WASHINGTON — Perusing the wires on a deadline morn, I was struck by a constellation of intellectuals struggling to translate the relative meanings of Brexit, Donald Trump and the West’s populist surge against elites.At least three bright fellows caught my eye: columnist Ross Douthat of The New York Times; Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University and a Washington Post blogger; and New Yorker writer George Saunders. I’m grateful to each for his contribution to this column.
Studying the indigenous peoples is chin-stroking, good fun, no doubt about it. I like to dabble now and then myself. But reading these dissections of “the other” — meaning not Muslims but the mostly white Americans who attend Trump rallies and those who voted “leave” across the pond — suggests a clue in that the distilling process itself sort of explains what the writers are trying to articulate. This reminds me of a question I was asked several years ago as a panelist at a national editors’ confab:
“Kathleen,” the moderator began in a mustache-tweaking tone, “Do you think today’s journalists are too elite for ‘ordinary Americans’?”
“Ahem, well, I think the answer is implicit in the question,” I replied.
Of course, opinion writers have to write about something, don’t we?
Thus, Douthat got things rolling with a recent column observing that the left/right, liberal/conservative template is being replaced with a new “cleavage,” a word one must use at least once in a public writing career. In Western democracies, wrote Douthat, the divide will be between globalists (whom he labels “cosmopolitans,” even if, he says, they’re not really) and nativists.
Dissecting Douthat’s dissection, Drezner agreed up to a point, but suggested that one could as easily replace “nativist” with “old” and “cosmopolitan” with “young.”
True enough. Older folks tend to like things the way they were “in the good ol’ days.” But Drezner’s point about the cosmopolitan/young is true because young people generally tend to be more adventurous and open to a larger world. This may be more true, however, among urbanites and the educated class who have had greater exposure to diversity, have traveled to exotic locales, are fluent in ethnic food, and may be more amenable to a globalist perspective.
Indeed, Drezner refers to a YouGov breakdown of the Brexit vote: 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted to remain, while only 39 percent of over-65 voters did. While we’re at it, why not break it down into educated vs. poorly educated, not that all Trump voters are uneducated. And certainly not that educated people are necessarily smart or wise. But it was Trump, referring to his fans, who said, “I love the poorly educated.” When was the last time you heard a presidential candidate say that?
Douthat’s main point, which I’ve necessarily reduced to a mere teaspoon of sauce (or, God willing, a soupcon), was basically that cosmopolitans don’t understand people beyond their circuit of fellow professionals and, crucially, talk only to each other in essentially non-diverse ways. Also true.
Wrapping up my morning menu was Saunders’ amusing romp through Trumpland to learn just who these people are who support Trump. He came as a reporter but seems more like an anthropologist on a virgin foray into the “out yonder.” Reeling from snarling confrontations between Trumpies and protesters, Saunders escaped across the avenue to an “Old Mexico”-themed mini-mall where, to his surprising solace, a wedding was about to begin, featuring bridesmaids promenading, each with a dog on a leash and wearing a tutu. As reality goes, I’d take the latter, too.
Over the next many months, millions more words will be dedicated to summarizing the hearts and minds of Brexiters and Trumpists, none of whom will likely read the words they inspired. Or, if they do, they’ll feel further validated in their mission to elect Trump. Besides, they know who they are and what they’re up to, which I can say with some authority having actually lived among “ordinary Americans.”
High on the list is sticking it to guys who like to ride their horses high, sneering down their moisturized noses, notebooks aloft and pens poised in the belief that you need a thesaurus and a graphing app to understand human nature.
Trump, by contrast, treats them with respect. He may be a pompous, arrogant, bombastic ass, but he’s their ass and, most important, they share a common enemy — the rest of us.
You can take that summation to the bank — and put a tutu on it.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.