the national interest

Trump Calls His Supporters ‘Elite,’ Doesn’t Understand How Populism Works

President Trump. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

The newest complaint President Trump has taken to airing out in his post-campaign rallies is an unearned compliment given to his opponent. “They call them the elite,” he declares, in his new favorite riff. “Why are they elite? I have a much better apartment than they do. I’m smarter than they are. I’m richer than they are.”

It is obviously not Trump’s opponents who call themselves the elite, but Trump himself, or at least the author of his speeches. Trump’s most effective rhetorical setpieces during the campaign came when he read his scripted remarks castigating his opponents in precisely these terms:

Globalization has made the financial elite who donate to politicians very wealthy. But it has left millions of our workers with nothing but poverty and heartache.


I want you to imagine how much better our future can be if we declare independence from the elites who’ve led us to one financial and foreign policy disaster after another.


I was on the right side of that issue — with the people — while Hillary, as always, stood with the elites.

At some point, the ruse grew so tiresome to Trump that he began to imagine the words he was reading about his opponent had actually been composed by his opponent. And no wonder. Trump’s public persona has been geared toward manic puffery of his own success. A key element of his grift has involved selling people on the notion that they too can become rich if they buy Trump books or predatory “university” courses.

At his rally last night, Trump took the next step, and declared not only that he is richer than his enemies, but that so, too, are his supporters:

“We got more money, we got more brains, we got better houses, apartments, we got nicer boats … we’re the elite.”

This is not, of course, how populism works. It trades on either cultural or economic grievance. One’s enemies possess all the privilege, and we the people must take it back. Once you have declared that you already possess the privilege, the whole basis for it disintegrates. While Trump performed perfectly well among the rich, most of his supporters are not rich (because most Americans are not rich) and would have trouble recognizing themselves in his portrait of lavish apartments and boats.

Trump does not have a clever strategy behind this new rhetorical tic. He is simply not intelligent or sophisticated enough to understand that, in politics, unlike the business world he came from, “elite” is a term of abuse.

Trump Calls Supporters ‘Elite,’ Doesn’t Understand Populism