In an astoundingly arrogant insult to a huge subset of American voters, Hillary Clinton called half of Trump’s supporters, nearly 1/4th of the voting population, “deplorables.” But are such awful motivations the real reason for the rise of Donald Trump?
A recent Intelligence Squared debate took on this very topic in a debate, Blame the Elites for the Trump Phenomenon. Interestingly, those arguing for the motion won the debate overwhelmingly, as measured by audience participants, and I agree with that sentiment. Also interesting is that there were conservatives on both sides of the debate.
You can listen to the debate, or read the transcript, but I wanted to highlight the arguments that I thought carried the day (my headings inserted).
1. Americans are tired of lip service from both parties
Ben Domenech ( founder and publisher of the Federalist — that is an online magazine focusing on politics and policy and culture): The key to understanding the Donald Trump phenomenon is to recognize that he is neither a disease nor a symptom. He is a beta test for a cure. Americans are turning to him because he represents the breakdown of the post-Cold War left/right politics of the nation, a breakdown that has been happening in slow motion for the past two decades, fueled by a dramatic decline of trust in America’s elites.
The percentage of Americans today with a great deal of trust in the presidency, the courts, the public schools, and the banks are in the teens. Trust for unions, the justice system, big business, Congress, and the media are in single digits. 00:19:07
This decline didn’t happen overnight. It began with Watergate and Vietnam, and continued through the financial crisis and the Iraq War. Real failures undermined confidence in the capacity of elite institutions to do good and in their capability to represent the interests of the people.
Now, working and middle class Americans are reasserting themselves against the bipartisan political and cultural establishment, utterly discredited due to their record of failure. The list is familiar to you all by now: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Congressional corruption, financial meltdown, bank bailouts, failed stimulus, a healthcare mess, stagnant wages, rising distrust, diminished hopes. 16 years of bipartisan failures by Republicans and Democrats alike to live up to what the people wanted. This distrust was earned. Through it all the elites were looking out for the interest of people other than those they were elected to serve….
In the absence of the failures of the elites, could Donald Trump succeed? The answer is no. Our elite leadership class sowed the wind and Donald Trump is the whirlwind they’ve reaped.
Many of my liberal friends might agree with this diagnosis, but they see the nomination of Trump as the wrong solution entirely. They still harbor hopes that, despite Bernie Sanders’ failure, we would still rather have an establishment candidate than a bull in the china shop. And I agree with them, at least partially on that point. Trump is an awful choice. The question is, is he worse than Clinton, and by what standard?
2. The GOP elite are primarily to blame
Timothy Carney (senior political columnist for the Washington Examiner): I think we need to define who the elites are that we’re talking about. And I’m happy to name very specific names. They are the men and women — mostly the men — who were in charge over the past decades, who led our country to the point it is now. 00:32:04
They are George W. Bush. They are Mitt Romney. These are the people who were elected, nominated officials, put in charge of the public good. They’re Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and their predecessors. And it’s telling to talk about their predecessors — Tom Delay, who invited a lobbyist, Jack Abramoff, into not just the Republican Party, but in to make Washington D.C. be a favor factory for the well connected.
Bill Frist, a Senate Majority Leader who now runs Frist Capital — that invests in healthcare companies. So, he lobbies for Obamacare that enriches the hospitals he’s investing in, both driving up the prices and taking away the options for everybody else. Former Senator Majority Leader Bob Dole, also an Obamacare lobbyist living very well by lobbying to take away the — lobbying for drug companies that want to keep generics off the market. Eric Cantor supposedly representing Virginia’s 7th District as a House Majority Leader, really representing Wall Street.
….And that’s why you got a Tea Party. That’s why 2009, 2010 — this wasn’t a pro-Republican uprising, simply, or, you know, a fix-the-debt uprising, simply. It was a populist uprising. It was anger at bailouts. It was anger at a stimulus that was just handouts to the Chamber of Commerce.
It was anger at an Obamacare that was just handouts to the drug companies and the hospitals. And Republican leaders, these elites, the men and women in power, gave lip service. Democratic leaders did too. And then, what did they do? They squelched that populist uprising.
In public, they would say, “Yes, we need to get rid of crony capitalism,’ and then they would go behind closed doors with the crony capitalist donors and say, “Well, yes, that bottom 47 percent, well, they just won’t take responsibility for their lives.” 00:34:08
That was Mitt Romney’s description. If you were in the bottom 47 percent, it is literally your fault, and you don’t belong in the Republican Party. “You may not join our country club.” That was the message from the Republican elites.
…Whom do we blame for Donald Trump being the nominee? The people who could have beaten him. Jeb Bush was number one. Chris Christie, probably the pick of a lot of you here, he disappointed me as well. He didn’t rise to the occasion. He thought more important than attacking Donald Trump was attacking Marco Rubio. And then, when Christie lost, he scampered over to become the valet for Donald Trump.
I think this is right on. While some conservatives have decried moderate “RHINOS” like John McCain, they have instead called for far right ideologues who call for things like “no amnesty” and “no meaningful gun regulation,” all the while abandoning true conservative priorities like being pro-life. There are moderate conservatives who are not RHINOs, like John Kasich or Marco Rubio, but the far right don’t want moderation, and their party has rejected them.
3. The Leftist Media have cried wolf for too long
Ben Domenech: The media elites, at least on the left, made this possible, in part, by over criticizing people who didn’t deserve it. If — the things that were printed about Mitt Romney in 2012 in the New York Times by Paul Krugman called him a “charlatan,” “pathologically dishonest,” “untrustworthy.” He said he didn’t even pretend to care about poor people, that he wants people to die so that rich people get richer. “He’s completely amoral, a dangerous fool, ignorant as well as uncaring.” If you cry wolf long enough, sometimes the beast actually shows up, okay?
Interestingly, in the debate, there was lots of criticism of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh for pushing to the right too much, but there was also plenty of blame on the leftist media as well, and I agree. You bashed Bush and other decent conservatives to no end, put in radical leftists, and expect a good outcome? Yes, you are reaping the whirlwind of your hyperbole.
4. Many anti-Trump conservatives are complaining too little too late
Tim Carney: — and when Bret [and conservatives] was advocating for the Iraq War, that was creating this system where the Republicans and where the elites were promising we will be greeted as liberators, and you created a war that helped destroy the Republican Party, made Nancy Pelosi the Speaker of the House, and that created this total distrust of the government. The support for the Wall Street bailout, which then we saw stock market rally to record highs, and median wages stay totally flat — until the data we got today.
So, yes, the — Bret Stephens has performed very well this election, but a lot of the elite media there too, by advocating stuff like the disastrous Iraq War, helped set the table for somebody like Trump to say, “These people are stupid. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
While this argument is again, mostly against the Washington elites in the GOP, it also can apply to us voters. Did we support the wrong or extreme candidates in previous elections and primaries?
5. If you don’t know a Trump supporter, you are part of the problem
Ben Domenech: I had the luxury of spending a lot of time over the past year and a half in a lot of green rooms with a lot of media elites and one of the things that I would always ask when I was in these green rooms is if they were close to anybody, family or friend, who was voting from Donald Trump and asked them why.And what was amazing was the sheer degree to which so many of them knew no one, knew no one in their lives who was voting for Donald Trump. 01:28:05
It’s no question here to me that the elites bear the responsibility for the rise of Trump in part by the thickness of the bubble they have insulated around themselves where they couldn’t understand why this phenomenon was happening.
From my perspective what we’ve heard tonight from Jen and from Bret, respectfully, is that the overall agenda was not the problem, that war, that immigration policy, that trade policy, that all of these other critiques that Donald Trump was alleging were not the problem, that it wasn’t a problem that we can’t run a VA or keep track of a terrorist’s wife for 24 hours.
None of those things were really the big problem in the country and instead I hear them saying I don’t know, I mean, it kind of reminds me of saying you’ll be back, time will tell, you’ll remember that I served you well. And to me that’s just whistling past the point of understanding what was really going on here, which is the American people looked at the agenda that the elites were offering them. They became disgusted with that failure and in their desperation they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand because he offered them something different from the failures they knew.
Many of the talking heads that are anti-Trump are out of touch with the real motives of Trump supporters, and would rather buy into the demonization of them as misogynists and racists, since they can easily parse such attitudes from Trump himself. But that is not an appeal at all to most of us.
I am not an apologist for Trump, and I don’t like him actually. But the arguments above are not meant to justify his candidacy, but to explain it and put the primary blame where it goes – on our polarized elite leaders in our culture – academia, government, and media.