Why the American Establishment Has Lost Credibility

Three Incidents Last Week Demonstrate the Problem

|The Volokh Conspiracy |


The 2016 Republican primaries were one big "f you" to the establishment. We all know that Trump won the nomination, but it's easy to forget that the second-place candidate, Ted Cruz, was also anathema to the establishment. Indeed, one reason Trump won the nomination was because most of the Republican establishment refused to rally around Cruz; he was considered by some worse than Trump, and other were sufficiently hostile to Cruz they thought it was better to lose (as they expected) with Trump than potentially win with Cruz.

Of course, Trump went on to win the presidency, even though virtually the entire establishment–and here I mean prominent, powerful or influential individuals from mainstream liberal Democrats to neoconservatives, from the "usual suspects" to conservative Wall Street Journal columnists, lined up against him.

Ever since, the establishment has been aghast, and rightly so. Someone with Trump's temperament, history of lies, casual prejudiced statements, and so on, should never have gotten near the presidency. Yet, despite the establishment's warnings of disaster, enough voters were willing to vote for him to make him president.

One could blame the result of the election on Hillary's unpopularity, and yet very few of Trump's voters have since abandoned him. A major reason, I think, is that the establishment that once served as a gatekeeper against the likes of Trump has lost its credibility among large portions of the population, and their attacks on Trump are simply discounted or ignored.

Why? Well consider how the establishment would react if George W. Bush were seated two seats down from David Duke at Willie Nelson's funeral, with Duke given a place of honor. Now consider that Bill Clinton sat two seats away from an equally odious hatemonger, Louis Farrakhan, at Aretha Franklin's funeral. Some Jewish groups expressed dismay, but Clinton acted as if nothing was amiss, as did the rest of the establishment. Former attorney general Eric Holder took a picture next to Farrakhan, and it sure looks posed. But wait, you will say, Farrakhan is black, and because of historical differences in power, black racism and anti-Semitism simply isn't as problematic as white racism as anti-Semitism. That's a fine argument to have in university seminar room. What your average person sees, however, is hypocrisy and double standards. So when the establishment says, "reject Trump, he associates with some dubious characters with dubious connections on the 'alt-right," the establishment makes a fair, if sometimes exaggerated, point. But to the average Trump fan, it sure looks like the establishment is much more concerned with bigotry when it can be connect to conservatives and Trump than when it involves figures who are aligned with left-wing Democratic constituencies.

What about the fact that Trump shows little interest in truth, and his supporters are too quick to dismiss expert and scientific opinion, that they try to bend the truth to their political agenda? As Gail Heriot has recounted on this blog, a psychology professor at Brown (and you can't get more establishment than the Ivy League) published a peer-reviewed article suggesting that at least some teens who claim transgender identity do so as a matter of social contagion rather than because they were "born that way." After complaints from transgender activists, Brown apologized for issuing a press release touting the study, and the journal that published the study announced it would review it further. Establishment voices that are usually raised very quickly at any hint of the politicization of science from right-wing political sources were notably silent. But can you imagine the reaction if the study had been one favorable to, say, same-sex marriage, and the same thing had happened after conservative evangelical Christian activists complained?

Finally, there is the matter of John McCain's passing. Deaths of famous individuals are often occasions for charitable assessments of someone's legacy. In McCain's case, however, the praise heaped on him made him out to be someone so far from the actual John McCain that he was virtually unrecognizable. Someone who always treated his political opponents with respect? Not really, but a useful way to implicitly attack Trump. More important, the politically aware recall that McCain was a hero when he took on George W. Bush in 2000, and again when he became an implicit member of the "Resistance" to Trump until his death. But in 2008, when he ran against the establishment's favorite, Barack Obama, the establishment turned on him with a vengeance. Sort of seems like the esteem in which they hold a prominent individual has less to do with his character, and more to do with whether he is serving a useful political purpose at the moment. So attacks on Trump's character, however well-founded, are considered in that light.

I should emphasize that I agree that Trump has at times promoted bigotry, is a congenital liar, and engages in demeaning and belittling behavior toward his political opponents. Indeed, I think these things are obvious. But much of the country isn't listening when the traditional gatekeepers point this out, and that is, at least in part, the gatekeepers' own fault.