The greatest trick the president and elites who support him ever pulled was convincing a large swath of the American public that they aren’t members of the ruling class.
Donald Trump hosted a show on NBC, lived in a Manhattan tower named after himself, and spent a small fortune to influence politicians. He now lives in the White House, appoints Supreme Court justices, issues pardons, orders missile strikes, and launches trade wars. His travel destinations include Davos, his estate in Palm Beach, and golf courses he owns in foreign countries. Yet powerful allies of his persist with the false conceit that the ruling class does not include the most powerful person in the country, only his rivals and critics.
Among the allies who do this is Michael Anton. A Trump-aligned intellectual, he is best-known for pseudonymously publishing “The Flight 93 Election,” an essay that likened Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to the 9/11 terrorists who hijacked Flight 93, and a vote for Trump to storming the cockpit to stop them. The essay galvanized Republicans who needed an excuse to support Trump that was as extravagant as the billionaire’s cruelty, corruption, and vulgar bigotry. Later, Trump appointed Anton, by then unmasked, to a strategic communications post on the National Security Council.
Now Anton is back in the private sector, having learned, like Ann Coulter before him, that vilifying fellow Americans by casting them as enemies and likening them to history’s most loathsome figures attracts a large audience to arguments that most would ignore without such gimmicks. His new essay, “Vichycons and Mass Shootings,” rivals Antifa Twitter for 2019’s most frivolous Nazi analogy, likening conservatives who criticized Trump after the mass shooting in El Paso to French collaborationists who worked with Hitler.
Partisans of Republican presidents have a long history, always embarrassing in hindsight, of likening fellow conservatives who criticize the man in power to traitors. Still, one flaw in Anton’s essay is recognizably Trumpist.
Its opening paragraph names the target of its vitriol: “the ruling class and its Conservatism, Inc. auxiliary enforcement wing.” It goes on to complain about “these Vichycons—collaborators with the enemy ruling class.” Anton refers to them as “our overlords.” He characterizes their intent as follows: “to demonize their enemies, delegitimize any opposition, and tighten and extend their rule.” As discussed, using “the ruling class” and “overlords” as shorthand for Trump’s critics is Orwellian nonsense, especially given Trump’s underwater popularity. But this isn’t just about Trump.
The critique extends to people like Anton.
He attended UC Davis and got a graduate degree at the Claremont Colleges, where he studied Niccolò Machiavelli. He was a speechwriter for Rudy Giuliani, for Condoleezza Rice in the Bush administration, and for Rupert Murdoch. He later worked as a director at Citigroup, and then as a managing director for BlackRock. To recap: A ruling-class elite left his senior post for a still-sitting president and then labeled its critics as “the ruling class” while writing in open defense of Earth’s most powerful man?
Powerful positions in civic life will always exist. Some will always have more influence than others. What’s pernicious is when people and organizations in the ruling class whine as if they are marginalized outsiders while casting their political opponents as a malign cabal of bad-actor elites.
As Yuval Levin once observed, describing both the left and right ruling class:
The advantage the rebel enjoys is that he’s not constrained by obligations, but the disadvantage he normally suffers is that he has no real power. Many of today’s faux rebels, however, actually do have power, they just pretend they don’t to avoid being constrained by responsibility even as they deploy that power. This distorts their power, and corrupts the social space in which it should be exercised.
Those who adopt that posture often risk forgetting the responsibility to exhibit the virtues elites model in healthy societies––intellectual honesty, charity, restraint, constructiveness, and treating others as one wants to be treated. How does Anton want to be treated? He doesn’t want to be called names, for one. In 2017, when The Intercept published critical articles about him, he responded in an email to that publication that it later excerpted: “The fact is that my journey toward Trumpism was in many ways a journey (on my part) leftward, toward the center,” he wrote. “I have jettisoned a lot of conservative orthodoxy precisely because I think it was not working for the bottom half, or even the bottom two thirds. It’s ironic or odd or something that in moving to the left, I get called a fascist and such. It shows how screwed up our discourse is. People just want to smear and destroy me.”
How does Anton treat others who’ve moved away from the GOP and toward the center because they earnestly believe the party’s Trumpist incarnation is failing the country? He smears them by repeatedly likening them to fascist collaborators.
While Anton’s latest essay doesn’t name specific conservative targets, it does allude to one, National Review’s David French, who is criticized in a flagrantly dishonest passage that begins with a defense of Trump. “Of course, every decent and sane person agrees that rhetoric should always be careful not to inflame or incite violence. The question is what counts as incitement,” Anton writes, positing that “go shoot innocent people” would qualify. Such rhetoric could be out there, he says, “but I have never come across any, and I read a fair amount of pro-Trump, pro-Trumpist commentary.” He continues, “I did ... recently spot some very heated rhetoric—from a Vichycon. This person—often held out as a paragon of calm civility, the Left’s beaux ideal of a docile, housebroken ‘conservative’—tweeted that the proper response to the so-called ‘alt-right’ (the definition of which becomes more elastic with every passing day) is to ‘burn it down.’”
Said Anton, “It seems to me that ‘burn it down’ is a lot more ‘inciteful’ than anything Trump has ever said. It’s literally incitement to arson.”
Here’s what French actually said in response to the El Paso shooting:
I remember being told to chill out about the alt-right. It was just memes. It was just trolling. It was just trying to trigger the libs. Then it was a terror attack in Charlottesville. Then it was manifestos. Then it was massacres. Burn it down. This is a defining moment.
That’s what Anton characterizes as “literally incitement to arson.” (Did you hear the one about the hiker stuck out in the snow with nothing to fuel his dying campfire but the alt-right, the Green Party, anarcho-capitalism, socialism, paleo-conservatism, and classical liberalism? He froze to death.)
In another essay, Anton wrote that the Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who gives private foreign-policy advice to Trump, attacks the many vices of the ruling class every night. But Carlson’s target is not the ruling class writ large. He attacks the subset of the ruling class that does not belong to his preferred ideological faction, a faction that presently controls the White House. It would be more truthful to describe Carlson as someone who attacks the vices of a rival ruling-class faction (as well as plenty of powerless people like the Roma immigrants he once denigrated) while mostly giving Trumpists a pass.
Last week, a recent Yale graduate, Natalia Dashan, published a thoughtful essay on ruling-class denial as it manifests at her alma mater. It’s striking how many of her observations bear on American life more generally. “To reinforce their new form of structural power, people dismiss the idea that they even have the older, more legible forms of status,” she wrote. “They find any reverse-privilege points they can, and if they are cis-white-men, they pose as allies.”
Anton and other elites on the Trumpist right pose as allies of the white working class rather than historically marginalized minorities. And like some of their analogues on the elite left, they act like they don’t wield power to reinforce traditional hierarchies.
“If you were the ruler while everything was burning around you, and you didn’t know what to do, what would you do?” Dashan asked. “You would deny that you are in charge. And you would recuperate the growing discontented masses into your own power base, so things stay comfortable for you.”
This sort of denial plagues Trumpism as we approach 2020. The president has spent much of his term portraying himself as the helpless object of a “witch hunt” who is thwarted from “making America great again” by kneeling footballers, freshmen members of Congress, and a news media that he portrays as an “enemy of the people.”
When things go wrong the buck always stops somewhere else.
While Trumpists are not uniquely guilty of this vice, there is special urgency in exposing it since they hold the White House, its bully pulpit, and the nuclear football. Their abdication of responsibility is cowardly. And it falls on all of us to pick up the slack.
Levin explained how to his readers at National Review. When any of us see problems that need to be addressed, he said, “It would involve saying ‘us’ and ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ and ‘them’ … It would involve acting like insiders in those places where we have or could have some responsibility ... You’re thinking ‘people won’t do this.’ But I’m not talking about ‘people.’ I’m talking about you, and me. There are some corners of our society, some institutions, where you are or could be an insider. Are you acting like it? I think it’s fair to say we could all improve on that front.”