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. President 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 which 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 Department of Justice, 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 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-it-all 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 Friday as he announced his new communications director, Anthony Scaramucci. “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 world view, 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-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 share 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.