(CNN)President Donald Trump and his newest Democratic nemesis, freshman New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have very different ideas about the notion of “elites.”
He was ragging on them at a rally in Michigan this week, not long after she erupted, spectacularly, at the idea that climate change wasn’t urgent and therefore only a concern for elites.
Democratic Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, who is weighing a 2020 presidential bid, was also talking about elites recently when he tried to explain Trump voters to a public television audience in San Francisco.
It’s clearly a subjective term, “elite,” and in politics it’s almost never meant as a compliment, even though by definition it’s supposed to mean the best of something.
An elite athlete? It’s the best athlete.
The Elite Eight? They’re the best eight teams in the NCAA tournament.
But an elite in politics? It’s somebody who thinks they are better, at least in Trump’s telling.
Painting someone as elite has long been used, particularly in red states, to make a candidate seem like an outsider. They’re not one of us, they think they’re better. Think about Barack Obama being vilified for his love of arugula, Mitt Romney’s car elevator, or George H.W. Bush being mystified by the scanner at a grocery checkout. While every President since Ronald Reagan has gone to at least one Ivy League school and sometimes two, the victor is often the one who can communicate with the working class. More specifically, the white working class.
Being out of touch with this group of people is consistently portrayed in American politics as just about the worst possible thing you can be, not the best.
Trump, remarkably, has managed to avoid that problem. A man who winters at his own private social club in Florida and summers at his own private golf club in New Jersey sells populism, holding his audience as he argues that the people out there in the cities and on the coasts are full of it.
Trump is about more than a gold-plated version of elitism. Trump is telling people in the middle of the country that coastal elites are trying to take things away from them — specifically, good jobs, guns, freedom.
It’s a different but not entirely unrelated anti-elitist message from politicians like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (and Ocasio-Cortez), who stoke frustration that Wall Street is making the country more unequal. That inequality becomes more pronounced as you head further from the urban engines that fuel the US economy, which is why Warren was in Alabama last week, encouraging her supporters to expect more from the government.
Weirdly, though, the American political system actually gives these relatively poor rural states disproportionate power through the electoral college. Crowded into cities, isolated on the coasts, the elites have less political power per person than the anti-elites — at least at the ballot box.
Trump, of course, has given some elites tons of power — his Cabinet is full of wealthy and well-educated people and a number of former lobbyists have top positions in his administration — but he’s using the term to drive a wedge between regions of the country.
The President has long built anti-elitism into his act, bragging at rallies that he’s richer, smarter and more successful than “them” — and suggesting that his supporters are too, by association. He did it again on Thursday night in an extend riff in Michigan.
“I have a better education than them, I’m smarter than them, I went to the best schools, they didn’t,” he said. “Much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment. Much more beautiful everything. And I’m President and they’re not, right? And then they say the elite. The elite they’re, not elite, you’re the elite, we’re the elite. I get a kick I hear ‘so and so the elite.’ Then you see this guy like this little slipper. This is a. I’m not elite. This is elite. We’re the elite, you’re, smarter, you’re, sharper, you’re, more loyal, you’re, a hell of a lot tougher, a hell of a lot tougher.”
It was a less divisive message delivered by South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in an interview with public television in San Francisco. At 37, he’s got Harvard, Oxford, fluency in Norwegian and ability to play Gershwin on his resume, but he wants the role of messenger from middle America and essentially told those people on the coasts and in the cities to stop coming off as superior.
“The other thing I have noticed is there are some folks I encounter here who seem to have trouble believing things that Trump voters actually exist. So I feel like I am sometimes am emissary from the middle of the country, just pointing out that things look a little different in rural communities, industrial communities like mine. And that we really need to find ways to knit this picture back together into one America … I see a lot of well heeled people, sometimes on the coasts, kind of shaking their heads and asking … how can you vote against your self interests economically, don’t you know you are voting against your interests? And if you say that to somebody from that background where I come from, they simply can turn around and say, so are you. … it can come off as a little condescending.”
The idea that everyone on the coasts is an uber-educated elite or that pushing legislation to combat something like climate change is elitist angers Ocasio-Cortez, who has become the face of a new generation of Democrats. She confounds the idea of an elite because, as she likes to remind everyone, a year ago she was working in a “taco shop in Manhattan” and she’s got health insurance for the first time in her life as a member of Congress.
She went off on the entire idea of elitism at a House hearing this week.
“When we talk about the concern for the environment as an elitist concern, one year ago I was waitressing in a taco shop in downtown Manhattan. I just got health insurance for the first time a month ago. This is not an elitist issue. This is a quality of life issue. You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the South Bronx which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. Tell that to the families in Flint whose kids, their blood is ascending in lead levels, their brains are damaged for the rest of their lives. Call them elitist. You’re telling them that those kids are trying to get on a plane to Davos? People are dying!”
The division of the US into two camps of states, red and blue, where the red states are increasingly rural and less diverse and the blue states are increasingly urban and more diverse is the story of American politics over the past generation, particularly when you factor in the element of race.
CNN’s Ron Brownstein has repeatedly documented the splitting of the country into two very different Americas.
Trump won the 2016 election because Rust Belt states that Democrats viewed as their blue wall — Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin — responded to his anti-elitist, anti-immigration, anti-liberal message. Voters there felt left behind by an economy that is more focused on urban centers.
Trump’s base of support continues to be white working-class voters. If Democrats want to reclaim those states in 2020, they’ll have to consider Buttigieg’s words. If they want to keep the voters who are more afraid of climate change than they are of undocumented immigrants, they can’t forget Ocasio-Cortez’s.
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