“They call them the elite. These people. I look at them, I say, that’s elite?” the president said. “We’ve got more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. They say the elite. We are the elite. You are the elite.”
He added: “They’ve been stone-cold losers, the elite. Let’s keep calling them the elite … Let’s call ourselves the super elite.”
This was not the first time Trump has delivered a riff along these lines, but the specific wording—nicer boats? Better houses? More money?—makes it stick out as seeming to contradict the message that got him elected president. Jonathan Chait sees it as proof that Trump “doesn’t understand how populism works.” He writes:
This is not, of course, how populism works. It trades on either cultural or economic grievance. One’s enemies possess all the privilege, and we the people must take it back. Once you have declared that you already possess the privilege, the whole basis for it disintegrates. While Trump performed perfectly well among the rich, most of his supporters are not rich (because most Americans are not rich) and would have trouble recognizing themselves in his portrait of lavish apartments and boats.
There are many things that Trump seems not to understand, but he clearly has a strong grasp on using populist grievance as a political tool. In fact, the president’s remarks illuminate how his particular brand of populism works. Trump trades on cultural and economic grievances, and he uses his own status to prove his credibility. During the GOP primary, for example, he turned his past donations to politicians, including Hillary Clinton, from a weakness into an asset, saying it showed how corrupt the campaign-finance system was.
“I will tell you that our system is broken,” he said. “I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.”
The nice homes and nice boats Trump conjured in Fargo might seem to be at odds with cultural and economic grievance, but that misunderstands who really voted for Trump. Contrary to the superficial glosses that have circulated since November 2016, most members of the white-working class actually voted for Hillary Clinton, according to a poll by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute. The truly poor voted for the Democrat. The people who voted for Trump are not those with no economic status—it is those who are worried they could lose the status they already hold.
As my colleague Olga Khazan reported, Trump voters had a “desire for their group to be dominant... Trump supporters were also more likely than Clinton voters to feel that ‘the American way of life is threatened,’ and that high-status groups, like men, Christians, and whites, are discriminated against.”