Last night Tim Carney and I debated Jennifer Rubin and Bret Stephens on the motion “Blame the elites for the Trump Phenomenon.” Here was my opening statement.
The key to understanding the Donald Trump phenomenon is to recognize that he is neither a disease nor a symptom – he is instead for many Americans the beta-test of a cure. 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 with a great deal of trust in the presidency, the courts, public schools, and banks are in the teens. Trust for unions, the justice system, big business, Congress and the media are in single digits.
This decline didn’t happen overnight – it began with Watergate and Vietnam and continued through the financial crisis and Iraq. 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 a bipartisan political and cultural establishment utterly discredited due to their record of failure.
The list is familiar to you by now: 9/11. Iraq. Katrina. Congressional corruption. Financial meltdown. Bank bailouts. Failed stimulus. A health care mess. Stagnant wages. Rising distrust. Diminished hopes. 16 years of promises from Republicans and Democrats alike that failed to live up to what people wanted. This distrust was earned.
Through it all, the elites were looking out for the interests of people other than those they were elected to serve. It is no accident that Donald Trump broke with elite bipartisan consensus on the issues of immigration, trade, and foreign policy. In each of these arenas elite consensus views were favored by the donor class, by big business, and by party leadership to the exclusion of others.
Rather than responding to the populist tendencies of the electorate with real changes, the elites overpromised and underdelivered. They thought they could get by holding a musket over their head in election years and prioritizing what lobbyists wanted in all the other years. They were comfortable in a bubble of economic success a world away from the areas that saw no recovery. Elite indifference to populist opinion and the economic pain many Americans continue to experience created a vacuum Donald Trump was happy to fill.
A number of commentators on the right and the left have delved into the question of America’s “lost” greatness, and discovered what would lead voters to find Donald Trump’s message so appealing. It is the same phenomenon identified on the left by Chris Hayes in his Twilight of the Elites and on the right by Charles Murray and Yuval Levin in Coming Apart and Fractured Republic: a dramatic failure of the institutions run by America’s elites, and nostalgia for a time when such institutions could be trusted.
Imagine you are one of the millions of middle-aged unemployed white Americans with a high school degree. There are today 7 million men in prime working age who have dropped out of the labor force – that’s 15 percent, higher than we’ve seen since the end of the Great Depression. And there are millions more who know people experiencing this pain as a brother, uncle, or a son.
Moved from unemployment to disability, you receive sufficient benefits to subsist – around 1,200 dollars a month on average – and to pay for the alcohol and drugs that help you self-medicate. Your life is essentially one marked by hopelessness, desperation, and anxiety. You are statistically unlikely to ever re-enter the workforce. Alone among all demographics, your likelihood of suicide is rising.
The things that make life not only endurable but happy are religious faith, now lost to you; family, which is fractured; community, which is disintegrated; and work, which you find hard to come by.
The TV screen flickers with images of people living lives you could never hope to emulate. Your situation is bleak, and while our soma is better, it is still not a replacement for the pursuit of happiness.
Your tomorrows look dark. But the past, even the grimy parts of it, look like gold.
And when a golden haired man comes on TV, a man who represents a version of what you might hope your life could be like – a man who defies the elites, who is rich and successful, who comes from the world of the elites but is strong enough to reject them and their lies – and he tells you it’s not your fault your life is the way it is. He tells you it’s the fault of immigrants and bad trade deals and wasteful pointless wars based on lies. He tells you the problem with elites is not that they are too conservative or too liberal, but that they are stupid and don’t care about you. He tells you, with confidence, that he alone can make everything great again. And you listen.
Could Donald Trump’s rise have been possible in the absence of the parade of horribles the elites offered up over the past two decades? The answer is no. Our elite leadership class sowed the wind, and Donald Trump is the whirlwind they reaped. Vote for the motion.
The IQ2 debates are assessed by how many people you shift to your side. The opponents increased their portion by six points. Those in favor of Domenech’s and Carney’s view increased from 33 percent to 58 percent.