As an insult “elitist” now ranks only just below “radical Islamic terrorist”.
The image it brings up is clear: rich, snobbish, nose-in-the-air, dismissive of the inferior beings below. It works sort of like “welfare queens”—people you have no trouble hating. Welfare queens, however, were a made-up campaign slogan—statistically they didn’t exist. Elites do exist, but they don’t necessarily fit the image, and the term is so slippery in application that its usage rivals “welfare queens” in calculated dishonesty.
The snobbish elites are a fabricated diversion, while the real elites are emptying the till.
The story begins simply enough. In his speeches Trump most often used “elites” in a very specific sense—to mean the political elite worldwide, for example:
“Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small — and they want to scare the American people out of voting for a better future. I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another.”
One can argue about what to think of that group, but you don’t run into those people every day—so they can’t have much to do with the image–and what is bad about them is not that they’re nasty to deal with. But they sure are bad!
There are of course other groups that can be considered “elite,” most notably the super rich—who are beneficiaries of the policies Trump says he deplores. No one knows them either, so they have no association with the derogatory image. Since Trump and his cohorts are neither everyday people nor past politicians, they get a free ride. They’re not elite! That’s handy, since it enables people like Trump himself or someone like Bill O’Reilly (net worth $85M) to present themselves as the anti-elite “just like us.”
There is, however, a much larger group now considered “elite”. That includes intellectuals and by extension just about anyone from the two coasts with a job that needs a college degree. Since you do meet people like that, and there are some that meet the image—they’re all like that! And by association they’re every bit as evil as the first group. Furthermore, as Fox News tells people every day, “they hate us and think we’re stupid!”
It’s amazing the extent to which this sort of “cultural profiling” is accepted as fact–it’s okay to decide that how a person talks and dresses tells you all there is to know. As a recent example, the CNN reporter at Trump’s hundred-days rally Harrisburg talked about the contrast between the “elite” participants at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner and the real working people at Trump’s rally. Also it seems to be enough to discredit climate change that the scientists behind it are “elite” and therefore self-interested.
Who are the people in this last group of elites? To start with, the average salary for a scientific researcher last year was $76,341—not bad but not luxurious for a family in a metropolitan area with student loans to pay off. They have not stolen jobs from the Trump base. Further as a group this population has been supportive of government policies to benefit people less well off—medical care, education, day care. They also tend to work many hours a week, because competition for advancement is intense, and because they believe in progress.
The “they hate us and think we’re stupid” charge deserves special mention. You can find bad apples anywhere, but in this case even the most-repeated examples are not quite what they seem. Hillary Clinton’s infamous “deplorables” speech (included at the end), was a badly-expressed plea to a group of anti-Trump donors to take the problems of Trump’s base seriously.
So the primary definition of “elite” these days is not money, influence, or actual behavior. It is language, dress, or maybe the kind of music you listen to. And there’s a reason why Trump, the Republican party, and Fox News like it that way. They are pushing one of the most damaging, recurring myths of history: “My people are not like that.” For the Trump core: “Trump and his people are like you, and their success is your success. You don’t need to ask questions, because they’re yours.“
It’s a trick of language. They are the elite. This always plays out the same way–they will act for themselves and claim it is for everyone. Trump has already announced three different tax cuts for the rich (Obamacare, corporate tax pass-through, personal income), with nothing more than perfunctory slogans to say it will help anyone else.
The last hundred years have shown unequivocally that broad-based prosperity requires all groups within society to recognize common interests and work together. The Fox News version of “elite” is a divide and conquer strategy, splitting the broader population so that vast sums can move to the elites of money and power.
If we want to talk about elites, we should talk about the real ones. The scheming elites are the ones we’ve got running things.
Here, for the record, is the relevant part of the “deplorables” speech:
“I know there are only 60 days left to make our case — and don’t get complacent, don’t see the latest outrageous, offensive, inappropriate comment and think, well, he’s done this time. We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people — now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks — they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”
“But the other basket — and I know this because I see friends from all over America here — I see friends from Florida and Georgia and South Carolina and Texas — as well as, you know, New York and California — but that other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change. It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.”