Elites Need a Lesson in Humility
Members of the educated class are beginning to realize what the rest of us have known for some time: Americans have good reasons not to trust them
By Jon Gabriel
The British comedy show “That Mitchell and Webb Look” has a viral sketch showing two Nazi soldiers worried they might be on the wrong side of the war. “Have you noticed that our caps have actually got little pictures of skulls on them?” one asks. “Are we the baddies?”
In a column last week for The New York Times, David Brooks posed a similar question as he agonized over Donald Trump’s current domination of the GOP primary. “[T]he educated class lives in a world up here, and everybody else is forced into a world down there,” he writes. “Members of our class are always publicly speaking out for the marginalized, but somehow we always end up building systems that serve ourselves.”
Yes, I think people have noticed.
The op-ed was grudgingly praised by some conservatives and assailed by the left and other anti-Trump voters. Some on the populist right offered up a little mockery: Saurabh Sharma, president of the national conservative group American Moment, wrote of the op-ed, “It is pretty funny that the ostensibly conservative commentators at the Times have to engage in protracted thought experiments to imagine how actual conservative voters may see the world.”
And it’s not just conservatives, as can be seen in Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s renegade campaign. A growing number of Americans have grown jaded over the past two decades, and with good reason.
Brooks often boasts of his self-appointed role as a thought leader for the “educated class” while fretting about his social inferiors. One of his more famous moments recounted an awkward lunch in Manhattan. “Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch,” Brooks recalled in an earlier column. “Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop.” The rarefied air of a sandwich shop proved too much for his companion. “I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named ‘Padrino’ and ‘Pomodoro’ and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.”
Apparently, those with a mere high school diploma are incapable of enjoying sophisticated boulangeries such as Jimmy John’s or Jersey Mike’s. Thank heavens a Chipotle was nearby.
Despite his condescension, Brooks correctly points out the self-dealing nature of American meritocracy—a topic rarely broached in The New York Times opinion section. As it slowly replaced the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant aristocracy, meritocracy promised to reward ability over pedigree. In many cases, this goal was realized. But the system has devolved into a new caste system stressing academic accreditation and boutique beliefs over simple merit and hard work. An Ivy League student garners degrees, builds a social network and marries a similarly educated spouse. Through their high-salary professions, these members of the meritocracy lavish advantages on their offspring, who matriculate to the same elite schools. Once the cycle repeats for a generation or two, you start referring to common cold cuts as “charcuterie.”
Brooks treats all this as new information, but it’s long been evident to most Americans. This includes those who, like Brooks, have only a bachelor’s degree but would be embarrassed to self-identify with “the educated class.”
Elites Aren’t Who They Used To Be
The problem is not with elites as such, but the current crop running our institutions. Elites of previous eras won world wars, established lasting peace, raised prosperity around the globe and transformed a backwater set of colonies into a global hegemon. Today’s crew can’t defeat third-world foes, police our cities, pay their bills or keep the power on.
A sampling of the past two decades tells the tale. In 2003, voters were told Iraq was a “mission accomplished,” only to see the war continue eight more years. The conflict in Afghanistan lasted 20, only to see our Marines ordered to retreat amid small-arms fire from barely literate tribesmen.
Local and federal governments proved unprepared for Hurricane Katrina, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths, social breakdown and years of reconstruction. Politicians and bureaucrats chose finger pointing over flying to New Orleans to help residents.
Wall Street profited from years of risky real estate purchases via 50-year balloon mortgages and insufficient credit checks. When the markets collapsed, those who got rich were protected, while the rest of us were abandoned to deal with the economic wreckage on our own.
Former FBI agent Charles McGonigle probed Donald Trump’s alleged ties to Moscow as part of the “Russiagate” investigation. The “educated class” handed out Pulitzer Prizes and inveighed against the obvious Putin puppet fouling the Oval Office.
The president was never charged, but McGonigle is expected to take a guilty plea for his own alleged ties to Moscow. The disgraced agent was charged earlier this year with illicit work for Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska, including trying to get the oligarch’s name removed from the U.S. sanctions list.
Perhaps the elites’ most galling failure was the catastrophic reaction to the COVID pandemic, locking kids out of their schools, employees out of their jobs and family members from their dying parents’ bedsides. Anyone who questioned the shifting narrative was condemned as an anti-science “grandma killer.” Yet the architects of the failed policy were not imprisoned, fired or even censured.
For decades, people have watched failure after miserable failure, only to be presented with some new crisis in which the elites are shocked that few trust their expertise. Gallup regularly measures public faith in U.S. institutions, and the results are truly dismal. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of Americans with “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in the presidency has fallen from 55% to 26%. Faith in newspapers suffered a similar drop, going from an already low 33% to just 18%. As one might expect, Congress performed the worst: In 2003, 29% of Americans kept the faith, compared with a mere 8% in 2023.
Don’t Hate Your Voters
Although Donald Trump has the same degree level and a lot more money than David Brooks, he declared war on the educated class. His behavior is boorish, his manner is uncouth, and he’d rather have a Big Mac than a pomodoro panini.
But to the average Republican voter, Trump’s war on the elites was the main reason Russiagate was concocted. At first, even many who supported Trump in 2016 wondered if he did collude with Moscow. Being patriotic Americans, they couldn’t imagine the intelligence agencies and federal investigators would just make up the allegations out of whole cloth. When nothing could be proven but unethical behavior by Trump’s accusers, their faith in either party and the Beltway itself was over.
These voters went from considering that Russiagate might be real to rejecting it as nonsense, only to see the educated class gaslight them on the issue for several more years. The COVID hysteria followed a similar pattern.
A curious fact about Trump is that he got the pandemic wrong on a lot of points, at least in retrospect. He followed Anthony Fauci’s advice, criticized Republican governors for opening up too early and strongly promoted the controversial COVID vaccines.
Today, Trump’s supporters are quick to criticize Gov. Ron DeSantis for his brief lockdown, while ignoring that Trump had advised him to shut down Florida even longer. They raise skepticism about the jab while praising Operation Warp Speed, which created it. There’s more than a little schizophrenia to all this, but it reveals the gut feeling that the elites did their guy dirty and a vote for Trump is a way to stick it to them. Is it any wonder, then, that even after three indictments, Trump remains miles ahead of the rest of the field in GOP primary polling?
According to the polls, Trump holds a commanding lead in national primary polls but is unlikely to win the swing states necessary for the general election. But you can’t reason voters out of something they never reasoned themselves into. It’s less a matter of high-minded ideology than of visceral reaction.
If another candidate seeks victory, he or she must begin by not holding these voters in utter contempt. This seems like common sense, but it eludes the grasp of those who pride themselves as members of the “educated class.”
I hold a mere bachelor’s degree, but even if I had a Ph.D. from Oxford, I can’t imagine viewing myself in a higher caste than the guy who runs an auto body shop or the cashier at my local sandwich shop. The mechanic probably has more money than me, and the cashier likely has more marketable skills. Even if I did treasure such thoughts in my dark little heart, I wouldn’t brag about it in the pages of The New York Times.
The educated class suffers from a lack of humility—an odd pose since its failures offer so much to be humble about. Yet it still equates accreditation with moral worth, considering any American who chose a vocational path to be not only stupid, but likely a bad person. In the recent past, politicos lauded the working class as “the backbone of the country.” Today, if you’re a part of the working class, elites often disregard you as ill-fit for the modern economy—and probably racist to boot.
During the 2016 primary, Trump famously proclaimed, “I love the poorly educated.” The chattering class regarded it as outrageous vulgarity. Perhaps if all our politicians loved their voters—educated and uneducated alike—we could break down the meritocratic caste system dividing Americans from one another.