Ever since William F. Buckley declared that he'd rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phonebook than anyone on the Harvard University faculty, disdain for the "elite" has been a staple of right-wing politics. And while it has provided fuel to every Republican president since Richard Nixon, no one has wielded this disdain with as much force as President Trump.
But today, we find the shoe on the other foot. Trump and his Republican allies are prepared to die on a hill to protect Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, who is nothing if not a paradigmatic "coastal elite."
Indeed, it is Kavanaugh's progressive opponents who are blasting the lofty insularity of his background. Here is Lisa Miller making a characteristic case in The Cut:
You don't need a Yale degree to know that prestige is no predictor of ethical or humane behavior. No Ivy League diploma, no appointment at Harvard (where Kavanaugh has "taught constitutional law to hundreds of students," as he pointed out) — none of this inoculates a person against aggression, misogyny, or even criminality. Indeed, the opposite is true. Social science has proven again and again that elites are likelier to be cheaters and rule-breakers than non-elites, likelier to blow a stop sign at a busy corner and to lie in service of their own self-interest. [The Cut]
This is a timely reminder of how disdain for elites cuts every which way. It is mingled with envy, ambition, hypocrisy, and mutual convenience.
The poet-historian Peter Viereck, who was the first to anticipate a lot of our political-cultural food fights, noticed how right-wing populists and progressive populists both played the anti-elitist card. For a long time, anti-elitism in America was synonymous with being pro-German, Anglophobic, and suspicious of international finance. In his 1956 book The Unadjusted Man, Viereck noticed the striking similarities between seemingly polarizing political figures from Wisconsin — Gov. Robert La Follette Sr., his son Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., and the infamous man who defeated Junior in 1946, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. "La Follette denounced the New York internationalists as capitalistic, reactionary, and pro-British; McCarthy denounced them just as strongly but as Red, liberal, and pro-British," Viereck wrote. (Think Alger Hiss.)
Viereck also wrote contemporaneously of a now-forgotten episode involving Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan, whose nomination by Dwight Eisenhower was delayed for a then-unusual amount of time. A nutty populist anticommunist named George Racey Jordan testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 1955 that Harlan was unfit for the court in part because — seriously — he was a Rhodes Scholar.
Our country has been around long enough now that the tag "elite" no longer requires any connection to England; attending private prep schools and Ivy League universities will do the trick just fine. Kavanaugh gets a pass from Trumpist anti-elite disdain for obvious reasons: He's a white Catholic conservative Republican. He's a member of the tribe in good standing. Slightly less obvious, perhaps, is his professed love of beer, lifting weights, and sports — these are "one of the guys" qualities that can get help you pass through the right wing's anti-elite laser alarm system.
But being "one of the guys" can only take you so far. Outspoken liberals who come from humble backgrounds — say, LeBron James — will never endear themselves to Republicans. Anti-elitism on the right metastasized from its Anglophobic origin to include Buckley's snooty Harvard professors — the "academic elite." Today there is also the "media elite" and the "Hollywood elite." Or a catchall "liberal elite" that resides in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington.
On the left, there is the anti-corporate-elitism of Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It decries inequality and the runaway wealth of the top "one percent." There is also (check that passage written by Lisa Miller above) a criticism of elitism from the inside. It is social scientists who have studied the incorrigible, entitled behavior of our country's supposedly best and brightest.
If you're reading this piece, chances are you're on somebody's list.
Which is why it might be a good idea, every once in a while, to remember that it's best to judge people by the content of their character, rather than their attachment to a favored, or reviled, social class.