

In Iowa, Repub­li­can Party Chair­man Jeff Kauf­mann said Trump’s nearly 10-per­cent­age-point vic­tory re­lied in no small part on shared dis­taste for the elites the pres­i­dent spent his cam­paign scorn­ing.

“Pop­ulism re­ally prob­a­bly is a bet­ter ex­pla­na­tion for the elec­tion” in Iowa than party or re­li­gious in­flu­ence, Kauf­mann said. “We re­ally fit what he was stand­ing for — push­ing back against the es­tab­lish­ment, es­tab­lish­ment Democrats and es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans, and try­ing to find the work­ing-class voter.”

Kauf­mann set off fire­works re­cently when he used a Trump ap­pear­ance in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to rail against a fel­low Repub­li­can, for­mer col­lege pres­i­dent and cur­rent Sen. Ben Sasse of Ne­braska, whom he called an “ar­ro­gant aca­demic.”

The irony? Kauf­mann has a doc­tor­ate in his­tory and is a col­lege pro­fes­sor.

“Yeah, I’m an aca­demic,” he said, some­what sheep­ishly. “I don’t know of another kind of ar­ro­gance worse than aca­demic ar­ro­gance. The ar­ro­gance is com­ing from read­ing books, sit­ting at a desk and learn­ing from read­ing, ver­sus peo­ple out there build­ing the roads.”

A June Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey sug­gested that mem­bers of his party in­creas­ingly shared a dis­dain for aca­demics.

Less than two years ago, 37% of Repub­li­cans said col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties had a neg­a­tive ef­fect on the coun­try; by June, 58% felt they ex­erted a neg­a­tive force. Democrats’ views were es­sen­tially un­changed over that time.

The dis­tinc­tion Kauf­mann drew be­tween peo­ple em­ployed in dif­fer­ent types of work was pre­cisely the one honed by Trump’s day-to-day mes­sage, re­plete with men­tions of the tra­vails of coal min­ers and man­u­fac­tur­ing-line work­ers whose jobs the pres­i­dent has vowed to res­ur­rect.

Trump is hardly the first pres­i­dent in mod­ern times to seek out those vot­ers. Ron­ald Rea­gan, then part of Hol­ly­wood’s up­per crust, made a sim­i­lar pitch.

His even­tual vice pres­i­dent, Ge­orge H.W. Bush, cas­ti­gated the “lib­eral elite” dur­ing his 1988 run against then-Mas­sachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, whose for­eign pol­icy views, Bush said, were “born in Har­vard Yard’s bou­tique.” Bush, a Yale grad­u­ate, broad­cast his love of pork rinds in one of many ef­forts to seem more of the peo­ple than his wealthy up­bring­ing sug­gested.

Four years later, Bush was out­ma­neu­vered on that front by Demo­crat Bill Clin­ton, whose cam­paign de­liv­ered a sharp evo­ca­tion of Amer­i­cans who “work hard and play by the rules” but fail to get ahead.

Two strains of change have tended to fuel anger at elites. One is eco­nomic, the sec­ond is cul­tural.

Cul­tural shifts in the 1960s, par­tic­u­larly against the Viet­nam War and for civil and women’s rights, caused a back­lash that helped pro­pel Richard Nixon to the White House. Rea­gan’s vic­tory over Pres­i­dent Carter in 1980 and Clin­ton’s over Bush in 1992 were strength­ened by the eco­nomic tu­mult of those times.

In 2016, both eco­nomic and cul­tural changes were at play. Eco­nomic re­sent­ments sim­mered against elites whom many vot­ers held re­spon­si­ble for the 2008 fi­nan­cial crash, re­sent­ing that few on Wall Street were pun­ished for malfea­sance while ev­ery­day Amer­i­cans lost their jobs and homes.

Cul­tural change was also in the air, given the cam­paign by the first fe­male ma­jor party nom­i­nee and fights over is­sues such as trans­gen­der bath­room use.

When the views and ex­pe­ri­ences of elites and non-elites sep­a­rate, “you get ten­sion…. That’s when pop­ulist move­ments start to take shape,” Bell said.

Kather­ine Cramer, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in Madi­son, has stud­ied re­sent­ments among ru­ral vot­ers in the state for a decade. To­day’s sen­ti­ments de­rive from the same views that pro­pelled ear­lier pop­ulist move­ments, she said: those who con­sider them­selves not to be elite also feel they are be­ing over­looked.

“Why do they get all the stuff?” Cramer said her sub­jects won­dered. In re­al­ity, those ru­ral vot­ers get at least as much gov­ern­ment money as ur­ban dwellers, but they felt oth­er­wise.

“There’s this sen­ti­ment that the peo­ple in charge, whether they’re rail­road barons or the gov­ern­ment, are not pay­ing at­ten­tion to or­di­nary peo­ple,” she said.

Dis­taste for elites may wane and surge in the fu­ture, she said, but it seems un­likely to dis­ap­pear, given its stay­ing power over the gen­er­a­tions.

“As much as I hate to ad­mit it on a per­sonal level, it’s in our DNA,” she said.

‘He’s a bil­lion­aire, and there­fore a mem­ber of a cer­tain type of elites. But he’s also the guy from Queens re­belling against the know-it-all smarty pantses from Man­hat­tan.’ — Bev­erly Gage, Yale Univer­sity his­to­rian

Scott Ol­son Getty Images

DON­ALD TRUMP cam­paigns with Na­tional Ri­fle Assn. leader Wayne LaPierre last year. LaPierre has said “the three most dan­ger­ous voices” in Amer­ica are aca­demic elites, po­lit­i­cal elites and me­dia elites.

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