When we wake up on a certain morning, and we know that we just had a long, strange, complicated dream, and we want to remember it, we try to grab onto a few specific elements that somehow float up toward us. For me, looking back with very little hindsight at the swirling weirdness of four years under the leadership of Donald Trump, one of the odd elements that floats to the surface of my mind is a particular group of people who might seem to have very little to do with Trump. It was a group made up of men who wore dress shirts and sports jackets and women who wore neatly pressed suits with lively, colorful blouses. At least according to prevailing standards in the United States, they were all “well educated.” They’d attended universities, and some even took great pride in the institutions they’d attended and contributed money to them every year. Some of the group worked in law, academia, finance, television, or journalism and lived in New York City. Others, who worked in government or politics, lived in Washington, D.C. The extemporaneous sentences spoken by these women and men usually followed the rules of grammar to be found in standard grammar manuals, and their general demeanor tended to be quiet, reserved, and circumspect. The members of this group were skilled in the arts of self-restraint. Some, in fact, were virtuosos of self-restraint. Whether they were angry, hungry, hurt, or lustful, they knew how to conceal their feelings and control their behavior. They spoke and acted when they chose to speak and act, not at the urging of their first impulses. Their faces at one time had always been “white,” but recently certain Jews and even certain people of color, if they wore the right clothes and assumed the right accents, gestures, habits, and affect, had been allowed to join the group. There’d been a time when the influence of this group had been far, far greater, but it still could reasonably be called “the American Elite.”
You can usually tell after 20 or 30 seconds of conversation whether someone meets enough of the criteria to belong to this group. I belong to it, although I’ve tried to escape (I don’t even wear a jacket any more). And if you’re reading these sentences, you can probably tell if you’re a member of the group or not, or maybe you feel you’re a sort of “junior member,” or maybe you feel you’re a hard-to-decide case.
Most people who are members of this American elite grew up in families that had some money, but you can certainly be a member of the group without having a great deal of it, and there are definitely people who have quite a lot of money who would not be considered to belong. Many wealthy members of the elite voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020, and during his presidency, because he served the interests of the wealthy, he served the interests of the wealthy members of the elite, but as I’m defining it, and as most members of the group would define it, and as Donald Trump would define it, Donald Trump has never been a member of the elite.
It’s hardly surprising that a lot of people with money were fans of Donald Trump. What was and remains extremely surprising is that such a large number of people who had very little money and who were even quite desperate about money formed an attachment to Trump that was deeper, stronger, and more passionate than the attachment that any group of comparable size had formed toward any American leader since the end of World War II. Whether they were unassuming clerks selling greeting cards in stationary stores or angry unemployed factory workers, these “not well-educated” people loved Donald Trump.
Trump won the votes of the majority of Americans called “white.” Some were grimly determined white supremacists. Others worked perfectly happily alongside people of color every day and believed themselves to be free from prejudice. But Trump was quick to notice that when he spoke to crowds of his fans, if he made a few sneaky, unexpected, “transgressive” snide remarks about people of color—Black politicians or Black athletes or Black protesters, immigrants from Latin America, Muslims from Asia—or when he engaged in angry diatribes against them, he got a really good response from his audience. He shared with his followers, and encouraged in them, the alchemical ability to turn grievance into blame, and people of color were often the objects of that blame.
But I would suggest that right alongside their hostility to groups of nonwhite people, Trump and his followers also had in common a particular loathing for that jacket- and suit-wearing American elite. And of course, in a way it seems implausible and even fantastical to say that this rather decadent man, Donald Trump, who had never known economic hardship, who had indeed lived most of his life in an atmosphere of almost preposterously exaggerated luxury, had anything at all in common with the worried, anxious individuals who filled the stadiums to listen to him speak in city after city. The stadiums were filled with people whose fortunes were seriously declining, people who over the years and decades had consistently been losing things they’d once had, including their hopes for the future of their children. And yet, for their own reasons, these people had come to share with Trump a belief that well-educated people were covering up the brutal fact that the world was run for their benefit. It was easy for Trump’s followers to believe, for example, the story told by Trump that the 2020 election had been stolen, had been “rigged,” even though Trump never presented any coherent theory about how that could have been accomplished. It was easy for his followers to believe that the election had been rigged because, as far as they could see, the whole country was rigged, their own lives had been rigged.
And Trump was astoundingly inventive in thinking up trick after trick to play on the gullible elite, all for the pleasure of his loyal followers, who were always in on the joke. In fact, this conspiracy or tricks and pranks between Trump and his audience explains many of the seemingly “inexplicable” decisions that Donald Trump made during the course of his presidency, so that whenever one of the distinguished elite members of the mainstream press or the political class declared that this or that action or statement of the president was so disgusting that it was sure to mark the beginning of Donald Trump’s downfall, one always knew that it was a very good day for the Trump team. The elite commentators failed to realize, time after time, that the disgusting thing they denounced was in fact an arrow aimed very precisely not at its ostensible target but actually at them, and if they cried out in pain, that was, for Trump and those who loved him, like a wonderful cascade of coins falling into their laps from a slot machine.
To put it differently, the elite had wounded their dignity, had hurt their feelings. For Trump, it was purely personal. He knew these people. He’d gone to school with them. He’d gone to parties with them, night after night. And he loathed them because they looked down on him. They thought he was stupid. They thought he was crude. They thought he didn’t know how to speak. They thought he was dishonest, and he didn’t follow the rules. They thought he was undisciplined, loud, boastful, and overweight.
His not-well-educated followers probably didn’t know any members of the elite, had never met any members of the elite. They knew what they’d seen of them on their computer screens and their television screens. But strangely, just as there is an economic web that links together every person in a given country, from the poorest to the richest, there is also an invisible web of emotion that enables a struggling truck driver in Idaho to resent a Syrian immigrant in Michigan whom he’s never met and to feel shamed and diminished by a prosperous corporate executive in New York City whom he’s never met. And so millions of followers of Donald Trump could feel humiliated by the imagined contempt that they felt flowing down in their direction through this invisible web from the same well-educated people that Trump had sat with at dinner parties a thousand times.
Trump of course knew that the elite were wrong about him. He knew that rather than being stupid he was in fact quite clever, and even though he couldn’t speak gracefully, he knew that he could speak with the powerful musicality of a comedian and the vernacular eloquence of a preacher. And he knew that those who looked down on him were phonies, that what they said when they spoke was invariably no more than a carefully crafted, manipulative construction, whereas what he said came right from his gut. Trump’s followers, perhaps, had less self-confidence, which was one reason Trump’s egomania seemed attractive to them.
Of course there’d been a time, and it was really only a few decades ago, when the old elite was hardly resented or loathed by anyone, when the virtues they claimed to represent—the virtues of being cool-headed, sensible, and judicious—seemed to be accepted by the overwhelming majority of the nation’s citizens. In fact, during that more tranquil time, a person could not be president of the country—a person could not even read the headlines on the nightly news—if they seemed to lack those virtues. Night after night, the bland, genial newscasters would read the news in their agreeable baritone voices, and everyone in the country seemed to be sitting on their sofas and nodding their heads. But for those experiencing a spirit-crushing fear of the future, a panic about the obsolescence of their skills, the old sofa no longer provides the old feeling of comfort.
When people feel themselves sinking, when they feel themselves to be trapped, boxed in, and impotent, and they’re searching for a fantasy figure or surrogate with whom to identify, someone who will express their frustrations, they don’t turn to the virtuosos of self-restraint. When unhappy schoolchildren are trapped in a classroom with a teacher they can’t stand, they don’t delight in the behavior of the student who gets the highest marks, the one the teacher likes best, the Barack Obama of the class. They delight instead in the antics of the bad kid in the class, the one who dares to defy the teacher, the one who knows exactly how to drive the teacher crazy. They themselves may or may not have the necessary nerve—they may or may not have the necessary imagination—to figure out a way to escape from their misery, but they glory in the exploits of the kid who somehow knows how to disrupt the whole class. And that bad kid was Donald Trump.
Trump, as guru, tried to teach his disciples to center their lives around an utterly passive resentment. And certainly that life of resentment could be mildly satisfying for a while, but it didn’t solve his followers’ real problems. They would have been much happier if instead of wallowing in their anger they could have gone out and done something interesting. Indeed, the fact that tens of millions of Americans revered Donald Trump was an undeniable proof that something had gone seriously wrong for them, the opportunity to do something interesting had been denied to them, and they were depressed, they were not in a good frame of mind. Those of us who were in a better frame of mind should not have been congratulating ourselves on our superiority to those who were depressed. We were not superior, we were simply luckier. We were less depressed because we’d had better luck. The machinery of society had operated to our benefit, and we’d been able to do more interesting things. But a lot of us enjoyed feeling contempt for Trump’s followers, just as they enjoyed feeling contempt for us.
The amazing political paradox that the United States faces at the moment is that an enormous number of people of color, many of whom are objectively poorer and much worse off than most of Trump’s supporters, have joined up with the minority of whites who dislike Trump to form a slim majority of Americans who apparently believe in the current American political system, but at the same time there now exists a staggering number of white people in the country—should we make a guess based on current polls and say 50 million out of Trump’s 74 million voters?—who are shockingly alienated from the whole American game, utterly indifferent to the prevailing political setup, with its elections, its Constitution, and its three branches of government, and absolutely delighted to follow a “leader” who attractively performs the part of a rebel but who also may happen to be mentally ill.
Trump couldn’t have been further from attempting to alter the status quo, the ferocious economic inequality from which most of his followers suffered. In fact, his policies exacerbated that inequality. What he did alter was something less tangible. Operating at the precise moment when a staggering number of people were becoming addicted to receiving, through social media, information sent by giant organizations that nonetheless appeared in the form of apparently private, personal messages, Trump made this mass addiction even more volatile by helping to make superstition and irrationality much more acceptable. He helped to popularize an approach to life that over the centuries has always proved useful to people who are insane. This approach to life advises each of us to select some simple explanation for the miserable workings of the world from a small menu of explanations—and then to refuse, adamantly, to listen to anyone who threatens our explanation. In the European Middle Ages, people favored theories of reality that clustered around Satan, demons, and other figures drawn from religion. And in the modern era, Jews, Communists, foreigners, and Democrats are among the figures of choice. Because he was the president, and because he was a Republican, Trump made insanity almost respectable.
The truth is that I’m already forgetting Donald Trump. I’m already forgetting those weird four years, and I’m already forgetting all those people who were followers of Trump. I’m forgetting the people—let’s say the 50 million people—who loathe the “well educated.” I’m reading in my preferred news sources about President Biden, his policies, the new people in Congress, whatever.
I think that in the back of our minds, as we slowly forget about those 50 million people, a lot of us are thinking, vaguely, “But these unfortunate people have been bombarded by lies and falsehoods. They really ought to read The New York Times and absorb some accurate information. That would begin to solve the problem.” But that is not something that can ever really happen on planet Earth, for the very simple reason that the minute these particular not-well-educated people would look at The New York Times they would find themselves staring at articles about clothes that they could never afford to wear in their entire lives and food that they could never afford to eat in their entire lives, and they would see pictures of people dressed in those clothes and eating that food sitting with children dressed in those clothes and eating that food, and that’s the part of the paper that would totally transfix them. And that’s the part of the paper that I don’t want them ever to read, because I know very well that the more they know about me, the more they’ll hate me.
It’s economic inequality that has split us into groups that confront each other just short of war. It’s economic inequality that has split us into the well educated and the not well educated. Of course, we’d rather not ever think again about these people who don’t like us. Probably the new president and most of the people in the new administration would rather not think about them, either. We don’t mind thinking about those among Trump’s followers who’ve committed particularly extraordinary crimes. But we don’t want to think about those tens of millions of his followers who’ve committed no crimes. In response to our fear of the most desperately oppressed members of our society, those who aren’t “white,” we’ve come up with various clever techniques to deal with our terror—laws and prisons—and we’ve sought out individuals inclined to brutality and trained them to be brutal policemen. Maybe our reliance on brutality will diminish, or maybe not. But in response to the slightly less desperate tens of millions of white people who followed and loved Donald Trump, we’re entirely at a loss. And yet the unfortunate truth is that this is what we’re up against: Our common future, the future of everyone in the society, depends on which way these particular tens of millions of people will turn, what they become, what will happen with them. Like it or not, this is the group that will determine our fate.