Donald and the Intellectual Snobs

Public opinion studies during and after the Vietnam War found that the middle-Americans, the blue collar workers, the “hardhats” who most strongly supported the war… actually didn’t. They were not so much pro-war as they were “anti-antiwar” — repulsed by an elitist antiwar movement that radiated contempt for them, their lives, and their values. I think something similar is going on with support for Donald Trump among these same working class voters (or, more accurately, their children and grandchildren). As Trump has rolled through the primaries, and panic has set in among the conservative intelligentsia that the Trumpenpro­letarians will “draw and quarter” them and “hang [them] by [their] fancy ties,” anti-Trump rhetoric on the right has increasingly bordered over into the kind of blatant class and intellectual snobbery that had been the exclusive province of the left since the Vietnam Era. And it’s a reasonable guess that it’s having the same counterproductive effect, bolstering enthusiasm for Trump among his more lukewarm backers and drawing new supporters to his cause.

If I’m right about this, then the most effective thing the #NeverTrumpkins could do would be to shut up. If they can’t bring themselves to do that, though, then maybe they should start watching their language the same way they keep telling Trump (usually for good reason) to watch his. Now before people start shouting, let me stipulate two things. First, I think Trump is pretty personally awful for all the reasons that there’s no need to rehash. And while I think that in many ways his campaign has had a good impact on the Republican Party — both in moderating its harsh “47%” tone on economics, and in un-moderating its tepid resistance to authoritarian political correctness — I very much wish that there were a better messenger for this populist message. Second, yes I’m aware of the truly pestilent pro-Trump vulgarity out there in the slimy fever swamps of social media. And no I really can’t compare the urbanely supercilious comments of a few effete intellectuals to that. Because one is coming from influential writers and policymakers I respect and the other is coming from a few powerless social misfits in their mothers’ basements.

So let’s focus on the former. And it isn’t pretty. Words like “caveman” and phrases like “an earlier stage in our evolution” are appearing with distressing frequency. One prominent neoconservative intellectual posted on Facebook that the Trump movement was a “revolt of the low against the high IQ,” though to his credit he deleted the post and apologized in a private message after I said in response that his language was offensive and, as he as a person of presumably high IQ should realize, self-defeating.

Kevin Williamson of National Review has unapologetically championed this kind of elitist bigotry. In a January article originally titled “Our Post-Literate Politics” (with the charming Internet tagline “Donald Trump’s Supporters: ‘Establishment Bad, and What’s a Book?’”), Williamson fretted that Trump’s candidacy “could not happen in a nation that could read,” and belittled Trump supporters as men “of no books… devoid… of a literate politics capable of thinking.” He followed this up with a recent feature story, “The Father Führer” (behind a pay wall, but excerpted at length here and here), in which he opined that rural, white working class communities supporting Trump “deserve to die” because “[e]conomically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible.” White working class Trump voters have not “been victimized by outside forces,” Williamson wrote. “They failed themselves” through a culture of “welfare dependency, … drug and alcohol addiction [and] family anarchy. … [T]he economic changes of the past few decades do very little to explain the dysfunction and negligence — and the incomprehensible malice (emphasis Williamson’s) — of poor white America.… The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.”

Williamson’s National Review colleague David French, a child of the rural white working class Williamson lambastes, came to his defense in two articles. French’s argument is essentially that the right shouldn’t fall into the same trap with white working people that the left has with blacks and other minority groups — coddling them as another victim class rather than demanding personal responsibility. He laments that conservative populists make the same distinction as the left between “punching up” and “punching down,” cheering him when he attacks the progressive elite that has created the culture of entitlement and chemical and sexual indulgence in which many in the white working class have become entrapped, but condemning him when he asks working people to own up to their role in this entrapment.

It’s an important point, but it ignores the vast difference in the amount of “punching down” that polite society allows against white working people compared to more favored groups. As Charles Murray notes: “Try using ‘redneck’ in a conversation with your highly educated friends and see if it triggers any of the nervousness that accompanies other ethnic slurs.” Or try applying any of Williamson’s nakedly contemptuous language to African-Americans. Punching down against the relatively powerless is different than punching up against the powerful. Sometimes it’s called for, as French rightly points out and as conservatives have argued for years in attacking welfare dependency, but it needs to be handled with sensitivity and respect. The problem is that political correctness carries this sensitivity to ludicrous eggshell extremes in the case of most minority groups but requires none at all when it comes to white working people. On the one hand we police for “microaggressions”; on the other we tolerate the crass bias of making fun of the reading skills of less educated people or the breathtakingly frank dismissal of their entire culture as “vicious.”

This kind of blatant class bigotry undermines the comity and respect for each person’s status as a citizen necessary for democracy in a pluralist society. Many of the conservative intellectuals spearheading the #NeverTrump movement have thought deeply about such issues of democratic governance, and one might think that this would concern them. If it doesn’t, though, then a more immediate political concern should: the snobbery that they are abetting in their ranks just drives working class voters to Trump — and out of the GOP if he is not the nominee.

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