Everybody hates elitists—and since the triumph of Donald Trump’s nativist populism, it seems, everyone hates those damn elitists even more. Hillary Clinton has been pilloried as a clueless elitist whose hoity-toity coastal bias led her to ignore rural Midwest voters. Snooty journalists in their urban bubbles have been kicked because they don’t know enough people with pickup trucks. Meryl Streep was roundly excoriated for being a “sanctimonious liberal snowflake.” Yes, the election of Donald Trump has raised the low, lowered the high, taken the gloves off the proles and delivered a series of resounding thumps to the upturned profiles of the grasping glitterati. Huzzah.
But, hold on a minute. Donald Trump is from New York, one of those evil coastal bastions. He inherited a real estate fortune. He may not be quite the billionaire he likes to claim, but he’s certainly got millions. He gold-plated the bathroom fixtures on his private jet. He’s even—horrors!—a reality TV star.
Hillary Clinton is quite well off at this point, but she was born middle-class and worked an actual job as a lawyer before entering politics. Trump hasn’t done anything except rake in his daddy’s cash, lease his name and declare bankruptcy. He is the definition of unearned privilege and power. His victory wasn’t a defeat for the rich; it was their triumph. Why, as long as we’re all sneering at elitists, isn’t Trump sneered at as Elitist Number One?
A big part of the reason is that Trump doesn’t act the way elitists are supposed to act. The upper-class is thought to be…well, classy. The rich sniff snuff delicately, wear powdered whigs and listen to Mozart. Elites are polite and scrupulous; they speak softly, drive small unobtrusive cars (not pickup trucks!) and keep their hands clean. The upper crust is Meryl Streep, Anjolina Jolie, Anthony Hopkins or some other beautifully cultured person wearing good clothes and looking irritatingly enviable.
This is all nonsense, though. Elites aren’t always suave, intelligent or graceful. Look at Fox News’s Roger Ailes. He’s a plutocrat, a multimillionaire and a clumsy, oafish, grotesque sexual harasser. Consider iconic Trump voter and Silicon Valley one-percenter Peter Thiel, who cluelessly admited that he sees votes for women as a setback for freedom. Dick Cheney shamelessly dispensed Halliburton graft while telling a Senate colleague “Go fuck yourself”. American oligarchs aren’t smooth and they aren’t cultured. They’re wealthy, brutish bullies.
Why be a snobby sophisticate when you can just be an asshole?
Trump’s supposedly classless boorishness is precisely the marker of his classiness—which is to say, of his vast, unearned wealth and power. His press conference, where he contemptuously refused to place his assets in a blind trust despite massive conflicts of interest, was an elite expression of contempt. Trump is too good, in his own estimation, to be accountable to the press, the public or the Constitution. Hello, elitism.
In fact, Trump himself explained the connection between his elite status and his ugly violation of social norms, decency and law in his infamous taped 2005 discussion with Billy Bush. Trump was boasting to Bush about harassing and sexually assaulting women. “I just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything….Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.” Trump’s rich. He’s powerful. He can assault women, and insult women, and get away with it, because entitled scions of privilege always get away with it. He’s rich enough and famous enough that he doesn’t have to be classy. Why be a snobby sophisticate when you can just be an asshole?
The conflation of classiness with class is, as Trump shows, completely unwarranted. But it’s also insulting. Calling Trump classless, or suggesting he has some populist bond with the poor is a way of saying that the poor are rude and ignorant. Trump is supposed to be a “populist” because he uses ugly language, doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, and is rude, sexist, lazy and unqualified. He may be rich, but he understands the common herd because he spews political incorrectness (aka, he “tells it like it is”) and has the graces of a toddler with a bowel complaint.
The truth, though, is that you don’t need to have money to have good manners and a good heart. On the contrary, as Trump shows, it is often the wealthiest who are the most thoughtless, the most selfish and the most vicious. When you’re looking to spit in the face of one of those storied elites, forget the journalists. Forget Hollywood. Forget those bugaboos of the right. Just turn on your set on January 20. An elitist will be there chortling, because he has the power to do whatever he wants to you. You can tell he’s an elitist, because you can’t stop him.