The same class of poised and polished experts who assured us that Donald Trump would never become the Republican nominee turned out to be equally ignorant about British politics as voters rejected their counsel, defied their wishes and opted to leave the European Union.
With Clintonian brazenness, these panjandrums never took a moment to ask, why were we so wrong? Instead, they trotted out their tired old playbook to demonize these recalcitrant upstarts.
Politicians and pundits pointed to that rigorous tool for divining human thought – popular Google searches – to argue that Leave regretted their uninformed ballots. They cheered as financial markets tumbled the day after the vote. They have, of course, ignored the sharp rebound since; just as those in North Carolina who loudly predicted financial collapse following the passage of HB2 are quiet now that the law’s economic impact seems negligible.
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Echoing American liberals who cannot fathom why rural and working class whites “vote against their interests,” global elites on both sides of the Atlantic couldn’t find any good reason why voters didn’t follow their instructions to Remain.
So they blamed the same dark impulses that have become their go-to explanation when the people don’t do as they’re told: ignorance, racism and xenophobia.
Like the Trump campaign, the Brexit vote involved a range of complex issues, including the belief that government and corporate elites primarily serve only their own interests. But to the experts, the overriding issue was immigration. The fact that Britain and America remain among the most welcoming nations in the world didn’t matter. For all their alleged insight, the experts failed to understand the difference between the desire to control borders and to close them.
It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to see their explanation as a defense mechanism that protects them from having to face the failures of their own policies.
At bottom, Brexit and Trump reveal the dangerous divide between the elites and those they claim to lead. It is not simply that they do not agree on things; they do not know and understand one another.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks admitted, “I was surprised by Trump’s success because I’ve slipped into a bad pattern, spending large chunks of my life in the bourgeois strata – in professional circles with people with similar status and demographics to my own.”
That hasn’t stopped Brooks from comparing Trump to Joe McCarthy or describing his supporters in an otherwise thoughtful piece as the “the masses.”
James Traub, a contributing editor at Foreign Policy, has been more direct, describing Trump voters as “a rabble.” The headline of his recent commentary, which casts modern politics as the “sane vs. the mindlessly angry,” captures the view of his brethren: “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.”
This is very dangerous territory for a democracy. It signals the dismissal of, and utter contempt for, about half the population by those with power and influence.
It explains why Trump’s opponents are so quick to label him a fascist and to compare him to a monster who exterminated 11 million people during World War II.
Using the same ugly tropes employed by racists during slavery and Jim Crow, they cast Trump’s supporters as ignorant animals driven by ugly emotions.
Echoing the same exclusionary language of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, they do not seek to engage and understand those with different perspectives. They seek, instead, to delegitimize them, to cut off debate through nasty labels: evil, extremist, racist, hate-monger.
You don’t compromise with people like that. They must be destroyed.
This intolerance has, in many ways, paved the way for Brexit and Trump. When people do not feel they have a place at the table, they turn it over.
The paradox is that, for all their failures, we need the elites. The world may be so complicated that even they cannot get a handle on it. But the idea that untrained and unschooled people would do a better job is folly.
But, as long as those in power refuse to listen to many of those whom they would lead, as long as they angrily dismiss and falsely condemn their legitimate concerns, the dangerous divide will deepen.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.