Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Mea culpas, Trump, and the arrogance of the elites

The British historian Christopher Hill's most widely read work is probably The World Turned Upside Down. It concerns the period of revolution in 17th century England (culminating in the Glorious Revolution) and the proliferation of—at the time—radical political and social ideas by groups like the Diggers and the Levellers. These two groups (and other similar ones) were spawned from the lower classes, by and large, due to unhappiness with the status quo, with the monarchy and the aristocracy. Ultimately, this "revolution within a revolution" failed, but the legacy of the Diggers and Levelers reverberated through history and their ideas (fundamentally centered on popular sovereignty and a secular society) can be seen as influential for both the French and American Revolutions.

I bring this up because in taking stock of last night's events—Donald Trump's surprising victory in the 2016 Presidential Election—it's worth remembering that the elites, the people who think they know it all, aren't always the harbingers of change that they imagine themselves to be, don't always know what is really going on and what is really going to happen. It's a tough pill to swallow, no doubt, regardless of their own personal politics and views. In the coming days and weeks, we should expect a lot of mea culpas from our erstwhile 4th Estate, from academia in general, and from our political elites. Because there is no way around this simple reality: almost all of them misread the mood of the country, misread the data that was available, and made predictions based on these errors.

The World Turn'd Upside Down pamphlet from the 17th c.
The title of Hill's book is taken from a 17th century English song by the same name that was really more of a political broadside, a protest song as it were. It appeared in response to the English Parliament trying to clamp down on Christmas celebrations by commoners, of all things (Parliament members were opposed to treating Christmas as a jovial occasion). In many ways, it represents the first "War on Christmas" (which is highly ironic, of course, given the actual issues). Also, according to legend the song was played by the British when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. But it should be understood, first and foremost, as an example of those in power assuming that they know what is best for everyone else, of those in power assuming that their personal values should be universal values, not subject to questioning by the "little guy."

And really, that is exactly what the election of Donald Trump is: a rebuff of the self-certainty prevalent among the upper crust of out society. And let's be honest in this regard: I am a part of that upper crust, as are the vast majority of my friends, relatives, and acquaintances. I was certain Clinton would win, that there was no way Trump could garner enough votes to be the next President. And my certainty was, in a large part, a product of my belief that the ugly aspects of Trump's campaign, from the xenophobia to the sexism, would ultimately be his undoing.

Mea culpa.

But these ugly aspects are far from the sum total of the "why" behind Trump's victory. Fundamentally—again—the victory is best understood as a smackdown on the established order. True enough, it had a lot of help from that established order. Because let's be clear about this, too: Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate for the office of President. She came with a lot of baggage, wasn't well-liked, wasn't personable, and frankly, she was a Cinton, just as George W. Bush (and Jeb Bush) was a Bush. The dislike of aristocracies is deeply ingrained in the American psyche. George W. Bush's victory defied expectations in the moment; Jeb Bush's failure to secure the nomination was right in line with them.

And there's some irony here, as well. Much of the "no more Bushes" crowd—who rightfully objected to the establishment of a political dynasty—of the Democratic Party tossed their own values in this regard into the trash and jumped behind Hillary Clinton. On social media, I've noticed this same group pumping up the idea of Michelle Obama maybe running for President, or maybe of Barack Obama being appointed to the Supreme Court. It's so transparently hypocritical, it beggars the imagination. And it's justified with the oh-so-simplistic "because she/he is so awesome!"

The point is, though, that Trump's victory was partly a consequence of arrogance on the part of the elite elements of U.S. society. These elements, regardless of party or ideological orientation, assumed that the election would follow a predictable path, wherein the less-than-sophisticated voters would fall in line, would—for lack of a better way to put it—do as they were told. This includes minority and union voters on the left, as well as rank-and-file Republicans on the right, for the #neverTrump crowd in the Republican leadership took it as a given that people would follow their lead, that their opinions were special, that the rank-and-file looked to them for guidance. And the Democratic leadership made the exact same assumptions, with regard to groups who traditionally vote Democrat no matter what.

The questions now: did the national Parties learn anything from all of this? Did the political "experts"? Did the pollsters and the statisticians? Did the media? Judging by what I've seen so far, the answer is "no." But it's only been a day...


  1. As I said on Facebook:

    Pointing out to liberals that their condescending attitude toward those who don't think exactly like them cost them the election goes over about as well as showing up at Billy Bob's funeral and pointing out that he had a beer in one hand and was texting with the other when he wrapped that pickup around the telephone pole.

    Which invariably leads to a mental image of Hillary behind the wheel, announcing "Hold my beer and watch this!"

  2. That's true, Don. But then at least I'm also pointing to the condescension of some on the other side, as well.

  3. It's all going to be fine. I signed an online petition.

  4. Nice analysis. There's a lot of anger that I hear since I didn't really have a candidate, so I wasn't as surprised as many. A lot of it's just the echo-chamber effect, I believe.

    Or if you like the silly rhyme: A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still. Too many people believe that if you out-argue someone, you've convinced them of your beliefs.