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Why We Shouldn’t Validate the Politics of Grievance
Feelings of alienation and anger might be based on real problems, but they rarely lead in a constructive direction.
DAVID BROOKS’S “Are we the baddies?” New York Times column asking readers to grapple with the conundrum of continuing massive support for Donald Trump by considering that maybe “we anti-Trumpers are not the eternal good guys” understandably caused quite a stir. Some prominent anti-Trump voices commended the piece as thoughtful and insightful introspection. Many others joined the bash-Brooks bandwagon—which some would take as proof that the column hit home.
Trying to see things from the vantage point of people with whom you strenuously disagree is a valuable exercise. But Brooks’s critique of the elites fails in several important ways. Mona Charen discusses some of these in The Bulwark today; I want to make a few additional points, and then take a step back and look at Brooks’s broader aim.
For one thing, the overarching narrative Brooks tried to build—that less-educated Americans, feeling “under economic, political, cultural and moral assault” from an increasingly insular meritocracy, have “rallied around Trump as their best warrior against the educated class”—comes apart when it tries to bind together different strands of class disadvantage. At times he seems to argue that Trump’s support comes from working-class people left behind by the new knowledge economy and by competition with immigrants, which doesn’t hurt elite incomes. But, as critics have pointed out, this doesn’t quite add up: actual data seem to show that while college education makes people far less likely to support Trump, income is positively correlated with Trump support. Here’s Christina Cauterucci in Slate:
In 2016, among white people without college degrees who supported Trump, almost 60 percent made more than the median American household income. That same year, 1 in 5 white Trump voters without a college degree reported a household income greater than $100,000.
In other words, from an economic perspective, most Trump voters aren’t exactly meritocracy’s victims. Here, one may also point out that although Trump has made some inroads in attracting nonwhite voters without college degrees, those groups still lean heavily Democratic. (Among Hispanics, 41 percent of non-college-educated voters in 2020 went to Trump.)
Brooks’s confessional critique of journalism’s takeover by the elite-college-educated also demands some caveating. The trends he identifies clearly exist, though the examples he gives hardly suffice to back up the sweeping claim: If 49 percent of New York Times and Wall Street Journal staffers come from just over two dozen elite universities, these data cover a very limited sample, and even they don’t show non-elites being “locked out” (in Brooks’s words). More generally, an analysis of such shifts in journalism or in other professions requires adjusting for population shifts. Yes, journalism has become a college graduate’s job. But this happened during a period when college attendance expanded dramatically. The percentage of Americans with a college diploma nearly quintupled from 1960 (7.7 percent) to 2020 (37.5 percent). In 1960, high school graduates were still an “elite”: only 41 percent of the adult American population had a high school diploma. By 2021, more than 53 percent of working-age adults, 25 to 64, were college graduates.
Brooks is on more solid ground when he argues that Trump voters are middle-class Americans feeling culturally and morally beleaguered by elite-driven social change. This is a major part of his thesis—which is why Zach Beauchamp’s Vox rebuttal discussing evidence that Trump support is propelled mainly by cultural rather than economic anxieties misses the mark: Brooks agrees. But this is where his indictment of the meritocratic elites gets frustratingly fuzzy by lumping together the general class of college-educated people with the left-wing progressives who have advanced radical notions about social justice.
Brooks’s discussion of Trump voters’ grievances relating to language elitism and cancelation is likewise partly right: I agree with him that “woke” jargon (like “problematic” and “Latinx”) is a blight, that progressive speech policing is creating a dangerously illiberal culture, and that the backlash against these trends is a part of the Trump phenomenon. But I think he errs in the assumption that these issues directly affect and hurt the kind of “less educated” voters who are the focus of the column, by forcing them to “walk on eggshells” because they can’t keep up with elite linguistic norms. In fact, incidents of cancelation over “problematic” language are overwhelmingly concentrated in academia, media, publishing, the arts, entertainment, and corporate management, which suggests that cancel culture is primarily an intra-elite war. When these issues filter down to the working-class voters Brooks describes, it is most commonly through their amplification in the right-of-center media in ways that can stoke anger and influence support for Trump.
THERE IS ONE ASPECT of Trumpism that Brooks diagnoses correctly: the fact that Trump’s political star rose on a wave of anti-establishment anger and alienation. As he puts it:
Trump understood that there was great demand for a leader who would stick his thumb in our eyes on a daily basis and reject the whole epistemic regime that we rode in on.
If distrustful populism is your basic worldview, the Trump indictments seem like just another skirmish in the class war between the professionals and the workers, another assault by a bunch of coastal lawyers who want to take down the man who most aggressively stands up to them. Of course, the indictments don’t cause Trump supporters to abandon him. They cause them to become more fiercely loyal.
The question is not whether this in-your-face populism exists or whether there are problems that explain it; it’s whether it’s a justifiable response to those problems. And here, I think, Brooks’s attempt to understand the mind of the Trump supporter goes too far. Near the conclusion of his column, he writes:
Are Trump supporters right that the indictments are just a political witch hunt? Of course not. As a card-carrying member of my class, I still basically trust the legal system and the neutral arbiters of justice.
Even as Brooks disavows the Trumpist framing of Donald Trump’s indictments, he also semi-validates it by stressing that his trust in the system is a function of membership in the same elites he’s just declared to be the bad guys. Brooks is, you might say, checking his privilege.
And that’s the great irony of such a plea to understand Trumpist aggrieved populism: It is, in many ways, a mirror image of the same “woke” progressivism against which Trumpism is in part a pushback, and which conservatives have decried. In both cases, the argument suggests that law is merely an instrument of the powerful, objectivity is impossible, and the “marginalized” cannot be expected to respect legal and social norms. It’s no wonder “respectability politics” is as much of a slur in MAGA world as it is among social justice activists. In both cases, the politics of grievance are based on some real grievances: meritocratic elitism, like racism or sexism, is real (though in all these instances the dynamics are far more complex and far less pervasive than is claimed). In both cases, the politics of grievance offer bad solutions.
The alternative to Brooks’s proposal is to understand the Trump cult without excusing it. Yes, the liberal elites should acknowledge their mistakes. But let’s not exempt others from blame: the far-right activists and media entrepreneurs who have exploited and cultivated popular grievances for both political and financial profit, flooding the zone with conspiracy theories, lies, out-of-context factoids, and funhouse-mirror distortions to the point of fatally undermining many Americans’ confidence in institutions. Trump himself, of course, is a major source of such disinformation and conspiracy-mongering. But other GOP presidential hopefuls have leapt on the bandwagon during the primaries: A New York Times article on Monday documents the ways in which they feed the same toxic paranoia.
Let’s not forget the right-wing elites cosplaying anti-elitism. And let’s not declare Trumpism the language of the unheard.