In a scene from the classic 1976 film about the Watergate scandal, “All the President’s Men,” Deep Throat says to Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford), “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”
For decades, Watergate stood as the example par excellence of corrupt political elites behaving as if they were above the law. Today, we have more recent (if less dramatic) examples, but the basic dynamic is the same: one set of rules for the elites, another for everybody else. Hillary Clinton can set up a private email server, mishandle classified information, lie about it, and yet escape criminal indictment and prosecution. Ordinary Americans aren’t so fortunate.
Despite this double standard, the truth is that our elites are not very bright, and things have gotten out of hand. Over the past 15 years their incompetence has been on full display: 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, the financial crisis, the Great Recession, the failure of Obamacare, a sluggish economic recovery. The list goes on and on, and Americans have taken notice.
As a result, confidence in the institutions our elites run is eroding. Twenty-five years ago, 71 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal/quite a lot” of trust in the presidency. Today only about a third say that. The same is true of most major institutions. Trust in government and our political leaders in particular has been declining since the Johnson administration. Today, it’s reached an historic low.
The recent presidential debate between Clinton and Donald Trump will do nothing to boost that confidence. If anything, the debate underscored both candidates’ fundamental unfitness for office. Trump called out Clinton for decades of incompetence (“You’ve been doing this for 30 years. Why are you just thinking about these solutions now?”) and Clinton hit Trump for his vagueness and general policy ignorance (“Donald never tells you what he would do. Would he have started a war? Would he have bombed Iran?”). In the end, it was a dispiriting spectacle and neither candidate could really claim victory. The big loser, though, was the American voter.
Natural Aristocrats versus Pseudo-Aristocrats
On the Democratic side, we have a candidate who is the living embodiment of a sclerotic political elite, utterly disconnected from mainstream American life and the problems and fears of regular people. On the Republican side, we have a know-nothing demagogue riding a wave of popular disgust with the ruling elite. How did we end up with such a dismal choice this November?
The answer is that democracy hasn’t worked out the way our Founding Fathers thought it would. In one of his many letters to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson distinguished between the “natural aristocracy” and the “artificial aristocracy.” Natural aristocrats, he said, are people who possess “virtue and talents,” apart from the circumstances of their birth. That is, they are not born into privilege. These are the best people for elected office, Jefferson argued, and he suggested the best form of government is the one that provides the most effective means of putting these natural aristocrats in office. Our government leaders, in other words, should be the best people in America.
The artificial aristocracy, or “pseudo-aristoi” as Jefferson calls them, is “founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents.” Their position and wealth are a consequence of who they know or their family connections, nothing more. Jefferson and Adams agreed this group is a “mischievous ingredient in government” and that its influence should be limited, especially in a democracy.
But they disagreed about how to do that. Adams thought putting them in “a separate chamber of legislation” would prevent them from causing trouble. Jefferson didn’t think that would work, and might even make things worse. Instead, he thought “the best remedy is exactly that provided by all our constitutions, to leave to the citizens the free election and separation of the aristoi from the pseudo-aristoi, of the wheat from the chaff. In general they will elect the real good and wise. In some instances, wealth may corrupt, and birth blind them; but not in sufficient degree to endanger the society.”
Democracy Breeds Envy
That was in 1813. Less than twenty years later, in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville was observing and analyzing America’s grand experiment in democracy. He found that, contrary to Jefferson, Americans were not electing the “real good and wise” to public office:
On my arrival in the United States I was surprised to find so much distinguished talent among the citizens and so little among the heads of the government. It is a constant fact that at the present day the ablest men in the United States are rarely placed at the head of affairs; and it must be acknowledged that such has been the result in proportion as democracy has exceeded all its former limits. The race of American statesmen has evidently dwindled most remarkably in the course of the last fifty years.
Fifty years earlier, of course, the “race of American statesmen” consisted of Jefferson and Adams and the other Founders. At the time Tocqueville was writing, Andrew Jackson was president. Tocqueville, a French aristocrat, was no fan of the populist Jackson, and in general was skeptical that democracies, especially large ones like the United States, would ever be wise in their choice of leaders.
One reason for that is plain old ignorance. Then as now, many people just didn’t have time for politics, often because they had to work for a living. But a more profound reason, Tocqueville argues, is envy: “Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy,” which in turn makes common people “agitated by the chance of success.” When it doesn’t come, they feel disappointed and bitter—even betrayed. “Whatever transcends their own limitations appears to be an obstacle to their desires,” Tocqueville writes, “and there is no superiority, however legitimate it may be, which is not irksome in their sight.”
Trump As Modern-Day Jackson
Tocqueville was writing at a time of high populism in America. Jackson was elected president in 1828 in a massive political upheaval that created the Democratic Party and destroyed the Democratic-Republican party of Jefferson and James Madison. Americans of that era liked Jackson because he was rough and unpolished, he talked like them, he promised to look out for them and stand up to the banks and the Washington elites on behalf of “the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” Like Trump, he spoke to their anxieties in a way that didn’t seem calculating or condescending. He just “told it like it is.”
But also like Trump, Jackson was no commoner. Although he didn’t come from a distinguished family, neither was he a simple frontiersman. Before winning the presidency in 1828, Jackson had been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate, and had been appointed to the Tennessee Supreme Court. That was before he became a national hero for his exploits at the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Jackson was a career politician and, by the time he ran for president the first time, in 1824, a national celebrity.
He won the popular vote in that election but failed to win the presidency, which was decided by the House of Representatives. His supporters denounced what they thought was a “corrupt bargain” between Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and House Speaker Henry Clay. When Jackson ran again in 1828, he was able to cast himself as a man of the people, whose voice had been silenced by corrupt East-coast political elites. He won in a landslide.
Like Jackson, what Trump is tapping into is real—up to a point. In our era, the “humble members of society” have not seen their wages rise for decades. Middle-class Americans who were planning for their retirement in the 1990s are not where they thought they’d be. Many people haven’t recovered from the Great Recession, and an alarming number have simply dropped out of the workforce. These trends aren’t confined to the undereducated. A growing number of college graduates, especially young men saddled with debt and diminished job prospects, are living at home. Resentment toward political elites who claim the government will fix things is more than understandable; it’s to be expected.
The Decline of ‘Natural Aristocracy’ in Politics
Our elites today closely resemble Jefferson’s “artificial aristocracy.” Few Americans believe that Jeb Bush, for example, is merely a product of merit and natural talent alone. Like the aristocrats of Jefferson and Adams’ time, he was born into wealth and status, born into the political establishment. Clinton might not have been born into it, but she’s been a member of the elite her entire adult life. Even for many Democrats, she exemplifies the kind of corruption, self-dealing, and moral preening that Jefferson and Adams worried was a “mischievous ingredient in government.”
Is it any wonder, then, that after eight years of President Obama (the epitome of a haughty “artificial aristocrat”), a shocking number of Americans are ready to put someone in office who doesn’t seem at all like an elite, and who thinks and talks like them? A large part of Trump’s appeal is that he regards the elites with the same contempt many Americans have for them. That contempt is tinged, both for Trump and his supporters, with envy. As Tocqueville noted, superiority is irksome in a democracy—especially when, far from being a result of “natural aristocracy,” it’s illegitimate.
Trump intuitively understands this. He might not be a commoner, but he’s certainly not Jefferson’s idea of a “natural aristocrat.” In some ways, he’s the quintessential American striver—always bragging about his wealth, always a bit touchy and insecure, always eager to prove that he’s “big league.” In the end, Republican primary voters identified with that attitude vis-à-vis the political elites. They didn’t care that Trump has held liberal views on everything from abortion to trade policy, or that he routinely contradicts himself, or that he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on major policy issues. They didn’t even care that he’s a billionaire born into wealth. That is not what Trump’s campaign is about. He’s appealing to Americans’ innate sense that their elites are not very bright.
Support for his campaign is therefore not about policy or consistency, it’s about rejecting the artificial aristocracy that dominates American politics. That Trump is the figurehead of such a movement tells you all you need to know about what seething envy can do to a polity, especially when it’s left to fester by a corrupt and incompetent elite: things get out of hand.