The New Yorker's Steve Coll has reiterated an electoral premise that has ricocheted among the punditry for more than a year, and is likely to ricochet into journalistic eternity. "Disillusionment with institutions," he observes, "enabled Donald Trump’s election."
Coll then elaborates, with a nearly unnoticeable variation. "Trump had a sound instinct as he took office that public disgust with élites, including those running the Republican Party, ran so deep that he — even as a New York billionaire — could get away with outrageous attacks on people or agencies previously believed to be off limits for a President." Are American elites the same as American institutions? — Congress, the courts, the Fourth Estate, law enforcement, the intelligence community and the like. No matter, we shall let that pass in obeisance to Coll's permissible implication: that institutionalism, though distinct from elitism, is most commonly guided by elites.
"After his Inauguration, for example, Trump did not hesitate to denigrate the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies for promoting their independent judgment that Russia had sought to aid his campaign," continues Coll. "And the President’s opportunistic assaults on less popular institutions — such as the news media and Congress — have riled his base."
And there we have it: The punditry-driven, popularly accepted thesis that, more than anything else, distasteful elites and displeasing elitism drove the simple masses to unleashed revenge — both got Trump elected, and the rest is all too familiar history.
Is the thesis correct? One could argue, contrarily, that misguided hysteria (Hillary's emails), the Electoral College, Democratic sloth, misogyny and Sanders-Stein imbecility enabled Donald Trump's election. Any one of them is a plausible explanation for Clinton's defeat, rather than Trump's victory.
But even more than any of those individually, I'd argue that elites and elitism themselves were far less of an electoral factor than the historical proclivity of many Americans to blindly and ignorantly rage — to put it in the vernacular — against their betters. That's what enabled Donald Trump's election. The difference between elites' (presumed) smugness and the rabble's resentment is perhaps a small, but nonetheless important, distinction.
And it has been noted extensively, as well as from different theoretical approaches. The eminent historian Richard Hofstadter, for instance, explored the long and sad history of anti-intellectualism in America, which essentially is anti-elitism. The social critic H.L. Mencken sarcastically but seriously proffered that "By 1828 in America [Jacksonianism] and by 1848 in Europe [continental revolutionaryism] the doctrine had arisen that all moral excellence, and with it all pure and unfettered sagacity, resided in the inferior four-fifths of mankind." By this Mencken meant, of course, democracy: "the theory that there is a mystical merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale — that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a sort of superiority."
Mencken would have rejoiced, in 2016, at the beastly sight of seeing his mordant critique so fully validated by all the inferior, bottom-of-the-scale morons who elevated Donald Trump to the White House, which wasn't radically different from their elevation of King Andrew. The ill-schooled, the crude and the crass, the authoritarian personalities and shameless shitkickers both times swamped the electoral process in indignation against all those who were smarter, better educated, refined and deeply invested in addressing America's real problems — not raging against others' unmistakable superiority.
In short, never was it the perceived transgressions of America's elites and institutions that Trump so ably exploited; it was rather, the fixed, the immovable, the eternal peevishness of America's least intellectually capable that Trump cultivated and capitalized on. And they're too stupid to know that now he is screwing them, and screwing them with impunity, because they are in fact too stupid to realize it.