Op-Ed: Trump conservatives think they are loathed by ‘elites.’ Are they?

A man wearing Trump socks and red shoes
Many Trump supporters are deeply invested in believing they are held in contempt by liberals.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Academics and journalists tell us that Trump voters feel abused, mocked, humiliated and despised by liberal “elites.” To the degree conservatives feel any animus toward those abusive liberals — or so they say — it is strictly defensive.

But are Trump-leaning conservatives actually despised and deplored by “elites”?

It’s certainly true that many on the right think so. Interviewing Trump supporters in 2017, Anthony Nadler, an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College in suburban Philadelphia, found most of them “eager to talk about the nastiness of the left.” But when he got to asking them about their own experiences, things weren’t as clear. Some of Nadler’s interviewees reported negative personal interactions on social media, but many were relaying what they had heard about these stories through conservative media, in particular Fox News.

Whether liberals are more contemptuous of conservatives than vice versa is far from certain. But the right carries piles of chips on its shoulders. The idea that Hollywood, “liberal media,” “fake news” and liberals generally denigrate conservatives as racist, sexist, ignorant rubes is a favorite theme of right-wing media stars, and it is echoed often by Republican politicians.


The theme is not new, as Nadler reminds us. Rush Limbaugh’s first book back in 1992, “The Way Things Ought to Be,” begins with a caution to readers that if they are “reading this book in the wrong public places” they will be targeted by the “Liberal Elite” along with “Environmental Wackos, Feminazis [and] … Militant Vegetarians.”

For decades, the right has thrived on resentment and a mood of dispossession, flailing away at enemies who threaten their ideal of a white, Christian nation.

New research released last month highlights Fox News’ particular role in promoting a siege mentality. While searching through a database of Fox News and MSNBC evening transcripts from the first four months of this year, political scientists Curd Knüpfer and Robert Entman of the Free University of Berlin and George Washington University, respectively, were struck by the frequency with which the word “hate” showed up on Fox News. “Hate” appeared 647 times on Fox, compared with 118 on MSNBC — almost six times as frequently. On Fox News, “hate” appeared as part of the phrase “they hate” 101 times; on MSNBC, only three times.

Knüpfer and Entman went on to search a database for occurrences of “they hate” going back to 2009, including CNN for an additional comparison. They found a Fox News spike during the 2016 election campaign. And when Trump took office in January 2017, the network’s use of “they hate” doubled. By 2020, Fox News was using “they hate” more than 2½ times as often as MSNBC and CNN combined.

So who is doing all this hating, according to Fox News? Mainly Democrats, liberals, political elites, professionals, and the media — all self-seeking, unpatriotic, ungodly and otherwise wicked. Why else would these monsters despise ordinary people and their hero, Donald Trump?

Does this animosity matter? One might say that, throughout our society, the word “hate” has lost its sting altogether because it has been bandied about so frequently. We don’t simply dislike broccoli these days, we “hate” it. The pop stars we don’t like, we “hate.” Talk about polarization. Whether around the kitchen table, in the classroom or on the ballfield, bifurcation is all the rage — bulls versus bears, white people versus Black people, liberals versus conservatives, “real Americans” versus immigrants.

Our current language of evaluation has only two poles, as if to line up with Facebook’s division of the entire universe of human responses into “like” and a failure to like. Our very vernacular cultivates chasms.


This is hardly the first time Americans have been polarized. But Rush Limbaugh’s and Fox News’ imputations of hate to the other side are not casual and not benign. The overkill is not merely semantic; it’s essential to dividing the world between good and evil and justifying the overthrow of evil by any means necessary.

Only the willfully blind fail to see that the Trumpian right is intrinsically a party of hatred — for people of color, “nasty women,” “elites,” liberals and the “radical left” indiscriminately. The glorious “we” is defined by its enemies. His base is thrilled that Trump does the hating for them.

As the sun sets on a white-majority nation, panic has ignited war. The bully’s primitive, knee-jerk move is to accuse the other guy of bullying. The barrage of insults that Trump directed at Joe Biden during what was laughably called a “debate” was a mix-tape, a greatest-hits distillation of the loathing and demeaning that has colored the fake tycoon’s political ascendancy from the start.

Fox News, its radio equivalents and the Trump White House are paranoia machines, and we have not seen the last of their furies — or of the linguistic projection that suits the all-or-nothing apocalypse they invite.

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage.” His forthcoming novel is “The Opposition.”