Hang on, Republicans: Who are the real "elites," anyway?

Republican millionaires with Ivy League degrees have somehow convinced people they're fighting against the "elites"

By Kirk Swearingen

Contributing Writer

Published September 23, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (R) and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are seen outside the Senate chamber on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas (R) and Josh Hawley, R-Mo., are seen outside the Senate chamber on Tuesday, May 3, 2022. (Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell recently posted some thoughts on the subject of high school sports, of all things. High schools do a good job at elevating elite athletes, he wrote, to the detriment of students of more average ability, or who lack parents who could afford to pay for soccer or baseball camps starting at age six. 

Gladwell, who is a lifelong, serious runner — and can run a mile at age 55 nearly as fast as I did when I was 15 and winning races on the track team — came up with a law he named after himself: In any sporting endeavor, elite achievement comes at the cost of mass participation.

We can easily expand Gladwell's Law to the whole of society. Don't many of us view life in America as a dispiriting continuation of the ruthless, often shallow competitions of high school? And our thinking about how we relate to so-called elites can be complicated by our culturally driven feelings of envy and shame. 

At least arguably, America's national sport is not played with a ball. It's electoral politics, which has always had elements of ruthless competition but used to be a lot more "sporting" than it is now. At its best, politics is about knowledge, hard work, compromise, mutual respect and some acknowledgment of shared goals, even alongside vigorous disagreement. None of those qualities are evident in the churlish zero-sum game that the Republican Party, with its backs against the demographic wall, has played in recent years. 

This sea-change goes back at least as far as 1994, when Newt Gingrich invited Rush Limbaugh to train the incoming Republican House majority on how best to despise your political opponents and push disinformation and conspiracy theories. It was either un-American or, sadly, quintessentially American at the time, and has since metastasized into the right's embrace of false narratives, ever-wilder conspiracy theories, and authoritarianism — which is epitomized by a certain orange-hued former president, but certainly not limited to him.

We see prissy, stuck-up, wholly self-interested Ivy Leaguers like Ted Cruz (Princeton; Harvard Law), Josh Hawley (Stanford; Yale Law), Ron DeSantis (Yale; Harvard Law) and much of Trump's inner circle playing good ol' boys, affecting down-home dialects, and decrying the "elites" on the left who supposedly dominate American business, politics and culture. This would be merely laughable if they weren't also insisting that religious liberty means that everyone must live by the retrograde religious dogma they pretend to believe.

The Trumpist cult and other far-right political organizations around the globe continue to profitably press their pseudo-populist game plan of going after elites (often the "educated elites") to inflame and enrage the mind of the common citizen. 

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If we know something about the role of actual elites throughout history, we know that they have understood the power of anger and contempt in motivating the masses; while a helping hand may be quickly forgotten (or even resented), an insult, real or imagined, locks itself in memory.

When the phony Wharton grad who reluctantly departed from the White House in January 2021 said he loved the "poorly educated," they were happy not to take that as an obvious insult. How, exactly, did he intend it? Both as contempt and affection. Any con man keeps a special place in his black-hole heart for people who cannot, or will not, see how he is hoodwinking them. None of us finds it easy to deal with the cognitive dissonance of realizing we may be wrong.

The "elites" that actual Republican elites despise are, of course, the people who might expose their grift, their disinformation, their flouting of the rules, their contempt for the rule of law.

While Republican politicians have for decades praised and catered to the needs of oligarchs (as well as the merely wealthy who merely dream of being oligarchs), creating the greatest income disparity since the Roaring '20s, they have simultaneously encouraged working- and middle-class Americans to resent people who went to college and quite likely graduate school and have become specialists in various fields: historians, scientists, journalists, civil servants, elementary school teachers. Somehow, in this demented narrative, those professions are part of an administrative system that thwarts ordinary people's quest for freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (And some of them asked you and your kids to wear a mask during a global health crisis.)

The "elites" despised by the actual Republican elites like Cruz, Hawley and DeSantis are, of course, the people able to expose their grifting, their disinformation campaigns, their flouting of the rules, their contempt for the rule of law (at least as it applies to them) and their determination to retain power at any cost. They and their compatriots in propaganda TV and social media are bringing authoritarianism to America under a marketing label borrowed from Hungary: "illiberal democracy."

Today's Christian fascists don't ask what Jesus would do; they ask what Viktor Orbán would do. Anti-immigrant "Christians" get a kick out of seeing red-state governors troll the libs by using real human beings as pawns in a deliberately cruel media spectacle.

As these beliefs begin to spread in cult-like fashion, then teachers, judges, health experts, academics and even members of law enforcement — whom Republicans have always claimed to venerate — become objects of derision, even death threats.

In this classic divide-and-conquer move, the right has worked hard to get Americans to believe the worst possible things about elites, those conspiratorial, secular liberals who read books, believe that science and history should be based in research rather than political agendas and maintain a naive faith in democracy and the rule of law. 

Such has been the power of this slow brainwashing that the right has gleefully separated brothers from sisters, children from parents, and friends from friends. The MSNBC–New York Times side regrets the loss of political comity; the Fox–Wall Street Journal side cries for insurrection or civil war, or just shrugs at such threats.

All of this (or at least a lot of it) has been in service of a phony, shameless, sexually predatory, pathologically insecure, malignant narcissist who somehow (surprising even himself) was elected president, impeached twice and refused to concede defeat after losing by more than 7 million votes, inciting a violent, if amateurish, insurrection. 

Meanwhile, there really are elites in America — you know, the people who went to school with Hawley and Cruz and DeSantis and can afford multiple residences, exotic vacations, well-tended stock portfolios and Washington lobbyists. Those elites are still pushing discredited Reagan-era "trickle-down" economics, working to destroy the last threadbare remnants of the social safety net and gleefully eroding democracy — all while laughing at how easy it was to convince the "people" to look somewhere else.

By Kirk Swearingen

Kirk Swearingen is a poet and independent journalist. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism, and his work has appeared in Delmar, MARGIE, Bloom, the American Journal of Poetry, Riverfront Times, Medium and Salon.

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Commentary Democracy Elites Josh Hawley Republicans Ron Desantis Ted Cruz