Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The rise and continuing popularity of Donald Trump reminds us that “class warfare” is an eternal constant of democracies, for as Plato said, every city is in fact two cities, “one the city of the poor, the other of the rich; these are at war with one another.” But possession of wealth is not the only factor in this eternal conflict between the few and the many. The masses of course resent the elites’ greater wealth, but even more they dislike the assumption of superior wisdom and virtue that elites have always claimed as justifications for their status. It is this galling assumption and the anger it arouses in people that Donald Trump has brilliantly exploited.
Many Republicans correctly see that this popular anger is usually directed against progressives. The typical Democrat reflexively assumes that he is smarter and better educated, thinks more “scientifically,” and has more cultivated tastes than the masses in flyover country who cling bitterly to their guns and religion, as the President once said. All true, but many in the Republican elite often display the same attitudes. We saw this in some of the responses to Trump’s remarks on immigration. Lindsey Graham called Trump a “wrecking ball,” and Jeb Bush said Trump’s remarks were “unfortunate” and advised, “We must have a more civil policy debate in this country.” In other words, it wasn’t the truth of Trump’s remarks that mattered, but their déclassé tone. Similarly, John McCain has called Tea Partiers and Trump followers “crazies” and “wacko-birds.” The implication is that social inferiors and ignoramuses are meddling in the business of their betters.
The people may be “uninformed,” as faux conservative columnist David Brooks said in explaining Trump’s popularity. But they know when they are being condescended to, and they’re good at detecting when a leader supposedly on their side behaves as though decorum and elite solidarity are more important than truth and principle. John McCain provides another example. In 2012 he attacked Congressman Michele Bachmann and four other Congressmen for raising questions about Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s family connections to the jihadist Muslim Brotherhood. From the floor of the Senate McCain blasted the “unwarranted and unfounded attack on an honorable woman, a dedicated American, and a loyal public servant” whom he considers a “friend” attacked “without concern for fact or fairness.”
To many conservatives, it seemed that elite inside-the-Beltway bonhomie was more important to McCain than determining whether or not his word “unwarranted” was just begging the question. Nor did he seem interested in whether or not it was a bit dangerous to have the chief officer of our foreign policy establishment, the Secretary of State, so close to someone intimately linked to an ideology inimical to this country’s security and interests, particularly at a time when the administration was advancing the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
That sort of political good-old-pols-club solidarity is what angers many people. They are also sick of the carefully parsed and qualified and nuanced and poll-tested statements that are yet another device for avoiding the truth and hiding true motives. They sense that “insiders” with their bespoke suits and college degrees and smooth rhetoric are patronizing them and sacrificing their interests and principles. They get that the constant calls for “civility” and “decorum” are camouflage for the grubby pursuit of personal power and advancement, and a disdain for the common folk. Perhaps that’s why Trump’s dismissal of McCain’s status as a war-hero did not exact the price one would have expected, given the high regard Americans have for veterans. Perhaps many people figured that McCain had for too long made a career out of waving the bloody shirt rather than challenging the progressive status quo bankrupting the country and endangering our security and interests.
Or take the establishment Republicans who dismiss the disorder and crime created by illegal immigration, and call for “comprehensive immigration reform.” Many can see that this “reform” will be a reprise of the 1986 “reform”––all amnesty and no border enforcement–– that helped create today’s mess. A lot of ordinary people who live among concentrations of illegal aliens have to put up with a level of daily crime and disorder that well-heeled Republicans never experience. These people resent the implications that they are “xenophobes” and “nativists” harboring racist sentiments. They see a problem that needs fixing, but all that many in their party give them is the same old “nation of immigrants” bromides, rhetorical cover for ensuring a steady supply of cheap labor for capitalist cronies. So why should we be surprised that Trump’s blunt talk on immigration struck such a chord, especially when followed by several murders of Americans at the hands of felonious illegal aliens allowed to roam free?
Finally, the political elite’s deference to the media is yet another sign to many that Republican politicians belong to the same club of insiders that includes the D.C. press corps. Many people are sick of Republicans preemptively cringing before reporters who are so obviously on the side of progressives, and who never subject Democrats to the same level of scrutiny and aggressive questioning. That’s why Trump’s followers like him––he shows obvious scorn for the media, even Fox News. He doesn’t buy the media’s nonsense about being “objective” purveyors of news or “watchdogs” of the public weal rather than the partisan hacks most of them are. One cannot imagine Trump letting Candy Crowley blatantly help out a debate opponent the way Mitt Romney let her bail out Obama during their 2012 debate.
Whether these perceptions are true or fair is not the point. Democratic politics in an age dominated 24/7 by the visual more than the verbal is mostly built on perceptions that become a political reality. Just look at the outsized reputation of John F. Kennedy, a confection not of achievement as much as marketing, or that of Obama, completely a creation of collective racial neuroses and perceptions disconnected from the reality of the man’s mediocre achievements. Trump gets that, and he knows that the more the elites call him “vulgar” the more a lot of people will like him and perceive him as a foe of the elites. He “tells it like it is,” as the cliché goes, and so appears more genuine and honest, a plain-talking regular guy.
Trump’s willingness to brutally slap down the pretensions of the elite establishment makes his wealth irrelevant. Indeed, his billions endear him even more. In this Trump reminds me of the aristocrat Alcibiades of ancient Athens, who bragged about his lavish spending, understanding that the masses often will forget their envy of wealth if a leader turns against his own class and their arrogant assumption of superiority.
Since the rise of the Tea Party this traditional dynamic of democratic politics has defined the Republican Party. Senator Ted Cruz has been the most visible vessel of this anti-elite sentiment, calling for strong legislative action rather than for nostrums about “bipartisanship” and “reaching across the aisle,” which many see as fancy talk for the collusion of elites from both parties in keeping the Federal Leviathan well-fed. But Trump has greater advantages––the independence of private wealth, high name recognition from his years on television, and a lack of verbal nuance and hair-splitting that delights the masses, who since the time of Athenian comedy have enjoyed seeing the pretensions and arrogance of the elite subjected to scorn and insult.
Whether tapping into this ancient impulse can carry Trump to the nomination, let alone the presidency, is another matter. But the Republican Party had better take heed of the anti-elitist sentiments that have always roiled the democratic masses. By election day next year Republicans will have controlled Congress for two years, and they’d better have something more to show for it than a bipartisan trade agreement and endless appearances on Fox News and Meet the Press.