America’s Elite Class

Daniel Drezner does not wince when talking about elitism in the United States. His inspiration was the David Brooks column on Italian sandwiches, about which Drezner writes:

Brooks argued that “The educated class has built an ever more intricate net to cradle us in and ease everyone else out. It’s not really the prices that ensure 80 percent of your co-shoppers at Whole Foods are, comfortingly, also college grads; it’s the cultural codes.”

I agree with my Post colleague Tim Carman that outside The Anecdote That Shall Not Be Named, the column was “an otherwise temperate take on the restrictions and social codes that keep the middle class in its place.” As a fully paid-up member of this class, there clearly are expected modes of behavior, and not knowing the unspoken rules of the game acts as a barrier to those trying to enter the meritocratic class. It can still be done, but it’s like learning an additional language.

Then Drezner worries that some of the Trump clan may actually stumble their way into the elite class by being able to order the right Italian sandwich meats:

Based on my own conversations, it would seem that most traditional D.C. wonks look at most of the Trump family and see a bunch of wealthy, not-very-bright boors who do déclassé things like eat their steaks well-done and with ketchup. Indeed, there is a whole conservative genre defending the Trumps for some of their gauche tendencies. Most of the Trumps gleefully ignore the cultural codes that Brooks describes, because they are rich enough to not care.

Then we get to Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, and the narrative switches.

The rest of the Trumps might scream bridge and tunnel, but Jared and Ivanka have undeniably mastered the cultural codes of the educated class. It is hard to read a profile of either of them without words like “polished” or “poised” appearing.

Take the opening sentences to Jill Filipovic’s Politico essay from May: “Ivanka Trump is the poised, polished face of a chaotic White House, a bright young mother who many suspect is a voice of reason and moderation among the Steve Bannon acolytes in the West Wing, whispering socially liberal values in her daddy’s ear.” Look at the Post’s Style Section profile of Ivanka from this month: “Ivanka Trump’s office: clean, white, quiet. A zone of punctual start times and promptly offered water bottles, and a conference table at which she conducts meetings. A short, winding walk away from her father’s Oval Office downstairs.” Or as T.A. Frank noted in Vanity Fair, “let’s agree that one of the finest qualities of Jared Kushner is his tailoring. The fit is so good. Even with bespoke work, that’s hard to achieve.”

Let me posit that in mastering the cultural codes of the educated class, Kushner and Ivanka somehow fooled even veteran D.C. observers into presuming that they might actually be qualified and competent as well. Which all evidence suggests is not true.

Drezner believes that expertise on policy is what qualifies someone to rule in America, not expertise in self-promotion, food, or fashion.

As someone who values education, I am hard pressed to knock learning. But my education also tells me that in the United States, you don’t need to be educated to hold public office. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln did not have college educations. Never mind going to the Kennedy School of Government. By the same token, George W. Bush went to Yale and see what good that did him when it came to America’s educated elite.

And don’t forget about those brain surgeons that the Kennedy and Johnson administrations leaned on to devise a policy for the Vietnam War. Sometimes education doesn’t make you a good administrator — just ask any egg-head professor to chair his or her department. See what snafus ensue.

The reality is that with all of Drezner’s brain power, and it is considerable, he could not be POTUS. Well, he could. But he’d have to run for office and somehow portray himself as an ordinary ‘merican because despite the number of college graduates in this fair republic we don’t very often elect Ph.D.’s as POTUS (this is why Senator Sasse where’s not Harvard but Nebraska swag). Last time we did we had Woodrow Wilson and what did he do — used all of his intellectual fire power to fight a war to make THE WORLD, not just the United States, but THE WORLD, safe for democracy (which by the way means that we fought the war not to have educated elites running things)?

Which leads to the real point of this post: the story that the press and scholars are missing is what a novel state of affairs it is to have a POTUS who has no experience with government. Why no feature stories on what it’s like to have to do so many things that you’ve never done before? Or what is it like to be trailed by Secret Service agents? Or what’s it like to live in the White House? Many Americans could possibly imagine being in Donald Trump’s shoes (though what it’s like to be a billionaire is beyond me). We would not have the first clue about running a government as massive as the federal one. And that could be an exciting set of stories. But what we seem to get is reporting about how Trump is subhuman and stupid. Imagine if Bill Gates were POTUS. Would he be prone to the same mistakes? But he’s not the kind of jerk that Trump is so the press goes Jerry Falwell, Sr.

I still wonder, though, whether any of the people criticizing Trump, even Drezner, claim to know what to do as POTUS? Do the journalists or professors of foreign policy have white papers on Iran and how to deploy the CIA or State Department? (And if education is a pre-requisite for governing in the U.S., what is our foreign policy supposed to be with poorly educated rulers of other countries? Doesn’t this way of thinking involve a kind of hierarchy that is supposed to be antithetical to social justice?)

The reality is that nothing in American government prepares you for what you might face in the White House along the lines of war and diplomacy, not to mention the vast scale of administering the federal agencies. Jim Kenney, the mayor of Philadelphia has a degree from Lasalle University? Does that mean he’s not fit to hold a higher office? The governor of Massachusetts, Charlie Baker, has a degree from Harvard and an MBA from Northeastern. But can he stand on that great hill of U.S. foreign policy?

What I was hoping would happen with the Trump presidency was a chance to see the federal government through the eyes of a real outsider. The Trump administration might be an occasion for a POTUS self-study. What is necessary for the executive branch of the federal government? What is so complicated as to create barriers to other citizens serving in public office short of getting the right set of degrees and making the right connections? But alas all we are getting is how Trump fails to reassure many Americans that Washington is the capital of the greatest nation on God’s green earth (well, at least a few steps up from Russia).

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16 thoughts on “America’s Elite Class

  1. There are multiple variables involved in the making of a President. The less governmental experience one has, the more that the Presidency is an on the job training experience.

    But another variable involved in the making of a President is the direction in which the President wants to take the nation. Trump’s ‘America First,’ which is really wealthy Americans first, that arrogantly ignores science and follows an Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged ethic will only hurt the nation. And since there is a great deal of interdependency between nations, will hurt the world.

    Trump did accomplish one thing in his campaign. He convinced people that voting for him was a vote against elitism. His cabinet picks and EOs say otherwise.

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  2. I can’t imagine you’d want a president who engaged deeply in all the areas the presidency touches. You’d wan’t someone who delegates and keeps the main thing the main thing. Pick a theme/issue maybe as many as three and call it a day. In the world of Big Data the search has likely changed but it used to be(in business) you wanted the ideal combination of street-wise and book-wise and you rarely found it, generally settling on one over the other depending on industry and particular need. My libertarian and Drucker impulse generally kicks in and tells me you start by just lobbing off half of it or at least cutting loose perennially losing departments/efforts. Take the pain upfront and focus on what you’re successful at.

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  3. Curt, Ayn Rand? Can you throw in a few more codes?

    If Trump only wants to help the wealthy Americans, why are Meryl Streep and Stephen Colbert complaining?

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  4. “Trump’s ‘America First,’ which is really wealthy Americans first, that arrogantly ignores science…”

    Seems sort of sweepingly arrogant. But we are all experts now, on government, science, and airline manners.

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  5. Ah, the proxies for expertise problem. Nobody rejects the real expert, but in our atomized existence recognizing the expert is tough if not impossible given our rejection of wisdom. Today’s elite, created by magical sorting schools, looks for education which is more likely to produce mediocre experts at giving momma what she wants. Others at various times and places have looked for money, blood, “character”, piety, aesthetics, the proxies are almost endless.

    The gentiles have always lorded it over each other. And we more or less get the ruling class we deserve. Which if we are willing to look in the mirror of the rule of the boomers (Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump) we should recognize how awful it as been, and how awful we are. And the millennials appear to be a pale copy of a bad original. A procession of one child after another. But repentance doesn’t come, so we are handed over to the ever more foolish. I think we would be better simply drawing lots.

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  6. D.G.,
    Because wealthy Americans are not the monolith Trump is aiming to help. Why do you deliberately ignore the obvious in an attempt to make your points?

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  7. Curt, okay. I’ll take your word on monoliths — as if social justice warriors don’t create tribes out of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. But okay.

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  8. D.G.,
    I believe threats and oppression are the biggest factor in creating tribalism. A tribe is simply a group. And belonging to a group per se is not a problem in many cases. Tribalism refers to a state where loyalty to the group clouds one’s judgment regarding one’s own faults and the possible contributions that can be made by those outside the group. And when you look at the history of divisions within the conservative Reformed churches, you will find your fill of tribes and, perhaps, tribalism.

    So working for a race, class, gender, and sexual orientation is, per se, not harmful. But stirring up tribalism while doing so is harmful.

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  9. Curt, “And when you look at the history of divisions within the conservative Reformed churches, you will find your fill of tribes and, perhaps, tribalism.”

    This after you just told us about all the tribes on the left.

    Why not consider that tribes are part of human existence? Accept it. Live on planet earth. Root for the Phillies.

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  10. D.G.,
    There is certainly tribalism demonstrated by conservatives, liberals, and leftists. It is why we should always keep the parable of the two men praying in mind so that we don’t imitate the Pharisee. Yes, there are divisions on the left. But why are there such divisions among P&R types? The divisions came easy with such great anger. And if you point to the divisions in the rest world, then I would point to Romans 12 where Paul tells us not to conform to the world.

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  11. Curt, one reason for the divisions among P&R types: lefties like you are more loyal to an ideological tribe than to the church.

    Aren’t you glad you asked?

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