But Trump has also ventured beyond mere name-calling, turning the 2016 election into a competition between knowledge systems: the tell-it-like-it-is “people” versus the know-it-all “elites.” His campaign insisted for months that pollsters and technocrats and media would be proven wrong by his electoral success. The fact that he did win dealt a blow to an entire worldview, one in which empirical inquiry and truth-telling were supposed to triumph in the end. The question, now, is whether it’s possible to run an executive branch based on hostility toward experts and professionals of all political stripes — and how many billionaires and Ivy Leaguers Trump can appoint before this rhetorical pose begins to break down altogether.
The notion that distant elites might be conspiring against the people comes straight from the Founding Fathers, whose Declaration of Independence lamented the “long train of abuses and usurpations” inflicted upon ordinary Americans by an arrogant British king. From there on, United States history might be seen as a repeating cycle of anti-elite revolt. The Jacksonians rebelled against the Founders’ aristocratic pretensions. Northern “free labor” went to war against the oligarchical slavocracy. And the Populist revolts of the late 19th century adapted this story to modern capitalism, with farmers and laborers rebelling against robber barons, bankers, time-management experts and college-educated professionals.
The first historians to study those Populists described them as heroic crusaders, champions of the “people” against the “powers.” But by the middle of the 20th century, alarmed by the rise of fascism and homegrown demagogues like Senator Joseph McCarthy, a new generation of scholars took a more anxious view of the anti-elite spirit. In his 1955 book “The Age of Reform,” Richard Hofstadter dismissed the Populists as backward-looking, provincial anti-Semites, the latent fascists of their day. Eight years later, his “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” documented a dangerous suspicion of “the critical mind” that seemed to course through the national culture. From his perspective, the 1952 election captured everything wrong with American political life, with Dwight Eisenhower’s “philistinism” winning over Adlai Stevenson’s “intellect.”
Hofstadter did not usually describe his ideal intellectually minded citizens as members of an “elite.” That word conveyed something different — a ruling class that held direct political and economic power. The most famous articulation of this view came from the sociologist C. Wright Mills, in his 1956 assessment of America’s “power elite.” “They rule the big corporations,” Mills wrote. “They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment.” In Mills’s view, these people were tied together not by culture or ideology but by their positions at the helms of large, ever-more-complex institutions. As individuals, they might be Republicans or Democrats, and might live in Ohio or California. The point was that they were in charge of things.
But that vision never gained much traction in mainstream politics, where a more partisan, targeted definition was starting to emerge. William F. Buckley Jr. carved out some essentials in his first book, “God and Man at Yale,” drawing a neat distinction between respectable Ivy-educated men like himself and the socialistic eggheads of the professoriate. Ronald Reagan chose the term “elite” to bring it all together in his famed 1964 speech, “A Time for Choosing,” delivered on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. “This is the issue of this election,” he said: “whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
Lyndon Johnson won that election in a blowout, but Reagan’s vision of a smug and detached liberal elite helped spark the oncoming “culture wars,” pitting a supposedly indignant Middle America against the liberal snobs of the coasts. By the 1990s, with the rise of right-wing media stars like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly, bashing the “liberal elite” had become a favorite blood sport of the American right.
Despite all the abuse hurled their way, some “liberal elites” have accepted at least part of their detractors’ critique, particularly on the progressive left. It was during Bill Clinton’s presidency that the social critic Christopher Lasch published “The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy,” which mourned that “upper-middle-class liberals” had turned into “petulant, self-righteous, intolerant” scolds, thoroughly out of touch with the concerns of Middle America. Since then, the torch has passed to a younger generation of writers, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, whose 2012 “Twilight of the Elites” called for rethinking the entire ethos of liberal “meritocracy” — a system, he argued, that tends to fuel self-congratulation and incompetence at the top while offering little but contempt and dim prospects for those at the bottom.
So as 2017 begins, we find ourselves in a strange and uncertain political moment. Antipathy toward a wealthy, preening managerial class seems to be gaining popularity across the political spectrum — and, oddly, to have helped elect a wealthy, preening incoming president. Meanwhile, both liberal and conservative “elites” are scrambling to figure out what happens if the president-elect continues to reject basic political norms and even routine intelligence briefings. Under a Trump presidency, such “elites” may have no choice but to attempt a radical redefinition of their role in American life. Otherwise, the man in the White House will do it for them.