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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More of Those (were the) Days

James Madison in “Federalist” 45:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce…The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

So how did we go from 2 to 15 seats in POTUS’ Cabinet?

The President’s Cabinet
Department of Agriculture
Established: 1862

Department of Commerce
Established: 1903

Department of Defense
Established:1947

Department of Education
Established: 1979

Department of Energy
Established: Aug. 1977

Department of Health and Human Services
Established: 1953

Department of Homeland Security
Established: 2003

Department of Housing and Urban Development
Established: 1965

Department of the Interior
Established: 1849

Department of Justice
Established: 1870

Department of Labor
Established: 1913

Department of State
Established: 1789

Department of Transportation
Established: 1966

Not Blogging?

Remember the old days of trying to have a conversation about race. Turns out blogging is not where Americans are turning:

About 1 in 4 of those surveyed say the office of the president has the best chance of fostering healthy public conversations (23%), while about 1 in 10 say pastors of local churches (11%) or university professors (10%). Members of the media (8%) faired slightly better than business leaders (7%) or members of Congress (6%). Few Americans look to professional athletes (1%) or musicians (less than 1%) to lead healthy conversations about the nation’s challenges.

The most common response: “None of these” (33%).

Among other findings:

Southerners are more likely to look to the president (25%) than those in the Midwest (18%).

Those in the Northeast choose the media (11%) more than those in the South (5%).

Younger Americans—those 18 to 34—look to the media (12%) more than those 65 and older (3%).

African-Americans are the most likely ethnic group to choose local pastors (21%) and the president (37%).

Hispanic Americans are the least likely ethnic group to choose the media (3%).

Christians are more likely to look to pastors (16%) than those from other faiths (1%) or those with no religious preference (2%).

Christians (7%) are less likely to look to professors than those from other faiths (18%) or those with no religious preference (15%).

Americans with evangelical beliefs have faith in pastors (36%) but little faith in the media (3%) or professors (3%) to guide such conversations.

A couple observations.

Notice bond between Southerners and African-Americans (are they they same?) — they trust the president more than other groups. Makes sense for blacks but what the heck did white southerners not learn from that excitement back in the 1860s?

Notice also Christians’ regard for professors. Maybe this explains the lack of Christian intellectuals. The more intellectual, the less trustworthy among the faithful.

Selah.

It’s Only POTUS

Michael Brendan Dougherty echoes the point that presidential elections are destroying America (and so we should let Congress pick POTUS):

The length of our presidential campaign atrophies self-governance. Instead of citizens governing themselves, Americans increasingly define their political lives by their membership in one tribe, and their support for its candidates. Instead of electing a leader, we pledge fealty as followers.

The bulk of our attention flows to the presidential race. And because there is so much attention there, the process attracts candidates who are merely seeking attention for themselves and not high office. In fact, that may be why the primaries feel more and more like reality television, and produced a reality TV president. Each debate is a new episode, and the political press waits for the latest news about which contestant is eliminated.

Because our mode of engaging with politics feels tribal, and because the process takes two years, many people experience it as a crushing psychological and social blow to be on the losing side. Citizens who identify with the losing presidential candidate feel like they are no longer a part of their country. They experience the transfer of the executive branch from one party to the other as a regime change that threatens them. Remember the red and blue maps of Jesusland and America that appeared during the Bush administration? Back then there was heady talk of Vermont seceding from the union to become a bastion of tolerance. Fast forward a few years, and conservatives were the ones spreading stories about Texas’ secession. This is not healthy. But it’s going to continue if we don’t begin to tame the presidential election itself.

The presidential election increases our sense that all issues are national issues. Even people who say they are addicted to politics often have no idea what is happening in their state or county government.

Dougherty adds a point that Aaron Sorkin, the creator of Jed Bartlet, the POTUS on West Wing, should take to heart:

One cause for the gigantism of our presidential election is the gigantism of the executive branch. The federal government employs more than 2 million people in the process of governing us.

Too bad that Sorkin doesn’t seem to recognize the monster that he fed (even if he did not create). His letter to his wife and daughters was typically hysterical (thanks to one of our southern correspondents):

White nationalists. Sexists, racists and buffoons. Angry young white men who think rap music and Cinco de Mayo are a threat to their way of life (or are the reason for their way of life) have been given cause to celebrate. Men who have no right to call themselves that and who think that women who aspire to more than looking hot are shrill, ugly, and otherwise worthy of our scorn rather than our admiration struck a blow for misogynistic s‑‑‑heads everywhere.

But if POTUS were little more than a glorified dog catcher, would the stakes be so high?

I’ll See Your 2 Popes and Raise You 5 Presidents

That would be, after the next inauguration, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all improving the world during the reign of Hilary or Donald. I wonder if Michael Sean Winters had President Obama in mind when he wrote:

All politicians should write their memoirs. After that, they should retire from the public stage beyond the occasional speech and whatever work the management of a presidential library entails. It is unhealthy for a democracy if new slots on the stage are not opened with regularity. Stroking the egos of former presidents is redundant. And, creating these personalized, secular and necessarily politicized charities will, beyond doubt, harm the brand of charity over time.

When professional athletes retire, they have a long life ahead of them. But they have precedents. Color commentators. Coaches. Automobile dealerships. Not so with presidents. Where do you go after being the most powerful man in the free world? Even presiding over Harvard seems like slumming.

Winters thinks the Clintons’ problem is moral earnestness:

The real problem here is not so much the foundation itself as the tone deafness of the Clintons to the suspicions of their motives. I have noted before that there is something creepy about the ethics of the Clintons, something commonly found among the do-gooders of the world. It goes like this: I am a good person, and X is not a good thing to do, yet I did it, therefore X must not be such a bad thing after all. It is true that they no doubt mix up their prideful motives with their altruistic ones. Find me the politician who doesn’t? But they take it to a level that is noxious.

I think it has more to do with their former lack of wealth. Hilary had to find a law job after Bill lost the Arkansas governor in 1980. They were supposedly in serious debt. How do you rub shoulders with the rich and famous (and Yale Law alums) if you aren’t rich? Well, you speculate in real estate, you take really really big speaking fees. Once out of the White House, you form a charity like the Gates. That shows you are philanthropic and rich. But it doesn’t play well with the hillbilly/hound dog in Bill, just as Huma’s break with Anthony Weiner doesn’t make Hilary look all that virtuous for standing by her man.

Did President Obama Throw Malcolm X Under the Bus?

Now that the missus and I are three seasons into West Wing, I understand that the nation’s presidents cannot say whatever is on their mind. They need to spin for so many different reasons. It’s almost like watching Tom Reagan in Millers’ Crossing.

Even so, President Obama seems to have once again provided a cliched account of Islam in the United States that “makes the rough places plain” so to speak:

Islam has always been part of America. Starting in colonial times, many of the slaves brought here from Africa were Muslim. And even in their bondage, some kept their faith alive. A few even won their freedom and became known to many Americans. And when enshrining the freedom of religion in our Constitution and our Bill of Rights, our Founders meant what they said when they said it applied to all religions.

Back then, Muslims were often called Mahometans. And Thomas Jefferson explained that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom he wrote was designed to protect all faiths — and I’m quoting Thomas Jefferson now — “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan.” (Applause.)

Jefferson and John Adams had their own copies of the Koran. Benjamin Franklin wrote that “even if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach to us, he would find a pulpit at his service.” (Applause.) So this is not a new thing.

Generations of Muslim Americans helped to build our nation. They were part of the flow of immigrants who became farmers and merchants. They built America’s first mosque, surprisingly enough, in North Dakota. (Laughter.) America’s oldest surviving mosque is in Iowa. The first Islamic center in New York City was built in the 1890s. Muslim Americans worked on Henry Ford’s assembly line, cranking out cars. A Muslim American designed the skyscrapers of Chicago.

In 1957, when dedicating the Islamic center in Washington, D.C., President Eisenhower said, “I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution … and in American hearts…this place of worship, is just as welcome…as any other religion.” (Applause.)

And perhaps the most pertinent fact, Muslim Americans enrich our lives today in every way. They’re our neighbors, the teachers who inspire our children, the doctors who trust us with our health — future doctors like Sabah. They’re scientists who win Nobel Prizes, young entrepreneurs who are creating new technologies that we use all the time. They’re the sports heroes we cheer for -— like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon. And by the way, when Team USA marches into the next Olympics, one of the Americans waving the red, white and blue — (applause) — will a fencing champion, wearing her hijab, Ibtihaj Muhammad, who is here today. Stand up. (Applause.) I told her to bring home the gold. (Laughter.) Not to put any pressure on you. (Laughter.)

Muslim Americans keep us safe. They’re our police and our firefighters. They’re in homeland security, in our intelligence community. They serve honorably in our armed forces — meaning they fight and bleed and die for our freedom. Some rest in Arlington National Cemetery. (Applause.)

So Muslim Americans are some of the most resilient and patriotic Americans you’ll ever meet.

In many ways I salute the president for trying to make Islam part of the American narrative but I worry that his story line is one that suits Rotary or the Chamber of Commerce better than a president who ran and won in part because he is African-American. For blacks in the 1950s and 1960s, people that the president’s in-laws would well know (and possibly were), Islam looked more like a way to dissent from the nation’s racism and segregation than it did an on-ramp to the American mainstream. The tension between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. was all about the dilemmas that integration posed for blacks who wanted a separate identity from the one King was cultivating:

“You don’t integrate with a sinking ship.” This was Malcolm X’s curt explanation of why he did not favor integration of blacks with whites in the United States. As the chief spokesman of the Nation of Islam, a Black Muslim organization led by Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X argued that America was too racist in its institutions and people to offer hope to blacks. The solution proposed by the Nation of Islam was a separate nation for blacks to develop themselves apart from what they considered to be a corrupt white nation destined for divine destruction.

In contrast with Malcolm X’s black separatism, Martin Luther King, Jr. offered what he considered “the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest” as a means of building an integrated community of blacks and whites in America. He rejected what he called “the hatred and despair of the black nationalist,” believing that the fate of black Americans was “tied up with America’s destiny.” Despite the enslavement and segregation of blacks throughout American history, King had faith that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God” could reform white America through the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement.

Of course, the experience of most Muslims in the U.S. — namely, immigrants from the Middle East — is distinct from that of descendants of American slaves (like Michelle Obama). But a reminder about Islam’s plausible appeal to black separatists seems necessary for doing justice to both the history of Islam and African-American life in the U.S.

Update: And what would President Obama say to Muhammad Ali, a Baptist turned Muslim, who said this about the U.S. military when refusing to serve in Vietnam?

But who is this white man, no older than me, appointed by another white man, all the way to the white man in the White House? Who is he to tell me to go to Asia, Africa, or anywhere else in the world to fight people who never threw a rock at me or America? Who is this descendant of slave masters to order a descendant of slaves to fight other people in their own country?