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).

Advertisements

Republicans are Always Evil Everywhere

I still remember my days at Harvard Divinity School when most if not all of my friends mocked Ronald Reagan as a boob and a divorcee who had snowed God’s faithful within the Moral Majority. In fact, every nominee of the GOP since Goldwater (in my memory) has been of dubious character and intellect. That makes evangelical support for Republicans the height of hypocrisy, not to mention a threat to the Republic.

I went to church with some of my friends on a number of occasions, mostly to see what they were teaching their followers. While I disagreed with much of it, I couldn’t help but like the people I met there and admire their sense of community and devotion to something bigger than themselves. I took part in discussion groups with church members too, and again, while I thought much of it was intellectually indefensible, the intent was genuine and their desire to do good in their communities laudable.

I could not for the life of me understand how these good people could vote for someone like George Bush and Dick Cheney — oil funded war hawks who spent their political careers wrecking social programs for the poor and doing everything in their power to trash the environment. The contradiction between their personal humility and willingness to vocally support and vote for greedy millionaires with a penchant for violence in the Middle East was completely alien to me.

So why be shocked if those same evangelical Protestants vote for Trump? Because he is so much more wicked?

White evangelical Christians came out in droves to support Donald Trump — a man who exemplifies literally everything Jesus Christ stood for. Trump is a rich braggart who has made a name for himself flaunting his wealth. He openly denigrates women, has a lurid history of sexual assault, insults minorities and holds petty grudges against anyone who speaks out against him. In no rational universe can these two completely contradictory beliefs be reconciled. If you believe that the gospels accurately depict the life of Christ, then supporting a man who calls women “pigs” and “dogs” and has spoken about grabbing them “by the pussy”, you cannot be called a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.

Did this narrative of Republican depravity help either evangelicals or editors at the New York Times tell the difference between decent and vulgar GOP nominees? Not really, but one of the blessings of Trump is adding nuance to perceptions of the Republican Party (barely):

This uniquely American phenomenon of equating greed, misogyny and racism with moral righteousness appears to be getting more and more pronounced. In retrospect, George W. Bush was a shining example of moral virtue when compared with Donald Trump.

Hmm. What if the mainstream media had treated George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney — all persons who had served in public administration and were serious politicians (compared to Trump) — as real players in U.S. politics rather than benighted fools of questionable morals? Perhaps the electorate might have had the tools to discern the difference between Trump and John Kasich. Maybe some voters would not have sensed that they were damned no matter for which Republican they voted.

But from the perspective of the elite press rooms, spotting the difference among Republicans is as unusual as white Americans thinking Asian Americans look different.

I guess evangelicals are guilty of introducing self-righteousness into politics, but I blame the Puritans and all graduates of their universities, you know, the schools from which anyone worth a darn graduates (think Harvard and Yale).

What Must I Do to be Left Behind from Evangelicalism?

I have long complained that evangelicalism is one of those associations from which it is impossible to extricate yourself. Ron Wells, one of the editors of The Reformed Journal, used to joke that he would be glad to return his evangelical membership card but didn’t know where to send it. The bigger joke may have been the idea that evangelicals actually issued membership cards. It’s one thing to be on a mailing list. It’s another to belong to a duly constituted body.

John Fea proposes thirteen questions for determining whether you are an evangelical. I paste them below and offer my own answers:

1. Do you attend a church of over 2000 people? I suppose this refers to a congregation, in which case I say no. But I do go to a church — the OPC — that is small but not that small. The lesson may be that evangelicalism has a bias against connectionalism (read presbyterian polity).

2. Have you studied at, or do you work at, a college that identified itself as a “Christian college?” Yes, but only for a year. What happens if I transferred to a secular university? Does evangelicalism still claim me?

3. Have you seen the rapture movie A Thief in the Night? (I could have probably asked if they read the Left Behind series of novels by Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye). I have seen the movie. It was part of the cinematic fare of my home congregation’s youth group. But what if I now vote strongly against any proposal before session that calls for our OPC congregation to show the movie?

4. Have you been to any of the following Christian Bible conferences: Word of Life, Camp of the Woods, Harvey Cedars, America’s Keswick, Sandy Cove, or Rumney Bible Conference? (Remember, this is an east coast group) Not only have I been there, but for two summers I worked in the kitchen at Sandy Cove and sang tenor (one summer) and bass (another) with the Sandy Cove Choralaires (we even performed the Ralph Carmichael Christian teen folk musical, “Tell it Like it Is” at the affiliated youth camp, Hilltop Ranch. (I’m still in recovery.)

5. Did you vote for George Bush in 2000 or 2004? Yes, but I still don’t sense corporate guilt.

6. Have you been on a short-term mission trip? Does doing something Christian outside the United States count? How about teaching at a seminary in Brazil?

7. Have you attended a Billy Graham or other evangelistic crusade? Yes and yes. I am pretty sure my parents took me to the 1962 Philadelphia Crusade. And in 2002 we went to the San Diego Crusade under the false pretense that this would be the evangelist’s last. I still worry that I am on some terrorist organization’s list for having attended a Crusade (and for having rooted for the Wheaton College Crusaders before they became the Wheaton College Thunder.)

8. Have you read Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict? Hallelujah! No.

9. Have you read something by C.S. Lewis? Darn! Yes.

10. Do you listen to Christian radio? Yes. But let me explain. I generally have on the radio as background noise. For most of the week it is Sports Talk Radio (from Philadelphia). This drives the missus batty and keeps me near the dog house. In the car I listen to NPR. On Sundays I stream Family Radio in the background. It is all about nostalgia. My parents had on Family Radio during the whole week. It is one way I remember my parents and treat the Lord’s Day as a day set apart. You get occasionally a good hymn.

11. Do you have a Thomas Kinkade painting in your house? Hades, no.

12. Have you read Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life? Yes, but it was for a review in Modern Reformation (when it had an edge).

13. Do you read or subscribe to Christianity Today? Yes, but not for edification and I place my hands over my eyes.

Fea speculates:

I then told them that if they answered yes to more than half of these questions there is a good chance that they might be an evangelical.

It looks to me like I have at least 8 yes answers. That makes me an evangelical. It also tightens my jaws.

I wonder if John should change his questions to something like, “do you still do or recommend X, Y, or Z”? I wonder too if I’ll ever be delivered from being an evangelical? You write three books critical of born-again Protestantism and you find you’re still part of the tribe. Is this how Garry Wills feels about Roman Catholicism?