In praise of elites

The Trump administration’s dissing of opponents reminds me of comments made by Richard Nixon’s Vice-President, Spiro Agnew, who criticizing the opposition, condemned the “effete corps of impudent snobs.” Agnew, forced to resign due to evidence of bribery and corruption, did not write those words; speech-writer and latter-day Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan penned them, along with other dismissive phrases like “nattering nabobs of negativity.”

Nixon’s distain for “the elite” was legion, and like Trump, Nixon waged a long-standing war against the press, whom he believed conspired against him. Before becoming President and upon losing a race for Governor of California, he famously declared it a loss for the press, who, he said, “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Upon assuming the presidency years later, he created his notorious “enemies list” of opponents and journalists. Trump has upped the ante; he calls the press “the enemy of the American people” and orders his press secretary to bar the New York Times and other “opponents” from a press briefing,

Underlying these actions is a decidedly “anti elites” philosophy – condemnation of experts, intellectuals, investigative journalists, scientists, establishment politicians and others who have attained recognition and positions of leadership among their peers and within society. This condemnation implies that the wisdom and experience of “ordinary Americans” is superior to that of those who have devoted themselves to the rigor of scientific method, articulate communication, higher education, thoughtfulness and building a reputation through research and accomplishment. Thus, we are witnessing the elevation of billionaires, ideologues and know-nothings to positions of power, people who offer themselves up as the only legitimate representatives of the “true America.”

The world has seen this show before, most notably in Germany during the rise of Adolph Hitler. Hitler’s personal history inclined him to anti-elitism, and his prejudices against Jews and other “inferior races” fed his peculiar and poisonous policies. More significantly, however, he was able to surround himself with an equally peculiar, but efficient and pernicious group of advisors and appointees, such as Himmler, Hess, Eichmann, Goebbels, Goering and the rest of that twisted mob. It is only through them, and the complicity and enabling of German politicians, that Hitler’s Third Reich nearly destroyed the world.

It is now obvious, and Trump’s advisor Steve Bannon has all but confirmed, that the efforts of this administration are directed at, as Bannon recently put it, of the “the dismantling of the administrative state.” Translated, this means the elimination of policies, programs and people who constitute the workings of “the elite.” The EPA will be dismantled by Scott Pruitt; the Energy Department by Rick Perry; the Justice Department by Jeff Sessions; and the Department of Education by Betsy Devos. Along with Bannon and others, these represent Trump’s Himmlers, et al, ideologues and anti-intellectuals with an “anti-elites” agenda used to front their blatant lust for power.

Mastery of this agenda requires misdirection of the public through fear and uncertainty. Like a street-corner “three-card monte” expert dupes his victims through methods of distraction and misdirection, so the Gang of Trump generates daily headlines that effectively distract America from the more serious damage they are inflicting on American democracy.

Advances in science, medicine, physics, psychology and economics are the work of “the elite,” those who through study and education have gained knowledge and understanding. To banish the elite is to turn our backs upon those we need most for human society to survive. The challenges posed by population growth, global pandemics and climate change will not be properly addressed by power-hungry and greedy ideological know-nothings.

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