Conservatism, once the ideology of erudite intellectuals like Edmund Burke and Irving Babbitt, an ideology whose adherents pushed for the promotion and preservation of Western civilization and for the conservation of cultural greatness, “stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop,” is increasingly becoming an identity politics movement that venerates the low and depraved.
Big Macs are served at the White House. Fourth-grade level gibberish is the mode of presidential communication. Designs are brash, flashy and heavy handed, with no subtlety or artistry. Use Trump bumper stickers as bookmarks for the Bible you brandish from the stump, then misquote that Bible. Sign Bibles with the same hand you use to sign hush money checks. Conservative commentator Dennis Prager has claimed that “the Left hates standards—moral standards, artistic standards, cultural standards.” But Trump and his supporters are hardly leftists.
Many conservatives have defended Trump no matter how low he has stooped, and attacked the upholders of standards as elitists. Matthew Continetti, writing for the National Review, describes the purported liberal mockery of Trump’s desecration of steak (burning it and drenching it in ketchup) as “snobbish and self-congratulatory,” the kind of foodie elitism only “over-schooled and undereducated” cosmopolitans would engage in—as if culinary tastes were related to educational status. In the American Conservative, Paul Gottfried describes calls to eliminate monuments to Confederate generals as hypocritical and elitist. National Review columnist Kevin Williamson suggests that critics of Trump who think that President Obama was more dignified in office are “snobs.” Katherine Timpf claims Meryl Streep was “out of touch” for bashing Trump in her Oscar speech.
Even Obama was elitist, according to Sean Hannity, for asking for Grey Poupon on his burger, a fact that cuts against the claim that conservatives are upholders of the common man’s right to put whatever he wants on his meat. Hannity’s tortured logic, however, is the opposite of that of those who criticized Trump’s steak ’n ketchup. While Grey Poupon is actually a very common mass market consumer condiment, Hannity apparently misidentified it as a status item due to its pseudo-French name. In essence, Obama was un-American for trying to spruce up a common meal, while Trump was bringing down the status of a premium $50 steak. The underlying idea: anything that raises the standard of something is elitist and to be avoided.
The right-wing trend of attacking class as elitist precedes Trumpism. Writing in Commentary in 2012, Fred Siegel accuses “highbrow” liberal intellectuals of waging war on American popular culture from the 1950s onwards. Bernie Goldberg accused “liberals” of hating on Red Lobster and Sarah Palin glorified her “wedding dinner” at Wendy’s as an example of praiseworthy anti-elitism. For Goldberg and Palin, it’s not enough that chain restaurants might be an okay option for the price, or fast food might be convenient in a rush—they actively promote the lower-quality option as better and morally superior. (Yes, sometimes cheaper or less elaborate food can be better because of its taste, cultural significance or authenticity—a fraught concept—but fast food chains embody none of those qualities.)
This veneration of the low has become a useful political weapon for the right. Rather than engaging with the issues, they can dismiss any criticism of their position as liberal elitism. Why did Trump get elected? Don’t you know it’s because of those East Coast/West Coast/DC/Wall Street/Ivy League/Acela Corridor/Hollywood elitists with their contempt for the hardworking white working class in flyover country?
Salena Zito published another such trope-filled piece in this tired genre in the NY Post on 2 March, under the headline “Bill Maher’s Red-State Hate Will Help Get Trump Re-Elected,” and Rush Limbaugh soon joined in the attack on Maher. This is a perfect example of how elitism has become little more than a grievance-mongering cudgel with which to attack liberals and liberal-associated entertainment figures. Maher’s monologue criticizes the perceived economic elitism of Hillary Clinton and Jeff Bezos—two figures more often associated with the left than the right (although Albuquerque-born Bezos is himself a product of one of the flyover states and worked his way to the top). But the politically motivated right is interested in scoring political points at the expense of the left, so they had to find a way to make Maher the bad guy.
Here’s what Maher actually said:
We have a problem in America called spacial-geographic inequality, which means that the most affluent and educated people in America are clustered in just a few cities. Last year, Hillary Clinton said, “I won the places that represent two-thirds of America’s gross domestic product … I won the places that are optimistic, diverse, dynamic, moving forward.” Yes, you did, and maybe that has something to do with why Trump voters are so obsessed with owning the libs. … That’s why red state voters are so pissed off. They don’t hate us. They want to be us. They want to go to the party. It’s like we’re the British royal family, and they’re Meghan Markle’s dad. How do I know this? Because 233 cities and regions submitted proposals to Amazon to locate in their area. All desperate for jobs that don’t involve guarding prisoners or murdering chickens. And Amazon picked two places that didn’t need them at all, places where prosperity already was. Bezos, you’re worth $130 billion. Take one for the team. Stop playing cities off against one another, and help a dying one come back to life.
Did Maher (attempt to) use humorous imagery to make his point about how small town America is suffering? Sure. But obsessing over whether it is offensive for a comedian to compare the economically less developed regions to Meghan Markle’s dad is—what’s the word?—politically correct. It’s not hard to find conservatives bemoaning how politically correct comedy becomes when jokes are overanalyzed and comedians critiqued over the directions in which they are metaphorically punching. Even Bill Maher thinks liberals are “too sensitive” when it comes to comedy. But we can include right-wing Trump supporters in that group, too.
These critiques also miss the forest for the trees. In fact, Maher was identifying rural communities as victims—a narrative the Trump-era right, with the help of the mainstream media’s post-election rust belt tour—has tried hard to make.
But conservatives have learned a central lesson: it pays to pretend to be a victim. White conservative small town males must not just be supposed victims of the economy, but also of cultural condescension on the part of liberal elites. This is a strategy that allows holier-than-thou Republican elites, who favor cutting corporate taxes and blocking the expansion of benefits for the poor and working classes, to win white working class votes, by highlighting the culture wars. Republican Party politicians and consultants want their voters to think that there is a mob of Ivy League professors, DC economists, Wall Street traders and Hollywood producers waiting outside Cracker Barrel at 2 am to punch small town conservative Christian American in the face and knock all the jobs out of them.
It’s hypocritical—on multiple levels. To call someone an elitist, in the first place, just because of their political views or cultural preferences, is an ad hominem.
Back in 2008, Obama was attacked merely for eating arugula. He did not express his disdain for people who shop at Wal-Mart, nor express his personal distaste for iceberg lettuce. Obama was attacked because his preference did not line up with the apparent preferences—or, at least, the professed preferences—of conservative real Americans (the term Sarah Palin would throw around when campaigning in small towns with populations that were over 90% white, hence identifying city dwellers as not fully American). Jeb Babbin, writing in Human Events, describes Obama’s love of arugula as effeminate:
John McCain may be gaining what Obama is losing among women because of Obama’s “Arugula Gap.” … But they want someone who emits strength of character and inspires confidence rather than the sighs they may have emitted in tenth grade … It’s not Obama’s Ivy League bowling skills that are apparently hurting him among women voters. There are at least three factors. Obama is suffering from his effete personality, feminists’ hard feelings about Hillary’s fate, and Obama fatigue. Obama is an effetenik, a white teacup, pinkie-in-the-air sort. Hillary is more of a shot-and-a-beer guy than he is.
But if a person’s choice of food can somehow illustrate his weakness of character, as it supposedly did in Obama’s case, why couldn’t Trump’s obsession with McDonalds and KFC be just as illustrative? Do conservatives have double standards about double standards?
The hypocrisy goes deeper than simple partisanship. Many of the conservative intellectuals accusing liberals of being elitists are themselves Ivy League accredited defenders of high culture. In many cases, these are not debates between state school graduates, who enjoy drinking canned beer in dive bars, and prissy, Cosmopolitan-sipping Prius drivers. The debate is actually between Princeton and Harvard University graduate Ted Cruz, who dines at $8-a-glass Kombucha-serving Fiola, and El Paso-born, Columbia-educated, teenage punk rocker Beto O’Rourke, who dines at Taco Palenque. Yet Cruz calls O’Rourke “out of touch with Texas values,” and Kevin Williamson calls him a “snob.”
Victor Davis Hanson is another frequent critic of elitism, who applies his own elitist rules to others. Hanson, a professor, historian, classicist and fellow at the Hoover Institution, has a grand time bashing Democrats in the National Review as “the party of snobbish elites,” “coastal elites [who] set rules for others,” “elite[s] who send their kids to prep schools” and the “international global elite that have proper education, proper resumes, proper CVs, sober and judicious” with a “real contempt” for people who “buy jet skis” and “do stupid stuff.”
Yet Hanson is also the author of Who Killed Homer?, and a critic of what he sees as declining standards in our society. He claims that he once lectured a woman in a parking lot for buying a flat-screen TV with her welfare benefits. It was not merely the use of public funds to make the purchase that irked him. It was the underlying extravagance and decadence of the thing itself, he makes clear. “I may have the money to stay at home all day and watch Oprah and get pizza delivered to my couch,” he explains, “but I better not because it’s a sort of decadence. I may have enough money and freedom to line up at the mall to buy the latest Adidas-brand tennis shoe, but I shouldn’t do that.”
On the one hand, Hanson said it was elitist to view water skis as a decadent extravagance, a waste of money, but he himself describes a flat screen TV, delivery pizza and Adidas tennis shoes (which you can go for a jog in) as decadent. It seems Hanson does not apply any rational standard to his judgments.
Indeed, Hanson has also written favorably about dumbed-down reality TV shows like Duck Dynasty and Ice Road Truckers. And he is the author of a book making “the case for Trump” and one of National Review’s most frequent Trump defenders. In what sense is spending an hour eating pizza, while watching a black woman talk about books, any more decadent than eating Big Macs and watching some guys with raggedy beards and American-flag bandanas, who inarticulately equate homosexuality with bestiality, get into petty fights with each other for the cameras?
The word elitist has come to have no meaning. It’s just a synonym for someone or something the speaker doesn’t like for whatever reason.
Getting rid of distinctions between good and bad, high minded and low minded, could have real negative effects. Back in 2005, when George W. Bush nominated Harriet Miers—a personal friend and White House Deputy Chief of Staff with no experience as a judge nor stellar academic credentials—to the Supreme Court, Noam Scheiber notes in the New Republic that the professional conservative pundits who had worked so hard to create an anti-elitist environment were taken aback, but hard-pressed to think of a way to respond:
[David] Frum was reflecting a basic sociological truism—that conservative elites are frequently as credentialist, even snobbish, as the liberal elites they scorn. Many conservative pundits and wonks attended top schools, read highbrow publications, and belong to exclusive professional societies. They firmly believe that elite credentials signify merit.
You can imagine such people thinking, they didn’t actually think we meant all that stuff we said about how standards should not exist, did they?! If you can almost put an under-qualified personal lawyer of the president on the Supreme Court, then you can put an incompetent president and his daughter and son-in-law in the White House.
What’s to stop Oprah or Kim Kardashian from becoming president? Who is to say the economic policies of Maduro won’t work if you don’t have any standards or respect for expertise?