Our new president is a private-jet-setting billionaire Ivy League graduate, a real estate tycoon, a TV star and a son of inherited wealth. But he is no longer, by his own calculations, a member of the “elite.” Nor are the men (and the few women) now joining his inner circle — 1-percenters and corporate executives, Harvard and Yale alumni, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and Goldman Sachs bankers. The true elite apparently sits elsewhere, among those who, in Sarah Palin’s notable 2008 formulation, think “that they’re — I guess — better than anyone else.”
As an adjective, the word “elite” still conveys something positive, even aspirational: elite athlete, elite model, elite travel services. But as a noun, embodied by actual living people, it has become one of the nastiest epithets in American politics. “Elites have taken all the upside for themselves and pushed the downside to the working- and middle-class Americans,” complains Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon (of Harvard, Goldman Sachs and Hollywood). In this formulation, elites are a destructive, condescending collective, plotting against the beleaguered masses outside their ranks.
And in these attacks, the president-elect and his team are deploying one of the most effective partisan political stereotypes of the modern age. For most of American history, anti-elite sentiment was a matter of up versus down, not left versus right. But about half a century ago, the conservative movement set out to claim anti-elite politics as its own. That meant redefining the term away from class and toward culture, where the “elite” could be identified by its liberal ideas, coastal real estate and highbrow consumer preferences. The right-wing Club for Growth captured this type in a famous 2004 attack ad, instructing the Democrat Howard Dean to “take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont where it belongs.”
Trump adjusted the formula for the hot topics of the 2016 campaign. “I was on the right side of that issue, as you know, with the people,” he boasted after Brexit, adding that “Hillary, as always, stood with the elites.” His complaints against “political correctness” conjure a world of absurdist campus politics, where overprivileged students squabble over gender pronouns and the fine points of racial victimization. “Media elites” come in for special attack, cordoned off in pens to be mocked and jeered at during rallies, labeled both liars and incompetents.