There are more than a few terms that probably deserve to be retired, because their sense has been stretched to accommodate so many disparate uses that they are effectively meaningless. Such terms include: postmodern, modern, liberal, conservative, socialist, capitalist, ironic, authentic, and jazz. One can use them meaningfully, but only if one is immediately prepared to qualify and explicate them. In specialized circumstances where one has time for patient clarification this will work, but often enough it is not worth the effort. So, do not use the term “jazz” if you are holding forth on the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Frank Zappa. Not worth confronting the heated objection of be-bop purists poised for attack in the shadows.
I think that “populist”, “elitist”, and “expert” have joined this august company of words. You can explain what you mean when you use them but be prepared for an argument. Your conversation partner might think otherwise.
I am prompted to note this linguistic shift by the weird characterization, by President Trump, of his enemies as, simultaneously, an “elite” and a “mob.” I would chastise him for self-contradiction, except that he thinks using Freud’s primary process alone, which does not recognize the logical principle of non-contradiction. Coherence is not what he is aiming at anyway: rather, he wants to be rhetorically persuasive to his base, who are primed to expect flattery, and to return it to Trump tenfold. It is always a boost to one’s self confidence to hear that “those people” are an unruly, uncivilized mob, just as it is gratifying to be told you are the victim of snobbish elites and “experts” who are blowing it out their butts. The accuracy of such insults is not the point: it’s their overall effect.
Right-wing discourse about “elites” is long-standing, but I think intentionally vague in the case of Trumpists: who are the elitist objects of their rancor? It is certainly not the economically powerful — the Kochs, the Mercers, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. The libertarian side of Trump’s libertarian-authoritarian populism extols them as capitalist heroes and economic wonders. They, are thought to be “like us Trumpists”: men (and they usually are men) of the people, and objects of aspiration — “some day I, too, could become rich and powerful like them.” The elitist objects of their hatred are either established geographically — Northeasterners, Californians — or educationally. Their elitist archetype is the college professor, the journalist, the artist, rather than the tycoon.
This is, in part, a sign of the anti-intellectual snobbery that Richard Hofstadter identified and criticized in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life — and as I have often remarked, the problem with reverse snobbery is that it is still snobbery. But it is also a phenomenon that was obliquely addressed by C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite. For Hofstadter, anti-Intellectualism had shallow roots in “the democratization of knowledge” in the early republic, and deeper roots in American Protestantism, which displaced theological rigor with spiritual enthusiasm. Hofstadter argued that since the age of Jackson, intellectualism has rightly or wrongly been identified with an antidemocratic elitism. Mills, however understood the “Power Elites” — the elites that mattered in post-WWII America — to be centered in business, government, and the military, concerned with “getting things done” and supplying technical solutions to technical problems, rather than challenging the value of the status quo. Intellectuals in thrall to the “power elite” — Kennedy’s “best and brightest” — understood their stake in things as supplying their brainpower to the taken-for-granted institutions of the country. They only built the bombs: they did not drop them.
This critique of “intellectuals” as minions of arbitrary power also has a long pedigree. Besides Mills, it was critiqued by many others, of whom Max Weber is perhaps the most prominent. Weber’s understanding of modernity-as-rationalization distinguished between Zweckrationalität, or calculative, means-centered, rationality, and Wertrationalität, reasoning about ends, goals, values, and goods. With the dawn of industrial capitalism and the state that supported it, calculative rationality supplanted value rationality. The ends of capitalism and the modern state are taken as a given: social inquiry becomes “value-free”. Weber, alongside others like Mills, Adorno, and MacIntyre, thought “value-free” rationality was toxic, because it abstracted from the wider problem of the worth of the projects it is elicited to help along. It breeds the eclipse of reason, the iron cage of modernity, the sad Dialectic of Enlightenment. If you build the bombs, you are complicit in the crime when the power-holders decide to drop them.
Are technocrats, however, truly the “elites”? Mills gives implicit support to an answer of “no.” The elite are the ones they work for. Namely: the rich and the powerful. And this identifies the sheer incoherence at the heart of the Trumpist claim that the movement is “populist” and “anti-elitist.” The policies of the Trump administration and its allies in the Senate and the courts are skewed to the benefit of Mills’s “power elite”. Occasionally throwing a piece of raw nationalist and racist meat to the base, Trumpism remains a Power Elite wet dream, albeit one seasoned with a great deal of populist rhetorical spice. It’s “populist” appeal rests largely on the nationalism and racism, but also on a kind of aspirational elitism on the part of the Trumpist base. They vicariously revel in Trump’s arrogance, bullying, and contempt for liberal democratic norms. They would like to be him. And this is not something new. The social critic and public intellectual Barbara Ehrenreich somewhere once mused that if a typical middle-class aspirant in America was informed that everything was a game whose outcomes were fixed by a Power Elite, the response would be less one of wanting to change the system than wondering how one they could manage to get their kids into the elite. For those shut out of the middle class in Trump’s base, joining the Elite is an impossibility and they know it. But, at, least, they can dream on, and feel vindicated when Trump tears apart liberal democratic norms and rules.
In short, everybody is an elitist, in some way. Everybody has someone whose opinions they bank on, and whose position they admire. The real issue is: which Elite?
One of the things that has gone wrong, and which Weber’s analysis only hints at, is the confusion between expertise and authority, and the collapse of the latter with the hegemony of Zweckrationalität. An authority is one who has been trained in a practice, whether that practice be farming, welding, painting, medicine, or philosophy. They have acquired not just technical skill but a wider knowledge and deeper understanding than those outside the practice. They know about ends and worth, and not just efficiency and means. Their words carry weight, not just power. Their authority is defeasible — they can be mistaken, and when they are, both other authorities and non-authorities have the right, indeed the obligation, to contest them. But in virtue of their place in the practices internal to a trade, a university, a deliberative political body, and so on, they are always to be taken seriously. In contrast, a member of Mill’s Power Elite or Weber’s priesthood of means-rationality need not be “taken” at all, seriously or otherwise. One is supposed to just go about their business and let them do their thing in the background, presumably in service to the public good, actually in service to the system and those who profit from it.
If you are not part of Mills’s Power Elite — the large non-elite group that contains both middle and working classes and the poor — and, most importantly, if you are white and male, any attractiveness to Trump’s political and rhetorical strategies rests in making you feel part of a superior, “knowing” group that stands apart from the others — blacks, latinx, LGBTQs, “libtards”, and so on. They become the other, “the mob.” A “mob” of “elitists.”
Opposition to any mob — especially a black and poor mob — involves a kind of religion, a social organization with a creed, a code, and a cult. The creed is a mélange of authoritarianism and libertarianism. The code is fealty to the American Führerprinzip. And the cult is the uniquely American Cult of Wealth, the identification of human flourishing with material abundance. It is, by the way, a cult that unites both Conservative and Liberal-Centrist Americans, the latter often opining that the problem is not with being rich but only the way one uses one’s riches. This is nonsense. There is such a thing as being too wealthy, whether one hoards it like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg or distributes it philanthropically like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It distorts the economy and tilts the playing field, and it destroys the lives and character of those who are poor, but it also destroys the characters of the wealthy themselves. Their acquisitiveness eats away at their spirits until they disintegrate ; it is the rare rich person who avoids that dire fate and does not fall in with the decadent oligarchy. Most become pecuniary Gollums. Steve Jobs and Betty DeVos are not Frodo: they are Smeagol. Why would one want to spread that kind of acquisitive squalor to the citizenry at large? It would be a fate worse than death.
The “elitist mob” that I see in the streets is not a coven of “latté sipping” social climbing proto-toffs who prattle on about deconstructionism and Andy Warhol in their spare time. They are a collection of US citizens, whose members are drawn from the poor, working, and middle classes, who are white, black, and brown, who have Ph.D.s and are dropouts, who are male and female, straight and gay or lesbian or bi, cis and trans, and all variants in between. What unites them is that they have had enough of all the contempt heaped on those less fortunate, the contempt for democratic norms and culture, and for the willed oblivion of the history of the nation that fuels the entire Trumpist mindset. They have had enough for all the hatred heaped on “elites” who are actually authorities who actually know what they are talking about (Dr. Fauci comes to mind), and had enough of the self-defeating pseudo-populist celebration of the Power Elites, of who bask in “strength”, understood exclusively as wealth, racial superiority, toxic masculinity, nationalist oblivion, and raw power. If this is an elitist mob, it’s one that is devoted to a renewed ideal of citizenship that holds Power Elites, and their fans, to their self-professed values of Liberty, Equality, and Solidarity, and refuses to take solace in cults of wealth, power, and ignorance.
If this is an “elitist mob”, it’s an odd one. More power to it.