Deep in a Politico report about President Trump’s attempt to build support for firing Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whom Trump loathes for recusing himself from the investigation of a campaign he was part of, is a striking artifact of Trumpism. The president’s swelling complaints against Sessions include the fact that he “doesn’t have the Ivy League pedigree the president prefers” and that Trump “can’t stand his Southern accent.”
Conservatives have spent decades depicting liberals as coastal snobs. Entire campaigns were built from this theme, from Michael Dukakis’s “Harvard Yard boutique” to various Democrats failing to display the requisite enthusiasm for Nascar. Every image of Barack Obama in the right-wing media cast him gazing downward imperiously, a pose that conservatives seemed to think captured his contempt for the good people of the heartland.
Given the attention they have lavished on such picayune details as John Kerry’s failure to order cheesesteak properly, it’s not even possible to imagine what they would do with direct evidence of a president disdaining his attorney general’s University of Alabama law degree and regional accent. Imagine one of those scenes from a ’90s action movie where the bad guys are wearing night-vision goggles in the dark, and then suddenly faced with blinding light.
But as is so often the case, the accusation that was made falsely against Democrats turns out to be true of Trump. For all his vaunted populism, he is filled with contempt for average people in general and his own supporters in particular.
Trump has touted the mindless loyalty of his base, and when he marveled that he would not lose any support if he shot somebody on Fifth Avenue, he was not complimenting the discernment of his supporters. He has tried to turn that into a positive — “I love the poorly educated!” — but the association with low socioeconomic strata has grated on him. Trump is the ultimate snob. He has no sense that working-class people may have equal latent talent that they have been denied the chance to develop. He considers wealthy and successful people a genetic aristocracy, frequently attributing his own success to good genes.
Attempting to explain his penchant for appointing plutocrats to his Cabinet, Trump has said, “I love all people, rich or poor, but in those particular positions I just don’t want a poor person. Does that make sense?” It makes sense if you assume a person’s wealth perfectly reflects their innate intelligence. Trump has repeatedly boasted about his Ivy League pedigree and that of his relatives, which he believes reflects well on his own genetic stock. He has fixated on the Ivy League pedigree of his Supreme Court appointments, even rejecting the credentials of the lower Ivys as too proletarian.
Trump has built a brand on attracting working-class strivers. But the relationship he cultivates is unidirectional admiration. Trump gives his supporters a lifestyle they can enjoy vicariously. He views them as suckers. The Trump University scam was premised directly on exploiting the misplaced trust of his fan base. The internal guidance for salespeople trying to drain the savings accounts of their targets explained, “Don’t ask people what they think about something you’ve said. Instead, always ask them how they feel about it. People buy emotionally and justify it logically.”
The declassé image of his fan base has rubbed off on Trump, to his evident frustration. He regularly proclaims that his supporters are the true elite, but his unconvincing attempts to make the case usually devolve into boasts that Trump himself is the elite. Here is a typical passage, from a rally in West Virginia:
We’re the smart ones, remember. I say it all the time. You hear the elite. They’re not elite, we’re elite. You’re smarter than they are, you have more money than they do, you have better jobs than they do, you’re the elite. So let them have the word elite. You’re the super elite. That’s what it is.
I always hate — I always hate when they say, well the elite decided not to go to something I’m doing, right, the elite. I said, “Well, I have a lot more money than they do. I have a much better education than they have. I’m smarter than they are. I have many much more beautiful homes than they do. I have a better apartment at the top of Fifth Avenue.” Why the hell are they the elite? Tell me.
Obviously, the most elemental feature of populist politics is to associate one’s opponents with “elite.” But Trump is unable to maintain the pose because he cannot stand the stink of the people upon him.