I’ve been reading some great commentary on how the establishment is utterly baffled by, and derisively hostile to, the rise of populist movements that appear to reject some of its core positions. Glenn Greenwald’s commentary on the topic is particularly excellent. There are a lot of narratives about who the establishment is and who is anti-establishment that need to be examined.
“The establishment” is a handy shortcut to generalize about the status quo, the political, economic, and social authorities established within it, and people who support all this. Elites are people who have significant influence on the establishment and benefit most from it. There are also people with less influence who nevertheless identify with and strongly defend the status quo and its elites because their life is so tied to it.
The fact that bad solutions are popular does not mean there is not a problem. The fact that so many people demand some kind of different situation does not simply mean that there are a lot of ignorant people, but it could show how many people are negatively impacted by the current situation.
The fact is, everyone is ignorant to some degree. Some are more ignorant than others, and some are more willfully ignorant. I would say that many people have been trained to be ignorant to some extent. It provides little value to the establishment for the average person to be a thoughtful citizen of the world. What kind of power would one have without ignorant masses to rule over? Many people in various social situations see the success of others depending less on how much they study, and more on who they know. Will getting good grades, analyzing global news, and writing insightful commentary be more likely to lead to a stable living than impressing the right people? What if the right people to know are impressed by displays of disdain for for eggheads and experts? How many people who go to college are actually more interested in learning than in credentials and contacts? Ignorance is rampant among elites. Many do not understand how life is for most people primarily because they do not want to know.
The narrative that people reject the status quo simply because they are ignorant low-class racists does a lot of service for the establishment. It implies that the status quo must be working pretty well, because only awful people are against it. It directs people away from asking how many people are poor, desperate, and looking for scapegoats because the status quo has utterly failed to deliver on lifelong promises or even to deliver basic stability. It also hides how racist the establishment itself can be.
The Trump campaign runs on outrageous statements about putting things back the way they used to be, barely concealed hostility toward minorities who step out of their prescribed places, and overt hostility toward anyone who opposes the campaign. Supporting Trump means being at least racist enough to not care how minorities have to suffer while “we get our country back.” Donald Trump is hardly outside the establishment. He was born into wealth and has had a life of turning his wealth into greater prestige that nets him more money. He has continually benefited from a system that he mainly criticizes for not being hard enough on outsiders. Trump was still in with the New York elite during and after the time he called for all-but lynching a group of black teenagers who were accused of raping a white woman based on flimsy evidence – men who were later proven not guilty by DNA testing.
The elites who pretend to be against elitism probably believe in what they do and believe that things will be better with them in charge. What they are really doing is managing potential revolt and directing its anger against relatively powerless groups of people they are willing to write off as sacrifices. Donald Trump has for decades been in the business of talking himself up so people will support his schemes, and him running for president seems no different. A lot of people who claim to know what they are doing have caused serious harm to numerous people. Donald “Trust Me” Trump in political office would be one of them, and the harm he would do would almost certainly be immense.
A complete disregard for expertise is not rational. People who spend their lives examining particular issues are at least worth hearing. When people reject modern medicine, deny climate change, or insist on clear historical falsehoods, they are usually not really being skeptical. They may be deciding what to believe based on how they feel about the people speaking. If they feel more in common with someone who argues a certain way, that will substitute for critical examination of arguments and evidence. Cultural affinity becomes a shortcut for thinking.
To really change the status quo, to really have a smarter and more secure world, is a worthwhile goal. It can only happen if people refuse to be willfully ignorant, make a serious effort to understand what other people experience, try to have some grasp of the complex nature of human relations, and embrace what truly does lead to progress – a commitment to liberty for all individuals and a commitment to continually examining the nature of social relations. Those for whom personal power is too entangled with their view of progress, and those who simply prefer power over others, can get out of the way.