Donald Trump will be mocked in the coming months as the anti-elitist, anti-establishment disruptor of politics who wants to lower taxes on the elite and is not above hiring establishment figures such as Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus for his team. The mockery will mostly be misplaced simply because the terms “elite” and “establishment” are understood too broadly: Trump’s movement was against only certain forms of establishment elitism that have nothing to do with wealth, membership in a party hierarchy or even political experience.
By most measures, of course, Trump himself is part of the establishment. He’s a billionaire who knows most of the country’s celebrities and power brokers socially. He went to Wharton. He lives in a Manhattan penthouse. His supporters weren’t too dumb to notice that.
Based on my many conversations with Trump supporters, it was precisely his membership in the business elite that attracted them. These people revere business success, and they think it’s OK to cut some corners on the path that leads to it. When Trump supporters think about the “elite” or the “establishment,” what they really mean is America’s intelligentsia.
I’m familiar with the phenomenon from my time in Russia. There, intellectuals, distrusted but often co-opted since the 18th-century czars, have formed into a close, incestuous, consciously or unconsciously arrogant caste. Sympathetic descriptions of “our circle” can be found in the novels of the celebrated Russian writer Ludmila Ulitskaya, or in a recent Facebook post by the the club-owner Varvara Turova. “At any age — four, five, whatever — I knew as soon as a guest crossed our threshold if he was one of us or not,” she wrote. “It was something one immediately guessed by an instantly recognizable system of cultural codes, and it couldn’t be changed.”
Russians who aren’t “one of us” harbor a lot of resentment for this circle that is often interpreted within it as anti-Semitism because the intelligentsia is disproportionately Jewish (I am, too).
As I watched Trump on the stump and talked to the people who favored him, I saw a similar resentment toward the U.S. intelligentsia: the left-wing academia in its ivory towers, policy wonks moving seamlessly between prestigious universities and the government, journalists always happy to quote the so-called experts. Collectively, they — we — were seen as an entrenched, closed, arrogant group that sees fit to tell people what to say and think. The talk of “safe spaces” on U.S. campuses, the rhetoric of racial and gender equality in a country where both run only skin-deep, the attempts at expunging religion from public life — all of these were seen as dictates from a clique that had a monopoly on intellectualism and thus on information.
It is hard for someone who is perceived as one of the culprits not to see this resentment as irrational, xenophobic, anti-Semitic. I don’t.
I know there are plenty of anti-Semites, xenophobes and racists among Trump supporters; I’ve talked to some of them. But under the U.S. constitution, even they are allowed to voice their opinions.
Trump supporters felt they couldn’t speak freely about certain perceived injustices without being dismissed as racists; for example, one that was often described to me as “black families living on government assistance for generations.”
Trump said things that could be perceived as insulting to women and Hispanics — but his voters, including lots of women and Hispanics, chose not to be offended because they don’t believe in the same taboos as most of the media.
That’s where I find common cause with them. Words and thoughts are not crimes. To Trump voters, the media clamor that followed Trump’s remarks was evidence that there’s a monopoly group out there telling them to shut up, to fear a slip of the tongue, to banish politically incorrect thoughts. They were tired of being mocked and described as stupid and backward for their views. So, deprived of most reputable forums where they might have aired these views, they vented their frustrations at the ballot box.
American intellectuals may violently disagree with the average Trump voter on most things. They may have access to facts that prove that voters wrong. But there’s no way they — we — can go on dismissing and ridiculing these people without dooming themselves to irrelevance and provoking further backlash.
I agree that it was a backlash against political correctness that helped Trump win. Such is the fallout from suppressing free speech, even with the best intentions. The United States needs an open conversation about what ails it, not a “safe” one that tiptoes around speech taboos about racism, misogyny and sexual discrimination; and definitely not one moderated by any group of self-appointed gatekeepers. The conversation won’t be pleasant. But without it, the grievances that got Trump into the White House cannot be properly discussed, let alone put to rest.
Contact Mr. Bershidsky at firstname.lastname@example.org.