Leftists deride the “bad” populism of angry and misdirected grievances lodged clumsily against educated and enlightened “elites,” often by the unsophisticated and the undereducated. Bad populism is fueled by ethnic, religious, or racial chauvinism, and typified by a purportedly “dark” tradition from Huey Long and Father Coughlin to George Wallace and Ross Perot.
Such retrograde populism to the liberal mind is to be contrasted with a “good” progressive populism of early-twentieth-century and liberal Minnesota or Wisconsin—solidarity through unions, redistributionist taxes, cooperatives, granges, and credit unions to protect against banks and corporations—now kept alive by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Good leftwing populism rails against supposedly culpable elites—those of the corporate world and moneyed interests—but not well-heeled intellectuals, liberal politicians, and the philanthropic class of George Soros, Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett, who make amends for their financial situations by redistributing their millions to the right causes.
Trump appeared the far more “bad” or “dangerous” populist.
The Right is similarly ambiguous about populism. “Bad” populists distrust government in sloppy fashion, failing to appreciate the intricacies of politics that understandably slow down change. “Bad” right-wing populists, given their unsophistication and wild emotions, are purportedly prone to dangerous excesses, American-firstism, social intolerance, and anti-capitalist bromides: think the pushback by the Tea Party or the Ron Paul zealots.
In contrast, “good” conservative populists are those who wish to trim the fat off complacent conservatism, reenergize the Republican Party with fresh ideas about small government and a return to social and cultural traditionalism, while avoiding compromise for compromise’s sake. Good populists for conservatives might include Ronald Reagan or even Ted Cruz.
Within these populist parameters, Trump appeared far more the “bad” or “dangerous” populist.
Despite Trump’s previously apolitical and elite background, he brilliantly figured out, even if cynically so, the populist discontent and its electoral ramifications that would erode the Democrats’ assumed unassailable “blue wall” that ran from Wisconsin to North Carolina. In contrast, sixteen other talented candidates, some of whom were far more experienced conservative politicians, over a year-long primary race lacked Trump’s intuition about the potential electoral benefits of courting such a large and apparently forgotten working-class population.
Critics would argue that Trump’s populist strategy was inauthentic, haphazard, and borne out of desperation: he initially had few other choices to win the Republican nomination.
Trump began his campaign with exceptional name recognition and seemingly with ample financial resources. Yet he lacked the connections of Jeb Bush to the Republican establishment and donor base, the grass-roots orthodox conservative movement’s fondness for Ted Cruz, the neoconservative brain trust that allied with Marco Rubio, and the organizations and reputations for pragmatic competence that governors such as Chris Christie, Rick Perry, or Scott Walker brought to the campaign.
Trump never possessed the mastery of the issues in the manner of Bobby Jindal or Rand Paul. Ben Carson was even more so the maverick political outsider. Nor was Trump as politically prepped as his fellow corporate newcomer Carly Fiorina. Despite his brand recognition, Trump’s long and successful experience in ad-hoc reality television, millions of dollars in free media attention, and personal wealth, he started the campaign at a disadvantage and so was ready to try any new approach to break out of the crowded pack—most prominently his inaugural rant about illegal immigration.
By 2012 standards, Trump, to the degree he had voiced a consistent political ideology, would likely have been considered the most liberal of the seventeen presidential candidates. In the recent past he had chided Mitt Romney for talking of self-deportation by illegal immigrants, praised a single-payer health system, and had at times campaigned to the left of both the past unsuccessful John McCain and Mitt Romney campaigns. Yet in 2016 Trump found a way to reassemble the remnants of what was left of the Tea Party/Ross Perot wing of the Republican Party.
Such desperation might explain his audacity and his willingness to campaign unconventionally if not crudely. Yet it does not altogether account for Trump’s choice to focus on what would become four resonant populist issues: trade/jobs, illegal immigration, a new nationalist foreign policy, and political correctness—the latter being the one issue that bound all the others as well. Trump’s initial emphasis on these concerns almost immediately set him apart from both his primary opponents and Hillary Clinton.
Take trade. Doctrinaire Republican commercial policy was synonymous with advocacy for unfettered free trade. Even when foreign countries in the European Union or Japan subsidized their own exports and raised barriers to importation—well aside from China—Republicans were not quick to retaliate on the principle than even unfair trade had its value: foreign subsidies forced American producers to tighten their belts and seek greater efficiencies in production and thus in the long term to lower costs to consumers and sharpen competitiveness. Consumers got cheaper imported goods that mitigated dismal domestic economic growth. In addition, the role of the largest economy and military in the world was purportedly to accept some trade liabilities and burdens (which it supposedly could afford) as part of the responsibility to help its weaker aligned partners and advance the globalized project in general.
Trump—perhaps because of his past as a developer and builder in the vicious arena of Manhattan real estate, and his own unfamiliarity with abstract free-market theories—instead reduced trade to a zero-sum game. Business people and their workers lost in such one-sided competitions, while government elites who pushed free trade policies were not personally affected when cheap and subsidized foreign competition undermined manufacturing, agriculture, and other businesses vulnerable to unfair foreign commerce. For Trump the issue was not just fair trade, but fairness itself in who benefitted and who lost from globalized commerce—an empathetic approach not usually associated with the combative wheeler-dealer.
Again, Trump, the billionaire Manhattanite and unlikely populist, argued not only that the working classes were hurt by globalization—at least in terms of jobs—but also that they felt those who were the architects of free trade were themselves exempt from the ramifications of their own ideology. Despite his wealth and privilege, Trump perhaps was able to channel his own past frustrations with bureaucrats, condescending Palm Beach country clubs, corrupt New York City officials, and liberal community activists into sympathy for those often neglected in Middle America. Trump, for all his glitzy lifestyle, exuded an empathy for his own workers, and, by speech and comportment, he seemed more at ease with his carpenters and electricians than with his bankers. And for those who accused Trump of being precisely what he was railing against, he often countered that all the better he knew how to fight such corruption firsthand.
Trump’s generic pejorative references to “they” and “them” included not just foreign trade manipulators, but also Washington policy makers who either were not hurt by globalization or did not care much about those who were. Trump soon was using the plural possessive pronoun, in speaking of “our miners,” “our vets,” and “our farmers,” in terms of endearment never heard of in past elections, as he assured the hurting middle classes that their pain was not preordained but calibrated, and that they were not the estranged but the soon to be rescued.
It is hard to determine to what degree Trump early on adjusted his populism to fit the Electoral College terms. But it is no accident that the Democratic “blue wall” that had stymied both John McCain and Mitt Romney was largely a landscape of hurting white and blue-collar workers who were also culturally turned off by the Democrats’ identity politics mantras that had ignored class for tribal affiliations. Trump apparently thought he could do in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin what some Republicans had already done in formerly blue or swing states like Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia—mostly by stressing resurrecting construction, mining, and manufacturing, often in politically and environmentally incorrect terms. This was all Republican heresy, given long ago a tenet of free-market globalization postulated that “old” muscular industries would naturally die off in the United States and be outsourced to the former Third World, while “information,” “high value,” and “knowledge-based” technologies and services would more than make up for losses of manufacturing. Displaced factory workers were supposed to “retrain,” relocate, or recalibrate, not whine that the local smokestack plant had moved to Indonesia.
He neither ignored the roughness of illegal immigration nor ridiculed those who experienced the consequences.
Next, Trump zeroed in on immigration in the same populist manner. Prior Republicans had insisted that the new demographics—and past lost elections to Barack Obama’s identity politics-
campaigning—mandated “comprehensive immigration” reform, a euphemism for amnesty without prior guarantees of border security and enforcement. Trump suspected that elites like himself never directly experienced the downsides of illegal immigration: hit-and-run accidents, increased gang crime, drugs, swamped emergency rooms, crowded social service offices, and schools full of non-English speakers. Unlike his rivals, he neither ignored the real-life roughness of illegal immigration nor ridiculed as illiberal and worse those who experienced the consequences first-hand.
Trump, initially almost alone, saw in a tough immigration stance a number of populist openings that would transcend political affiliations and win over Democratic working classes:
First, why should some foreign nationals not be subject to federal laws, while American citizens could not similarly pick and choose which laws to follow? Demand for measured and legal immigration was not xenophobic, but rather a question of simple fairness and equality under the law.
Second, at a time of anemic economic growth, near-record labor non-participation, and fierce competition for jobs, why was the United States allowing foreign nationals to enter the country’s work force under illegal auspices in a way not accorded immigrants who sought legal entry?
Third, the burdens on social services in some communities by illegal arrivals from Latin America and Mexico were felt to fall most heavily on the lower middle classes and poor minorities who had to compete for increasingly limited entitlements and subsidies.
Fourth, other candidates saw any tough immigration stance entailing deportation as suicidal, given new Latino voting strength, especially in the American Southwest. Trump instead saw Latino politics in a different light: not only was the community not monolithic, given vast differences between Cubans, South Americans, and Mexicans, and given assimilation, integration, and intermarriage, but often the downsides of illegal immigration fell most heavily on American citizens of Hispanic background.
More concretely, the Latino population concentrated mostly in states that were either already irrevocably blue (California and likely Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada) or stubbornly still red (Texas and Arizona). In contrast, the furor over illegal immigration was strongest in swing states of the Midwest, where the Latino population was not likely to affect state totals. For all the talk of the new Latino demographic powerhouse, Trump bet that his immigration rhetoric would win over new middle-class voters in key swing states, and appeal to a fourth to a third of Latinos, while not affecting the eventual totals in largely predetermined red and blue states. True, Trump said things about illegal immigrants that other politicians would never dare, but he did so with a belief that demography in 2016 was not his own destiny.
On foreign policy, Trump saw America’s role largely as an extension of his emphasis on domestic populism—despite the looming shadow of 1930s populist isolationism that is now synonymous not just with anti-Semitic America Firstism, but also with deadly naiveté that led to unnecessary American losses in World War II. Trump often disingenuously insisted that he had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning (he had not) and attacked costly nation-building in general, cognizant that, by 2016, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya were easily tagged as a waste of American blood and treasure and such interventions only made things worse in the Middle East. In contrast, most Republican candidates saw Iraq by 2011 as a sort of wash—perhaps too costly an endeavor in lost blood and treasure to repeat elsewhere, but nonetheless at last quiet and a South Korea–like success, if not for the abrupt and reelection-calibrated withdrawal by President Obama. His Republican neo-conservative critics in the flagship magazines and newspapers went ballistic over Trump’s supposedly America First appeal, but they themselves had no political constituency, and their fevered attacks only fed into his own narrative of an elite foreign policy that served theorists who dreamed such things up, not working people who were asked to reify them.
Trump also recalibrated Iraq and other interventions such as Afghanistan and Libya as distractions from long overdue nation-building at home. Why invest resources in areas where the United States was despised when Americans were themselves either out of work or stuck in low-wage jobs? If the United States were to get involved to address existential threats, it would be on its own Jacksonian terms: sporadic bombing of enemies without ground engagements, in the manner one mows the lawn while not complaining that grass continues to grow and demands such constant maintenance cutting.
Finally, Trump cemented his populist message by mocking political correctness. Illegal immigrants in contrived politically correct parlance were synonymous with “dreamers,” as if all 10–15 million illegal entrants had never committed a serious crime, were all employed, and had long years of U.S. residence. Trump’s writ instead suggested otherwise: a sizable minority of illegal aliens had committed crimes, or had just arrived by flooding across the border on the scent of amnesty, or were able-bodied but without work histories. Elites in both parties knew this was to some extent true, but feared that the mere use of the word deportation in any context would lose Latino votes.
If Trump deliberately used the politically incorrect term “illegal aliens,” he also made it a point to repeat “Merry Christmas” and “radical Islamic terror,” reminding his audiences that the Obama administration showed more deference to the Muslim world than it did the long-held Christian traditions of the majority of its citizens. Trump, then, was a champion of traditionalist nomenclature and by extension 1950s values, even if his own checkered life did not match the moral universe that he sought for others.
He sided with the police against the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, apparently counting on the fact that statistics bore out his impressions that African-American youth were not being gunned down by police at any greater ratios than other groups who commensurately came into contact with law enforcement. On the environment, Trump talked of conservation in 1950s terms and assured out-of-work voters that mining and fuel production were not incompatible with “clean water and air.”
Trump was a champion of 1950s values, even if his own checkered life did not match the moral universe he sought for others.
There were accusations that Trump’s populist appeals were dog whistles to the former clingers, irredeemables, and deplorables of the white working classes, with an aim to embrace white solidarity. In response, Trump went into the inner city, and broadened his message to include minorities who were to be seen as similar victims of unfair trade, illegal immigration, and globalization—as if a resurrected economy growing at a rate of 3–4 per annual gdp would make obsessions on race, class, and gender irrelevant. Unlike most past varieties of leftwing populism, Trump did not believe in a peasant notion of limited good, but instead thought a growing pie gave everyone a bigger slice.
Trump’s implicit message was that, in the age of Barack Obama envisioning the electorate as a series of hyphenated groups, the white working class naturally might piggyback onto such tribal solidarity, especially given loud and often chauvinistic prognostications of its eventual demographic demise. In sum, Trump crafted a populist message that was geared to winning back the working classes of the Midwest swing states—in a year when Barack Obama’s loyal minority constituents might not completely transfer their fealty to a sixty-nine-year-old white multimillionaire, mired in a series of Clinton Foundation and email scandals.
Why then did Trump’s rivals not appreciate the populist resonance of these issues? Some of them were from the same 1 percent economic stratum as Donald Trump and the majority lived likewise in large urban centers. Others, unlike Trump, were governors such as Scott Walker and Chris Christie who had come to power through populist appeals against unions, big government, and callous elites and knew what resonated with grassroots. Ted Cruz was a Tea Party advocate—the same populist movement that had once sent the relatively unknown Marco Rubio to the U.S. Senate.
Yet almost all the Republican front-runners shared long tenures in state and federal government, were reliant on New York–Washington advisors and think tanks, and dialed into daily coastal opinion journalism. They had mostly bought into orthodox Republican economics that only unfettered free trade brought prosperity, that we were in a postindustrial economy in which high-tech and green jobs (not smokestack manufacturing and production) were the wave of the future, and that the new—and unfavorable—demographics led to compromise with the purveyors of identity politics and open borders, and at least lip service to an array of politically correct orthodoxies.
Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio had become loud advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” compromises with the Obama administration, apparently oblivious that while Obama talked of “security,” the southern border after 2012 had become wide open—and millions of Americans were dealing first-hand with the consequences. Moreover, Trump’s populist ideas of jawboning corporations to stay put and not offshore jobs and capital were antithetical to the entire doctrine of free-market libertarian economics, and smelled of leftist intrusive government interference in the market place. As the candidates were coached by Washington foreign policy makers they adopted certain establishment orthodoxies: nato was sacrosanct and thus mere criticism of its asymmetrical contributions endangered its sanctity; the European Union, however flawed, was still preferable to the alternative of squabbling independent democracies; Russia had spurned resets from both Bush and Obama and of course was hell-bent on reformulating the Soviet Empire even if it meant the destruction of its autonomous neighbors.
Trump in contrast had no investment in either the Washington establishment or its bipartisan policies, and sensed his new blue-collar constituencies did not either. He simply asked why some hallowed transatlantic institutions and trade organizations seemed to burden the United States financially without commensurate economic benefits. Trump’s rivals were never quite able to envision foreign policy in terms of domestic populist concerns—a chief tenet of classical populism—and to the extent they did, they quickly dismissed him as a Charles Lindbergh isolationist in times that were supposedly beginning to resemble the late 1930s. In response, Trump doubled down, perhaps because he sensed his newfound Middle America supporters were often Independents and Democrats, and thus ironically had long ago been seasoned with traditional Democratic critiques of Republican administrations’ interventions.
The forgotten man gravitated to someone who insisted the entire system was rigged.
In style, with the exception perhaps of Ted Cruz, Trump opponents played by Romney’s Marquess of Queensberry political rules. Trump did not—and saw populist advantage in matching his vocabulary and style to the unorthodoxy of his message. While some Republican national candidates had sought to appeal to the white working classes, they did not dare talk of the “forgotten men and women” or match Trump’s apocalyptic visions of a ruined America that needed to become “great”—again. Style-wise, most Republicans were consensus builders who had come to power by give-and-take compromise, not as Trump had, by demonizing and bulldozing the opposition once he saw an opening—as if the nomination were a brawl to build a Manhattan skyscraper and thus to defeat rival contractors by winning over corrupt officials, union bosses, environmentalists, bankers, and community activists. Trump proved right that an out-of-work die maker did not want lectures from the winners of globalization on free-market economics, the centrality of nato, or a need to offer some sort of amnesty to illegal aliens—even if in the abstract these were consensus and logical positions. The forgotten man instead more likely gravitated to someone who insisted the entire system was rigged and was culpable for voters in southern Michigan or western Pennsylvania being out of work—while other elites on the coast were not.
Populism is often a state of mind as much as political messaging. It can hinge on symbols as much as doctrines. When a woman is out of work or stuck in a low-wage job, she does not much care for the niceties of speech or dress—all the more so if she lives in the country, towns, or rural cities under 50,000. Trump’s outlandish mile-long tie, his brawling personal invective, his neurotic ad hominem tweeting, his red baseball hat, his dyed comb-over, his orange skin, his past strange friendships with the televised wrestling crowd and outlaws like the former boxer Mike Tyson, and his Queens accent—all proof of his buffoonery to the elite—came across as visible force-multiplying nullifiers of his privilege, and, oddly, bridges of authenticity to the middle classes.
In contrast, his opponents logically assumed that the tradition-bound middle classes of fly-over country wanted to project their best images to the coastal centers of power—in the fashion of a sober, judicious, well-dressed, well-spoken, and well-mannered Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. But the more Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz attacked Trump for his assorted vulgarities, the more Trump became an outsider and a sympathetic victim of those who had become out of touch with their own constituents. Left unsaid was that the Right often derides the wonkish Pajama Boy Left as a motley group of elite, nasal-voiced youngsters whose worldly experience consists mostly of leaving the Ivy League to settle in to network with politicians from Dupont Circle. But Republicans as well have often showcased young, smug ideologues who talked grandly of orthodox free-market economics in a fashion that reminded the working classes that such megaphones would be helpless outside the East Coast.
Rural and small-town America value politeness and manners, but candor and authenticity even more so—and to such a degree they will overlook crudity if accompanied by authenticity. Trump showed the cunning of an animal zeroing in on sacred cows in crude fashion and in a way unthinkable to his politer and more mannered rivals who were long invested in the traditional political system in which gaffes are defined by disastrous expressions of truth.
But more importantly, Trump’s targets also shared one attribute that had often escaped notice: all of Trump’s targets, from Marco Rubio to Ted Cruz to Hillary Clinton, had attacked Trump first and as celebrities and permanent politicians they had grown a bit too full of themselves. When a coiled Trump bit back, his supporters saw it as overdue comeuppance, not gratuitous vulgarity, and a metaphor for their anger against those who often provocatively ridiculed the -isms and -ologies of supposedly backward America.
Strategically Trump always seemed to demand three times as much as he was likely to settle for eventually.
So Middle America saw a pattern to Trump’s madness: he rarely preempted a twitter war but simply counterpunched and hit back twice as hard. He feigned bluster and recklessness to jar his media and political opponents into thinking he could say anything to anyone at any time anywhere, and thus earned a wide deterrent path. And strategically Trump always seemed to demand three times as much as he was likely willing to settle for eventually. The 2016 proverb proved correct: Trump supporters really did take him seriously but not literally, as the media and the political establishment discounted his seriousness on the literal basis of his astounding expressions.
Icons like John McCain and Megyn Kelly took on Trump first and were scandalized by his crude reprisals. Trump got attention by wild charges against the Chinese and Muslim refugees entering the country from war-torn zones—only later would he recalibrate his charges to target countries of origin rather than religious affinity. And it is likely that on immigration Trump believes that his threats to deport anyone residing illegally were necessary to obtain a secure and fortified border, to deport criminals and those able-bodied without work histories, and to ensure legal immigration was more meritocratic. People in business, who are not salaried, or who buy and sell, were far better able to understand the method to Trump’s negotiating madness than were professional journalists, academics, and bureaucrats whose incomes were far more secure.
Finally, how did the country grow so far apart, to the extent that half the population that resided in 85 percent of the nation’s geography was more or less politically unknown to major politicians, celebrities, academics, and the media—at least to the extent that the latter wrote off Trump’s persona and strategy as hopelessly naïve and doomed to fail politically?
The obvious answer is what Middle America consumed as media, politics, and culture was often delivered by a tiny coastal cadre who ventured overseas far more frequently than to Northern Ohio or southern Wisconsin, and rarely talked to anyone other than like kind. “The swamp” was also an incestuous “echo chamber”—a phrase cynically used by the would-be novelist and Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes (brother of the cbs News president David Rhodes) who boasted of deceiving his own kindred media. Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s “body woman,” is married to the former and now disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner. The former National Security Advisor Susan Rice was married to the former abc television producer Ian Cameron. The former Obama press secretary, and current Senior Vice President of Worldwide Corporate Affairs for Amazon, Jay Carney, married Claire Shipman, the senior national correspondent for abc’s Good Morning America. The most recent Obama press secretary, Josh Earnest, married Natalie Wyeth, a veteran of the Treasury Department. The Washington reporter John Dickerson is son of former Washington media fixture Nancy Dickerson; Anderson Cooper of cnn is the son of Gloria Vanderbilt. Presidential politics in turn had become almost dynastic. If the frontrunner Hillary Clinton had won the presidency in 2016, then just two families would have produced four out of the last five presidents—twenty-four of the last thirty-two years. The lists of such careerist beltway incest could be expanded endlessly.
Presidential politics had become almost dynastic.
In contrast, over the last two decades an odd genre of reality TV had emerged that portrayed Middle Americans as strange but fascinating aborigines in shows like Duck Dynasty, Ice Road Truckers, or Ax-Men—along with various takes on living in Alaska, mining, or catching fish. Inadvertently or not, the shows seemed to convey admiration for strange nineteenth-century folk, in which muscular strength is critical for survival—even as the dress, diction, and education of lumberjacks, fishermen, and truck drivers to urban audiences supposedly explained their poverty and ostensible pathologies.
It was striking how often our political leaders were not shy of caricaturing these supposedly reactionary Americans. Mark Dayton, the governor of Minnesota, lambasted any Minnesotans who had dared to doubt the wisdom of welcoming mostly unvetted refugees from Somalia: “If you are that intolerant, if you are that much of a racist or a bigot, then find another state. Find a state where the minority population is 1 percent or whatever.” Dayton then gave the game away with, “Our economy cannot expand based on white, B+, Minnesota-born citizens. We don’t have enough.”
Other politicians graded Middle America far more harshly than Dayton’s B+. Hillary Clinton all but wrote off a quarter of the electorate:
You know, to just be grossly generalistic [sic], you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—
you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people—now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks—they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
“Not America” was redolent of Obama’s various riffs on the supposedly backward and unenlightened American. When he lost the 2008 Pennsylvania primary, Obama had similarly scoffed about such strange people who could not appreciate his messianic genius, in his infamous “clingers” analysis:
Typically, when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them. . . . And it’s not surprising, then. They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
Obama on a September 2016 trip to Laos reiterated his earlier contempt for the clingers when he connected the dismal economy under his watch to a new conservative populism: “Typically, when people feel stressed, they turn on others who don’t look like them.”
The current coastal sensation and writer on racial issues Ta-Nehisi Coates was likewise not shy about his own contempt: “When people who are not black are interested in what I do, frankly, I’m always surprised. . . . I don’t know if it’s my low expectations for white people or what.”
Note that Hillary Clinton did not campaign once in Wisconsin. Barack Obama seems never to have gotten over his 2008 primary defeat in Pennsylvania. When Ta-Nehisi Coates disparages “white people” (and celebrates his “low expectations” of them) who read his work, he is referring to fellow sophisticated, upper-middle class urbanites who are accustomed to and apparently do not mind such stereotyping—not the far greater populations of the white working classes outside of Coates’s circle.
It is not surprising how egocentric elites assumed that their own values were shared by all of America.
Amid such stereotypes and generalizations, it is not surprising how egocentric elites assumed that their own values were shared by all of America. The “Pajama Boy” poster boy for the Affordable Care Act sipped hot chocolate in his pajamas as if most of America walked around with footsies and retro glasses. Why did the Obama administration think that portraying an adult as a prolonged and smug adolescent would win over America to Obamacare?
Did Barack Obama worry about the optics much when he welcomed the rapper Kendrick Lamar into the White House and declared a song from Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly album to be his favorite of the year? The album cover portrayed a prostrate dead white judge with his eyes X-ed out—the corpse a focus for celebration by African-American rappers portrayed toasting his demise on the White House lawn. Hip Washingtonians might have thought that cool; Middle Americans might have asked what would have been the reaction if the roles and races were reversed?
Why would corporate America and the coastal media assume that multimillionaire and largely failed San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick would not turn off National Football League audiences when he refused to stand for the playing of the National Anthem, and then offered America half-baked rants on their supposed racism and backwardness?
What we learned on Election Day is that progressive culture—identity politics, radical feminism, boutique environmentalism, metrosexual careerism—appeals to no more than half the country, even if it’s the more influential and wealthier half. When Middle America found itself targeted by globalization and was culturally caricatured for its supposed irredeemable and deplorable habits by the smug winners of internationalism, is it a surprise that it looked desperately for a politician who promised to put them back to work and to honor rather than deride their manner of living?
A renegade Manhattan billionaire understood the angst of Middle and often rural America far better than seasoned conservative professional politicians (many of them from fly-over states), the mainstream media, and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—and then, like all successful populists, he crafted messages to make them feel they could be as prosperous and respected as were their critics who dismissed them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 35 Number 8, on page 4
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