The Ugly Elitism of the American Right
No one hates ordinary people like the Republicans and their media enablers do.
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Fox News will likely never face any real consequences for the biggest scandal in the history of American media. But will Republican voters finally understand who really looks down on them?
First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.
Loathing and Indifference
It’s time to talk about elitism.
Last month, I wrote that the revelations about Fox News in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit showed that Fox personalities, for all their populist bloviation, are actually titanic elitists. This is not the elitism of those who think they are smarter or more capable than others—I’ll get to that in a moment—but a new and gruesome elitism of the American right, a kind of hatred and disgust on the part of right-wing media and political leaders for the people they claim to love and defend. Greed and cynicism and moral poverty can explain only so much of what we’ve learned about Fox; what the Dominion filings show is a staggering, dehumanizing version of elitism among people who have made a living by presenting themselves as the only truth-tellers who can be trusted by ordinary Americans.
I am, to say the least, no stranger to the charge of elitism. When I wrote a book in 2017 titled The Death of Expertise, a study of how people have become so narcissistic and so addled by cable and the internet that they believe themselves to be smarter than doctors and diplomats, I was regularly tagged as an “elitist.” And the truth is: I am an elitist, insofar as I believe that some people are better at things than others.
But even beyond talent and ability, I do in fact firmly believe that some opinions, political views, personal actions, and life choices are better than others. As I wrote in my book at the time:
Americans now believe that having equal rights in a political system also means that each person’s opinion about anything must be accepted as equal to anyone else’s. This is the credo of a fair number of people despite being obvious nonsense. It is a flat assertion of actual equality that is always illogical, sometimes funny, and often dangerous.
If that makes me an elitist, so be it.
In this, elitism is the opposite of populism, whose adherents believe that virtue and competence reside in the common wisdom of a nebulous coalition called “the people.” This pernicious and romantic myth is often a danger to liberal democracies and constitutional orders that are founded, first and foremost, on the inherent rights of individuals rather than whatever raw majorities think is right at any given time.
The American right, however, now uses elitist to mean “people who think they’re better than me because they live and work and play differently than I do.” They rage that people—myself included—look down upon them. And again, truth be told, I do look down on Trump voters, not because I am an elitist but because I am an American citizen and I believe that they, as my fellow citizens, have made political choices that have inflicted the greatest harm on our system of government since the Civil War. I refuse to treat their views as just part of the normal left-right axis of American politics.
(As an aside, note that the insecure whining about being “looked down upon” is wildly asymmetrical: Trump voters have no trouble looking down on their opponents as traitors, perverts, and, as Donald Trump himself once put it, “human scum.” But they react to criticism with a kind of deep hurt, as if others must accommodate their emotional well-being. Many of these same people gleefully adopted “Fuck your feelings” as a rallying cry but never expected that it was a slogan that worked both ways.)
In 2016, I believed that good people were making a mistake. In 2023, I cannot dismiss their choices as mere mistakes. Instead, I accept and respect the human agency that has led Trump supporters to their current choices. Indeed, I insist on recognizing that agency: I have never agreed with the people who dismiss Trump voters as robotic simpletons who were mesmerized by Russian memes. I believe that today’s Trump supporters are people who are making a conscious, knowing, and morally flawed choice to continue supporting a sociopath and a party chock-full of seditionists.
I have argued with some of these people. Sometimes, I have mocked them. Mostly, I have refused to engage them. But whatever my feelings are about the abominable choices of Trump supporters, here is the one thing I have never done that Fox’s hosts did for years: I have never patronized any of the people I disagree with.
Unlike people such as Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity or Laura Ingraham, I have never told anyone—including you, readers of The Atlantic—anything I don’t believe. What we’re seeing at Fox, however, is lying on a grand scale, done with a snide loathing for the audience and a cool indifference to the damage being done to the nation. Fox, and the Republican Party it serves, for years has relentlessly patronized its audience, cooing to viewers about how right they are not to trust anyone else, banging the desk about the corruption of American institutions, and shouting into the camera about how the liars and betrayers must pay.
Fox’s stars did all of this while privately communicating with one another and rolling their eyes with contempt, admitting without a shred of shame that they were lying through their teeth. From Rupert Murdoch on down, top Fox personalities have admitted that they fed the rubes all of this red, rotting meat to keep them out of the way of the Fox limos headed to Long Island and Connecticut.
You can see this same kind of contemptuous elitism in Republicans such as Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Elise Stefanik. They couldn’t care less about the voters—those hoopleheads back home who have to be placated with idiotic speeches against trans people and “critical race theory.” These politicians were bred to be leaders, you see, and having to gouge some votes out of the hayseeds back home requires a bit of performance art now and then, a small price to pay so that the sons and daughters of Harvard and Yale, Princeton and Stanford, can live in the imperial capital and rule as is their due and their right.
Some years ago, I was at a meeting of one of the committees of the National Academy of Sciences. The conferees asked me how scientists—there were Nobel laureates in the room—could defend the cause of knowledge. Stand your ground, I told them. Never hesitate to tell people they’re wrong. One panel member shook his head: “Tom, people don’t like to be condescended to.” I said, “I agree, but what they hate even more is to be patronized.”
I believed it then, but we’re now testing that hypothesis on a national scale. I hope I wasn’t wrong.
- President Joe Biden proposed the third budget of his presidency to Congress.
- Russia used more than 80 missiles, including some of the most advanced aerial weapons in its arsenal, in a large-scale attack on Ukraine’s infrastructure.
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is being treated for a concussion after a fall.
- Up for Debate: America is in the midst of a socioeconomic shift, Conor Friedersdorf writes.
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We Programmed ChatGPT Into This Article
By Ian Bogost
ChatGPT, the internet-famous AI text generator, has taken on a new form. Once a website you could visit, it is now a service that you can integrate into software of all kinds, from spreadsheet programs to delivery apps to magazine websites such as this one. Snapchat added ChatGPT to its chat service (it suggested that users might type “Can you write me a haiku about my cheese-obsessed friend Lukas?”), and Instacart plans to add a recipe robot. Many more will follow.
They will be weirder than you might think. Instead of one big AI chat app that delivers knowledge or cheese poetry, the ChatGPT service (and others like it) will become an AI confetti bomb that sticks to everything. AI text in your grocery app. AI text in your workplace-compliance courseware. AI text in your HVAC how-to guide. AI text everywhere—even later in this article—thanks to an API.
More From The Atlantic
Read. Our Share of Night, a grand, eloquent, and startling new novel by the Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez.
Watch. We don’t quite live in the country Poker Face (streaming on Peacock) depicts. But, in an odd way, we should wish to, our critic writes.
If you’d like a more humorous defense of elitism—okay, an outright funny and entertaining one—check out Joel Stein’s 2019 book, In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. I’ll admit that I like it because I’m in it (Joel interviewed me, naturally, as a defender of elitism), but it’s also a sly exploration of the culture war that erupted after Trump redefined elite to mean anyone whom he doesn’t like, except for when he’s using the same word to refer to himself and anyone who likes him.
Stein talked with a lot of folks, including the Dilbert creator, Scott Adams, who had not yet lit the bonfire of his self-cancellation. (In Stein’s visit with him, however, you can see it coming.) Stein even gets a sit-down with—wait for it—Tucker Carlson. When Stein realizes that Carlson is slagging James Joyce’s classic Ulysses, he says, “It made me want to throw Tucker into the sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea.”
A writer who can make fun of Tucker Carlson while riffing on James Joyce is a writer you’ll want to read.
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.